N.E.R.D Joins New Era Flagbearers. Are Musicians Losing Tastemaker Status?
The news that alt pop group N.E.R.D., Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo and Shae Haley, had joined the New Era Flagbearers lineup as part of the Fly Your Own Flag campaign took me back a few years to the days when Pharrell was taking on the role of high dollar tastemaker and New Era was pursuing limited edition local cap campaigns like they were a sneaker company. It's weird how quickly cutting edge marketing approaches become business as usual for reaching youth and/or the almost sacred to marketers realm of 18 to 35 year old males.
Viewing the New Era Flagbearers site, I'm immediately struck by the tension between the style of baseball players and the style of tastemakers from artistic realms. Baseball style has such a conservative vibe one almost feels sorry for New Era compared to sneaker companies who can connect basketball players and hip hop stars or even go straight to skateboarders and get it all in one package. But such tension doesn't really seem to be a problem for New Era, the Coke or Nike of the cap game, especially now that they have connections with seemingly every major sports association and continue to dominate style-conscious sectors with the 59Fifty.
N*E*R*D* Joins New Era's Flagbearer Roster (PRNewsFoto/New Era)
The initial roster announced for 2011 Flagbearers featured athletes plus the Ghetto Film School. In fact, if one discounts spoken word artist Mason Granger, N.E.R.D. is the only true musical act in the Flagbearers lineup. And it makes me wonder about musicians as tastemakers in the second decade of the 21st Century, given that most of their tastemaking activity revolves around things other than music.
One of the reasons someone like Pharrell can take tastemaking to the bank is that hip hop went from the streets to the penthouse. That journey eventually included luxury endorsements followed by luxury product lines based on the taste of rappers, producers and the people they hired with taste. Rock has made a similar, if less excessive, journey but rap has almost always treated taking that money as a sign of success. One generally isn't labeled a hip hop sellout for enjoying material goods. Oddly enough to those who denigrate rap, it's the art itself that's held accountable by one's fanbase, not the lifestyle.
But hip hop also helped make the musician less necessary to aligning one's brand with tastemakers. Hip hop culture is identified as including rapping, dj'ing, breakdancing, graffiti and, though so many have forgotten, beatboxing. This short list of skill areas has gone through many changes over the years but the strong identification of hip hop music with dance and visual arts has helped pave the way for individuals with less brand recognition to move into the limelight. As more and more companies aligned themselves with street artists working their way into the gallery system, music video directors working towards Hollywood and tshirt creators dreaming of three piece suits, the less necessary it became to get a musician on board to harvest that elusive substance called cool.
That's not to say that musicians are going out of style as tastemakers but it does mean that they have to share those precious revenue streams with artists from other disciplines. And it raises the question of whether folks like Pharrell have undermined themselves, perhaps even jumping the shark, when the highest artistic praise he or Kanye West has to give seems to be reserved for Louis Vuitton.
This line of thought doesn't even address the endless brand extensions that can start to turn a musician's personal brand, built on music, into a parody. Snoop Dogg might be forgiven when a relative pushes a Snoop Dogg hot dog line cause Snoop's brand is parodic but what does it mean when Pharrell starts putting out candles based on his hand gestures? It's like the Blue Man Group tried to go upscale and only succeeded because it was a limited edition item whose sales aren't tracked publicly.
Granted most musicians don't really have to be concerned with such opportunities. Usually one has to worry more about album art and tshirt designs. But as music sales become lesser revenue streams and musicians seek even more ways to extend their appeal into other realms, they're quite right in being hesitant about how their brands are deployed. Most musicians already recognize that having mass-produced items flooding the market can kill one's credibility. Now they're burdened by the recognition that even limited edition luxury items can extend one's brand into a realm that doesn't ultimately support their musical identities and that being identified as a tastemaker can eventually transform an artist into a marketer.