And the brands played on: how EDM can sell almost anything

Brands and advertisers are falling over themselves to tap in to the colossal success of dance music, and many of its stars are happy to help the marketing effort – with conditions

In May, Volvo released a sleek four-minute advert for its new XC90 car. In it, a golden-locked Swedish man drove through dramatic landscapes soundtracked by a wistful cover version of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good. But this wasn’t a normal ad. The driver was Avicii, the multi-millionaire EDM DJ, and the ad was in fact a music video. The Simone cover was his own track.

The collaboration has since been viewed almost 10m times on YouTube. And earlier this year Volvo’s chief executive Håkan Samuelsson announced that sales of the XC90 had “exceeded its expectations”, owing – one must assume, at least in part – to the 26-year-old megastar’s involvement.

The Avicii-Volvo collaboration – video

Big brands are clamouring to align themselves with electronic dance music. Not since the hip-hop boom of the early 90s have corporations leapt on a scene so vigorously. It’s easy to see why: EDM – a hybrid of house, dubstep and trance – trades in safe, inclusive, upbeat music that is played at extravagant live shows to vast crowds. It is largely language-free so it has global reach. The EDM industry nets a staggering $6.9bn a year from worldwide ticket sales and streaming revenue, which could rise to $10bn by 2020, according to Kevin Watson, an EDM economist and owner of the Danceonomics website.

The genre’s fan base comprises millions of under-25 “millennials” and 25- to 35-year-old “Gen Cs”, in whom social media use is as hardwired as the desire to party. Around 15% of fans are from the affluent over-35 demographic, according to Nielsen research. This brew of disposable income, positive vibes, connectivity and international appeal is too potent for brands to resist. The genre has its detractors, but the statistics speak for themselves.

According to Forbes, the world’s top 10 EDM DJs earned $274m last year. Most came from playing live, but many millions came from corporate tie-ups. “It’s an arms race,” says Elie Deshe, the co-founder of VFD Marketing, a US-based company that matches brands with EDM festivals and artists. Enquiries from brands eyeing EDM have risen fivefold in three years. Brands from 7Up, Smirnoff and Bud Light to Emporio Armani, T-Mobile and Uber are spending millions on increasingly sophisticated EDM-related activity, and the level of corporate involvement is in stark contrast to 25 years ago when dance music was an underground concern.

“It was impossible in the early 90s to get any sort of sponsorship for any kind of dance music from anyone. But now the brands see the market potential and are piling in,” says Carl Loben, editor of DJ Magazine.

Even DJs appear taken aback by EDM’s growth. Dimitri Thivaios of duo Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, currently No 1 in DJ Magazine’s annual Top 100 DJs poll, describes the surge as “crazy”. “EDM is the music of this generation,” Thivaios says.

Smirnoff … EDM partners.
Smirnoff … EDM partners. Photograph: Melanie Foster/AAP

So what kind of deals are being made? Are DJs bothered about that most heinous of musical crimes – selling out? And what does brands’ involvement tell us about the balance of power in the music industry?

Matt Bruhn, the global brand director of Smirnoff vodka, which has been in the “dance space” for years and earlier this year signed an EDM partnership with Live Nation, says brands have to actively contribute to the scene. Smirnoff will commission music or fund DJs’ videos. In return DJs will – for a fee – play gigs or DJ at the “Smirnoff House” at festivals. Some shows will be simulcast to other Smirnoff parties around the world, from LA to Jamaica. In this way, brands provide DJs with the exposure traditionally provided by record companies. There is also the small matter of selling vodka.

“I want to do the right thing for the industry and I want to be part of it, but at the end of the day I’m a commercial entity, so I do want to sell some booze,” Bruhn says. But he insists vodka sales are secondary to the partnerships: the real goal is for Smirnoff to be accepted by EDM fans and DJs. He measures success by “the vibe”. “I go to a lot of festivals and you get a sense of whether you’re in or out.”

Being “in” is crucial. Because then you may get instagrammed and tweeted about. And in the EDM world, social media reach is currency. According to EDM economist Watson, the world’s top three DJs have more than 120m social media followers. And the more followers DJs have, the more brands want to work with them and higher they climb up the various rankings of success. The higher they climb, the more they can charge for playing live. Brands and DJs are therefore entwined in a mutually beneficial ecosystem based on social media followers, patronage and, ultimately, money.

DJs are happy to play the game. Steve Aoki was last month named the world’s joint fourth highest-paid DJ by Forbes, earning $24m last year. His exuberant live performances see him crowdsurf on a dinghy. He has collaborated with Bud Light, Sol Republic headphones and Trident Gum. Speaking from Ibiza, Aoki says brands seeking credibility have always targeted musical cultures with “authenticity”, and EDM is no different. But he will only endorse brands who “care about the culture”.

“If some cigarette or alcohol sponsor comes in and says, ‘Here’s a bunch of my stuff, let me just take what you guys have and put our name next to it,’ people can see how fake that is. People aren’t stupid,” he says. “I’ve said [to companies], ‘You really do have to support [EDM] from the ground up. You have to help build the culture. You can’t go in and buy the culture.”

He cites one example. A competition for Olmeca Tequila saw Aoki judge remixes of one of his tracks by aspiring DJs. Those behind the best dozen were flown to Holland for a mixing masterclass with Aoki himself. The winner got to open for him one night. “I did an eight-hour class. I went through every remix in detail. I was standing in front of a chalkboard and going through fucking things like a teacher. It was cool to have that hands-on approach. It was giving something back rather than, ‘Here’s a lot of money,’” Aoki says.

Steve Aoki … Uncompromised.
Steve Aoki … ‘uncompromised’. Photograph: Ross Gilmore/Redferns via Getty Images

Such intricate marketing ruses have certainly come a long way since hip-hop’s early days when Pepsi sponsored a “Guess the Fat Boys’ Weight” competition in a New York record-shop window. The winner got 898 cans of Pepsi and $898, corresponding to their combined weight in pounds.

Las Vegas DJ Justin Blau – stage name 3LAU – also picks his endorsements carefully. Blau, who turned down a job at asset-management firm BlackRock to DJ, recently declined tens of thousands of dollars to represent a headphone brand. He said no because he didn’t use the product and fans would “call him out” on it. He is, however, doing a show for Uber in Nevada soon because he uses the brand. In return he’ll get thousands of dollars of Uber credit.

DJs and brands talk about authenticity. But there’s a whopping contradiction lurking. If brands get too involved then won’t the scene lose any authenticity it had? And wouldn’t this lead to artists feeling compromised or, worse, owned?

Aoki says not. “It would be unfortunate if it got to that point, but that’s the whole point of having negotiations at the beginning of the relationship that you’re going into. I – so far – don’t have any horror stories.”

3LAU … fans would be sensitive to fake endorsements.
3LAU … fans would be sensitive to fake endorsements. Photograph: Mike Moore/WireImage

Blau is more wary. He says corporate overload could lead to censorship of artists’ language or politics. He also fears it could tilt the balance of power away from promoters and artists and towards the corporations. It would be bad, for example, if a festival’s sponsor started dictating the line-up.

“I don’t think brands will have a lot of control in the short term but I definitely think in the long term as they get more involved they will feel more need to exercise their control,” Blau says.

And control is at the heart of this. On the one hand DJs need brands. Mark Lawrence, chief executive of trade body the Association for Electronic Music (AFEM), says brands are filling the funding void created by falling music sales. “As the ability to earn income from conventional sources such as record sales and performing-rights income erodes, so the bright thinkers have moved to new sources of revenue such as sponsorship and brand investment, bypassing the establishment altogether,” he says.

On the other hand, DJs want to remain in control. This is happening, for now. Many DJs are “vertically integrated”: they own their own record labels and management teams. This ownership means it is them, not brands, who call the shots.

Anyway, suggestions are emerging that EDM isn’t the free for all that some brands assume. This summer’s rotten performance of EDM movie We Are Your Friends, starring Zac Efron, suggests fans don’t like outsiders co-opting their scene. And this month a TV ad by US sandwich chain Quiznos lampooned EDM fans for the “subtle exposure to corporate influences” they receive at festivals.

Brands’ involvement in EDM is only going to rise. But these incidents suggest growing awareness among all parties of corporate encroachment. And as Aoki says, people aren’t stupid.

James Hall

The GuardianTramp

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