Opposites Attract

Brands Take the Underground


The concept of underground music in an ever-commercialised industry might seem a contradiction but the strength of relationships between brands and authentic, credible musicians is growing.

Streaming and social media have democratised music consumption and content platforms like Boiler Room, COLORS and SBTV have provided a global stage to publicise emerging artists and burgeoning scenes.

Where underground and musical subcultures expand their influence, commercial opportunity inevitably follows. Historically we’ve seen examples of this from Levi’s associations with punk in the 1970s, to Vans’ Warped Tour, which was widely attributed to launching unknown artists in the early 90s, multinationals have been collaborating with independent musicians for decades.

Nowadays, the unlikely marriage of independent artists and brands appears to be a double-edged sword. Musicians are widely seen to be at the mercy of brands, having had their potential incomes cut by platforms like Spotify and Soundcloud who provide their music to fans for free.

So, there is perhaps an irony in the notion that in order to fund their struggle for creative freedom, musicians sign up with commercial brands in return for a much-needed cash injection.

To an extent, artists are collaborating with brands to do what is essentially necessary to get their music to as many people as possible.

But increasingly, those artists who come up through non-traditional, DIY routes often have an exciting story to tell, and they’re looking to brands that have the financial muscle power to help tell it.

The days in which artists were seen to be “selling out” to brands are almost gone, particularly the further away from the mainstream you go. Rarely will the sole value exchange be monetary, as – more often than not – artists gain significant benefits from brand partnerships whilst gaining arguably a greater say on factors such as creative control and distribution than they might under a major label.

Furthermore, a brand partnership in the underground world doesn’t have to lead to overexposure for the artists involved which many are nervous about for the sake of their long-term credibility. Musicians of this nature typically aren’t looking to be tipped into the mainstream and robbed of their values for commercial gain, and if the brand shares the same vision, it won’t be in their interest either.

Instead, there are mutual benefits to be gained in reaching a set of engaged and loyal fans who are renowned for being difficult to reach for commercial brands.

So what does this mean for the commercial world?

Brands are rejecting more traditional advertising means and disingenuous badging exercises in response to their customers’ growing desire for authenticity.

We now see brands reconnecting with their subcultural heritage, with genuine collaboration being prioritised over merely hiring a famous face. This is enabling them to reposition themselves as influencers in their own right.

In the past year alone, we’ve seen many examples of this, such as Levi’s role in the development of new talent, as part of the the brand’s ongoing music programme and partnership with Skepta. As part of the collaboration, they set up a space aimed at educating and inspiring the next generation of musicians, offering them practical tools, mentoring, advice and workshops run by Skepta and other industry experts.

In addition to this, underground music platforms such as NTS and Boiler Room are being partnered-with by like-minded brands willing to take a risk on interesting, emerging artists with a smaller, more committed following, over globally-renowned top 10 artists.

Over Ballantine’s and Boiler Room’s four-year partnership, their co-branded storytelling platform has evolved into a global initiative that facilitates new music and unheard artist collaborations and is now a launch pad for many emerging artists’ careers.

It could be argued that brand partnerships are disseminating the underground music scene and the artists within it. While the idea of uniting brands and non-commercial music may sound oxymoronic, in fact, the result is unlocking something entirely new that neither could achieve in isolation.

So, the upshot is that there are clear opportunities for innovative, forward-thinking brands to gain an authentic connection with credible artists.

In an age where credibility and authenticity cannot be bought, earning it through association with the next big thing can be the next best thing.

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