State of the Brand :: by Jason Voiovich

A weekly discussion of how branding affects the world around you.

Duets: Double the Benefit, Double the Risk

Posted on | April 18, 2011 | No Comments

Author:
Jason Voiovich
Email: jasonvoiovich@gmail.com

Key Points:
1. Better than 25% of today’s American Top 40 feature collaborative efforts.
2. Clearly, the producers feel the strategic partnerships make sense in an era of single-track focus and fragmented audiences.
3. But the strategy is not without risks to the brand image of both artists in question.

Sadly, my boys are at the age where they are listening to popular music.

All my attempts to indoctrinate them to the Beetles, the Eagles, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Morning Edition, and – heaven forbid – Car Talk, have failed. In the care with them now I’m subjected to a repeated barrage of Top 40 “hits” from something called “Lady Gaga”, Enrique Iglesias (what happened to Julio?), and Ke$Ha (yeah, I don’t understand why it’s spelled that way either).

On a recent trip to the Y (not the YMCA anymore, sigh. . .), I couldn’t help but wonder why every song during the 15 minute drive featured more than one artist. Huh. To make sure I wasn’t witnessing some KDWB anomaly, I checked the American Top 40 website. A quick scan confirmed my suspicion: 11 of the top 40 songs were collaborations – better than 25% – making easily possible that a short car ride would find more than one.

I certainly remember the occasional collaboration in the 1980s and 1990s (Aerosmith and Run DMC’s “Walk this way” comes to mind), but nothing approaching one in four. The curmudgeon in me would be inclined to believe the reason behind all of the “collaboration” is a distinct lack of talent. But coming from someone who grew up with glam rock, I’m clearly not in a position to make that judgment call.

On a serious note, I think the fragmentation of the music industry – and music audience – has more to do with the uptick in collaborative top 40 hits than any other factor. Up until the proliferation of Napster and iTunes, the “album” and huge audiences dominated the music industry. It simply was not profitable to address niche groups, and those artists received little if any exposure. In other words: Big albums, big artists, big tours, big hits, and big money.

Digital music changed all that. Not only did it make the creation and distribution of music cheaper, it also broke apart the album as the central unit of music promotion. If you could buy only the song you liked for $0.99, why on earth would you drop $16 for the other 11 songs? The net affect was a much more hit-driven industry on one hand, and narrower slices of audiences on the other. To summarize: more artists, smaller hits, more fragmented audiences.

So what’s an artist to do? Especially one who wants the “big money”?

Simple: Take a page out of the MBA playbook – Strategic partnerships.

From a producer’s perspective, examine the image needs and audience dynamics for a particular proposal. Let’s say the boy band Big Time Rush needs to burnish a bit more of a bad boy image. Solution: strategic partnership with Snoop Dog to add an urban edge. Let’s say Eminem’s audience could use more a female demographic to boost sales. Solution: Strategic partnership with Rihanna. In branding terms, we call this borrowing equity. Each artist in question benefits from the association with the other in some tangible way.

That’s not to say artistic collaboration, for its own sake, is dead. However, 25% (and growing) doesn’t seem congruent with the psyche of ego-driven pop artists. They are being managed into collaboration.

But that’s the upside. What’s the risk?

For starters, the concept of the individual tour is dead if a healthy percentage of your hits involve some other artist. Perhaps that’s why we see so many more “collaborative” tours. More artists, more value for the (overpriced) ticket. I can understand that.

Perhaps the larger issues involve the inherent risks with strategic partnerships themselves. As we learn in MBA land, the challenges in such relationships are profound: Cultural mismatches, audience mismatches, creative disagreements, and the potential denigration of the brand persona.

In other words, what do parents think about their 10 year old listening to Big Time Rush on Nickelodeon Television when they see Snoop Dog surround by his, uh, “women”? What do Rihanna listeners think about the images of spousal abuse in Eminem’s other lyrics given her own past?

Suffice to say, it’s complicated, and it seems to have little to do with making music.

Related Articles:
American Top 40

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Jason Voiovich
director_corporate marketing, Logic PD
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