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SPONSOR ME - THE PAIRING OF ARTIST AND BRAND

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on 11/10/11
As seen in the September/October 2011 issue of Canadian Musician magazine canadianmusician.com.

It takes more than a swipe of your debit card to send that million-dollar hit to the masses. After all of the recording sessions, promotional expenses, and pit stops on tour, the only break you get to look forward to is that guitar malfunction. An oft-applied method of relieving some financial hardship in this industry is to acquire an endorsement deal. In a nutshell, you get easier access to your favorite products and services in exchange for some form of advertising to the supplier.

Everybody knows that celebrities help sell stuff. Television commercials are nearly plagued with appearances from actors and athletes confessing their love for some kind of a sports car or cold medicine, and the viewers aren’t ignorant to the rewards paid out for these cameos.

Musicians, however, often enter the world of sponsorships from a different angle. In the time leading up to their chart-topping success they can be found spending their last penny on that piece of gear, signature outfit, or stage prop that allows them to charge on and break new ground in this industry. Though they effectively mean the same thing, the music industry tends to prefer the word “endorsement” to “sponsorship,” something that hints to a feeling of support and passion rather than charity or corporate image. Musicians are quite vocal about the brands they trust, whether they partner with them or not; you won’t usually find an actor tweeting about their favorite toothpaste or eye cream without some hidden motivator.

What It’s All About

It’s pretty clear how an artist benefits from an endorsement, but there are more lenses to use from the manufacturer’s standpoint. “The feedback that we get from players using our pedals helps us refine what we do and improve our products,” says Aimish Wallace, Director of Operations at Diamond Pedals. Fans of bands become fans of the brands they use and this Nova Scotia based company has attributed a lot of its sales to its association with Buddy Miller (Band of Joy/Emmylou Harris). “He’s known as a real ‘tone guy’ and I think the people that are aware of that look pretty closely at the stuff he’s using to achieve his sounds.”

When you’re looking to get free gear you’ll probably think you have to be famous. SABIAN Cymbals’ Sales and Artist Relations Manager, Terry Ryan, describes it as visibility. Drummers like Daniel Adair of Nickelback and Neil Sanderson of Three Days Grace are keeping brand recognition alive when they beat their splashes and crashes in front of thousands of fans every night.

That being said, Ryan also thinks it’s very important to foster the relationship at an early stage when you find the right act. “Artists tend to need you more when they have no money,” he says, outlining the importance of fostering loyalty in order to keep your advertising economical. “You hope they elevate their career.” Assuming they do, a band that becomes an international success will prove a worthy investment for any endorser. “If you’re in Spain and Rush performs, our logo is the same… It gets us a wider visibility at a minimum cost.”

Ask Fred DiSanto of Godin Guitars what matters most and he’ll say: “Heart! All of our artists have played a Godin even before we were aware of it.” The company’s artist program is a vital part of its success as a manufacturer and goes hand-in-hand with media coverage and a great dealer network.

Rarely do reps like Wallace, Ryan, or DiSanto find themselves scouting for new artists when they get so many sponsorship requests from bands all over the country, but it can happen. When it does, the terms of the relationship are quite varied. Dan Hay, guitarist of Amost The Transparent, cites how his deals with Empress Pedals and Wicked Guitars came together: “When [we] started touring more and playing some bigger shows, they asked me if I’d like to use some of their gear on stage.” While working with these suppliers, Hay can happily play whatever piece of equipment he likes on stage. “They’re pretty easy going about my obligations. Unlike other companies, Wicked doesn’t require me to only use their guitars… same with Empress.” Amost The Transparent’s latest album features many tones shaped by his Empress pedals, including one that sounds like “a backwards spaceship.”

Advertising requirements are usually a big concern for somebody considering an endorsement deal – everything comes at a price, right? Simple Plan guitarist Jeff Stinco says it’s circumstantial but it can happen: When they weren’t busy recording, touring, and releasing their latest album, Get Your Heart On!, they were doing ads for manufacturers like Sennheiser, DiMarzio, T-Rex, Mesa Boogie, and Fender. “It's a case-by-case thing and we always make sure that the company understands our desire to expose a product that we love in a very organic way. We don't wish to become sales people; we are here to help spread the word.”

Being on the roster for a gear company comes with other perks than discounts and promotional outlets. Occasionally you’ll be privy to new products or services. Stinco explains: “We have access to some special tweaks that are not necessarily useful or available to the general public but help us out on the road.”

The other issue you might face with an endorsement is your ability to continue using the other brands you enjoy. Vans – well known in the music industry for their annual Warped Tour – expect a certain degree of exclusivity from their athletes but like to keep things more organic with their artist roster. Chris Overholser, Senior Marketing Manager for the company, says: “One of our main tenants is to support creativity. By being heavily involved in music we get to be front and centre.”

Holding a global perspective has allowed Vans to give back to those in need. An effort between the shoe company and Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament will see the proceeds from a signature sneaker help build a skate park on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota – a community with a tragic past and high rates of poverty. Overholser says that working with musicians has opened doors to these types of opportunities and is a very important bi-product of endorsement. “We want people to wear Vans because they care about what we’re doing.”

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Here are some words of wisdom from those in-the-know:

Do Your Research

“You’ve got to have a very solid plan and go up to brands that are going to reflect your lifestyle.” – Samantha Pickard of Strut Entertainment

Read The Fine Print

“Know the terms of the deal and honour that commitment with the brand.” – Spee Chalkiotis of Neverest

Don’t Take Just Anything

If you’re going to accept an endorsement, make sure it’s something you actually want to use and a company you stand behind.” – Dan Hay of Amos The Transparent

You Are What You Use

“Do these things with integrity and remember that the people who will see you play or wear certain things will associate these items with who you are as an artist. It's important to be honest with your public.” – Jeff Stinco of Simple Plan

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Make It Happen

Getting endorsed is not like winning the lottery. Artists that have a plan and know how to pitch themselves make for perfect candidates. If you’ve been booking your own shows and handling the publicity for your act, the pitching part should come fairly naturally. If you lack that experience, the best way to gain it is to dive in and learn to talk the talk.

You would speak differently to a music programmer at a radio station than you would a talent booker. The same can be said for gear companies. What needs to sit at the core of any pitch, however, is the mutual benefit attained by both parties involved in a prospective deal.

You need to demonstrate how your supplier is going to increase sales by offering you easier access to whatever it is you’re asking of them. If you’ve never toured, don’t have an album, or you’re playing one show a month at the local watering hole, you may want to reconsider the request. Tell them how many people you usually play to or which well-known artists you’ve shared the stage with. Anything impressive is going to show that opportunities come your way – opportunities that will come their way should their logo be somewhere onstage. Remember: They’re running a business, but so are you.

Every band with a good business plan should be able to demonstrate growth and profile, two key items that will open the gates to discounts and free wares. Drop a few hints about your goals for the next year and how they can involve the company. Be realistic: It’s hard to believe that a band drawing 50 people a week is going to be playing Glastonbury. (Not to say it’s impossible.) Useful items including how long you’ve been together and where you’re at in your discography would help as well. While your website and press releases should be available to them, you still want to make it easy to digest a fractional but punchy slice of what you’re all about so that they are inclined to research you further.

Stress your mandate. What is so special about you? There are some companies who are going to want to jump on the “next big thing” while some might feel safer about working with an artist who is fairly homogenous. Align yourself properly. Do your research and try to get a feel for what they look for and understand if it matches what you do.

Probably the most important aspect of your pitch should be your love for what they provide. Have you actually been using their stuff or are you just excited at the idea of someone helping you out? Here’s a test: What was the next thing you were going to purchase before hitting the road or playing that showcase? What do you need to replace? Is there something you can’t perform without? Find out who makes it – that’s the company you should be targeting. The best position you can put yourself in is to approach someone who could give you a discount on something you were going to buy regardless of the deal. If the deal doesn’t happen, you didn’t lose anything by trying. If they take a pass on you, thank them for their consideration and, if you’re still interested, touch base after you’ve developed your career some more. Building that relationship is more important than any material help.

Be sure to keep yourself in check and mull over the reasons why you’re looking for an endorsement. You can get caught up in the very idea of it and start to lose sight on the bigger picture. As cool as it could be, the sponsorship should be nothing more than another tool in your business plan. The last thing you want to do is start measuring your success by how many brands are backing you up. You’re an artist, not a stock car.

While it’s easy to talk about instruments when you’re on the topic of endorsements, there is a wealth of products out there you use night after night that could make your life easier. Basically anything that you can pay for has some kind of markup. Fortunately for you, this markup translates into a margin of sponsorship. With ever-evolving trends and fads, clothing is one of the bigger expenses you will face as an artist. You present yourself to people in photos, onstage, and at conferences, so you have to look your best within the parameters of your genre’s norms (unless you want to shatter those standards).

Pop-rockers Neverest – who’ve recently come off a tour with New Kids On The Block and the Backstreet Boys – aligned themselves with PF Flyers and Lucky Brand Jeans in order combat the war with laundry while on the road. “Clothes are definitely at the top of the list, especially when touring,” says lead singer Spee Chalkiotis. “The wear and tear of a tour is unbelievable.” Chalkiotis would like to drum up more lifestyle-oriented sponsorships with beverage companies, car companies, or cell phone providers to further cut down on daily expenses. “Everyone has needs.”

Neverest have been very happy with the relationships built with the brands they love. One thing Chalkiotis has noticed is the room for opportunity an endorsement can open up including subject matter for the red carpet, invites to perform at corporate events, and in-store concerts. “That not only brings business into the store, but we get exposure.” The discounts and free wares are only the beginning. “Don’t be afraid to start small and build on that relationship. Think outside the box.” And while he recognizes the need to promote the products used by Neverest, the singer couldn’t be happier to help. “We’re basically ‘walking billboards,’ but we definitely look forward to that.”

If you’ve got the goods but lack the ability to negotiate a deal with your target sponsor, you may want to enlist the help of someone like Samantha Pickard, VP of PR firm Strut Entertainment. 3 Street Management gave Pickard the responsibility of hooking Neverest up with threads so that their resources could be better spent promoting and booking the act instead of dressing them. “They’re sweating through clothes on a nightly basis,” she says. “It’s very important to be saving that kind of money.” Seeing an opportunity to help the band stay on budget while looking good, she demonstrated to companies like PF Flyers how they could benefit from having a high-traffic, well-received group showcasing their line in the public eye. “Brands with less money to spend are looking at more grass roots partnerships.” She built a win-win situation for the client to digest and the deal was born.

Atypical Clothing, a relatively new apparel maker run by co-owners Logan Traynor and Matt Gardner, has been relying on the help of up-and-coming Canadian bands like The Artist Life and Victory Sweet Victory to spread hype about their designs. Without the ability to launch a multi-million dollar advertising campaign, the boys worked on the niche they were carving out and sent t-shirts to some of the bands they wanted to work with. Traynor thought the collaboration would benefit everyone involved: “It’s really hard to start out as an independent brand. The bands really help us grow.”

Those who accepted were usually so excited to represent the brand that they would immediately do photo shoots and post the pictures online for the fans to see. Atypical Clothing doesn’t feel the need to outline any promotional expectations with their artists because of how important it is to maintain this level of excitement with them. “You can’t get better than people on the Internet wearing your shirt,” observes Gardner. “A lot of bands wear their clothing sponsorships as a badge of honour.”

Once you’ve secured and nurtured one sponsorship, the rest are easier to come by. “Once you’ve built one positive brand relationship, you can leverage that in other categories,” advises Pickard. For those companies who have formal endorsement applications, you’ll often notice they ask for a list of other companies who are working with you already. This will not only demonstrate that people want to endorse you, but it also shows them whether you are picking products that match your lifestyle or if you’re just being whimsical.

Ryan at SABIAN also thinks it’s a good spot to determine if there is a conflict of interest between brands: “There’s kind of an unwritten rule in the industry where you don’t go out trying to steal people from other companies.”

You have to wear a lot of different hats in order to further your career in this industry. Convincing someone to give you things for free or on the cheap can be tough, especially if it’s too early in the game for you, but recognizing when an opportunity presents itself and how to capitalize on it is paramount.

If all else fails, you can always redeem your Air Miles.


Chris Gallant is a singer-songwriter and touring musician from PEI who likes to write about the things he wished he knew before entering "The Industry." He can be reached at chris.s.gallant@gmail.com.