Back when I started getting into punk and metal, I was naïve enough to believe that ideals were enough to keep someone making music that barely sold and appealed to almost nobody. Of course, my parents were paying my way through middle and high school in those days. How could I have understood that the folks that made the music I worshipped had to hold down shitty jobs and risk ruining relationships to keep making their art? Because it sure as hell wasn’t making them enough to live off of. These days, extreme music practitioners are less likely than ever to make money through traditional means like record sales and publishing deals. And that puts the idea of “selling out” into a new context. Many of our most hallowed metal and grind bands are shacking up with huge corporate sponsors that shell out tons of money to put on free concerts, release new music, support tours and generally prop up the scene. Folks like Scion and Red Bull are behaving like patrons of the arts, not just car manufacturers or energy drink peddlers. And while this all sounds pretty icky in concept, it’s one of the few business models that is actually making extreme acts money these days.
As part of my Killing Is My Business column on corporate branding in Decibel issue 115, I spoke with Pig Destroyer & Agoraphobic Nosebleed mastermind Scott Hull about his own experience with taking money from The Man. Here’s what he had to say.
Pig Destroyer did that "Red Bull Sound Select" show at St. Vitus in January, some Scion gigs, and participated in the Adult Swim singles series. Do you have any other experience working with sponsors or major corporate brands?
The gig we did a few years ago at the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn (with Repulsion and Brutal Truth) had a couple of sponsors. I know Ardbeg Scotch was one, because there was a big inflatable Ardbeg bottle on the floor and we drank enough of it to not like scotch anymore. Other than that, I can’t think of any.
What kind of financial incentive is there for a band like Pig Destroyer getting a sponsor? Have they made gigs more lucrative, records easier to make, etc?
The gigs that we did for Scion back in 2009-2010 (I think) really helped us with building the new studio/practice place. Without those gigs and the money from them, the studio would probably have not been built properly or in a reasonable time. The Adult Swim thing, where it was more of a license deal, helped offset the recoupable expenses we have as a band such as borrowing money for plane tickets, merch, etc.
When you get involved with a large brand like that, do they usually reach out directly to you to be involved? Or is it mediated by someone else?
It’s usually a single person that’s in the company’s marketing or promotional department, or someone that’s working independently with them.
Do you have to care about the brand to agree to participate?
Not particularly, but I couldn’t imagine us playing a gig sponsored by the makers of Tofurkey. Red Bull makes sense because we drink the shit out of it. Adult Swim makes sense because we watch so many of their shows.
Have you been approached by any brands that you've refused to work with?
We have not. It doesn’t happen often anyway, but the few times it has they’ve all been cool, low stress, and they don’t really ask for much of anything in return.
In your experience, what does the brand require you to do in exchange for the sponsorship?
Usually an interview of some kind. It’s really just for content that would ostensibly draw people to their website. Obviously the grindcore EPs that have been done for Scion had the Scion logos on them, so I think they were viewed on the company side as a marketing device. From the band’s perspective, the Scion logo probably doesn’t feel much different than having a record label logo on it. They are both brands with a logo slapped on the CD.
When you were falling in love with extreme music, how did you feel when you saw a musician peddling someone's product for cash or some company's logo slapped on a show poster?
I don’t know. I didn’t think seeing Eddie Van Halen on a Kramer Guitars ad in Guitar Player was all that weird when I was a kid. But maybe if he was on a Cheerios commercial I might think twice about it. In principle, they are pretty much the same thing, right? Can I cherry pick what I object to without being a dickhead?
Do you ever feel ethical compunctions about accepting a corporation's money to get your art out there?
No. Not really. Many record labels are corporations anyway. I mean, sometimes the labels are 1-2 man operations, but I think even in those cases they are LLCs, which are corporations by definition. A case could be made that there’s a difference. I would say that case is mostly flimsy, but understandable.
The record business is in a shambles and consumers are used to getting everything for free. Can you envision a future where the only bands that are making enough to survive are supported by deep-pocketed corporations? Are you frightened of such a future?
I can see that, yes. I remember thinking a long time ago before Eraserhead was made available on DVD and hearing that its upcoming self-released version was going to cost upwards of $50 (and people were complaining about this) that if I were to see David Lynch on the street I’d gladly hand him $100 just for giving me so much great film to chew on all these years. I had no problem with that price tag.
I still believe people want to see their favorite musicians produce music and I still believe that they will gladly assign a value to that art. But the much larger piece of the purchasing pie, the more casual listener, will just download a copy and be content with the inferior product.
I don’t think there’s anything inherently “right” or “wrong” about this. It’s just the reality of the biz these days.