Josh Butler • 11 July 2012

If you were eagerly tuning in for another episode of Q&A on Monday night, between brushing up on your knowledge of arts funding policy in Queensland and warming up your fingers and charging your iPhone to Tweet in some hilarious comment hashtagged #qanda, you might have caught the last few minutes of Media Watch on the ABC.

In a quick final segment, Media Watch cited Triple J’s airing of the recent Kimbra, Foster The People and A-Trak collab ‘Warrior’ as raising questions about the ABC’s (and Triple J’s)  policy about product placement. The all-star team-up was, of course, part of Converse’s “Three Artists One Song” series, which also featured an accompanying Converse-saturated video clip (click here to watch). Media Watch pointed out the film clip’s overt advertising for Converse, in contrast to the ABC’s editorial policy which states that:

Product placement and other forms of embedded or surreptitious advertising are prohibited.
(read the full program transcript here)

While Media Watch did not state that Triple J had breached ABC editorial policy, Triple J manager Chris Scaddan admitted that linking to the mentioned Converse-heavy video on the Triple J website may have been an error; “the video clip, the blog image and the external site we linked to for the free download have now been removed as these online elements contain brand logos and were published in error,” he wrote in an email response to Media Watch.

While of course we here at Groupie are no legal eagles, this issue does raise an interesting and important point. In today’s music environment, where an ever-increasing amount of musical content is produced through corporate partnerships or sponsorship, the line between “content” and “advertising” seems to be blurring. In these cases, where does “content” end and “advertising” begin?

Today’s music world is shifting and evolving. With dropping revenues from recorded music, musicians are looking to other means to support their craft. With brands looking to tap into new markets, connect with markets that are changing their media consuming habits, and create memorable advertising campaigns that stand out from the rest, increasingly musicians are teaming up with brands to create content and to raise money.

This Converse campaign, which has also previously featured James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, Best Coast, Gorillaz and Andre 3000, is just the tip of the iceberg. Gold Fields teaming with New Balance for their ‘Holy No’ video. Iggy Pop and Best Coast recording a song specifically for television show True Blood.  Deadmau5 and Sonos. Mark Ronson and Katy B putting together an official Olympics anthem for Coca-Cola. Professor Green and Doritos. Skrillex, Diplo and A-Trak (again) remixing Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ for Pepsi.

“The reality is, anything that has a cultural following is fair game for branded content,” says Michaela Brown, senior strategic planner for renowned Sydney ad agency Droga 5 (who count Telstra, Renault, Woolworths and QANTAS as clients). Citing the influence of the internet, and the changing viewing and consuming habits (and lessened attention spans) of advertising targets, she says “advertisers have had to think a little differently about how to engage their audience.”

“Branded content is just one of the ways they’re now doing it. What we’re seeing here is the blurring of the lines between entertainment and advertising.”

It’s not new, and it’s not an isolated occurrence – which is maybe why the ABC charter also includes stipulations that product placement is allowed where, according to Scaddan:

a the ABC played no role in the commissioning or production of the content;
b the content has intrinsic editorial value;
c the product placement is not unduly frequent or unduly prominent

While these sorts of campaigns lead to cool new products, exposure for artists (and money – Brown says “usually very friendly numbers are passed between parties”), it ultimately usually comes down to promotion; for the brand, for the product, for the company. The aim is for each party to benefit from partnership with the other, from association with ‘cool’ musicians for the brands, to greater exposure through the brand’s networks for the musicians. As an example, the ‘Three Artists One Song’ campaign led to huge attention on Converse; literally thousands of websites, blogs, magazines and newspapers wrote about and promoted the various songs; fans listened, watched, downloaded and raved about the songs… and of course, Converse was mentioned in every news story, conversation, Facebook status and Twitter update.

“What advertisers are really looking for is engagement; which is ‘going viral’ on steroids really,” Brown says.

“Advertisers don’t just want views. They want conversation, they want their target audience to be hitting the ‘like’ button, commenting, mashing-up, creating their own content, as well as viewing and sharing. ”

“This kind of a content strategy ultimately helps people to sell brands, not brands to sell brands. If you engage with what you see and like it, you’re likely to tell your friends about it and we know that personal advocacy is the strongest selling mechanism in the world.”

As far as we’re concerned, the more awesome songs and videos produced by some of our favourite artists, the better! But it’s just a very interesting time for music, where advertising and content are becoming so intertwined; and as in the Triple J example above, it does become a hot topic in sections of society where advertising and product placement is strictly controlled.

A few weeks ago we chatted to Sydney band Nantes, who recently had their song ‘Fly’ picked up by car company Renault to soundtrack one of their ads. We actually got around to talking about this very topic of corporate partnerships in music, and the guys believe that we will be seeing more of this in the future.

“I can’t see how a band can survive now, without doing stuff like that,” said frontman Dave, pointing to decreasing income from recorded music. He called today’s climate “definitely exciting” for musicians, saying “it could be a turning of the age, where music business does come back to a place of ‘fairness.’ Where the artist who pours their life and heart into something, gets rewarded fairly. ”

“It’s kind of inevitable,” said guitarist Jos. “We’re not offended by corporate things… but it’s like a reward for what we are doing, that we’re making music we love and getting rewards for it.”

If we think about this in the most basic of terms, everybody (seemingly) wins out of a scenario such as the Converse example above. The artists get a lot of exposure through the brand’s channels, get a new song to add to their portfolio, and would likely receive a decent payday; the brand gains credibility and “cool” factor with audiences by being associated with these artists, and creates an alternative form of advertising (essentially, every example above IS advertising, albeit cleverly disguised advertising) that will likely create big exposure for their brand and products; and us, the music-loving public, gets an excellent new track from great bands, usually for free.

Branded content like this has been around for years, and is becoming more and more pervasive in the music industry due to – as Brown outlined – advertisers looking to push beyond techniques that are “simply not effective anymore,” to engage with target markets that have more freedom of choice in purchasing and viewing habits than ever before. It’s a technique that probably isn’t going anywhere (not that we want it to!) and with more platforms and techniques for advertisers to utilise than ever before, it will be interesting to see where this goes in the future.