Converse is testing a new way to get its foot in the door of the music industry.
The shoe company is building a studio in Brooklyn called Converse Rubber Tracks, which will provide artists with free recording time in exchange for future promotions. Converse is not looking for revenue from the songs themselves—artists will actually keep ownership rights—but it is hoping to gain access to on-the-verge bands, which will generate good will for the brand for helping to break them and get Converse in on the ground floor.
"Think of a cul-de-sac with four garages, and in those garages are four bands," Ceoff Cottrill, chief marketing officer of Converse, told the New York Times. "On the street are all the big brands of the world—Coke, Apple, the car companies—standing there waiting for the garage door to open and the cool band to step out so they can tell them they’re going to make them famous. But I would venture to say that inside those garages those kids are already wearing our shoes."
Converse's business used to be black and white: The shoe maker specialized in one iconic brand, Chuck Taylors, which have become a timeless design, both retro and recurrently trendy. But lately they've joined big brands from Mountain Dew to Nike, who are getting involved with promotion, distribution, and even licensing. State Farm, for example, funded OK Go's latest smash music video, a monster hit that received close to 18 million views on YouTube. Weezer has landed a big sponsorship deal with apparel maker Hurley—the band even named its album after the company.
Most bands you hear about still come out on Warner, EMI, Sony, Universal or one of the "big four" subsidiaries. But brands like Converse do have the power to alter the archetypal trajectory of up-and-coming artists. Just how much is hard to say. Record labels do far more than provide funding for, say, a music video. Sponsorship deals can only go so far, and may be more in the interest of a brand's one-off marketing strategy than a band's long-term career.
One high-level record industry source tells Fast Company that labels and brands aren't in direct competition. As the source sees it, brands are not going to be able to sign, nurture, and develop artists or participate as marketing partners year after year to build bands' careers.
However, with the state of the music industry being dire, it's hard to imagine any struggling artists turning down a fresh pair of Chuck Taylors from Converse.