Music and advertising have been deeply entwined for decades, but the relationship between bands and brands isn't always entirely comfortable—see the outcry over Bob Dylan's Super Bowl ad for Chrysler this year.
With record sales dwindling, even artists who are lucky enough to be offered a brand sponsorship or licensing deal need to weigh the benefits of exposure and revenue with the costs of potentially being labeled a sellout or shill. And brands also need to be careful that they're not perceived as exploiting musicians for their coolness factor.
This is where Converse's Rubber Tracks studio in Brooklyn is an innovation in musical marketing. The studio, founded in 2010, is the home of high-profile programs like the "Three Artists. One Song" collaborations, where three very different stars come together to record a song. But in its daily operations, Rubber Tracks provides free, no-strings-attached recording time to indie bands that couldn't otherwise afford studio time with world-class engineers and producers (or any studio time at all). Rubber Tracks also hosts popup studios all over the world, including one at SXSW in Austin in March, where local Texas bands who weren't invited to perform at the festival had the opportunity to record with no shoe promotion expected in return.
Fast Company talked to Converse CMO Geoff Cottrill about the ideas behind Rubber Tracks, and why it benefits the brand to work with unknown artists.
Why was building a free recording studio for bands a good fit for Converse?
Lots of brands use music, and they borrow equity and they try to make their car or their phone or their products cool by associating it with music. We have been really fortunate over the years that musicians themselves have sort of adopted our brand. It goes back to the ’50s. Through the iconic punk era, all of these great artists adopted us, and we've been kind of passed down from generation to generation.
We think of musicians and artists as our core consumer instead of somebody who we can borrow cool things from. As a marketer, when you figure out who your core consumer is, your job is to obsess over them and serve them. So we were talking to artists every day, asking them what they need. There were all kinds of bands of people working in coffee shops, waiting tables, wanting to be musicians. They don't have the money to get in the studio, and they would say to us "I can't get signed until I get a good recording, but I can't get a good recording because I can't afford it until I get signed, so I’m stuck."
So we saw an opportunity to open a studio. It's 5,200 square feet. It's got the best equipment in the world in there. We started offering recording time for emerging artists for free. We don't let anybody famous in because famous people have the means to get into a paid studio. Again, the idea was just let's give back. Let's have no strings attached.
What have been the tangible benefits to Converse of the Rubber Tracks studio?
What's wrong with the music business is that everybody is fighting over ownership split. We make sneakers. We don't want to be in the music business. We don't aspire to run a record label.
I'm a big believer that people are media. They always have been, but if you connect with somebody and you give them the right experience, they will take that experience and then will speak on your behalf. We've seen our Facebook community grow from about 6 million people when we started, to nearly 40 million now. What we see every day, or every other day when somebody leaves the studio is they immediately talk to their fan base because they all have a small fan base. They say nice things about us. The end result is our network has gotten bigger and bigger. We've had about 900 artists go though the studio.
We've done pop-ups all over the world, in Brazil, Germany, China, Mexico, and all over the United States. We've had, all in, I think we're almost at a little over 1,000 artists we've recorded. It's been amazing for us to learn about these emerging artists and meet all these emerging voices and really ask for nothing in return. And we don't make them wear our sneakers when they are in there. We give them sneakers if they want them. If they don't want them, we don't give it to them. There is no pressure.
How do you select the bands?
They apply online. They have to be working artists. It can't just be a group of people who think they want to go record. We have a group of people who review the applications, and we call the bands a month or two before we commit. We put them with an engineer on the phone. We get clear on what they want to accomplish because they might just want to get something mixed or they might want to record three songs. We then schedule time based on what they want to do. We work the schedule, and then we tell them to prepare, and it's a professional recording experience.
What is the average size of a project? Does anybody record a whole album, or is it usually just a demo?
It really depends. We had a band from China a couple of years ago called The Retros that we brought to SXSW in Austin. They played all week, at all different shows. They had never been in the States before, and we took them to Rubber Tracks in Brooklyn afterwards. We gave them a week and they recorded their whole album. I happened to be there on Friday of the week they were there; the first time they played back one of their finished songs, and clearly the lead guy from the band was standing there and he didn't speak a lot of English, and he had tears in his eyes.
He said "I never knew my band could sound this good. This is amazing." It's been great. We've brought in artists from all over the world, so it's not just a Brooklyn thing.
Any other favorite band stories?
There are so many. We had a string band in there once that did Nirvana covers. I got to stand there, and they were in the main performing area, and that was mind blowing, to hear all Nirvana's hits on strings.
How do the popup studios work, for example at SXSW?
We're in Austin for two weeks and we typically invite just artists from Texas that were not actually invited to play in the festival. Again, this is our way. We have the hype and the madness out on the streets. It's just insane. This is us doing something for you instead of asking you to try to show my products in front of everybody.
Do you do anything to promote the bands who record at the studio?
We have three or four different programs that we create and then we publish and distribute through our social media networks. We have a big audience. If you're looking for an audience, if you want help we’ll help you. If you don't it's no big deal.
We also use some of the music in our marketing videos that we license and then we actually pay. We just pay licensing, we don't have the rights to anything that we recorded.
Literally, we have one rule and one promise. One rule is don't come in here and be mean to people. That's not cool. The one promise is we are not going to make you famous. If you become famous that's probably because you made yourself famous. This is not about Converse trying to break an indie band. This is about Converse recognizing you as a creative person. You have something to say, so get in that room and say it, do it, go for it. That's it. We don't make those promises. Lots of brands make those promises, and in some cases, brands do help people get famous. That already exists. I’m a big fan of "if that already exists, then let’s see something that doesn't exist."