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Welcome to the post-sellout era

Artists need brands for funding. Brands need artists for authenticity. The stigma is gone. Does everybody win?

Welcome to the post-sellout era
[Illustration: Ivan Rodriguez]
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Maya Angelou walked so that Amanda Gorman could run so that I . . . could do burpees.

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In late January, I listened to the disembodied voice of 22-year-old National Youth Poet Laureate Gorman reciting her inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb,” as I sweated it out during a boutique Zoom fitness class led by a chipper instructor. It wasn’t my first experience working out to a social justice soundtrack: Years ago, I’d listened to a recording of Martin Luther King Jr. play during a SoulCycle class (the instructor even turned off all the lights for dramatic effect). Both times, I was overcome by the absurdity of the situation and laughed out loud. I’m fairly sure that tighter abs were not part of the dream that either orator had in mind.

I had barely returned to a resting pulse rate when I learned that Gorman had signed with IMG Models’ beauty and fashion endorsement division. I should have seen it coming. There had been signs: The yellow Prada coat she wore during the inauguration had gone viral, and she had tagged the brand on Instagram, where she now has 3.7 million followers. But the speed with which Gorman had gone from activist poet to potential brand spokesperson—less than a week—was astonishing. In February, she posted a “Black History Month Manifesto.” It was commissioned by Nike as part of a campaign in which the company committed $40 million to Black communities.

We have entered a new phase in the creator economy. Not only are emerging poets as desirable to brands as athletes and A-list actors, but the period between an artist’s breakthrough and cash-in is now so short that the two events can be virtually simultaneous. What’s more, the stigma is gone. Fans don’t resent artists for the creative control they might give up in exchange for sponsorship dollars. In some cases, artists may even gain more creative control.

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Artists have always had to get their funding from somewhere; Michelangelo was supported by the Medicis, after all. But today’s digital creatives have to get it from everywhere, navigating a dizzying field of monetization opportunities, from Instagram Stories to Cameo to OnlyFans to non-fungible tokens. Though these platforms make it easy to reach—and even solicit money from—fans, the quickest and most lucrative path is to accept an endorsement or sponsorship deal with a deep-pocketed brand. For someone with more than 1 million Instagram followers, a single branded post can earn more than $10,000, according to Influencer Marketing Hub.

Brands, meanwhile, are desperate for a chance to reach consumers through the increasing noise—the average American was exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 ads per day in 2015, as opposed to just over 550 per day in 1971—and eager to claim authenticity and relevance in a culture that’s evolving at warp speed. Until recently, for example, luxury brands were purposely inaccessible and aspirational. “What 2020 taught us,” says Erwan Rambourg, a fashion industry analyst and author of Future Luxe: What’s Ahead for the Business of Luxury, “is that you are meant to reflect the communities you’re selling to. You’re meant to be a mirror of society.” It’s no surprise that influencer marketing, which many brands see as their ticket to credibility, is expected to be an almost $14 billion business in 2021, up from $9.7 billion last year, according to Influencer Marketing Hub.

It’s like a game of musical chairs, only the chairs move, too. Ali Bird, SVP and managing director at Endeavor-­owned company the Wall Group, which books and manages endorsement and sponsorship deals for artists, says, “I would say it’s 50-50 between the brand reaching out and people looking for deals.”

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[Illustration: Ivan Rodriguez]
Until recently, brand endorsements have meant mega companies forging megadeals with megastars, such as Weight Watchers and Oprah, Chanel and Nicole Kidman, Capital One and Jennifer Garner, Under Armour and Dwayne Johnson, and so on.

When actor and musician Jared Leto replaced James Franco as the de facto face of Gucci, in 2015, just as Gucci’s new lead designer, Alessandro Michele, was hitting his stride at the brand, it signified a departure. This felt like more of a partnership—two eclectic artists experimenting with colorful ideas of style and masculinity. Not to mention technology: When Leto took his followers behind the scenes of a shoot in Venice via a growing platform called Snapchat, the stunt made headlines, Leto’s fans were delighted, and Gucci was able to bond with them in a more intimate way than it ever could through a one-dimensional ad.

Today, in addition to even more esoteric celebrities such as Natasha Lyonne and K-pop star Kai, Gucci’s ambassadors include niche, Instagram-famous artists such as data journalist Mona Chalabi, poets Cleo Wade and Arlo Parks, and floral designer Krista Chiu. When Gucci ran a piece of sponsored content in Elle in December 2018 that featured Chalabi and Chiu in Gucci attire, the campaign highlighted the artists’ Instagram handles. This added visibility can have its perils. Discerning followers, used to seeing “sponcon” on Instagram, can immediately tell if a relationship with an artist seems forced, and may be turned off. To be successful, brands must align with an artist’s existing social media image to create a mutually beneficial campaign.

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The power dynamic between brands and artists has clearly shifted. With the cultural conversation evolving so quickly, it’s hard for brands to stay relevant without hitching themselves to a progressive individual, who often doesn’t have to do much of anything in return. When she appeared in a full-page newspaper ad for Olay last October, AI scientist, activist, and artist Joy Buolamwini tweeted out a photo describing it as a “women’s empowerment campaign” without even tagging Olay. The multipage campaign also featured poet Amena Brown, actor and nurse Jennifer Stone, and Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani—leaders taking action during a tumultuous, politically charged moment in a way that consumers were celebrating. This was simply not the time for a traditional brand ambassador like Katie Holmes.

Chris Black, a partner at brand consultancy and media company Public Announcement, which has worked with such brands as New Balance and Thom Browne, says that if Gorman signs on to do a beauty or fashion campaign, it will be viewed as a way “to afford herself the time to work on the things she cares about. The people who respect her and like what she does, they understand: You can’t live on principle alone if you want to survive as an artist.”

It’s almost quaint now to recall how Moby was pilloried by fans for selling out when his 1999 album Play became the most licensed of all time. All 18 tracks were featured in a TV show, movie, or commercial, and in some instances all three (nothing says upscale hotel lobby to me more than track three, “Porcelain”). When Honda licensed indie darling Vampire Weekend’s “Holiday” for a Civic commercial a decade later, there appeared to be no blowback whatsoever. “Younger generations seem to openly celebrate being successful. There’s an understanding that if you want to be a famous artist, it can’t just be about your artwork,” says Yajin Wang, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

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Nowadays, Black says, when he sees someone post a sponsored piece of content on Instagram, “My response isn’t, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you did that.’ My response is ‘Get your money. That’s how the world works.'” The devil has been removed from the devil’s bargain.

I wonder which brands Amanda Gorman’s IMG agents might be talking with about sponsorships. I hope to hear more of her poems, whether they are at future inaugurations, or even during a branded livestream (but please, never again on a workout playlist). I might even consider buying lipstick from a cosmetic ad campaign she posts. I’ll definitely buy one of her books. She seems to have what it takes to thrive as an artist today: talent, insight, and the flexibility to do what it takes to be heard.

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