Media: All about ... Advertiser-funded music

Brands can pave the way for legally free music services, Alasdair Reid says.

We're all suckers for a good old-fashioned paradigm shift in the media business - after all, success in this industry is about spotting trends, seeing around corners and staying just far enough ahead of the crowd to look as if we are actually leading it.

So we can be excused for falling hook, line and sinker for Allan Klepfisz and his seductive schtick. In recent weeks, he has, after all, been promising not just a paradigm shift but a "game changer" - a bit like a baby changer, perhaps, but without the spillage. He could take us, he added, to the verge of a "new musical age".

Well, how foolish we feel now. Klepfisz is the chief executive of Qtrax, a file-sharing music service that will allow users to download music for free, so long as they watch or listen to an ad every time they download a track. Qtrax was launched to great acclaim last week with a promise that around 25 million tracks would be available from the major labels - Warner, Universal, EMI and Sony. Significant advertisers, including Microsoft, McDonald's and Ford, were said to be on board.

Lovely. Except it turned out that Klepfisz was exaggerating just a tiny bit, and the major labels felt moved to point out that, actually, no deals had yet been done. How perplexing.

And yet, even if we confine ourselves to theory for just a second, there is still a rather challenging assumption in play here. Namely, the notion that advertising can fund an era of free music content, just as commercials have funded free television content for much of the history of the evolution of the medium.

Who knows, maybe Qtrax will, eventually, succeed in getting off the ground.

1. Advertising's relationship with the recording industry can be traced back to 1971, when a jingle written for a Coca-Cola radio commercial was worked up into a whole song that (stripped of brand references) was released by the New Seekers as a single entitled I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing. The release was so successful on both sides of the Atlantic that it was subsequently used as the backing track on a famous Coke TV commercial.

2. For many years after that, though, there was little common ground between the music industry and advertising - largely because acts that regarded themselves as "serious artists" were sensitive to accusations that they were "selling out". But the rules were utterly rewritten in 1994 when Bartle Bogle Hegarty chose a track called Inside by the obscure band Stiltskin as the music for its "creek" commercial for Levi's. The song then shot to the top of the UK singles charts, and, within a year, The Rolling Stones had allowed Start Me Up to be used as the soundtrack for Microsoft's Windows 95 launch campaign.

3. In recent years, many artists have collected a modest amount of pocket money by selling back-catalogue material for use on promotional CD giveaways by national newspapers. The artist currently known as Prince turned that notion on its head when he launched his much-anticipated new album, Planet Earth, as a freebie with The Mail on Sunday in July 2007.

4. More complex relationships recently have included Sir Paul McCartney's decision to choose Hear Music, Starbucks' in-house label, as his record company (the chain will use its 13,500 outlets to sell the album). And, in October 2007, Diageo signed a deal with the American rapper, record producer and businessman P Diddy. He will help market Ciroc vodka in return for a share in the profits generated by the brand.

5. A whole range of specialist marketing agencies has begun to emerge in this space, the aim being to match music acts with brands. For instance, last year WPP set up Brand Amp, a joint venture with Universal Music. Meanwhile, Naked Communications has entered a joint-venture agreement with Harvest Entertainment, an agency set up last December.

6. Last week Ford revealed it has funded the latest music video featuring Alesha Dixon, the former Mis-Teeq singer and winner of the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing. Created by the branded content agency Cake, the video is inspired by the new Focus TV commercial, which features an orchestra playing instruments created from car parts.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

ADVERTISERS

- Paradigm shifts aside, you can't help suspecting that this is a horse that bolted ages ago. Most of us are vaguely aware that, notwithstanding a new enthusiasm among record companies to sue freeloaders, there is a generation of students who have, by and large, hardly paid a penny for their vast, digitally stored music collections. Why suffer the inconvenience of advertising when you can get what you want far more quickly, and for free, courtesy of (for instance) limewire's peer-to peer-software?

- Just about every hit record or well-known track is on YouTube. The quality is just about listenable and you have the added benefit of a just-about-watchable video to go with it. And this, after all, is a hybrid model - it's ad funded, yes, but much of the content is posted on an unauthorised basis.

- Talking specifically about the Qtrax model, Matt Jagger, the managing director of Naked Ventures, says: "It may become an option for advertisers, but I can't see it becoming significant. There are just so many different ways you can get your music these days."

- On the other hand, this is not just about tracks. It can be about the bigger picture, too - artists, their brand personae and their other activities, such as tours and big one-off performances. In recent months we have seen the advertising business feeling its way towards a whole range of more complex relationships with the music world.

THE RECORDING INDUSTRY

- Oops. This sector has become chronically accident prone where the whole question of digital distribution is concerned.

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