Music: Singing the same tune

A different type of agency has started to emerge to broker new-style artist/brand deals.

The derisive laughter that once greeted Victoria Beckham's declared intent "to be as famous as Persil Automatic" might have a hollow ring to it these days. In fact, subsequent events seem only to have reinforced the argument that the former Spice Girl was ahead of the game in understanding the value of branding.

Today's artists see themselves as "brands" in a way that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Consumers want to consume more than just a rock star's recordings. What are his favourite clothes? What fragrance does she wear?

Shrewd managers have exploited this growing phenomenon to establish ongoing dialogues between artists and their fan bases. As a result, the common ground inhabited by artists who consider themselves brands and their more conventional counterparts is growing all the time. Both use social media to win more converts; both have similar audiences with whom they want to engage.

"There are less differences between artists and brands than ever before," Oli Trethewey, a partner at So The Agency, which exists to match artists and brands to their mutual benefit, says. Where artists might once have spurned being associated with brands for fear of having their integrity undermined, many now embrace them enthusiastically.

The singer/songwriter Katy Perry is one of the latest converts. Her partnership with T-Mobile's Deutsche Telekom parent sees the company promoting her new single and album while she supports its brand message.

Paul Silburn, the creative partner at T-Mobile's agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, says: "Perry's image is edgy and not too saccharine, which fits well with T-Mobile's predominately young customer base. I think we'll be doing more of this with other clients."

In part, the trend has been fuelled by the parlous state of the recording industry and the fact that brands are a more established source of funding.

Some artists are seeking not only to maintain their income in the face of declining record sales but enhance it via deals with brand owners to develop and market everything from their own clothing labels to jewellery ranges.

The tricky bit is matching artists with brands in such a way that keeps all parties happy. That means ensuring the artists maintain their credibility, the brand benefits from the association - and that there's something in it for the consumer.

While all this sounds fine in theory, the evidence that it works in practice is still a bit thin. The standard case study is the April 2008 deal in which the UK electronics act Groove Armada eschewed the traditional record label model by signing with Bacardi-Martini in a pioneering partnership covering recordings and tours.

The consensus is that the arrangement was a bit of a parson's egg. Onlookers point to the level of interest in it more than two years on as evidence of how innovative it was. But they believe the tie-up never realised its full potential because it was neither cohesive nor ongoing.

Now it remains to be seen if the next big partnership signed in May between the Diageo-owned Guinness and the band Snow Patrol can build on and learn from the Bacardi experience.

So The Agency brokered the deal that aims to enhance Guinness' pub presence through its support for grassroots music while satisfying the mission of Snow Patrol to identify and nurture up-and-coming talent from their home regions of Ireland and Scotland.

Fans have been able to download and stream live performances from the festival at which the winning talent was chosen.

Meanwhile, Snow Patrol will be mentoring and helping manage the winners.

And most important of all, according to Trethewey, is that the association between Snow Patrol and Guinness won't be a one-night stand but an ongoing marriage with further events already planned for next year.

Keeping the artists' interests paramount is part of the philosophy of So The Agency.

Established last year, the fledgling operation's joint founder is Trethewey, who ran OMD's experiential marketing operation across Europe. His partner is Scott Harvey-Nicholls, a former Elizabeth Arden marketing director who was involved in the cosmetics giant's tie-ups with artists such as Britney Spears, before joining the board of Exposure Communications.

So The Agency doesn't respond to agency briefs - "We're very much on the side of artists rather than brands," Harvey-Nicholls explains - but builds on relationships with record labels and management agencies such as William Morris Endeavor as well as its own knowledge of what artists are doing in order to establish compatible relationships with brands. Its arrival reflects the changing nature of artist/brand relationships.

Trethewey and Harvey-Nicholls claim their understanding of what's happening both with artists and brand owners enables them to bring a much broader perspective to the job than record labels or artists' management, which represent just one party, or sponsorship agencies that will negotiate a rights package but don't get into long-term deals.

At the same time, consumers are no longer satisfied with just having a free track to download, they point out. That's hardly surprising when mass downloading, much of it illegal, means that nobody pays for music any more.

All of this begs the question of how artists should be rewarded for ongoing commercial tie-ups. A standard fee is the norm although the prospect of artists' remuneration being based on increased product sales means that brand owners with limited budgets can still do deals with some of music's biggest names.

Nevertheless, the territory in which So The Agency operates needs careful navigating. For one thing, there's the problem of reconciling artistic egos with the commercial imperatives of brand owners, particularly their often tight deadlines. For another, there's the need to convince ad agencies that operations like So The Agency aren't going to steal their lunch.

"We're not out to take business away from agencies," Scott-Nicholls insists. "But we know we have to be careful."

Whether or not the time will come when no music artist can succeed without a brand tie-up remains to be seen. Clients like the idea of such arrangements in theory but are wary about them in practice. "I can certainly see the benefits of it," Matt McDowell, the marketing director for Northern Europe at Toshiba, says. "Associating with the right celebrity can build passion for your brand. The problem is the transient nature of fame."

Ian Armstrong, Honda's European communication manager, agrees.

"I've been contacted by a number of agencies claiming access to a bunch of musical talent but a lot of it isn't necessarily right for our brand," he points out. "And when you enter a long-term relationship, you can never guarantee that your adopted artist is going to keep producing hits. I much prefer to have the flexibility to dip in and out when we want."

Trethewey believes that what's happening now heralds a time when the dividing line between a talent brand and a product almost disappears. He cites the hypothetical example of a jeans manufacturer that signs an artist resulting in the creation of a denim brand synonymous with music that its wearers love. "It's going to become less about who owns the product," he predicts. "But it will be exciting for consumers because they'll be getting what they want."