Sex, brands and rock ’n’ roll

New bands are increasingly turning to corporate patrons to fund their art.

Some revolutions begin with a gunshot, others with mass uprising. One begins with a tiny red toy truck knocking over a row of dominos. The music video for “This Too Shall Pass” by rock group OK Go stars a Rube Goldberg — inspired machine that plays music on pop bottles, drops a sledgehammer through a television and ultimately fires paint at the band’s members. For all the eye candy, the video’s most arresting image may be the credits, which thank State Farm, an insurance company, for sponsoring the production.

The unconventionally underwritten video debuted just as OK Go left EMI, their label for almost a decade. Both the video and the split garnered buzz, but the chatter was devoid of the usual pessimism that usually accompanies news about the faltering industry. Instead, the band was touted as an example of a new model for the music business. Labels may flounder, but musicians can thrive because of new technology and financing sources.

“The initial purpose of record labels was connecting musicians with people who wanted to listen to their music,” says Damian Kulash, OK Go’s lead singer. “We don’t really need a distribution system anymore — the Internet takes care of that. But lots of bands still need promotion and investment, so there are models emerging for how to get those things without relying on physical record sales as the sole measure of all things musical.”

With U.S. record sales falling by 12.7% in 2009, artists are increasingly looking beyond the labels for money. Charlotte Church, the Welsh chanteuse, recently signed a $3-million deal with a London-based investment fund to finance her next album. Lady Gaga filled the video for her song “Telephone” with product placements for Virgin Mobile, Heartbeats headphones and Polaroid. The video has been viewed online more than 26 million times since its debut last month, suggesting fans don’t mind musicians subsidizing their art with a little commerce. Accepting cash from State Farm helped OK Go make a complex video that took two months, more than $150,000 and a team of engineers to execute. The band’s singer says the company functioned less like corporate sponsors and more like old-fashioned patrons of the arts. “What State Farm wanted out of the relationship was to associate their brand with something that was cool,” says Kulash. “And we made it very clear up front that we weren’t making an advertisement, we were making a music video.”

The band did promise to incorporate the company’s logo into the video and fulfilled the obligation by using a State Farm toy truck to start the clip’s four-minute chain reaction. The placement is so subtle, it would likely elude first-time viewers. But the mere association with OK Go is beneficial to State Farm by helping the company shake off the fuddy-duddy image of its industry. “The young adult market is a very important market for us,” says Todd Fischer, the company’s manager of national sponsorships. “It’s not a place we naturally resonate.”

YouTube recently launched a program to share ad revenue with musicians who post videos on the popular site. Called Musicians Wanted, it is particularly good news for a band like OK Go, which enjoys modest record sales but is massively popular online. (The band’s 2006 video for “Here it Goes Again,” which featured the four band members dancing on treadmills, has been viewed 50 million times.) Prior to splitting with EMI, Kulash published an opinion piece in The New York Times, criticizing the label for limiting online access to the bands’ videos by refusing to permit them to be embedded in outside websites. “Curbing the viral spread of videos isn’t benefiting the company’s bottom line, or the music it’s there to support,” he wrote.

Record labels now struggle to explain their relevance, claiming they remain a crucial source of financing for new artists. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which represents the labels, recently released a report arguing it takes $1 million to break a new act, including money for recording, touring and marketing. But OK Go and other artists prove major labels are not the only source of financing for the aspiring rock ‘n’ roll star. “We’ve managed to pay our rent by making cools things and keeping people interested in what we’re doing,” says Kulash. “Everything we make is part of our business model, which is to make cool shit and hope somebody out there is willing to pay you for it.”