Can Music Be Branded Content?

Last week, at the Republican convention in Tampa, country singer Lane Turner got up on stage and performed a song he wrote — apparently at the behest of the RNC — called “I Built It.” Of course it was a direct shot at President Obama for his flubbed “You didn’t build that” line, which then became a Republican theme.

The song starts out as a tale about a guy who buys a “fillin’ station” and makes a business of it. The kicker line: “I built it — no help from Uncle Sam.”

This is a form of branded content: commission a song to further an idea and rally the troops. It’s a form of branded content that you don’t see very often.

Turner’s song isn’t likely by itself to spur demand for more commissioned songs. From what I can tell, the song died an almost instant death. The one full-length video of the song that I could find on YouTube — recorded from the TV broadcast — had about 1,000 views the last I looked.

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Not much in the way of brand-sponsored music has, in fact, made a big impact. Brands of course fund jingles that sometimes become part of the landscape (“Oscar Mayer has a way with b-o-l-o-g-n-a…”), but putting that in the same league with a Green Day album is like comparing TV commercials to a Hollywood movie. And brands adopt existing songs to great effect (“Like a rock!”), but that’s after-the-fact.

What we’re talking about here is commissioning an artist up front to create serious music — stuff people will buy on iTunes — that in some subtle way furthers the cause of the brand.

I say “subtle” because if it’s not, the song will be a jingle. But, like, what if Schwinn had sponsored Queen to come up with a cycling song, and they wrote Bicycle Race. Or if the New York City tourism agency commissioned Jay-Z and he came up with Empire State of Mind.

Stuff like this has been tried now and then. Back in 1937, IBM commissioned famed composer Vittorio Giannini to write the IBM Symphony. The band OK Go, which has always been super-innovative about music business models, is trying to figure out the sponsorship thing with Land Rover.

Just because this hasn’t worked very often doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting idea. The music industry is in tumult, and artists are trying to figure out how to make money and art at the same time. Brands could jump into this gap and be effective — if they can manage to maintain the right attitude and avoid shoving blatant marketing messages into the mix.

Really, I think there’s a pioneering path to be forged here. The RNC whiffed. But some brand is going to do this right.

(Oh, and if Jay-Z won’t return your calls…I’m available. Been waiting for Google to get in touch.)

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