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Judging by the shiner around Mark Owen's eye and the splint on Derek Berk's pinky and index fingers as they stood on Orchard Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side, no one would have accused the musicians of losing the anti-Establishment ethos inherent in the indie-rock scene.

"Things got a little crazy in DC," Berk said.

At first sight, their band The High Strung seemed aptly named, as they explained they got into a fist fight with each other a few nights prior. Now, the band members were calm and articulate and appeared to be best of friends, and excited to be part of the College Music Journal Festival that took place this year in New York.

Every year the CMJ Network, best known for publishing a weekly music journal, rolls into Manhattan to host a four-day event showcasing nearly a thousand indie and underground bands and performers at virtually every rock venue in the city.

This year, as part of a promotional event, the uberhip The Fader magazine teamed with Levi's, Urban Outfitters, and Converse to provide a home base for the bands in a rented storefront on Orchard Street. "The Den" was a place for the bands, many of whom were living out of their tour vans, to relax, drink complimentary Red Stripe, listen to DJs, eat free pizza, play Xbox, and best of all, get some free clothes provided by Levi's and Converse.

For the members of The High Strung, having a lounge to visit to rest their tour-weary legs couldn't have been more ideal. Pointing to the quintessential band bus sitting in disrepair and badly in need of a paint job, Berk said, "We've been on the road for 22 months and currently have no residence."

Despite their apparent state of depravity, the musicians were impeccably dressed in new designer jeans, coats, and sneakers provided by Levis and Converse as part of the companies' newly emerging "presence marketing" strategies. Moments before, the band had been fitted and photographed wearing the gear by company reps inside The Den.

As stated by Marisa Brickman, who helped organize the event for The Fader's publisher, Cornerstone Promotion, as a "product seeding sweep:"

"These bands are poor, and we're like, we'll clothe you, we'll feed you, we'll give you beer, we'll take your picture. It makes them feel special that they got invited."

Despite indie rock's iconic reputation for being distrustful of everything corporate, Ms. Brickman appears to be right. Nearly fifty bands handpicked by Cornerstone agreed to stop by The Den during this four-day event to be photographed and to take advantage of all the free stuff. Bands including Seattle's Pretty Girls Make Graves, and the New York bands Panthers and Enon all took part in the event.

Given the reality of tough economic times and the high profile use of indie music in Gap, Apple, and Volkswagen commercials—not to mention the controversial use of a Shins song in a recent McDonald's advertisement—a majority of the bands voiced few if any concerns about taking the free clothing or being photographed by Levi's and Converse who pointedly try to attract musicians, artists, and trendsetters for branding. "The economy sucks, free clothes are free clothes. I don't think you can really use me to market a product," said Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre moments after participating in the photo shoot.

Au contraire, Sheri Timmons, the stylish Director of Presence Marketing for Levi's explained wearing an AC/DC belt and sporting a hip, downtown mullet. She said that as corporate America's marketing budgets begin to dwindle, companies are beginning to understand that increasing brand visibility can often be done more organically and cost effectively. "It's really about presence, not about paying money to sponsor something but about making sure that you have that presence to make sure your product is represented in the right way," Timmons said.

Ms. Timmons job at Levi's helps secure this presence. Presence marketing, as she described it, compliments the strategies of a traditional marketing department by "sampling the product in a way so that the right people know about it and can spread the word on a grassroots level."

The right people, when targeting the indie-loving hipsteratti, have never been celebrities or musicians who appear on MTV, but instead the lead singer of an obscure band, a local visual artist gaining recognition on the gallery scene, or, before electroclash lost its cool, a club promoter like Larry Tee. The bands that were photographed at The Den, Timmons said, give the company street credibility by appearing on stage in the clothing or by spreading the word about how cool Levi's is for providing them with free stuff.

Additionally, the pictures taken at events such as The Den, are often used in magazines like The Fader, Interview, and Spin as press shots in their editorial sections. In the past, shots featuring indie favorites including The Boggs, Princess Superstar, and Phantom Planet wearing the brand have also been featured as multi-page "advertorials" in hip culture magazines like Paper.

Most of the bands appreciate the opportunity to get involved, Timmons explained, since the advertorials—for which the artists are generally not paid—provide them with exposure. Other bands are simply glad to be given free press shots wearing clothing they'd probably buy anyway, provided they could afford it.

Other promotions have involved setting up tents at music festivals where products are given freely to the bands. Levi's even rented a practice space during the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, sending reps over to hand out free gear to the bands.

Branding aside, Timmons claimed that it's important for Levi's to give something back to the artists as the company's heritage is deeply rooted in music. "We were worn by The Clash, Elvis Presley, The Strokes and Britney Spears," said Timmons. If you look at the history, Levi's is joined at the hip with rock and roll."

Not surprisingly, fashion companies such as Diesel and Converse also have presence marketing campaigns that target trendsetters and musicians to show their support of underground culture while securing cool branding for their products. As Kelly McCauley, a 25-year-old "pop culture fanatic" and Presence Marketing Director at Diesel explained, sometimes even people right off the street designated as having a hip, downtown aesthetic can be part of their marketing strategy. "If we meet someone at a show who may be appropriate to be getting products from us, we'll take them into the [Diesel] store," said McCauley.

TV on the Radio

Beyond the fashion world, brands such as Rheingold and Red Stripe have been paying more and more attention to their "indie demographic" with whom their brands are already popular. Cornerstone's Marisa Brickman, who is also a consultant for Rheingold, which she called a "dirty rock and roll beer" said that the company commonly sends free samples to indie clubs such as Knitting Factory to be distributed to the bands. The concept is simple; if the band you show up to see is drinking Rheingold, it must be cool.

So how do marketing departments discern who is cool anyway? Many turn to Cornerstone Promotion, a marketing company that Co-President Jon Cohen described as a "music, film and brand marketing company deeply rooted in culture." Apparently their cultural roots run very deep; The Fader, a music magazine published by Cornerstone (Jon insists the magazine operates completely independent of the marketing company) was recently ranked the number one trendsetting media magazine by the L Style Report, a qualitative brand research company.

In their seven years of operation, Cornerstone has functioned as the extended marketing arm for a diverse client roster, helping companies in part to determine which bands, artists, and events would best appeal to the hip, urban demographic coveted by marketers. Despite Cornerstone's reputation for being able to discern who and what is cool, the 35-year-old Cohen rolled his eyes at the suggestion he is a "cool hunter."

"Anyone that's cool hunting isn't cool," said Cohen. "We don't need to hunt. We're already out there."

Jon said Cornerstone's passion for music and culture inspires them to create tasteful and symbiotic partnerships with specific artists and brands. The Den is a prime example of how Cornerstone brings what he called "non-exploitive" branding to the world of indie music.

Nevertheless, a few of the participating musicians at The Den did voice some reticence to having their bands involved with a corporate-sponsored marketing event. "I'm taking my clothes, I'm lighting a fire, and I'm leaving," joked Kyp Malone of Brooklyn's TV on the Radio.

Moments later, while the band was being photographed in their newly-acquired gear, band members held up paper plates with ironic messages scribbled upon them, including: I'm hungry and I'm scared.

While visiting New York for the CMJ festival, Sub Pop founder and President, Jonathan Poneman stated that he believes opinions about advertising have evolved since the Eighties and early Nineties. "I think bands today don't want to be associated with the Establishment either, but their protesting against the Establishment is done in much more meaningful ways than resisting marketing dollars," Poneman said.

Mark Hosler of Negativland, a politically-charged independent band from the Eighties, claims that the notion of independent music has changed profoundly since its onset.
"If someone had told you 20 years ago that Vans would be sponsoring music events for skateboarder kids," he said, "no one would have believed it."

"Advertising is everywhere," Mark continued, but attaching your band's name to a brand he believes "cheapens what you do as an artist." Admitting that the indie world's opinions about advertising have probably softened, he confessed that most bands today would probably consider his opinions to be "quaint."

Granted, grabbing free clothing at a promotional event like The Den is widely different than selling your song to be used in a Volkswagen commercial. Nevertheless, most of the bands at The Den confessed they couldn't imagine most indie bands from the previous generation participating in a similar event.

But as Dave Walsh from The Explosion said: "It's a matter of choosing your battles. I don't see the harm or the exploitation in an event like this. And who wouldn't want free jeans?"

--Robert Lanham

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[email protected] | December 2003 | Issue 45
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