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
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
commercialsnot to mention the controversial use of
a Shins song in a recent McDonald's advertisementa
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 advertorialsfor which
the artists are generally not paidprovide 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.
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
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
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
"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,"
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?"