In the '80s, when Miller beer was sponsoring rock bands and Neil Young was singing "This Note's for You," the battle lines were being drawn around sponsorship and music.
According to the punk handbook, musicians who were hawking something for money weren't artistes, they were poseurs. The truth is, though, whether or not you want to take money to promote something is your business. There's nothing inherently immoral or impure about being a spokesperson, except for possibly signing away your right to sing "Bud Light tastes like baby piss" (repeat chorus). The whole idea that the music gets somehow "compromised" is baloney. The real crime seems to be that it is not very classy to be a logo vessel. It's not cool. And being uncool is a far greater sin than being immoral.
But that was then, as they say, and this is now. More and more indie bands are taking money from companies to help them with the cost of touring, or to simply get their names out there. You scratch my back, I'll wear your sneakers. The jury's still out on whether or not this will help or hurt their street cred. Case in point: the East Bay's Tres Pistolas, formed a little over a year ago by the rhythm section of Bay Area rock 'n' roll performance artists the Gun and Doll Show. They have no fewer than eight sponsors, and they don't even have a record label. They do, however, have a grandiose and dee-luxe bus that they won in an insurance settlement after their gassy Sanford & Son-mobile got smashed by a dozing semi truck driver. The band was a bit bruised, but its members all emerged okay. Now they go on extended tours, trading ad space on the side of their new bus for cash and free stuff. They get a quarterly check, and when things go wrong on the road they can call their sponsors for help. The companies are their patrons. "People can look at them as 'nasty corporations,' " says bassist Ronnie Glynn, "but I see them as cool people that are supporting the arts."
It's not like Tres Pistolas is being sponsored by ChevronTexaco, either. The companies are almost all start-ups: Dragonfly Shoes, Red Rum liquor (a fruit-punch-flavored rum), and Kik Wear, a clothing company. Their biggest sponsor is music equipment company Ernie Ball, which provides them with free guitar picks and strings in exchange for having its logo real big on the band's vehicle. The companies want to be on the side of a tour bus, and Tres Pistolas needs the money to spend most of the year touring. Glynn doesn't see it as a sellout. As far as he's concerned, the only way for a band without a good record contract to hit the road is to either be independently wealthy -- not gonna happen -- or to rely upon sponsors. Most bands don't have trust funds, and those who haven't put in the work and time but happen to have a lot of money shouldn't be seen as somehow more rock 'n' roll than a hustling band like Tres Pistolas. "What's more 'rock' than actually going out there and working?" asks Glynn. "By showing your band through touring, you are getting record companies interested in you. I don't care about the whole sellout thing. If someone wants to put me on tour, fine. Give them my number."
Maybe the era of the tortured poet brand of rock is gone anyhow. The whole Paul Westerberg/Kurt Cobain purity thing became a marketing concept in its own right. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco said in a recent interview that most of the labels he was negotiating with after Reprise dumped them would drop the word "Radiohead" to let the band know they were "down." But what the execs were really saying was, we are looking for a sleeper rock band to market like Radiohead, and you're it. All bands ultimately sign on some sort of dotted line if they want to play in front of more than three people. "A lot of musicians just like to live in the fantasy world that, 'I'm going to get signed, and I can just be a hundred percent pure artist,' " says Glynn. "We all wish for that, but it doesn't happen. We are constantly on the phone, talking to press, record companies."
So, is sponsorship the answer for bands that need a little push without being at the mercy of an unscrupulous label? Maybe. But there's still the problem that most people associate being sponsored with lame music, like Phil Collins or Blink 182. Glynn says that, if anything, sponsorship has improved his band's image. "If someone thinks our music's good enough to associate our name with it, maybe they should listen to it, too," he says. "I'm sure some may say that it 'lessens' us, but I'm sure those people would find some other reason to not like us, so fuck 'em." -- Katy St. Clair
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