Advertising rolls in at South by Southwest rock fest

Ad money is now a brass ring for Minnesotans and other bands in Austin this week, following the lead of Bob Dylan and Prince.


The Hold Steady was revealed to be the source of the music in a Sears commercial called “Real People.”

Photo: TONY NELSON • Special to the Star Tribune,

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In the shadow of Bob Dylan’s polarizing Super Bowl ad for Chrysler, Minnesota bands rolled into this week’s South by Southwest Music Conference seeking out corporate advertising deals the way they used to hunt for record contracts.

Creating or selling music for companies to use in commercials can bring great exposure to a band — and generate revenue lost as record sales dwindle to a 23-year low in the era of digital downloads and audio streaming.

Minneapolis band manager Mark Gehring, who was at SXSW representing his artists Haley Bonar and John Mark Nelson, figures about 30 to 40 percent of his acts’ revenue comes from what the industry calls music placement and sync-licensing deals — which also includes having songs used in movies or TV shows.

Even after signing with a large independent record company, Minneapolis singer-songwriter Jeremy Messersmith has advertising pitches on his docket this year. At an interview in Austin, he recounted what happened after he played one of his more heartfelt songs in a private showcase for a major Chicago advertising agency earlier in the year.

“It sounds like a Samsung song!” an ad executive told him afterward, a comment that made Messersmith feel both flattered and uneasy. “It was the ultimate compliment coming from this guy, but I was still taken aback a bit,” he said.

For more than a decade, South by Southwest (SXSW) — the music industry’s mashup of the Sundance Film Festival and spring break — has been driven by the need to find new revenue to replace lost album sales. In its 28th year, the festival itself has become a bloated hub of nonmusical corporate marketing by the likes of Doritos and Pepsi.

Finding and optimizing musical opportunities from advertisers was a hot topic in discussions at the Austin Convention Center, where panels had such titles as “Sync to Success: How to Get Placed & Get Paid” and “Get Yourself Working With Music Houses on Ads Now.”

A small gasp went through the audience at the latter panel when an ad executive showed a Sears commercial called “Real People,” then revealed the source of its music, which did not have any singing parts in it and thus could not easily be identified.

“Sears wanted a real band that embodied ‘real people,’ a blue-collar audience,” said Morgan Thoryk, senior music adviser at New York ad agency McGarryBowen. “Having the Hold Steady in the ad says, ‘We love this band, this classic American bar band.’ ”

The Hold Steady certainly isn’t the only Minnesota-rooted band with barroom cred looking for a piece of the advertising pie. Johnny Solomon, frontman of the Twin Cities pop-rock band Communist Daughter, said, “Some of our friends are playing 8 a.m. gigs pitching to advertisers.

“That might be a bit much for us,” Solomon laughingly added. “But otherwise, we’re not against doing what it takes to continue making music for our living.”

New revenue streams

Indie rock bands once shunned selling songs for commercials as a sign of selling out, but not in the digital age. SXSW is a beacon for corporate advertisers looking for hip ways to promote themselves.

Last year, Prince came to Austin’s mega-fest exclusively to perform at a promotional party for Samsung (Jay Z and Kanye West played the same gig this year). On Thursday, Lady Gaga threw a concert in Austin heavily backed by SXSW “super sponsor” Doritos, which gave out tickets to fans and industry insiders via its social-media avenues.

More on the indie level, Minneapolis’ electronic-rock band Poliça’s two SXSW gigs this week both carried corporate branding. One was billed as the official Chevrolet showcase, and the other had the Dickies name attached.

“Until streaming services start paying more royalties to artists — which is more and more how consumers are getting their music — then musicians are going to have to rely on” money from advertising and sync-licensing deals, band manager Gehring said.

Pointing to the old industry model where record companies covered the costs of making an album, Gehring said that another of his acts, Lucy Michelle & the Velvet Lapelles, were able to fund a record using Apple advertising money. The computer giant used one of their songs in an ad for educational iPad services.

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