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American Express and the Rebirth of the Patron

Soul superstar John Legend said something memorable about his recent partnership with American Express on the “unstaged” series on YouTube/Vevo: “It was a relief to not have to worry about how well the songs would do on the radio.” (AdWeek 2010)

In an ironic twist, Branded Entertainment seems to have created a space of artistic liberty that stands in fundamental opposition to the day-to-day economic burdens of a platinum selling star.

John Legend’s comment sheds light how record labels are losing their protective function. First the download model robbed them of their production power. Then, the fall of record stores took their distribution powers. Now the uncertain economics of the new music industry have robbed most labels of the incentive and the ability to be courageous.

“We never had to think about how these songs would do against Lady Gaga.” As brick-and-mortar retail visibility drives less and less sales, radio has become the dominant gatekeeper once again. And the computer-generated playlists that dominate programming today, lead to a dramatic reduction of songs on the air. Sometimes this creates rather surreal experiences: I remember last December, while surfing the english speaking radio stations in Miami, I was sometimes able to hit Jay-Zs “Empire State of Mind” three times in a row.

In this situation, brands are redefining their role they play for artists. While advertising money has been behind most of the content we enjoy, it usually comes to the artist via a complex redistribution network of labels and media. This paid many a middleman’s paycheck, but it also created a layer of protective anonymity. The artist was free to do what he wanted, as long as the label believed there was money to made. But with the redefinition of media and label economies, artists might be better off to forgo the anonymous relationship for a much closer one with a corporate Maecenas.

The freedom from the dictates of a fickle market creates new constraints. These too, are more personal than those of playing 2nd fiddle to anonymous demand. At one point during the AdWeek event, the discussion drifted towards the motivation behind Legend’s cooperation with The Roots. Both Legend and ?uestlove were adamant about their commitment to the political agenda of Barack Obama, and the need to answer the backlash of the Tea Party movement. Meanwhile, you could physically sense the discomfort of American Express marketing manager Courtney Kelso. But she did not interfere.

Shortly afterwards, Kelso was called on it by the excellent moderator. How much was she willing to risk? Her answer seemed to prove that American Express had thought about this long and hard: “We are a 160 year old brand, so obviously we have to be careful about who we partner with. But censorship was never an option”, Kelso says. Why is Amex willing to take the risk of an uncontrollable messenger? They wants to reach a new demographic, and these people won’t be impressed by something as sanitized as, say, Michael Bolton.

The inherent unpredictability of the patron-artist relationship outlines the importance of trust in branded entertainment. It is radically different from the anonymous transfer of funds that kept the old rectangle of advertising money, medium, artist and label going.

While this makes creating Branded Entertainment a little bit harder. It also makes it a lot more interesting.

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