Starter Pack: Music and brand partnerships

W&M STARTER PACKS is a free series unpacking essential foundational concepts for navigating music and tech.

Every two weeks, we’ll ground a timely music-tech topic in evergreen findings from our research projects. Hopefully, this format will give you more context on everything we’re doing as a community, and serve as a jumping-off point for further analysis as we collectively navigate the rapidly shifting music industry.

Music is an evergreen, universal cultural currency — and brands are among its most powerful traders.

Music brand partnerships are as old as the music business itself; the first commercially sponsored radio program aired 100 years ago, in 1923. If done right, these partnerships are a win-win scenario. Brands get cultural cachet from the world’s rising creative voices, while artists get the audience reach — and the check — that they need to make ends meet.

Today, music brand partnerships comprise a multibillion-dollar industry, and play a more important role than ever in the complex equation of artist sustainability. These partnerships take practically any form you can dream of — including in-depth educational workshops, meditation remixes and sound packs, in-game concerts, and even hotel-run record labels.

Across career stages, the cutthroat economics of streaming mean that artists are increasingly incentivized to diversify their revenue beyond just recording and touring. When many artists lost their touring income during the COVID pandemic, brands stepped in as critical financial stopgaps. The underlying message was that securing an endorsement deal is no longer a matter of “selling out”; for many artists, it’s a matter of survival.

Still, even the biggest music brand partnerships can fizzle out — or be just plain cringe. Especially in emerging tech, there are countless examples of artists who, say, release a music NFT project or hold a “metaverse” concert that seems wholly unaligned with their brand, or insensitive to the needs and preferences of their fans.

At Water & Music, we’ve done deep research into how artists partner with several different kinds of brands — ranging from video streaming platforms and telco conglomerates, to mobile games and health apps — to scale their creative visions and reach new audiences. Below, we outline three starting angles for understanding this landscape: What artists need, what brands need, and what macro industry trends are shifting these needs in real time.

This Starter Pack is sponsored by Rumblefish.

Rumblefish provides music rights administration services to businesses to help its clients stay focused on growth. Our services are designed for companies using music in new and innovative ways. Rumblefish’s clients include premier streaming services, music distributors, tablature and lyrics companies, labels, fitness and other apps, background music companies, karaoke, AR/VR, online video services, and more.

Rumblefish offers consulting, data, copyright research, licensing, and royalty administration services. With a client-focused process, driven by its deep music-industry relationships, technology, and execution, Rumblefish helps facilitate music distribution innovation.

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How can artists best prepare for brand partnerships?

Regardless of the industries involved, the most effective brand partnerships are mutually beneficial — creating the ideal amount of incremental revenue, audience engagement, and visibility on both sides based on their respective goals.

From the artist’s perspective, all good artist brand partnerships are downstream of two elements:

Different kinds of brands have distinct marketing and technical infrastructure that can cater to vastly different career goals for artists. For example:

What industries are taking an interesting approach to music partnerships?

Since music can be heard anywhere, the possibilities for artist-brand partnerships are virtually boundless — limited only by what feels most genuine to a given artist’s identity and career needs.

That said, here are three industries that are especially top-of-mind for us when it comes to interesting partnership case studies:

Gaming. Major developers like Epic Games and Riot Games, as well as social platforms like Twitch and Discord, aspire to become pop-culture brands, collaborating with outside entertainment partners to build trust and cultural capital among wider audiences. Gaming companies can also help artists diversify revenue through in-game items and create interactive, memorable music experiences that cut through the digital noise. (Check out The Score, our series on music gaming partnerships, for more context.)

Health and wellness. With the wellness industry’s continuous growth, year-over-year, health and fitness brands like Endel and Calm are proactively trying to keep themselves in the cultural zeitgeist through partnerships with artists — who are already natural lifestyle influencers. These partnerships typically take the form of exclusive content deals or branded playlists, featuring remixes of existing songs or new music created bespoke for the user experience in question.

Telcos. “Integrated marketing” is music to any brand’s ears, and no brand has the technical infrastructure to pull off content placement and promotion across multiple distribution channels quite like telcos. Especially outside the US, companies like Samsung in Korea and YO Mobile in Mexico are no longer just service providers; they also partner with artists and music companies on exclusive content and product placements that can meet users and fans where they’re already at, across multiple devices.

This is especially the case in markets like China, Korea, and India, where the local leading telcos also own the major music streaming platforms — resulting in deeply integrated, unified campaigns with a high level of personalization depending on fans’ specific needs and interests. (See BTS’ recent partnership with Samsung as a prime example.)

Tooling for the long tail. On-platform tools like TikTok’s Creator Marketplace and Spotify’s automated ad tools for podcasters enable brands to target their campaign spend more effectively, across a larger pool of emerging creators who are open to brand collaborations earlier on in their careers.

Data analytics and benchmarking. Data analytics advancements help brands and artists better tailor their partnership strategies based on a more granular understanding of their target audiences’ interests and behaviors. Tools like Music Audience Exchange are working to streamline the artist-brand matchmaking process, ensuring a higher return on investment for both parties.

Brands as A&Rs. Especially in markets like China and India where local music royalty flows are less mature, or where labels favor buyout approaches to signing artists, brands are playing a pivotal role as A&Rs and music marketers in their own right. They can act as de facto career accelerators and financiers for unsigned artists, often without claiming any of the artists’ rights.

Literal artist brand equity. Traditionally, artists receive an upfront payment for endorsing a brand, without sharing in that brand’s subsequent success. However, many artists are now trading cash for equity in their partnerships — especially in Silicon Valley, where outsized returns are possible at a level not typically seen in the music business.

Broadly, artist team members across the board are working to restructure their deals in a way that ensures co-ownership in the outcome — reflecting a shift toward a new kind of partnership model that treats artists as valuable brands themselves, and takes the notion of artist entrepreneurship seriously.

Dive even deeper

Today’s Starter Pack was informed by the following research from the Water & Music archives:

Brand partnership case studies

Emerging tech strategy

Macro industry trends