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.
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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:
- A cohesive brand identity. Artists with well-defined brands — comprising an explicit sense of core values, creative vision, target audience, and intended emotional impact — have clearer benchmarks for success and stronger negotiating power with potential partners. In contrast, entering brand partnerships too early in one’s career, or without a solidified vision, risks diluting the partnership’s impact and alienating or confusing fans.
- Clear career goals. Artists should identify their immediate career objectives — such as engaging existing fans, expanding into new audiences, strengthening public association with certain core values, or securing financing for cutting-edge creative projects. This exercise can go a long way in narrowing down the brand partners that do (or don’t) make sense for an artist’s current marketing and financial needs.
Different kinds of brands have distinct marketing and technical infrastructure that can cater to vastly different career goals for artists. For example:
- Big-box retailers like Target and Wal-Mart partner with mainstream celebrities on exclusive vinyl releases, tapping into vast physical distribution networks to drive chart performance (e.g. the Target-exclusive “Lavender Edition” of Taylor Swift’s album Midnights).
- Gaming companies like Fortnite have the scale and technical expertise to help artists create larger-than-life immersive experiences that can reach (and monetize) millions of fans around the world.
- Emerging tech startups, especially in Web3, AI, and the metaverse, tend to be much more open to partnering with up-and-coming artists, aligning on shared values of adaptability and experimentation.
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.)
What market trends are changing the economics of music brand partnerships?
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
- Blackpink, PUGB, and the rise of virtual concerts in mobile games
- K-pop, cell phone ads, and the future of music-tech branding
- John Legend on Headspace: Expanding what “wellness music” can sound like
- How Mexico’s YO Telco puts a new spin on music telco partnerships
- Why the Target exclusive still has staying power
Emerging tech strategy
- Virtual reality and immersive concerts: An introductory primer
- From protocols to people: A study of music NFT platforms’ onboarding strategies