Finding corporate sponsors without sacrificing authenticity.

I’m posting some early drafts of chapters from Audience Supported just for supporters of…

Elvis Presley only recorded one commercial in his life. It was for Southern Maid Donuts, a Dallas chain that advertised fresh, hot donuts at 4pm every day. According to Elvis historian Phil Arnold, the donut shops sponsored a local radio show in Shreveport, called The Louisiana Hayride. Acts appearing on the show, including Minnie Pearl and Johnny Cash, also cut spots shilling hot donuts for listeners. But, in hindsight, is there possibly a better fit for sponsorship than Elvis and donuts?

Corporate sponsorship extends the notion of patronage into the business world, with an extra expectation: that your audience will support the brands that support you. At the point in your career when companies court you for endorsement deals, you need complete clarity about your career, your life, and your audience’s expectations of you. The Dee Snider who endorses Stanley Steemer carpet cleaning services in 2012 is a much different guy than the Dee Snider who just wanted to rock in 1994.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just watch how 3-year-old Dylan reacts to the commercials on video:

Dee Snider’s no laughing stock because the fans who rocked out to Twisted Sister in the 1990s are absolutely the same consumers who worry about carpet stains in the 2010s. John Lydon hasn’t been shy about “selling out,” either, as the NME’s Luke Lewis points out. The man who named the Sex Pistols’ 1996 comeback the “Filthy Lucre” tour now appears in butter commercials.

For sponsorship to work, it’s got to be authentic.

When you see Johnny Rotten selling dairy products, Bob Dylan hawking lingerie, or Snoop Dogg shilling for chewing gum, you probably realize that those rock stars have either crossed into “untouchable” territory, or that they’re in the phase of their career when doing absurd commercials just comes off as playfully ironic.

You’re probably at the stage of your career that Elvis was at when he recorded that donut jingle. I don’t know that Elvis agonized too much over promoting some delicious, hot donuts on a regional radio broadcast. But, these days, a promotion gone awry can haunt you forever, thanks to social media. When considering an endorsement deal, answer these questions:

  • Is the product or service you’re endorsing in line with your personal ethics? If you’ve been posting anti-corporate rants on your band’s blog, your audience won’t believe it when you show up as the corporate spokesperson for Walmart.
  • Would you use that product or service if you weren’t getting paid? Sign a deal with a guitar manufacturer, and you’d better be prepared to play nothing but their gear for the next few years.
  • Will your endorsement require major changes to the other ways you earn income? Your endorsement might unwittingly knock you out of contention for festival slots or for bookings at clubs endorsed by competing brands. Focus on your core revenue streams first.
  • How excited will your fans and patrons be to learn you’re endorsing this brand? Put yourself in their shoes, and think about whether the deal “makes sense.”
  • Will your endorsement deal change how you communicate with your audience? I’d avoid any deal that requires you to surrender access to your website or your social media platforms.

At music marketing workshops and conferences over the past ten years, artists have asked me how they can actively pursue sponsorships. They’ve often been disappointed with my response: focus first on building your core audience, along with your key patrons. Instead of chasing down bad deals with mediocre sponsors, your growing audience will lure sponsors who see your brand as a marketing platform.

Instead of long-term brand endorsements, it’s more likely that you’ll find yourself answering questions about one-off appearances at stores or special events. Again, think about the long-term connections your fans may make between your decision and their support. Bands that play corporate gigs often face these tough decisions. Ten years ago, it’d be easy to play a private event for a corporate sponsor. Today, eager fans will post news of your “secret show” all over the Internet. You’d better be okay with that.