Let’s do a little experiment:
Take a minute to imagine a generic pair of jeans. Once you have the perfect pair in your mind’s eye, take a moment to list a few adjectives to describe them. Now set that list aside. Next, imagine a pair of Levi’s jeans (if you’re unfamiliar, you can read up about them here). Now, let’s do the same thing with the adjectives. Take a moment and think of some adjectives to describe a pair of Levi’s.
Let’s compare our lists of adjectives. I don’t know about you, but when I think of a generic pair of jeans, I use words like blue, denim, or maybe even ripped to describe them. I use words that describe the specific pair of jeans. When I describe of a pair of Levi’s jeans, however, I use words like tough, timeless, classic, cowboy – words I associate more with the Levi’s brand than with a generic pair of jeans.
Using brand names in songwriting is a powerful tool for two reasons.
The Creative Perspective
As a songwriter, my job is to pack three minutes with as much imagery as I can, both lyrically and musically. Brands spend millions cultivating their image. They position themselves in the market with commercials and ads hoping that we, the consumer, will view their product in a very specific way. Furthermore, that brand wants us to view the people who use or wear that brand in that very specific way, too. Using the word “Levi’s” in a lyric immediately conjures the image that Levi’s has spent millions (or, more than likely, billions!) of dollars cultivating for over 150 years. Suddenly, the adjectives I use to describe a pair of Levi’s (tough, timeless, classic, cowboy) actually describe the person in my song who is wearing them. The listener gets a clearer, more real image of the person I am describing.
Let’s do the same experiment we did before — only this time, let’s try it with a lyric from my song “Burn Right Through.” Read the lyric below, close your eyes, and really try to imagine the character I am describing:
You had a sinful little smile and a wild stormy look in your eyes,
In your dirty old boots, your leather jacket, and your jeans
Did you imagine someone? This lyric has a fair amount of imagery on its own but did you get a crystal clear image of someone? What do they look like? Do you have a clear picture of their face? How are they standing? How do they carry themselves? Can you answer those questions definitively? Maybe, maybe not. Now let’s try that same thing with the actual lyric from the song:
You had a sinful little smile and a wild stormy look in your eyes,
In your dirty old boots, your leather jacket, and your Levi’s
Now who do you see? What do they look like? Do you have a clear picture of their face? How are they standing? How do they carry themselves? I bet you have better, more descriptive answers for these questions when I use the brand Levi’s in the lyric. Artists have used brand names in their lyrics for years and it’s because of this simple fact: brand names will always invoke more imagery than any adjective ever can.
Try using a brand name in one of your songs. To start, find a few brands you share an affinity with and take some time to describe the feelings and images they elicit for you. Keep that list in your back pocket and the next time you’re writing and searching for some strong imagery, try using one of the brands from your list (and a word to the wise – try to use ones that are easy to rhyme with).
The Business Prospective
Artists and brands have worked together for a long, long, long time. Brands have used artists’ songs and images in their commercials and for quite some time, and the idea of sponsorship is not new by any means. What has changed, however, is the extent of the partnership between brands and artists. Brands are realizing that artists are cultural drivers and who hold a significant amount of power and influence over specific market segments — market segments that a brand may be trying to reach.
That realization coupled with the fact that the advance of streaming music has resulted in decreased royalty payments has prompted artists to become more creative in exploring untapped revenue streams, such as sponsorship agreements. Brands are eager to partner with artists in hopes of creating a cultural shift in the market that lands in the brand’s favor.
I know a lot of artists that are hesitant to agree to a sponsorship deal – they view it as selling out. But let me pitch it to you this way (from an unsigned, indie artist’s perspective):
On one hand, you have the traditional route of signing to an established label (indie labels are not included in this example). They will give you a standard deal and, since you’re small-fry, it will be something like a six record deal with a recoupable advance of around $200,000 and a royalty rate of $0.10 to $0.15 on the dollar. That means you have to pay back your $200,000 dollar advance at 10 to 15 cents on the dollar and produce six records (that they approve) within a given time frame. Not to mention, since royalty revenue has plummeted, the label may also take some off of the top of your touring and merch sales, too. You’re pretty much indebted to them for a long time and unless you really make it big with some chart-topping hits, you’ll never recoup your advance.
On the other hand, you have the more nascent route of partnering with a brand that pays you a one-time fee or perhaps sponsors your tour and you are not indebted to them past that one obligation. You keep 100 percent of your royalties, merch sales, ticket sales, and any other revenue you generate.
To me, the latter seems more palatable and in general, a smarter business decision. Back to the idea of using brand names in your songwriting — if you’re writing a song with a brand name already in it (painted in a favorable light of course) your song is better positioned to be picked up for a sponsorship deal which can help you earn money, bolstering a sustainable music career.
I’ll leave you with this closing thought: above all else, be true to yourself as an artist. Be authentic and don’t force it. What brands do you share a natural affinity with? Everyone has their favorite brand of jeans, soft drinks, alcohol, shoes, cars, etc. I would never mention McDonald’s in my songwriting (nor would I partner with them) because I don’t share an affinity with them. When I use brands in my songs, I only use the ones I already connect to: Ford, Levi’s, Budweiser, because I love Ford trucks, I wear Levi’s, and I drink Bud Light. Those things are authentically me and so, when I use those brands in my songwriting, it doesn’t feel disingenuous or inauthentic. I encourage you to identify those brands for you and try using them in your songwriting.
So go get to writing!