The music industry is in the middle of an ugly adjustment period. And while it doesn’t seem like pop music is going to disappear, musicians and consumers alike are struggling to wrap their heads around all the apps, subscriptions, clouds, lockers, recommendations, and “crowdfunding” sites that seem to launch on a weekly basis. Strangely, one of the few steps in music-funding evolution that few fans seem to mind is bands getting together with brands. Whether it’s Lady Gaga working with Polaroid or Hot Topic sponsoring legions of shitty emo bands, people seem to be pretty okay with the endorsements and product placements that have crept into the fabric of popular music.
But how do bands actually use this money? In most cases, the answers are far less glamorous than you might expect: It’s some combination of survival and paying off the insane advances their labels have given them.
The rising, tween-friendly band Neon Trees is a good case study—the band formed in Provo, Utah in 2004; signed to Mercury in 2009; and released its debut full-length, Habits, last year. The band has also partnered with everybody from Colgate to Orange Crush, and all the proceeds just go into maintaining the vestiges of what the band wants to present to its fans. And because Neon Trees’ upcoming headlining tour (sponsored by LG, natch) will stop at House Of Blues tonight , The A.V. Club grabbed some of lead singer Tyler Glenn’s time to talk about how—and why—Neon Trees handles working with brands.
The A.V. Club: At an industry conference called Music And Money, the CEO of Vevo showed the Charging Up The Music video you did with Colgate during his presentation. What was it like when you found out you were going to be doing that long, sit-down interview with somebody from Colgate? Your record hadn’t even come out!
Tyler Glenn: [Laughs.] I, um, I think at that point—Well, I don’t know. At that point you’re excited to get any acknowledgement. Especially being a band for so long, and really hungering for it, feeling that need, suffering for your art for a while. We really were that band. That’s what I try to address to people sometimes—people chalk us up as this overnight success, but it’s really been a long, steady thing. I think the proof is in “Animal.” I mean, we released that in the beginning of 2010, and it’s still getting played, and it’s getting covered by other bands. That’s a long time for a song to be relevant.
AVC: And to top it all off, it’s sold a million copies.
TG: Yeah, it’s about a week away from being two million. And that’s the kind of thing I don’t think about too much. I’m not the numbers guy in the band; I don’t try to look at the numbers to give myself credit or make me feel better. It’s an added bonus, and it’s pretty freaky, I guess. [Laughs.]
AVC: Maybe you get mistakenly chalked up as an overnight success because most people think you had just started out when you released your debut album. On your artist website, there’s just your full-length and the EPs that support it. There’s zero mention of the record you made before you got signed to Mercury—
TG: Which one are you talking about?
AVC: The [2006, self-released] Becoming Different People EP? There are still bits of it on YouTube.
TG: I mean ... we kind of made it in the middle of making Habits. It was just a bunch of songs that we just didn’t put on the record, and maybe the label wasn’t interested in, but that we loved. We holed up in Utah, in a studio that’s our friend’s, and made the EP. We knew we were going out on tour, with a band called Nico Vega, and we knew we didn’t want to go on tour without something to sell. And it was way before our album came out, so it was like, “Let’s just record it and put it out.” It was kind of a secret thing. I know the label knows now, but I think we were just like, “If we’re going to tour without a record, what’s the point?”
But I think there’s some tracks that our A&R guy’s gotten re-interested in now. Now that there’s interest from the fans, maybe [the label] would be interested in repackaging it or something. That’s exciting, because we play the songs live when we play a headlining set, and we’d love for those songs to be more out there.
AVC: Back to the whole Colgate thing, though. You guys have been really fortunate to have gotten help with some stuff in the past year. You got some money from Orange Crush for your “1983” video. There’ve been things with GetGlue, MTV2, Allen & Heath—
AVC: —Mountain Dew, Vitamin Water, Due Date. That’s impressive, but what do you guys use that money for?
TG: Right. I came from a very, um, punk, do-it-yourself background; I grew up in Southern California, and that was the first music that got me to love anything other than stuff my mom would play. I think, for me, there was that kind of cloud overhead, like, “Do you accept these placements, or do you shy away from them?”
And I think I just accepted that we’re a pop band before we’re anything else. We want to write songs that people sing and that make them feel good, and [songs that] have a catchiness and a melody to them. I also think one of our bigger breaks was having “Animal” featured in a Las Vegas ad two summers ago, or whenever. That was when we realized, “Okay, these things do bring a success, in a way. And I started to look at bands that I respected, like Wilco and Spoon, that have had placements and used them to their advantage.
With the Crush thing—our budget was kind of smaller, as far as what the label was giving us, so Crush was like, “We’ll give you 15 thou to put this in.” I was afraid it was going to look like a commercial, but I think the end product didn’t, really.
[Orange Crush sightings at 2:08, 2:39, 3:40, and 3:50. —ed.]
I don’t know, at the end of the day, this isn’t a million-dollar record business anymore, and we’re still living paycheck to paycheck at times. I still live in the apartment I live in with my roommates when I’m home. But no matter the success, there’s other ways you have to go about it to keep afloat, and, you know, still remain current as a band that’s on the radio. I guess we’re just being smart.
AVC: After a band signs with a major label, one of the first things the band members do is sit down and give the label their favorite images, their favorite records, and examples of clothes and hair and art that they love. And it’s basically meant to help the label get to know the artist, and essentially help them dream big.
AVC: Does that conversation include branding now? Like, in addition to telling the label about your favorite fashion designers and punk records and colors, do you also say which brands you really like? Like, what kinds of toothpaste you enjoy?
TG: You know, what’s hilarious is right after we got signed—actually, I don’t know if I’m supposed to talk about this in interviews, but I’m going to do it anyway, it feels like—I think the very first conversation I had was what things we like. Like, The Killers, who are on our label, don’t like to do a lot of that. They’re very picky. I think with us ... things we didn’t want to be a part of were alcohol and tobacco campaigns, and, um, we kind of shied away from certain things like pornography ads. We come from a place where we don’t really party in the band, and we’re starting to attract fans of all kinds of ages, and so it’s something we’ve decided to not support. It’s funny, though, because maybe a decade ago, we probably don’t have that conversation. I think they have to acknowledge that that’s part of the machine now.
Our initial deal was awful, you know. And so really, a lot of these campaigns and placements that we’ve gotten through our manager and our own connections have helped us with that, and helped us recoup. It’s a blessing and a curse, I guess.
AVC: It’s interesting, though, because we’re starting to see more sustained partnerships at this moment. Like The Wellspring, for example, has had entire tours paid for by this company called Last Minute Travel. If you guys got lucky enough to meet a biz-dev guy at some party and he gave you a blank check, what would you use it on?
TG: I think, for me, it would all go back into the show, just personally. Most of the money that I receive I put it toward things I wear onstage, or extra features in the show, or helping get an extra crew guy, or helping fund the sound guy, or helping fund the bus. We want to be that kind of band, that tours on that caliber. I think a lot of people think we’re a lot further along because of how the success has come. We want to tour on that level, even though we’re not the millionaires you’d expect a band at that level to be.