In the late ’70s, Levi’s approached the British post-punk band Gang of Four. The denim company wanted to use the group’s music for an ad campaign. “We were offered a ton of money,” remembers bassist Dave Allen. “We turned it down immediately. It would have been a total sellout.”
Times, as they say, have changed. Allen, who’s lived in Portland for almost 20 years and most recently headed up artist relations at Apple Music, now leads a new venture to create the kind of commercial relationships his band once shirked. Earlier this year, Allen joined local advertising agency North to launch a new music division to match bands with brands; North president Mark Ray calls the idea a more “thoughtful and soulful” spin on the traditional licensing model.
Brands and bands connect. Bands write new music, which the brands license for use in commercials, videos, and other promotional material. The artists keep the basic publishing rights to that piece, and their preexisting work goes untouched.
“The artist can count on more than a single payout of a licensed piece of music,” Ray says. “They can have an ongoing relationship with a brand, and start to depend on some of that revenue.”
According to both Allen and Ray—the latter isn’t a stranger to the music industry either, having founded independent record label Undertow in 1996—bands today have fewer concerns about being associated with brands. “For a long time, musicians looked at brands as toxic,” Ray says. “That doesn’t exist nearly as much. So what’s stopping people from looking at brands more as patrons?”
Is it an idealized vision of harmony between art and commerce? Or a pragmatic response to the very real challenges of making money in the streaming era? That’s still shaking out. There are three or four partnerships in the pipeline right now, including ones with Columbia Sportswear and yerba mate maker Guayakí.
Singer-songwriter Dustin Thomas, one of North Music’s artists, says he appreciates client Guayakí’s eco-conscious business model—a portion of profits go to reforestation efforts in South America—but also the industry expertise North brings to the table. “That type of mentorship is way more valuable than a brand deal,” he says, adding that it’s still experimental. “This is like a young fawn in the forest, and there’s a certain level of mystery and excitement here.”