Currently, recompensed name-dropping works backwards. Artists include the names of brands in their lyrics with no initial payoff or promise from the brand. Then, depending on the song’s popularity and the nature of the lyrics (positive versus libelous), artists may see rewards in the form of free merchandise, clothing or more conventional advertising sponsorship deals.
This system appears ripe for change. Given the audience (size and age), the temptation for brands to pay artists to lyrically endorse them is so great that to not see it as an inevitability is seppuku by naiveté. (We are not referring to videos or artists mentioning their own brands of clothing, which has been done to the point of cliché, but about actual commissioned songs where the money changes hands up front.)
What if Courvoisier had paid Busta and Puffy to write Pass the Courvoisier? The question is not when this will happen (or maybe, when artists and brands will admit to it as common practice), but instead, what are the consequences for any brand that chooses to bust the mic?
Potential consequences obviously include fan backlash. Asked if she’d buy an artist that she knew had been commissioned, Eva Santiago, a hip-hop fan in New York, said, “I really don’t know.” However, she seemed to recognize the practicality of it, “These artists are people too, and businesspeople.”
Another possible consequence could be censorship by broadcasting entities unwilling to give away free advertising. At the clubland level, the ideological reception is chilly, but, like fan Santiago, acceptance seems tied with resignation. Conrad Salvador, a DJ at New York hip-hop club bOb, in response to whether he would play a song that he knew was, at some level, an advertising campaign said, “I don’t like it. But I’d play it. The integrity is already all gone.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the broadcasting giant Black Entertainment Television (BET) whose hip-hop programming competes with the likes of MTV. Stephen Hill, BET senior vice president of Music Programming, is well aware of the phenomenon. “[Hip hop] has become brand conscious as the world has become brand conscious. It’s a reflection of the lifestyle that people already lead.”
Hill says that, for the time being, BET is taking this on a case-by-case basis, and has yet to pull a song from its rotation for being overtly commercial. But, he adds, “Any kind of blatant, paid for plug would be frowned upon.”
The third consequence of commercialized lyrics may be polarization of the industry, which isn’t hard to imagine given that hip hop is already struggling within its own ranks. With continued commercialization, hip hop artists will become in some part identified by the simple fact that their lyrics either are or aren’t paid for. That is, artists will be judged on whether they are keeping it real.
But as everyone who contributed thoughts to this piece made abundantly clear, artists in all other genres already trade on their talent. Why should hip hop be any different from, say, Salvador Dali? Author Andy McNab was paid handsomely to mention Traser timepieces in his book Liberation Day, for which he won a 2002 Annual Product Placement Award (Atria, 2003). Fay Weldon reportedly received a substantial (but undisclosed) amount to use the jeweler’s brand name in her book The Bulgari Connection (Grove Press, 2002).
BET’s Hill says, “Think of [the artists] as entrepreneurs. If people are going to listen to their words and people are going to pay them to put things in their words, it doesn’t make them any less real. They are commercial entities the same as any actor doing a commercial.”
Brandstand’s James expands on Hill’s sentiment: “There’s no logical reason that film companies should be allowed to fill movies with BMWs and Rolex watches, and record companies should be nervous about even admitting that they’re interested in doing something similar.”
With industry and fan backlash seemingly impotent in terms of negative impact, it appears that the success of paid lyrical endorsements lays squarely on the shoulders of the individual brand. Brands would be faced with the decision of copping to, or denying involvement in, the very endorsement they have paid for in the attempt to maintain the “keeping it real” aspect of the form. However, history has been known to harshly punish those who have been truant with the truth, and although fans may be accepting, they may not enjoy being deceived. Any attempt to cover-up a placement scheme seems at best out of touch and at worst suicidally narcissistic.
James echoes this warning: “I honestly think that if it’s done in a way that artists can get away with then good luck. If not, they deserve to get smoked out by their audiences who are very brand savvy, and will be able to spot a fake brand plug.” The truth is that if Courvoisier had been paid for, fans would likely still have danced to it. So why try to hide it?
If paid for shout-outs seems a promising field, imagine the parallel where artists are paid not just to endorse, but also to dis rival brands. Take for example lyrics from artist Killer Mike’s recent song A.D.I.D.A.S: “Cause I don’t need that A-I-D-S/A, D and an A missin’ out my adidas.” Imagine if that lick had been paid for by rival shoe brand Puma.
Puritan protests will, of course, be lodged. Keeping it real will become an empty platitude, an invisible rubber stamp, used without any thought to what “real” is. But most people are probably realistic about the potential. Hip hop fan Santiago says, “Look at Busta [Rhymes] and 7 Up. Go him! I mean make yours.”
DJ Salvador: “You put $10 million in front of me and tell me to drink Coke, well....”
BET’s Hill: “Everybody tries to make money at their hustle. We’re going to find a way to work it out.”
And Lucian James’s conclusion is supported by history: “All’s fair in love and pop culture.”