NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Is Rascal Flatts’ Tour Sponsorship Penney-Wise?

Marketing and Entertainment Merge on the Road

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Rascal Flatts’ new marketing tie-in is hardly news, except in the enormity of the group’s involvement with one sponsor. Commercial tie-ins and marketing partnerships have become so commonplace, the lack of one would be news for any major act these days. But in Flatts’ case, their tour sponsorship deal with J.C. Penney demonstrates the extent to which, these days, marketing has come to dominate the music world and, in fact, the entire entertainment arena. To a large extent, marketing equals entertainment and vice versa.

Flatts’ deal with Penney calls for the group during this Rascal Flatts American Living Unstoppable Tour to:

• Wear clothing from Penney’s American Living apparel line during concerts.

• Compose and record a tribute song titled “American Living” (to be available on a special CD sold only through Penney stores with CD proceeds going to the J.C. Penney Afterschool Fund, which funds afterschool programs).

• Show American Living commercials throughout their concerts on two huge screens on either side of the stage.

• Wrap their fleet of tour trucks and buses in American Living commercial signage.

• Make American Living merchandise available for sale at each concert.

This is hardly a new development. The history of artists’ involvement with commercial enterprises is a lengthy one. In 1981, Jovan paid the Stones $1 million for tour sponsorship. Cries of sellout rose immediately in the rock world. Many Stones fans wondered why the sponsor was a perfume, instead of something the Stones actually used, like Keith Richards’ drink of choice those days, Jack Daniel’s whiskey.

A major milestone occurred during the long Pepsi sponsorship deal with Michael Jackson. It went so far that many fans mistook a 1985 TV commercial for the music video for “Billie Jean.” Which was probably Pepsi’s aim. (Jackson was seriously burned, earlier, in 1984, during the filming of that commercial.) Later, in 1989, Pepsi’s involvement with Madonna and her “Like a Prayer” video backfired on the soda peddler. With a massive protest campaign by religious groups, Pepsi had to backtrack. But, tie-ins had become so commonplace that Rolling Stone in 1986 began publishing Marketing Through Music, a newsletter devoted to marketing via rock groups and artists.

Sponsorships do have a way of biting back, as Kellogg’s with Michael Phelps and Wrigley Gum with Chris Brown did recently. Interestingly, Brown’s girlfriend Rihanna had an endorsement deal with J.C. Penney three years ago for a line of jeans, but that never got much notice.

In country music, there’s a long history of commercial deals, but they were usually on a smaller scale until recently. Hank Williams headlined the Hadacol Caravan, sponsored and run by the dubious alcohol-based elixir Hadacol. Flatt & Scruggs became almost synonymous with Martha White Flour and drove a Martha White tour bus and sang a Martha White theme song. Segments on the Grand Ole Opry were named for their sponsors.

Country music tie-ins today, to be sure, are commonplace. Toby Keith’s Ford campaigns, complete with his “Ford Truck Theme” song, was probably the most extensive before this, but most country stars have their sponsors and, in many cases, their own line of products.

For years, the argument in favor of commercial co-mingling has been that it allowed artists to mount more elaborate sound and staging and that — ultimately — it would lead to lower ticket prices. I have seen absolutely no proof of the latter. Any time there have been reasonably-priced tickets, it has been the exception and is generally done only by an artist wanting to make a point and try to accommodate the true fans.

The proposed merger of Ticketmaster with Live Nation could easily lead to total domination of music. Ticketmaster, the ticketing giant, recently acquired a controlling equity interest in Front Line Management, the largest management group in the country. That group now wants to merge with Live Nation, the biggest concert promoter and label and venue owner. It’s a 360 deal on a national basis. One giant corporation would control management, distribution, touring, ticketing, venues and merchandise. Who sets prices for the fans? Who determines the artist’s cut of all that? Guess.

This same 360 model existed in Nashville’s earlier days. Acuff-Rose, the publishing company, also acted as manager, promoter, song publisher, booking agent, tour manager, record producer and even accountant for artists ranging from Hank Williams to Roy Orbison. The latter finally broke free of his contractual obligations, and that management model ultimately proved unworkable on a scale beyond a handful of artists. Plus, it only worked with young, na├»ve up-and-coming artists who didn’t know any better. These days, artists know better, but they still may have no other choices.

In today’s environment where an artist’s major — or only — source of revenue is touring and merchandise sales, the artists will be at the mercy of TKTBSTRD or whatever the new mega company will be called. We already know that the name “Ticketmaster” will be dropped, because it is so universally loathed by fans. One recent example illustrates why Ticketmaster has amply earned that loathing: With Bruce Springsteen’s current tour pre-sales, ticket buyers were automatically routed — without their knowledge or permission — to Ticketmaster’s own TicketsNow outlet, where only higher-priced ticket were available. That’s called “scalping.” To his credit, Ticketmaster head Irving Azoff apologized about the incident and vowed that sort of thing would never happen again.

Any way you look at it, the concert-going fan will always be at the mercy of one — or more — conglomerates.

Tickets are one thing, but do audiences care about commercial products rivaling the music for their attention? I guess we’ll find out. Probably not, if the product seems to match the artist or group.

I suspect he’s speaking a bit tongue-in-cheek, but former Nine Inch Nails drummer Josh Freese has an ultimate sell-out package available to promote his upcoming, self-released album, Since 1972. His base price is $7 for a download of the album plus three videos. That escalates upwards to include an array of packages including personal phone calls and chats, T-shirts, signed drumsticks and drum heads, lunch with him at P.F. Chang’s, dinner with him at Sizzlers, a float session with him in a sensory-deprivation tank, a car wash or laundry session by him, dinner with him on the Queen Mary, a drinking bout with him, haircuts, foot and back massages, a private tour of Disneyland, a gift of his Volvo station wagon, a selection of any three items from his closet, drum lessons, shooting videos with him, a song or songs about you written by him and posted on iTunes. The ultimate package, going for $75,000, includes a limo tour of Tijuana and a flying trapeze lesson.

He has said since his initial online posting that he’s serious about the offers, adding, “Now, if this isn’t changing the way music business works, I don’t know what is.”