Visit any music store and you can’t miss the posters — “Rock Star X proudly plays Company Y’s guitars.” Or crack nearly any music trade magazine and you’ll see ads with well-known keyboardists, horn players, producers, and beyond singing the praises of the instruments and tools of their choosing.
Such are the most visible manifestations of sponsorships and endorsement deals, symbiotic relationships between companies and music creators who use, and help promote, their products. And while many endorsement deals may seem like the stuff of high-visibility, world-touring acts, they can be helpful tools for a wide range of indie musicians as well.
Here are some thoughts from artists and industry professionals to help demystify the world of endorsement deals and help you figure out which options, if any, are best for you and your music.
Know the nature of the deal
An endorsement deal is a partnership, plain and simple, where each party does certain things to help the other — and themselves.
In an endorsement relationship, artists often receive goods for free or reduced price, as well as “promotion for benefit of the artist’s career and the stature of the manufacturer,” says Randy Fuchs, who coordinates endorsement relationships for brands like Nord, Kurzweil, PreSonus, and many others through his company Artist Relations.
“Our relationship with Steinway is simple and straightforward,” says Elizabeth Joy Roe, one half of the virtuosic Anderson and Roe piano duo, which has an endorsement relationship with the revered piano maker. “We show our commitment to Steinway by performing on their beautiful pianos, and Steinway provides pianos for our use — concerts, recordings, etc. — whenever possible.”
In short, an endorsement relationship should feel like a win for all involved. Speaking of which…
Love the products, and the company, you endorse
Fuchs warns that you should only endorse a product that you know well, use regularly, and absolutely adore. “Companies don’t want musicians looking to chalk up another endorsement,” he says. “They’re looking for advocates who love and use their products, people who will go out and proselytize for their brands.”
For Anderson and Roe, the endorsement relationship with Steinway stemmed from just that sort of love of the instrument. “We don’t view our relationship with Steinway as ‘corporate’ because it feels like the most natural and sincere choice to use Steinway pianos,” says Roe. “Both of us have a deep personal connection to these instruments, and we are proud to be associated with such an iconic brand.”
Roe points out that the downsides to endorsement relationships often come when the company lacks ethical standards, or if the artist doesn’t have “an authentic conviction in the value of the brand.”
“Thankfully, this has not been the case for us,” she continues. “Steinway creates pianos of superlative craftsmanship, which allows us to channel our artistry to the fullest.”
In his own work, Fuchs walks a similar walk, encouraging his artists to do the same. “I love the brands we work for, and we’ll spend time with people who don’t know those brands so they get to love our gear, too,” he says. “I believe that Nord and Kurzweil make amazing keyboards, that Seymour Duncan makes great pickups, and that all the other brands that I work for are truly outstanding. I’m proud and honored to work with them — and I’d sincerely hope that any artist embarking on an endorsement deal feels the same way.”
Greg Anderson, Roe’s duo partner, further recommends that you make sure that you and any company you partner with see eye to eye when it comes to musical and business goals. “In an endorsement relationship, make certain your priorities are aligned,” he says. “In our situation, we as artists want to sound our best, and Steinway, as an instrument manufacturer, wants their pianos to sound excellent. The alignment of priorities means we’re naturally helping one another.”
According to Anderson, anything short of true fandom towards the company you partner with can have negative effects. “Audiences can sense insincerity in a heartbeat, and endorsing a product for the wrong reasons will destroy your artistic credibility,” he says. “You don’t want your listeners distracted by any lack of integrity. You want them focused on your performance!”
Know what companies are looking for
“An endorsement deal is not an artist getting a product without responsibilities in return,” says Fuchs. “When you distill it all down, the ultimate purpose of an endorsement is to help grow a brand. If the artist doesn’t qualify to help grow the brand, then the manufacturer wants that non-qualifying musician to purchase his or her gear from a local dealer or favorite Internet dealer. What they do want is to have an endorser promote their brand such that a weekend warrior would want to go to their retailer and purchase their products.”
Fuchs sometimes gets endorsement inquiry phone calls from artists who may be amazing musicians indeed, but haven’t yet attained the career momentum necessary to fulfill their end of an endorsement relationship — a.k.a., bringing visibility and prestige to the company in a meaningful way.
“Even if someone is a brilliant songwriter or player,” says Fuchs, “if he only has 200 views on YouTube and doesn’t play any live shows, he’s not going to help a company sell their product,” says Fuchs. “If that same player joined a band, started playing gigs, and started to build a following — or even put together something wonderfully unique online that people could gather around — that’s far more compelling. If he’s able to get people to love what he does, that’s a powerful message.
“It’s more important to build your career and fan base than to spend energy at the beginning of your career seeking an endorsement. I am the guy who always likes to say ‘yes’ but I need to have a compelling reason to do so.”
Do you feel like your band is in the right position to get an endorsement relationship rolling? “The next step is to reach out to the company and ask for somebody in artist relations,” says Fuchs. “The dialog can begin from there.” Similarly, if you attend NAMM, AES, Musicmesse, or other music manufacturer trade shows, showing up in person at a company’s booth and introducing yourself never hurts; even if you won’t be ready to approach the manufacturer of your dreams for another several years, having a friendly face within the organization can be a great boon when it comes time to talk business.
Don’t be pushy
Just like many aspects of the music business, landing and maintaining a strong endorsement relationship has a lot to do with good will, positive energy, and enthusiasm. In other words, don’t be a jerk.
“I’ve seen some guys say things like, ‘If you don’t give me an endorsement, I’ll go with your competitor,’” says Fuchs. “Blackmail and threats don’t work. Ultimatums like that tell me that you don’t care about my company’s product, and that’s not what a company is looking for.” Fuchs likens approaching a company to forge an endorsement relationship to trying to find a date. “If you tell a girl that if she doesn’t date you, you’re going to date the girl next to her, chances are it’s not going to work,” he says, laughing. A better approach? “Find a potential partner that you’re really drawn to and want to be with, start talking, and build the relationship from there.”
Negotiate specifics that work for you
Not every endorsement relationship will look the same, Fuchs advises, so be sure to review each agreement carefully. “In addition to using the manufacturer’s goods, an artist will generally be responsible for providing a photo and a quote or some kind of testimonial about the instrument or product,” he says. “There might be video involved and working with social media to spread the word, or there might be the requirement to include a logo on your website, invite a dealer backstage, or possibly do an in-store clinic or two, depending on the band.”
According to Roe, her duo’s arrangement with Steinway entails the usage of Steinway pianos at their concerts and appearances in master classes at Steinway dealerships around the country (when schedules allow). “Steinway is basically responsible for providing instruments at our concerts,” she continues — though beyond that, the company has made its historic Queens, New York factory available to the duo for a music video shoot as well.
One area worth particular attention is anything that specifies which instruments from competing companies the musician can and cannot use in public. “I would never tell a painter to only use one paintbrush,” says Fuchs. “I believe that an artist has a right to use multiple brands, as long as they’re using my keyboard, for example, for the majority of gigs, and they do not appear in the ad of a competitor.” Not all companies will necessarily feel the same way, though, so be sure to check the fine print before signing anything, and make sure that whatever you agree to does not compromise your ability to deliver the best music possible.
At the end of any discussion, a written agreement, lasting either one or two years or in perpetuity, will likely be involved, says Fuchs. Whatever the term, be ready to review carefully — and consider showing the document to a lawyer as well.
Watch what you say
“While it should be obvious to anyone in an endorsement relationship to watch one’s words and avoid competitor’s products, extra care must be made in today’s hyperactive social media landscape,” says Anderson. “You never know when a ‘mistake’ will go viral.”
If there’s ever a moment where you’re unsure about how to proceed — a certain venue only has a competitor’s instrument or amp, for example, and the gig is being streamed live on the Web — your contact at the endorsing company should be able to help you figure things out. And if worse comes to worse, review your original written agreement for clarification.
Anderson further warns that, while it’s important to speak positively about an instrument or company that you endorse, don’t go overboard. “We do our best to truly champion the product at hand as often as feels natural,” he says.
Build your career and let the endorsement deals come
According to Fuchs, the best way to attract endorsement relationships is to build the most vibrant, robust, and exciting career possible. “Sometimes artists will spend a lot of energy trying to get an endorsement when they should be spending that time putting together a street team, handling social media, rehearsing, making connections, playing gigs that they have to travel for, working on performance and composing skills, and so on. If you get popular, endorsements will come.”
Fuchs affirms that his company forges endorsement relationships with plenty of up-and-coming artists — yet regardless of whether a band is selling out small clubs or packing stadiums, a true dedication to one’s career is a must, he says.
Look beyond music companies
While many endorsement opportunities exist with music manufacturers, artists of all genres and levels of popularity continue to partner with beverage and snack food manufacturers, restaurant chains, shoe and clothing companies, and beyond — often in highly creative ways.
Electronic artist Moldover, for example, has brought his interactive Octamasher music installation to numerous events sponsored by Red Bull energy drink. “They were looking for innovative and interesting ways to promote their products,” he says. “They wanted current, forward-thinking art, so it was a good match. They helped me develop the Octamasher, share it with new audiences, and earn money doing it. In return, they got to be part of something completely new. They won cool points.”
Regardless of whether the company you want to work with sells energy drinks or hacky sacks, the advice listed above still applies. “Find a brand that stands for something you can get behind, or a company with a philosophy that resonates with you,” says Moldover. “Every company has, somewhere within it, a one-paragraph summary about who they are and what they do. If you read it and identify with it, that’s what you’re looking for.”
Moldover also advises seeking out individuals at your target company who see eye to eye with you and can advocate for you and your music. “If you don’t have a personal connection as well as a philosophical one, it’s hard to get anywhere,” he says.