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CMU Beef Of The Week #247: McDonald’s v Music

By | Published on Friday 13 March 2015

As the music industry changes, and some traditionally lucrative revenue streams have gone into decline, there has been a school of thought that ultimately brands might fill the gap left in musicians’ finances.

McDonald's SXSW

Long gone are the days when Bill Hicks could happily stand on stage and tell us that any artist who took money from advertisers could count themselves “off the artistic roll call”. And not just because he’s dead. If Bill Hicks were alive today, he’d be advertising dishwasher tablets and going on tours sponsored by Kraft cheese slices. Well, maybe. Comedy has become the new rock n roll at least twice in my lifetime and so hasn’t quite had the shot to its principles that music has.

Musicians, though. Oh, they’re having their music placed in adverts here and taking the brand dollar there all the time these days. And it’s easy to see what each side gets out of the deal. The musician gets a pile of money to quell the nagging nausea that selling themselves out will bring. And the brand gets to pretend that it has actually absorbed some of the inherent coolness of which it has just robbed the artist.

No one will ever admit this is the deal though. They always try to dress it up with some faux mutual appreciation, which leads to Taylor Swift saying things like, “Diet Coke just ‘gets me'”, and alcohol brand Absolut to claim that Icona Pop are “almost the embodiment” of its new vodka and wine-based drink. I used to write a whole column about the inherent ridiculousness of these press statement, until it became too depressing to continue.

I can see how these things happen though – and I realise the irony of writing this on a website supported in part by advertising. Everyone’s got to feed the monkey, and when someone turns up and offers a chunk of money that will ensure you and it will be kept in bananas for a good few months, that’s a very difficult thing to turn down.

A good example of how far this has gone is the South By Southwest festival, which begins next week, and has now embraced sponsorship to such a degree that it has to have a policy on drones to stop all the brands at its trade fair flying them around the place and risking the safety of its customer base. Last year, of course, brand prominence at the event peaked with a Lady Gaga-headlined show sponsored by Doritos. The company reportedly paid her $2.5 million, in return for which she got someone to vomit on her while she stood next to a neon sign bearing the company’s logo.

Of course, because no one is willing to actually state the simplicity of the cash-for-cool relationship that is behind all band-brand alliances, sometimes the brands forget that the musicians aren’t just doing this because they actually love those companies so much. And so enter McDonald’s.

The fast food chain is currently in something of a crisis. While it remains a multi-billion dollar international company, and owns one of the world’s most recognised brands, it has seen sales fall in the last year. The issue, according to Ad Week, is the ‘millennial’, which I think I managed to confirm means ‘people who are aged between eighteen and 35’ before I had to stop reading up on the term and try to force my soul back into my body.

So the young people, basically. They’re the problem. In many ways, McDonald’s is like the music industry. Except that no one is downloading burgers illegally. Actually, I think the problem is probably partly down to the fact that it’s now quite easy to buy burgers that have flavours. And so McDonald’s ruse of trying to mask the blandness of its food with gerkins and ketchup has been scuppered.

But you can’t admit that, can you? Not if you’re McDonald’s. So you have to instigate some cool-for-the-kids marketing nonsense, and say things like: “Our presence at SXSW will highlight our commitment to digital innovation and enhance the onsite experience for attendees. McDonald’s has never been involved with SXSW in an official capacity, making this an even more exciting time for our brand”.

Yeah, you can’t fault McDonald’s and its commitment to digital innovation. I mean look at all those… all those… Happy Meals…?

Anyway, part of this ‘commitment’ will be to drive in a ‘Fry-Fi’ (seriously) truck that will offer mobile device charging stations, wi-fi, and screens streaming images from around the event. And because that isn’t really enough, the truck will also serve breakfast and lunch to anyone not aware that Austin is full of good barbequed meat. Plus, of course, there will be a McDonald’s-hosted showcase.

And therein lies the problem. Because while McDonald’s has recognised that it could do with appearing a bit cooler to young people, it failed to spot that the people who can help it with that are also among the demographic that doesn’t think the fast food chain is cool. They aren’t so bowled over by the company that they’re willing to chip in just for the love of Big Macs.

Alt-rock duo Ex Cops revealed in a Facebook post last week that they had been approached to play the McDonald’s showcase but were told that “there isn’t a budget for an artist fee (unfortunately)”.

The band’s Brian Harding continued: “In lieu of being paid like a real artist, or anyone who is employed to do a service, McDonald’s assures us that we will ‘be featured on screens throughout the event, as well as POSSIBLY mentioned on McDonald’s social media accounts like Facebook'”.

Now, McDonald’s might argue that it’s not exactly cutting corners on this thing. Let’s not forget that there will be free food for the audience. McDonald’s food doesn’t come cheap, you know. Oh wait, hang on…

Well, there’s probably a venue hire cost, and all the staff in that venue are probably going to want paying. I mean, how many people work in a venue? Including bar and tech staff, maybe 30? 40? More? And those people don’t get to have any fun, like that band does. They’re grafting up there, doing real work. All a band does is turn up and play. Nothing else. Because as we all know, there are no financial or time costs to being a musician.

This is presumably what led McDonald’s to issue a statement, responding to the Ex Cops post, claiming that it follows “the same standard protocol as other brands and sponsors” at SXSW and that any media interest in this story was the result of a “#slownewsday”. I mean, imagine being so confident in your stance on something that you’d conclude it with a hashtag. What could possibly go wrong?

After all, Harding admits in his Facebook post that “it is our choice (pretty much) to fly to Austin, play shows without soundcheck, and get paid nothing to a little”.

However, he adds: “I’m aware that to achieve any exposure is a Herculean task in 2015, but the Boethian Wheel is a real thing, and this will continue to exist if we, as artists, keep saying ‘yes’ in exchange for a taste of success. Even if smells like a shitty Fish Filet”.

Speaking to Rolling Stone, he continued: “The people that have been supporting the music industry lately understand that we don’t make money off albums anymore, and that’s why you see so much merchandise and bands tour all the time. It’s our only kind of income”.

His musical partner Amalie Bruun added more bluntly: “If we’re not going to get paid for our live shows, what are we going to get paid for?”

This week, McDonald’s finally realised that the continued interest in its unwillingness to pay the only people who really matter in its campaign for some cool was not just because there was nothing else to report on. As a result, this week it backtracked completely, telling Billboard that it had planned a 20 band showcase that would see the company totally “honouring the spirit of the festival” and that “all bands performing at our showcase will be compensated”.

It didn’t say “fairly compensated”, but it’s a step forward, I guess. Ex Cops, perhaps unsurprisingly, will still not be one of the bands on that bill, but they said that they were “thrilled” at the news. Nice work employing that ubiquitous press language there guys. I assume it was intentional.

So, all’s well that ends well. Well, except for all that stuff with McDonald’s still sponsoring a music event. But apart from that, I think we can all sleep soundly at night again. I just hope Jessie J is OK.