Music vs money – Sigue Sigue Sputnik and rock n roll capitalism

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Sigue Sigue Sputnik - pic from artist's Facebook

Sigue Sigue Sputnik – pic from artist’s Facebook

With the continued reliance on sponsorship to fund bands and festivals, Getintothis’ Banjo remembers the outrage of Sigue Sigue Sputnik and wonders whether overt commercialisation is destroying the art.

A strange anniversary has recently passed unheralded. 30 years ago, arch-strategists Sigue Sigue Sputnik hit upon an idea that they claimed hit upon a completely new way to make money from music. The idea was to do what The Who had parodied on The Who Sell Out for real; sell the space between the tracks on their debut album and replace the silence with adverts, lead Sputnik Tony James reasoning that “our records sounded like adverts anyway”.

Not surprisingly this bold new marketing initiative did not take off, and only L’OreaL and ID magazine took them up on the offer, the rest of the gaps being filled with mock adverts, including one for the fictitious Sputnik Corporation.

In all likelihood this was never a serious proposition and was instead an attempt to outrage the music weeklies and position Sputnik as post-consumerist commentators. While it is no surprise that adding adverts to albums was spectacularly unsuccessful, other forms of commercialism and sponsorship have prospered to such an extent that the Sputniks must surely look back and think that their main mistake was thinking small.

Of course sponsorship in entertainment is far from a modern issue, dating back to the early days of radio and beyond. But for events or bands themselves to be sponsored raises cries and concerns of selling out, of compromise and capitulation.

Cosmic Slop tackles the Sex Pistols credit card debacle the only way it can; with quantum mechanics. 

Rock music, almost by its very nature, is meant to at least start from a place that is rebellious and anti-establishment. It is also meant to be creating art, something that is not answerable to corporate masters (the truth of these two points is obviously open to debate, with easy goals for both sides of the argument). For rock to be bought seems somehow wrong and artists that set themselves up as anti-establishment seemingly have a long way to fall by giving in to this temptation.

For any musicians amongst us who think making deals with The Man is the way forward, the Internet has many pages where they can seek direction on how to get sponsorship. Here invaluable nuggets of advice are available, such as “Find a non-alcoholic sponsor. Be creative. If Pepsi or Coke turn you down, go for something else like milk”.

This may be an issue of credibility; pop stars can get away with this sort of thing without tarnishing their reputation or being accused of selling out. Not only can it be argued that their music sounds like more adverts than Sigue Sigue Sputnik ever did, they themselves often seem more like products than performers. To be clear, we refer here only to the worst of the manufactured pop brigade. This writer has a deep and abiding love of good pop music, it can be a wonderful, life affirming thing. But did it come as a surprise to anybody when the shameless Spice Girls kitted themselves out in Pepsi logos and put their name to seemingly everything, from crisps to scooters.

The identity of the product or company paying to be associated with an artist can also make a lot of difference too. A guitarist recommending Marshall amps is one thing, but Iggy Pop advertising insurance was not well received and one wonders just what message the insurers wanted to convey when they attached themselves to the seemingly indestructible Iggy.

The relationship between music and money, artist and sponsor is obviously a symbiotic one – the company buys into the artist’s fame and/or credibility while the artist opens up another revenue stream. In this age of declining sales and low-royalty streaming it would seem churlish to throw a blanket criticism over this kind of thing, but once the people paying your wages have to be considered or consulted before songs can be released, can this situation ever benefit the artist or the art?

Festivals seem to be particularly tempted to sell themselves for a few quid. The Reading and Leeds Festivals were shamefully known as The Carling Weekend from 1998 – 2007, due to the brewery’s sponsorship deal.  Although most people still referred to them by their original names, the NME was contractually obliged to refer to the festivals as the Carling Weekend due to its own ties to the festival and the brewery.

V Festival has always made its corporate roots apparent, the titular V itself obviously standing for Virgin, while the site positively swims in corporate logos. It has however tried to put together a respectable line up for most of its existence and has attracted some big names to its stages, along with some pop fodder for the youngsters. This year however saw Justin Bieber and Rhianna headline, supported by the likes of David Guetta, Little Mix, All Saints and Fleur East. When corporate return on investment is in charge, a festival’s main aim is not putting together a cutting edge line up, it is bums on seat (or more accurately, feet in a field). That there may be an audience whose only experience of festivals is V is a frightening and worrying proposition.

Merseyside festivals look set to dominate the UK festival awards – take a look at the Liverpool nominations here. 

A further worrying development is the addition of VIP packages for festivals, where those prepared to pay a hefty premium can have access to stage front areas, air conditioned tents and even, in the case of Coachella, a private pool and a concierge. Packages such as these can cost up to $30,000 extra, creating a two-tier crowd where the wealthy can access privilege and live more luxuriously than the rest of the audience.

Creamfields this year featured Gold, Silver and Bronze packages alongside their standard tickets, with each featuring further access to better facilities, such as private bars, toilets and camping.  For those who see this as a tempting offer, we are shocked to report that the Gold packages completely sold out almost immediately, so you should be quick off the mark next year!

Where there is money to be made we can all rest assured that someone, somewhere will be willing to sell their very soul to make it. There is no shame in making money, the only shame in this is where art or events become secondary to the exercise of selling. For all their faults, it is easy to imagine the Sigue Sigue Sputnik of the 80s wandering wide eyed around V Festival and being outraged at the bare faced corporate strategies masquerading as rock n roll.

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