Today Pitchfork wrote about an interview Grantland with Justin Vernon. Topics include working on a music festival in hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, his early and quick success, and uncertainty in continuing to make music under his carefully fabricated Log-cabin-singer-songwriter moniker Bon Iver.
At one moment, he admits making some mistakes when Bon Iver was on its meteoric (for Indie Rock, anyway) rise to success. When asked what those mistakes were, he pointed to starring in a Bushmills ad.
We did a photo shoot for Bushmills. To be clear: They gave us a bunch of money and we were able to finish [my recording studio] without borrowing. It was great for us, and everybody that worked at the company was great, and I love Bushmills and wanted to do the deal because my dad loved Bushmills — we bond over Irish whiskey. But the problem is that it isn’t just Bushmills. It’s run by a corporation, and you kind of forget that they’re not interested in you or really what you’re doing. They’re interested in your popularity and your reach, and it felt really sickening after a while. Not badmouthing Bushmills the company, but I regret it. I regret it because it wasn’t us and they put my face on a fucking billboard, even though it was a cool billboard and I was with my brother and my sound engineer and we’re buds and we got drunk while we had the photo shoot. I just missed it. I missed the mark on that one and I let it all kind of get to me. It just doesn’t feel right after the fact, you know?
It's a double edged sword, and Vernon admits as much. On the one hand, Bushmills paid him enough money to finish his recording studio. Whatever money he made from his albums and going on tours must not have brought in enough cash to do so. On the other hand, by aligning himself with a brand, the Bon Iver brand if you will, was ultimately compromised. At least in Vernon's mind. This is far deeper than just "selling out."
Brands are just using one product (music, art, celebrity) to sell you their own product. I have no idea, but if I had to guess, I would think he was less bothered about looking like a shill and more bothered by the fact Corporate America is doing this because they are in essence choosing what's cool for the rest of us. Perhaps he realized too late that being chosen comes with certain misgivings.
Thing is, brands have always behaved that way. Advertising has unabashedly ridden the wave of popular, or just beneath the surface of popular tastes since forever. They've always looked for the trends, or stuck with the obvious icons. Today, the cooler shops may hide behind words like "influencers," and "tastemakers," and they may be "curating experiences," or whatever, but borrowed interest is borrowed interest. And Bon Iver's Bushmills billboard is not really any different from BBDO using Michael Jackson in a Pepsi spot back in 1984.
Vernon's sentiment seems to be more that brands don't care about the music or the creators. He's right. How many times has there been a concept thrown around the agency involving a celebrity, say, Will Ferrell, and when someone says he's too expensive, you end up going down the list of more affordable celebrities? How many times have you heard "X musician passed, so let's reach out to Y musician to see if they are interested?" No doubt had Bon Iver passed, Iron and Wine (or whoever) would have gotten a call. But that's as much a fault of advertising's plug-and-play concepts as much as it is the client's need to align themselves with a current trend. I'm one of those people who hate borrowed interest. So all I can say to Justin Vernon is, "I feel you, bro."
On the other hand, I have long since stopped viewing a band licensing a song to, or starring in a commercial as being a "sell out." In the age of piracy and Big Data, this is just one of many ways a musician have to make up for all the lost revenue. Bon Iver's second album was accidentally leaked by iTunes which caused it to be torrented before iTunes could fix the problem. That means it cost Vernon revenue that he would have earned for doing what he loves. Revenue that, when the next brand had come along, might have allowed him to say "thanks but no thanks." While neither camp would say exactly how many albums were freeloaded, it does bring up an interesting question. Especially for up-and-coming bands. Namely: If the audience isn't willing to pay for your music, but a brand will, does it matter if the brand isn't "into you," if it means you'll be able to continue making music? Remember-- this is the world we're living in, and we're told time and time again to get used to it.
Vernon is pretty passionate about Eaux Claires, setting it up as the anti-corporate music festival. "You can see it every year: Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo — the lineups are the fucking same. It’s about numbers, it’s about bottom lines, it’s about measuring groups and cultures of people and the numbers that they represent on a bottom-line agenda. All the lineups are becoming more and more the same, the same fucking headliners. Ours is a different outlook. We’re not crushing ticket sales. But guess what? The people that end up taking a chance and seeking us out and coming to have an experience I think are going to be getting the best experience."
In other words, Eaux Claires the music festival is a brand. It's a brand that is setting itself apart from the other big festivals because the bands who will play at Eaux Claires have been co-curated by Vernon and the National's Aaron Dessner, two tastemakers and influencers who will bring you what is just beneath the surface of popular. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it. If those ticket sales don't crush, or your music keeps getting pirated and the revenue drops, better not bash that brand Bushmills too hard in your next interview. Because your own brand might need that brand sometime soon.