It was the early 21st century, somewhere around the time when THE WHITE STRIPES were actually one of the world’s most exciting rock bands. Jack White was asked if he would like to write a song for Coca Cola or at least contribute one of the band’s existing songs for a commercial. Of course he didn’t and he was very furious about it, to say at least. It were the last days of the so-called ‘sellout’ being something entirely bad, the days when artists could allow themselves to ignore potential brand partnerships. The music industry drastically changed in the next years, record sales declined to a massive level, the live market exploded and the chance of making an actual living out of your art got even lower than it already was.
The struggle is an ongoing one and you could discuss the decline of the traditional music industry in countless essays and panel talks – from SXSW to Eurosonic. Aside form mourning about the status quo there are still far too less active impulses to change something and to find solutions on how artists can follow their creative paths with a relative financial stability. The national music exports like they exist in Scandinavian countries or France are still an exception to the rule. The big labels still seem to underestimate the ongoing digital change and the majority of society quite often struggles to even pay for the subscription service of the streaming big players. Where does all the money come from? Maybe from the industry and brands? German communication heavyweight Telekom has been a pioneer in the field of music marketing and their brand ‘Electronic Beats’ as become an institution for the perfect connection between music, entertainment and marketing without doing a total sellout.
‘It’s a way less glamorous job than you might think,’ explains Ralf Lülsdorf his profession. The gentleman is responsible for the brand ‘Electronic Beats’ which he developed back at the beginning of the 21st century. ‘The idea grew out of the field of youth marketing in the 1990s,’ explains Lülsdorf when we sat down for a chat in Berlin. ‘We later split it into sports and music which seemed logical,’ he tells me. Electronic Beats became the starting point of the whole music marketing at Telekom and over the years it established itself as a unique brand, one that is detached from the telecommunication company and became a trademark of itself with an ongoing concert series, an established magazine and a tastemaker when it comes to new sounds and quality music. It didn’t happen overnight as Lülsdorf explains the different approach of music marketing.
‘It’s a different marketing form than other operative fields in our company. You can’t measure everything in numbers and figures and that makes it difficult for a few accounts managers to sometimes fully understand this. Luckily, new possibilities like Social Media made it easier for us to actually document certain aspects like commitment. The dynamics within the industry and such a big company like the Telekom can change anytime. I don’t think there’s any danger right now as Electronic Beats is an established brand within the company.’
With a gentle smile he states that he already ‘survived’ four different CEO’s in the course of the last years, so he’s optimistic that his program is looking into a bright future. For an international marketing manager Lülsdorf sounds surprisingly light-hearted, pragmatic and still very idealistic in terms of the things that are important for artists these days. ‘In the current age of digitalization the rules change very often, especially in the music marketing,’ he tells me which causes him to constantly stay awake, reflective and question himself and the current state of the industry. ‘I’m not the guy who hangs around with the big stars,’ he confirms. ‘I’m the one who talks with the managements.’
The decline of the record industry is just one aspecct
When Ralf Lülsdorf started with music marketing in the late 90s he was happy enough if any artist allowed to have the Telekom logo featured on a post or something. Following the collapse of the physical music market the rules drastically changed, forcing artists these days to rethink their roles as well.
’20 years ago when you were lucky enough to get a record contract you could make a solid career out of it and earn a lot of money. Brand-related income was just a small part of this.
Now, that idea is completely upside down. Artists need to have a completely different set-up. There are less and less people who are just musicians as they are forced to follow other creative professions, like photography, acting or filmmaking. And that itself makes it more interesting for brands and the economy in general.’
And maybe that is the key change everyone has to except. For Ralf Lülsdorf every artist is a brand and it’s always been this way if you look back on pop’s history. ‘I don’t mean that term in a traditional brand understanding,’ he explains his thoughts. ‘You can’t compare an artist to a car, for example. I see it more in the way of a specific profile any artist should have. That’s the similarity with a well-crafted brand. It’s a bout being recognizable and delivering constant quality.’ Every successful artist in pop got its own values and unique elements that differed him from all the competitors. Whether it was Kurt Cobain or David Bowie… it might sound like a very unromantic definition of the term ‘brand’ but it’s important to embrace it, ‘whether you’re the artist or the management’ states Lülsdorf.
‘We chose electronic music because we think it’s still the most innovative form of music. And since Telekom consider itself to be an innovative company as well this marks the natural foundation of our relationship.’
Still, every artist should find collaborators and brands that fits his needs and not the other way around. It’s not like that relationship is entirely wrong, it’s not like the artists are good and the industry is pure evil. Folks like Ralf Lülsdorf are trying to not think in black and white. Cooperation is not a one-way-street and mutual benefit should be the foundation of everything. That’s also how NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION is handling its collaborative projects. And that might be also a way on how you can handle these things in the future.
‘You have keep moving and be able to change and adapt, especially when your target group remains young while you are getting older,’ explains Lülsdorf. The concept of the Electronic Beats Festivals changed over the years or they had to discontinue the print magazine as it was too niche for a broader audience. The forthcoming Electronic Beats Festival in Cologne marks a return to the roots for the brand as they are focussing on quality within their line-up and venues instead of just big names.
Brands and Artists: It’s not (always) about the money
On the other hand their program ‘Telekom Music Talent Space’ dedicates itself to the constant promotion of up and coming talents. TEN FÉ and ADI were the first ones who profits from the company’s reputation last year. ‘Small artists constantly question themselves on how they can make money out of their music,’ says Lülsdorf. ‘The possibilities to create good produced music are as easy as never before. You don’t need things like labels, studios and other institutions to release music but it’s still arduous to actually make a living out of your art.’ For him, the established major labels don’t have a solution yet. Currently their only benefit is a big amount of money from past’s glory but they lost their importance of finding and supporting new talents, build them up and work with them for longer than just one simple album campaign. New kind of services for artists are desperately needed, as you already can see with new collaborations like BMG and others. The big players are finally suddenly starting to realize but it might still take some time. ‘And here’s where we thought: hey why should a label even be involved in that?’ explains Lülsdorf the idea behind the Talent Music Space.
‘There comes a moment in every musician’s career where they have to decide whether they go to the next level, from a hobby to a professional level. And we want to help them making that small but important step, together with a focussed and motivated team. It’s about having an actual long-term plan. It’s not about whether you should be joining forces with a brand but what the conditions of your relationship are and if it fits your needs and the interests of both parties.’
The whole funding situation shouldn’t be about setting up the rules because one party got the money. A relationship based on a mutual benefit should be the benefit. Telekom only got the exclusive rights to use the music of those new bands in their field… and also only for a limited amount of time. ‘We don’t do that for the pure benefit of doing it, of course,’ explains the marketing expert. And maybe that’s one reason why such funding possibilities shouldn’t be entirely in the hands of the industry. Lülsdorf agrees on this.
Ideas like the one Telekom Electronic Beats tries to manifest should only be a first step in an ongoing societal change when it comes to the perception of art and the value of it. But that’s a whole different chapter we have to deal with. Fact is: the world is changing and life as an artist will never be the same again like it was before. We can’t go back and far too many forces in the entertainment industry are still afraid to move forward. But the tide is about to turn and as long as crafted artists and their ideas remain in the centre of it there is enough hope left.