When It Comes To Rock, Brands Matter

Ken Demma

Next week, 3 concerts will be held at Soldier Field in Chicago to  commemorate both the 50th anniversary and the end of the Grateful Dead, to a combined audience of 200,000 in-person attendees and tens of thousands more through pay-per-view options.

While this may not seem surprising given the Grateful_Dead_at_the_Warfield-02bands longevity, popularity, and dedicated following, what is interesting to marketers is, why the unprecedented demand? Thousands of mail order ticket requests, more than 500,000 Ticketmaster online requests, and outrageous secondary market prices — for a band whose central figure, Jerry Garcia, died in 1995, and whose members continue to perform regularly in more modest settings.

At the same time, the Rolling Stones are playing stadiums across the U.S. and the Who are  celebrating “The Who Hit 50” with arena-sized concerts across the U.S. and Europe throughout  2015. It is also worth noting that the face value ticket prices for these shows can range up to $600.

What can we, as marketers, take from this?

Certainly one lesson is the hold that music, and specific iconic acts, have as a hallmark of the boomer generation, and adjacent ones who aspire to boomer culture and values (how else can you fill all these seats?).

What seems more apt is that brand names matter, even when it comes to music. Consider the following:

  • The remaining Grateful Dead members have actively toured since 1995; those remaining “core 4” members tend to play as part of small festivals (often not headlining) or playing 2,000-4,000- seat theaters and outdoor amphitheaters. Even the band Furthur, which reunites 2 of the 4 more popular members (Bob Weir and Phil Lesh) failed to achieve even a fraction of the demand of the event in Chicago.
  • Led Zeppelin (also missing an original member, John Bonham, whose death in 1980 led to the band’s breakup) has received many offers to reunite, which have been rumored to be in the range of several $100s of millions (a rumored Richard Branson offer of close to $1B was never confirmed). Yet lead singer Robert Plant is currently touring, playing 2,000-5,000 seat theaters, with a set list loaded with Led Zeppelin songs — far from the demand that Led Zeppelin would expect if that brand were to tour. In fact, when the 3 remaining members plus a substitute drummer billed as Led Zeppelin to play a one-time charity event in 2007, more than one million ticket requests were received for 20,000 available tickets.
  • Pink Floyd, whose main writer and creative force Roger Waters left the band in 1983, continued to tour and play stadiums as Pink Floyd, while Waters, outside of the band, occupied smaller halls and had little brand recognition. Only when Waters recently toured the signature Pink Floyd album “The Wall” (where the name “The Wall” appeared as the name of the event) was he able to move into larger venues.
  • Solo albums and tours by key members of these bands have paled in comparison to album and tour sales by the groups themselves, even the re-constituted touring versions of these groups. For example, Pete Townshend (The Who) and Keith Richards (The Stones) touring solo (most recently in the ’90s) have played theaters and small arenas, not the larger halls and stadiums their main bands occupied then or now, even though they often play the songs of the bands they’re known for.

You might argue that in a band context, the other members bring intangibles and chemistry that make the music “better,” thus advantage of seeing the Stones over only Keith Richards. But none of these bands have all their original members. In fact, only 2 of the original 4 members of the Who are part of the band’s current 10-member on-stage group, and the Rolling Stones have lost not only original members Brian Jones and Bill Wyman, but even Jones’ first replacement.

Speaking of replacements, we can see this trend even with the 80’s Indie band The Replacements, which boasts 2 of its 4 original members. But through the power of the brand, The Replacements headlines festivals and plays larger rooms than leader Paul Westerberg plays with his non-Replacements band, even though he performs the same songs he made famous as part of The Replacements.

Digging deeper, we see brand benefits accruing to these bands.

Brands provide consistency and expectations. In their branded forms, these bands produce the experience expected by their audience. They will play the songs expected, strike the well-known poses and “sound as they should.” For the Grateful Dead, it means “the scene”…the parking lot full of Deadheads selling food and clothing and enjoying the experience. While this scene exists at a smaller scale for other bands in the vein of the Dead, it isn’t perceived in the same way.

Brands create and hold emotional ties. And here there are plenty, along with nostalgia. Particularly in American culture, where optimism and fond memories abound, perhaps having shared this music, these bands, and times with friends and lovers, it’s not just the song — it’s the song by this band that adds vividness to our memories.

Brands create affiliation and signal others. Branded merchandise, full of iconography and related associations to values, beliefs, and attitudes, signals our affiliation with bands and what they and their music represent. We gain personal and generational identity through this affiliation.

So as The Grateful Dead bids “Fare Thee Well” with its final concerts, Pete Townshend earns big cheers playing his signature windmill-style guitar that reminds us of earlier times, and Mick Jagger preens and poses like all those photos and videos of a younger Mick that are part of our consciousness, the bands…the brands…that the audience knows, loves, and are emotionally connected to are alive and well. (…Are you listening, Led Zeppelin?…)


Ken Demma

About Ken Demma

Ken Demma is a Vice President of Marketing at SAP. He leads the global Insight-Driven Marketing team to increase customer value and marketing effectiveness & optimization through the development and application of customer management, analytic and measurement approaches.