If you ask advertising executives what “branded content” is, they get animated: They talk about creative partnerships and synergies and the future of media. If you ask an actual artist what “branded content” is, chances are she will roll her eyes or even utter a forceful expletive. She will likely say that branded content means a very long commercial posing as a short film.
I fear the great creative synergies dreamed of by the admen are a long way off yet.
The artist is right, of course: The idea of branded content is just that people are wise to commercials now and don’t want to watch them, whereas they will watch, particularly on the Web, a very funny or sexy short involving some of their favourite actors. There have been product placements in radio, television and film since the invention of those media; the difference is that the new entertainments are funded entirely by the advertiser from start to finish.
The most recent success of this kind is the short comedy film that’s been going around featuring Julia-Louis Dreyfus and Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. The two Breaking Bad stars play greasy pawnbrokers; Dreyfus plays herself trying to flog an Emmy Award she won for Seinfeld. It’s funny in moments, although very broad.
But the star of the film is the Audi that Dreyfus is driving. The car appears only briefly: Turns out the whole thing is a plug for Audi (which sponsored the Emmys this year). So it worked on me, because I watched it.
But please, I thought, don’t try to sell me something supposedly “alternative” this way. Please don’t try to tell me a fridge is really cool and underground by making, I don’t know, a video about a techno DJ.
Well, what do you know, turns out I may be in the market for a new fridge. Because I watched, with great interest and to the end, an entire long commercial for General Electric. Two of them, in fact – I watched the entertainment and then I watched the making-of video they put out, so I am a double sucker. Why General Electric? Because it funded a piece of music made by an underground electronic producer. It’s not that I really need a new fridge – or maybe I do?
The music producer is Matthew Dear; he’s American, a product of the Detroit techno scene, and his sound is stern and minimal. It’s the kind of music you associate with very dark spaces and a metallic taste in your mouth. He has a couple of different incarnations, as these guys tend to have: as Audion, for example, he has composed raver anthems such as Noiser that are designed to make you grind your teeth. It’s not the kind of thing that makes you crave a self-cleaning stove.
But electronic music is about machinery, and the sounds that machinery makes. There is a romance to machinery. General Electric invited Matthew Dear to come into its factories with a recording device. He turned the screeches and buzzes he recorded into loops and beats and even melodies and arranged those sounds into a piece of dance music. The resulting three-minute track is called Drop Science and is rather forbidding – it’s all bleeps and glitches and really should only be listened to on a booming and sweaty dance floor. It’s really quite amazing that a multinational conglomerate creator of nuclear reactors and airplanes and power plants should find any interest in it at all. And puzzling that a musician would eagerly participate.
The nature of the affinity, though, becomes clear when you watch the making-of video, with shots of Dear wandering through the great turbine halls and laboratories with his protective goggles on, holding up his recorder like a Geiger counter to mysterious throbbing coils and tubing, a look of wonder on his face. It’s all dark and gothic, like a scene from Metropolis – sensitive man enters the underworld, the machine-world that thrums underfoot. Shots of computers and welders and jet engines and submarines are inter-cut with divers leaping off cliffs and the red lights of nightclubs. A GE scientist is quoted as saying: “An acoustic signature from a machine is like a fingerprint from a human. No two sounds are the same.” It’s a poetic idea; I wonder if it’s really true. No matter, the image is cemented: Musician as scientist; scientist as artist.
GE is being very determined in its pursuit of the ambient/concrete music fan: The company even has a Soundcloud page on which it has put a number of percussive machine noises (“Manifold,” “Pipe Hit 1,” “Pipe Hit 2”) for producers to use in their compositions.
Why on earth does this conservative conglomerate desire the affection of music nerds? Partly for political propaganda, of course: GE has a checkered record on pollution; it has been involved in the manufacture of weapons; it built the Japanese nuclear plants at Fukushima. It also somehow magically avoided paying taxes in the United States in 2010. These are not hipster-friendly attributes.
But the company’s brand sorcerers have also realized an eerie demographic truth: The generation that popped E and waved glow-sticks in the nineties now has kids of its own. Those people might also want a microwave oven.