In the darkness on the edge of Parkdale, it was a neon beacon: the Dew Underground, an indoor Toronto skate and BMX park smothered in Mountain Dew's trademark pastel green. On a chilly March night, it was filled to the brim with teens. Some rode their skateboards, and others drained endless free bottles of the citrus nectar; one threw a friend into a Dew-branded bucket of free Doritos. And at the front of the room, the band Greys played noise-rock songs in front of a ceiling-high Mountain Dew logo.
To the band's frontman, Shehzaad Jiwani, the situation felt practically farcical. A few hours before the show, he posted a tweet advertising the skate park as a place "where you can literally drown yourself in Mountain Dew." In another, he likened the Dew Underground's half pipes and arcade games to the "Foot Clan hideout," the villainous teen recruiting centre of the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film.
But the band still played the venue, still collected a cheque. That's because, absurdity aside, the opportunity meshed with the punk band's community-focused, DIY ethos: They got to play a free show for a teenaged crowd who otherwise might not have seen them.
"Kids are smart enough to realize corporations are trying to dupe them," Jiwani, 27, says. While his band's abrasive, deafening songs don't exactly scream "buy soda," playing the Dew-soaked venue made sense for them in the era of brand-sponsored everything. "To have an aversion to that is really anachronistic at this point," he says, "because that's just the way it is."
In cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, a growing number of concerts are popping up that are either free or dirt-cheap for fans. The catch? They're sponsored by the likes of Mountain Dew, Red Bull or Converse. Corporate sponsorship has infiltrated almost every corner of music culture, from mega-sized festivals such as South by Southwest and venues such as the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre to the Polaris Music Prize. Riding this success, companies are increasingly seizing the chance to run shows of their own.
Selling out and shilling for a brand used to be one of music's foremost concerns, but today, for better or worse, partnering with corporations has become a wholly normal endeavour. While it's not a perfect marriage – even when brands place no overt restrictions on artists, they can exert influence in subtle ways – the investment dollars are welcome support in a cash-strapped industry. Artists aren't exactly rushing into the benevolent arms of capitalism, but more of them than ever are willing to give it the occasional handshake for the sake of a good show.
Bands and brands each face distinct problems, and they're finding more and more solutions in each other. "The products that these brands are trying to sell can't be downloaded," says Bobby Kimberley, who teaches a course on strategic music partnerships at the Harris Institute for the Arts in Toronto and regularly runs sponsored concerts through his two events-marketing companies.
While shoes and sugary drinks remain tangible products, the Internet stripped music of its physicality, and in the eyes of many frugal customers, monetary value. But its cultural value – its coolness – remains untouched. "Brands still see music as an opportunity to emotionally connect with and seem relevant to their audience," Kimberley says.
Converse, whose Chuck Taylor sneakers have been a staple accessory among musicians for decades, has spent the past few years making inroads with the music industry through emerging artists. The company operates a recording studio, Rubber Tracks, in Brooklyn, where it lets up-and-coming musicians record with professional engineers for free. The shoemaker also hosts free pop-up studios around the world, including in Toronto. And since 2012, it has also run Rubber Tracks Live, a free concert series that pairs an in-demand headliner with an artist who has recorded for Converse.
Making those shows free for audiences, says Jed Lewis, Converse's global music marketing director, is beneficial for all parties. "The ability to come in and experience what this brand is about – which is supporting music – to experience that firsthand is tremendous."
Artists who play Converse shows are offered free sneakers, but other than that, "there literally is no catch," Lewis says. "This is about giving back to a community of people, creative people, that Converse is built on."
In Toronto, the shoemaker has put on free concerts by the likes of American dream-pop band Wild Nothing and Calgary post-punks Viet Cong, and in March, a rare collaborative show between Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ghostface Killah and the jazz band BadBadNotGood. Toronto-area rapper Raz Fresco opened that night.
The relationship between hip-hop and brands, Fresco says, hasn't always been mutually beneficial. "Big brands have always been in a position to capitalize on the ability music and youth culture has to drive sales," says the 20-year-old, who recorded part of his forthcoming debut album, Pablo Frescobar, at a pop-up Rubber Tracks studio in Toronto. "There's always that stigma: Oh, the corporations, they're trying to come in and capitalize."
Converse, he says, has been wholly respectful of his art, giving him plenty and asking for nothing in return. "It's always good when you see a corporation proactively trying to engage in some kind of community work, like offering free studio time."
Opening for Ghostface and BadBadNotGood brought Fresco's music to hundreds of new ears thanks to the structure of Rubber Tracks Live: they oversell free tickets, forcing fans to show up early and catch the openers Converse has invested in. Red Bull offers similar shows through their Sound Select Program, charging as little as $3 for shows with headliners such as Titus Andronicus and Jessy Lanza curated by local tastemakers like Arts & Crafts Productions.
Red Bull has numerous musical endeavours, including its own record label. Where Converse sees musicians as their target consumer, the energy-drink company associates with artists on the ground level to connect with their growing audiences. (Red Bull declined to be interviewed for this story, asking that its message be conveyed by Sound Select's artists and curators.)
Tommy Paxton-Beesley, the 24-year-old mastermind behind River Tiber, a poppy R&B band from Toronto recently sampled by Drake, opened for Lanza at a Toronto Sound Select concert in April. He also spent a weekend earlier this year under the tutelage of veteran producers at Red Bull Music Academy Bass Camp in Montreal. The beverage company, he says, strives to be more than just a sugared-drink sugar daddy to its affiliated musicians.
"I haven't felt pressed in any way to vouch for them as a drink brand," he says. "They just seem to understand it's a long-term return on investment. … It's more about getting involved in the culture and being visible at all of these events that other brands don't seem to understand."
Not everyone is rushing to accept patronage, though; many artists rightly fear implicitly condoning corporate decisions. Critically acclaimed bands such as Vancouver's Japandroids have historically refused to affiliate with any brands and, after winning the 2013 Polaris Music Prize, Montreal's Godspeed You! Black Emperor publicly criticized the show's relationship with auto maker Scion "during a summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the Internet." When bands pair with brands, there are deeper issues at play than the superficial fear of selling out.
Marie LeBlanc Flanagan, executive director of the Weird Canada music blog and Wyrd Distro distribution network, worries that the prevalence of corporate sponsorship creates an imbalance within music communities, muzzling artists who are more hesitant to partner with brands.
"The artists who are sponsored by these big brands have the most visibility, and everybody sees that, and it actually leads to corporations and brands pushing the waves of fashionable art," LeBlanc Flanagan says. "It creates this schism, this disconnect."
It can be hard to turn down corporate dollars when your tour van is on the verge of breaking down, she says, but "there's a huge cost to the artist and a huge cost to the community at large, to have this weird other thing brought into this room – this non-active, non-participatory partner with their name in big letters up there."
When Greys mulls sponsored events, Jiwani says, "context is totally king." Playing at the Dew Underground, which provided a place for kids to skate safely, made sense for the band, which makes as many of its shows as possible all-ages. But the band makes corporate connections on a case-by-case basis. While playing a Red Bull-sponsored show in June, Greys turned down an offer from Urban Outfitters, Jiwani says, because the band refuses to affiliate with the fashion vendor's conservative president.
Mountain Dew maker PepsiCo Beverages Canada opened temporary Dew Underground parks in Toronto and Montreal this past year to give skateboarders and BMX riders – key targets for the brand – a place to go during the winter months. "Live music ladders up to that spirit and fits perfectly with the Dew lifestyle," said Ryan Collis, PepsiCo's Canadian senior director of marketing, in an e-mail.
PepsiCo didn't even mind Jiwani's sarcastic tone leading up to the concert. "The social chatter leading up to 'Underground' is the perfect example of letting social conversation be what it is without brand interference," Collis said.
And Greys didn't mind playing for teenagers in front of a giant Mountain Dew logo.
"If your business decisions do not in any way affect your creative process or your decisions as an artist," Jiwani says, "then that's your business, frankly, and I don't think anybody has any place to judge it."