Geoff Cottrill is an old hand when it comes to South by Southwest. As former CMO for Converse, Cottrill had been leading the brand’s sponsorship with the Fader Fort, one of the most popular music events at SXSW, for more than five years until he became the president for agency MullenLowe U.S. in Boston last year. (He also brought the first Chinese band, The Retros, from Beijing to SXSW back in 2012.)

A diehard Radiohead fan, Cottril thinks that while brands like Patrón, Jack Daniels, Vans and Mountain Dew have done some great work in music marketing, the brand-artist relationship feels transactional at best, forced at worst. 

“Brands are throwing millions of dollars in music but most are doing it wrong,” he said. “For instance, a soft drink company asks a rock star to hold its drink in an ad, which is so shallow and so wrong on some level.”

Brands can approach music for advertising in various ways. Many license new songs for their TV commercials so the brand can be associated with something new and fresh, explained Cottrill. “That is what most brands do today because it’s easy — they just need to find a music supervisor and put the music in the film,” he said. “Marketers by nature are very lazy. At SXSW, for instance, many marketers come here for VIP parties rather than interact with consumers.”

Or companies that want to be part of live experiences can sponsor music tours. “That is a super crowded space. If you go to a big concert you will see tons of brands sponsoring it, so it is hard to break through,” said Cottrill.

Vans has done a great job with the music tour model though, because the sneaker brand has created its own music equity. Vans World Tour, for instance, has been going on for around 20 years now. The brand owns the property — it decides who to perform, controls ticket sales and the entire live experience.

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Brands could also do philanthropic work, like donate to music education programs at high schools, said Cottrill. Chance the Rapper recently did great work (and didn’t hurt his brand much either) when he recently donated $1 million to Chicago public schools, for example. The right way to approach music, said Cottrill, is truly invest in artists, especially emerging artists, rather than “use” music to fit into the contemporary culture.

“What we just talked about were some interesting attempts in innovating music marketing over the past four or five years, but I have not seen a brand that has nailed it,” he said. “I think only brands that treat artists like people and respect their work can break through.”

For instance, Rubber Tracks, Converse’s recording studios, has hosted more than 3,500 artists in five years. The sneaker brand offers those artists an environment to make music, without asking them to produce branded content in return, and Converse doesn’t hold their music rights at all. Every day the artists share their life at Converse Rubber Tracks with their social circle, which generated much more organic media impressions than any media buy the brand could ever have made, according to Cottrill.

“People see what the brand and artists do together so the company gets better association and consumers get rewarded by good art,” he said. Instead of giving, say U2, millions of dollars for endorsement, then, brands can have more of an impact — and more of a potential payoff — spending that money on emerging artists.

But not every brand has such mindset. There are thousands of artists at SXSW playing at least three shows a day, six days in a row. They are working hard to be heard while people are lining up for VIP parties instead.

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