Then in 1991, Nirvana jumped from a local label (Sub Pop) to the major leagues (Geffen) and saw mainstream success with the single “Smells like Teen Spirit.” Suddenly, Kurt Cobain was on MTV, oversized flannel was a fashion trend and grunge — with all of its alluring anti-consumerism — was a commercial hit.
“And therein lies the controversy,” wrote Time magazine in 1993. “If these rockers are stars now, fans ask, haven’t they become everything we’re against?” The piece goes on to describe how Pearl Jam had become “reviled by some fellow musicians as sellouts, poseurs or opportunists.”
In the 1990s, when indie artists could make a living from royalties, touring and selling records — and when the cost of living in Seattle was drastically lower — choosing to grab the brass ring was considered “selling out.”
In 2022, digital streaming and pandemic limitations have made it more difficult for independent artists to profit from music-making. And Seattle is no longer a cheap place to hunker down and make music (in fact it’s one of the most expensive cities for apartment rentals in the U.S.).
But today’s indie artists have something grunge rockers didn’t: newfound power in the age of “micro-influencers.” A new generation of Seattle musicians, including Shaina Shepherd, Cade Legat and Chong the Nomad, say corporate partnerships are now a lifesaver — not the kiss of death.
The Nordstrom sound
After losing her 9 to 5 job during the pandemic, Seattle-based vocalist Shaina Shepherd — who first gained fame as the high-powered lead singer of grunge-inspired rock band Bearaxe — hustled for the few opportunities available to performing artists during the shutdown. Then, she got a call from Ben London, executive director of Seattle music patronage nonprofit Black Fret, that would change her situation: Nordstrom wanted her to record a song.
For weeks prior, London and Pete Nordstrom, President and Chief Brand Officer of the department store chain, had searched for music that would reach customers in a relevant, authentic way that fit the company’s brand. Nordstrom had considered going through an agency for the rights to a Beach Boys or Prince song, but the cost was steep — and his team wasn’t convinced it would create a genuine connection with customers.
A Seattle native, Nordstrom plays bass in the band Stag and is an avid local music fan. He thought, “What if we hired some local musicians to record the track?”
Already a 2021 sponsor of Black Fret, Nordstrom approached London with his idea. The two decided to hire a group of local musicians to record a few tracks for consideration in the campaign. Shepherd, a 2020 Black Fret grant recipient, was their first choice to do vocals. (Black Fret announced the 2021 grant recipients earlier this month.)
In November 2021, the 20-something Shepherd released her version of the song “Never Be Another You” (originally by Lee Fields and the Impressions) with Sub Pop Records. Triumphant and soulful, the cover marks the first song commission for Nordstrom’s new “sonic branding” campaign. Similar to the idea of a jingle, Nordstrom will use this song as a “sonic signature.”
The track premiered as a single and video for Sub Pop; Nordstrom incorporated it into its 2021 Christmas advertisements and plans to continue to use it for years to come. Black Fret has received more exposure from the deal, local musicians were paid handsomely for their involvement, and Shepherd has received ongoing press and sponsorship opportunities. She even performed at a high-profile Nordstrom-sponsored gig, opening for John Legend in New York City.
Authenticity as currency
“We keep using that word ‘authenticity,’” said Nordstrom. “But young people, in particular, can smell something that feels disingenuous or inauthentic, or like a stilted marketing campaign. It doesn’t come off great.”
Rather than, say, a big celebrity endorsement, Gen Z consumers respond to brands that they believe are making a positive impact. This “values-based” trend, based on consumers’ trust in and ideological alignment with a brand, has only accelerated since the pandemic’s onset and the 2020 protests for social justice.
Nordstrom said supporting Seattle’s independent music scene — especially after it has been pummeled by pandemic venue closures — is one way he hopes his company can “do good.”
It’s also an example of the recent trend in “micro-influencing.” Generally, a micro-influencer is someone with a larger-than-average — but not enormous — social media following and a deep connection with a niche audience. Larger brands can build trust with target consumers in hyperlocal markets by leveraging the relatability and authenticity of these micro-influencers. In the best case scenarios, these partnerships can be symbiotic.
“No one was trying to win a negotiation here, you know what I mean?” Nordstrom noted, regarding the partnership with Shepherd. “It was much more like, ‘This is cool; how can we make it a win-win for everybody?’ It was really easy to find that common ground.”
As for Shepherd, she said none of her success feels cheapened by its corporate ties. She held the creative reins the entire time and never had to compromise her own authentic brand. She selected the Africatown Community Land Trust as the recipient of proceeds from digital streams of the song. And she genuinely backs Nordstrom, so her fans and her integrity have come along for the ride.
“There’re a lot of brands where it takes so much emotional and physical work in order to make sure that you’re retaining your ownership of your brand. Sometimes it’s just not worth it,” said Shepherd. “With [this project], I had a dream team when it comes to creating a structured brand that is a reflection of myself and a reflection of Black joy and a reflection of the products that we’re selling. I feel like it was a great partnership.”
A screen grab from the music video for Kirkland-based artist Cade Legat’s 2021 song “Topo Chico” (featuring J. Crum, Lowery and YungBree). The titular sparkling-water brand noticed the song on social media, and selected Legat for its “Yellow Room” series, in which Topo Chico pays for selected musicians to record original songs. (Courtesy of Cade Legat)
Poppin’ off like Topo Chico
When Cade Legat, a Kirkland-based songwriter and electronic producer, was working at 5 Stones Coffee in Redmond, he would occasionally improvise little ditties about the sparkling water brand the shop carried.
“I started coming up with the beginning of the hook, ‘I'm poppin' off like Topo Chico,’ and would joke around singing it,” he recalled. “Enough people heard me sing it and would ask, ‘What song is that?’ or ‘Man, you got to do something with that.’ ”
In 2021, he released his effervescent single “Topo Chico” on digital streaming and social media, and caught the eye of the Mexico-based sparkling water brand. Based on that connection, Legat, 23, was selected for “Yellow Room,” a shared space within Seattle’s London Bridge Studios, where several emerging Northwest artists have been invited to record their own original music — completely on Topo Chico’s dime. The resulting singles are expected to be released in summer 2022.
Topo Chico is not a Seattle brand, but the company has field marketers whose job is to keep the brand relevant across a variety of local markets. Seattle’s Topo Chico guy, Daniel Matson, also happens to be a well-connected local musician. After watching the pandemic decimate live music, he approached Eric Lilavois, a recording engineer at London Bridge Studios, with a desire to support emerging artists.
“Daniel and I frequently talk about the scene and potential collaborations and it kind of evolved into talking about this potential idea for the Yellow Room,” said Lilavois.
With the Yellow Room, Legat and four other emerging artists will each be given a week of studio time with a London Bridge producer to record and release their single. Topo Chico will then assist in promoting the song on its social media channels. Matson insisted that all profits from the singles will go back into the artists’ pockets, as will the rights to their songs.
Lilavois said he’s proud to be involved with this partnership, which can do a lot for independent artists in a time when finances are tight, access to a quality recording studio experience is expensive and opportunities for live shows are still limited.
“Having something tangible to share and sell is necessary to be able to book shows,” said Lilavois. “Touring is how most folks make their living — and how most artists reach their fans and grow their audiences — so for emerging artists who didn't have the chance to go to open mic nights or perform as an opener [during the pandemic], that really limited opportunities for growth and discovery. Topo Chico's Yellow Room [helps] provide a platform.”
Legat, for his part, is also elated to be involved, noting that working with corporate America as an artist does not have the same connotation now that it did for previous generations.
“You always hear stories of bad deals with labels or brands, so there is a certain level of hesitation that almost every creative has, but I will say that Topo Chico eliminated that,” Legat said. “I think brand partnerships are becoming a more common occurrence in the indie artists community, especially as brands get into micro-influencing. A lot of indie artists that I know see it as a huge win.”
Legat said he’s noticed heightened awareness and accountability from some big businesses as a result of consumers’ newfound desire to engage with brands that give back to the community and operate ethically.
“With brands being held more accountable in this COVID era, I feel more open to collaborative works with different corporations,” he said. “I hope that more companies and brands reach into local communities and uplift them.”
No such thing as selling out
Selling out is “so Gen X,” said Seattle’s Alda Agustiano, the electronic artist known as Chong the Nomad. Agustiano, 26, benefited from several substantial commercial collaborations during the pandemic, which she said have done nothing but good for her career and helped her stay afloat as an indie musician.
“There’s a new attitude towards [selling out] nowadays,” she said. “There is no such thing as selling out. Get your bag; secure your bag. I’m all about making a lot of money from companies that can spend a lot of money.”
Agustiano said she felt confident about her career in early 2020, and had already experienced successful brand partnerships — such as one with Singapore Airlines in 2019. Then the world shut down, limiting the largest source of her creativity: live performance. She fell into a profound creative rut that she’s still trying to pull herself out of, and she isn’t alone. In 2021, nine out of 10 musicians said their mental health had deteriorated because of the pandemic’s damage to the live music industry.
Hope arrived in 2020, when Agustiano’s manager, Austin Santiago, negotiated a deal with indie music company TruSauce Publishing that helped to generate a steady income, even when live shows had disappeared. Her association with TruSauce led her to work with 88rising, a music company that seeks to elevate Asian artists, which tapped her to co-produce the lead single for the Marvel movie Shang Chi. Her manager also negotiated a Taco Bell social media campaign. Thankful for the income and the spotlight, Agustiano said she never second-guessed teaming up with either brand.
“I think all artists, we’re just trying to make a bag,” said Agustiano. “When brands step out of line, there is more confidence nowadays in artists to hold these brands accountable, but I think I’ve just been lucky that most of the [brands] I’ve been working with are more aware.”
A screen grab from a recent video featuring Seattle musician Chong the Nomad — aka Alda Agustiano — created with partners The Reef Cannabis and Rain City Relief. In the video, Agustiano talks about the difficulties musicians have faced over the past two years. The Reef funded a recording session for her single ‘Undervelvet,’ and released it on a vinyl compilation of music by Seattle artists, proceeds of which go back to musicians. (Courtesy of The Reef)
Making the cannabis connection
Most recently, Chong the Nomad contributed a piano version of her song “Undervelvet” to the Rain City Relief vinyl compilation album, sponsored by The Reef, a chain of Seattle-based cannabis dispensaries. The compilation project was conceived In January 2021 by a group of Seattle music lovers: Adam Simon, owner of The Reef; his employee Jesse Codling; and Seth McDonald, musician in All Star Opera and executive director of Seattle music nonprofit Seattle World Tour Foundation.
“At the time … we kind of asked, ‘What are people doing for the musicians that basically have lost their livelihoods?’” Codling recalled. “Seattle is such a robust, rich culture of amazing music that is always on the brink of breaking nationally, but no one was really answering that call to provide support.”
The three friends decided to ask their 10 favorite emerging Seattle artists to record a song for a compilation. The featured artists would receive 75% of the proceeds, and the remaining 25% would benefit the Seattle World Tour’s artist relief fund. The record came out in February and is available from Rain City Relief and at local record shops, including Easy Street Records.
Simon of The Reef said he was raised to see the good in corporate stewardship, so getting involved with Rain City Relief was a no-brainer. Even though The Reef isn’t making any money directly from the project, Simon added that this effort aligns with the mentality of their young, values-based consumer.
“When we choose community organizations, we're thinking about who our customers are and what types of things that they would want to give back to. We want to represent that as well as possible,” said Simon.
To be sure, the idea of popular musicians partnering with corporate brands is not new; Britney Spears rocked the “Got Milk” mustache in 1999, and Megan Thee Stallion partnered with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos on a song that dropped during the recent Super Bowl. The more notable perception shift is among indie artists, a demographic that once equated corporate money with diminished credibility.
That stance, embraced by grunge-era Seattle, has officially crumbled — mostly thanks to the crop of emerging musicians seeking out creative ways to stay solvent and finding new patronage from companies that understand the value of building trust one micro-influencer at a time.
Even Kate Becker, creative economy and recovery director at King County — who said she “remembers the ’90s well” — vouches for the boon these corporate collaborations can bring. While the county has worked hard to support creative businesses and organizations with the Arts & Culture Fund, Becker said her office could never match the amount of relief needed during these past two years.
“Brand partnerships are a smart way for artists and small businesses to find their way out of the financial challenges that the pandemic has imposed upon them,” she said. “In this time of recovery, we need all the support we can get, right?”
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