Melissa Etheridge talks personal brand, licensing in SXSW panel

03/15/2014 5:14 PM

03/15/2014 5:14 PM

You're not selling out if you believe in the brand you're using to promote your music.

That was the crux of a South by Southwest panel discussion Friday afternoon titled "The Shifting Brandscape," featuring Leavenworth native Melissa Etheridge and three women involved in branding and licensing music.

There was a time when licensing your songs to a company for use in advertising was considered going over to the dark side, Etheridge said. Not any more, if it's done sincerely.

"I was going to be pure," she said, until she realized that purity most likely meant being alone and struggling to get her music heard.

"My job is to take the human experience and create a piece of art that another human can experience emotion with," she said. "I realized last year that that experience is what the 'them' wants, too," -- them being those who use music as part of their branding.

The seismic changes in the music industry over the past 10 years have rendered old models obsolete and made it necessary for artists to find new ways to get their music heard by the right audience, she said, whether it's on a commercial, in a TV show or part of a larger advertising campaign. If the artist is selective about who uses her music, the partnership can be fulfilling for both parties, she said.

She recalled watching her children respond to a song they heard on a commercial by using a search application to identify it.

"They liked the song, so they took out their (phone), Shazammed it and then bought it," she said. "I thought, 'What? Wait a minute.' The middle can be bypassed if I reach the right people.

"Kids don't thing using your art in a commercial is a bad thing. It's a good thing ... It can be part of my artistry, too."

She cited as an example of the perfect marriage of art adn commerce the song she wrote for the Ford Motor Co.'s Race for the Cure campaign. Etheridge, a breast cancer survivor, wrote "I Run For Life" specifically for the campaign.

"That song is my No. 1 download on iTunes," she said. "It was the perfect opportunity."

The concept of "selling out" is all about an artist's motives, not about commercial success, she said.

"I never think of success as selling out," she said. "The only time it's selling out is when you see they made a choice that they know, inside, was wrong."

She then cited an example that occurred while she was recording her "Lucky" album and her label told her it needed a hit song. So they brought one to her that was written by somebody else.

"I went 'What?' All of my songs have been from me," said Etheridge, who was attending her first SXSW conference. "Then I thought, 'It's an OK song. I wouldn't mind singing it.' At that moment, I sold out. And I knew it. I cried."

But if an artist can find the right partner, then the partnership can make sense, financially and philosophically. Music is created to be heard, and there are many ways to get it in front of the right audience, she said, including branding, and making money off of it isn't evil.

"Making money is not a bad thing," she said. "If you're doing what you love and happy with it, then don't be afraid of success."

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