April 16th, 2010
Black Eyed Peas: The Most Corporate Band in America
By John Jurgensen
Wall Street Journal
About 30 minutes into every concert on the Black Eyed Peas’ current tour, band leader will.i.am performs a freestyle rap, riffing on text messages sent by audience members. It’s a flashy solo turn for the musician who has steered the group since 1995. It’s also a moment in the spotlight for the tour’s primary sponsor, BlackBerry, which delivers the messages scrolling up two huge screens on the stage.
On its path from rootsy L.A. hip-hop troupe to pop juggernaut, the Black Eyed Peas have been escorted by a parade of corporate backers. From Coors to Levi’s, Honda to Apple, Verizon to Pepsi, brands have padded the group’s video budgets, underwritten its tours and billboarded band members in prominent places. When Apple was preparing the 2003 launch of the iTunes store, The Peas’ “Hey Mama” became the first song associated with the iconic campaign’s dancing silhouettes, a point of pride for will.i.am, the band’s frontman.
For the musician, wooing potential corporate partners has become as integral to his job as the DJ sets he does on tour at after-parties sponsored by Bacardi. Often will.i.am pitches the concepts himself using “decks” that sum up the Peas’ package, frequently in PowerPoint form.
“I consider us a brand. A brand always has stylized decks, from colors to fonts. Here’s our demographic. Here’s the reach. Here’s the potential. Here’s how the consumer will benefit from the collaboration.”
If will.i.am wasn’t in music, “He’d be the best ad executive on Madison Avenue,” says Randy Phillips, president and CEO of the concert promoter AEG Live. “I’ve never seen anyone more astute at dealing with sponsors’ and companies’ needs and understanding their brands.” He says he’s planning to have the rapper deliver a seminar to AEG’s global marketing team.
Marketers love the Black Eyed Peas for the rainbow ethnicity of the band’s four members. They like its global fan base, and its fetching party anthems like “Boom Boom Pow” and “Imma Be.” They like that the band achieves the near-impossible in these post-Michael Jackson times—making both kids and their parents feel cool. All this has turned the Peas into what seems like the only pop ensemble that a fragmented America can agree on. Though the members rhyme, it’s not a rap group. Its chugging dance beats, spacey effects, and repetitive hooks have been engineered as party mixes.
Selling records used to be the secret to success. The trajectory of the Black Eyed Peas has been about corporate connections. Last month, a Peas concert in Times Square to promote Samsung’s new line of 3-D televisions led to a link-up with “Avatar” director James Cameron, who was also on hand to endorse the sets. The meeting sparked a conversation about whether Mr. Cameron would direct a feature film the Peas plan to start shooting next month. The 3-D film will incorporate concerts, travel footage and narrative themes about technology, dreams and the brain. Will.i.am says of his potential collaborator, “He’s a tomorrow person, too. He’s part of the TP crew.” Mr. Cameron couldn’t be reached.
The Peas are poised to be one of music’s top earners this year. Released last June, their album “The E.N.D.” has sold 2.3 million copies and spawned three No. 1 singles. A rough estimate of the band’s income from U.S. music sales, not including licensing, publishing and other revenues, came to $10.1 million in the last year.
Will.i.am says corporate partnerships are equally important. Not long ago, the band was lending its music for relatively paltry fees in exchange for exposure—a common strategy for emerging acts. In the ramp-up to their 2003 breakout album “Elephunk,” the Peas made deals with Best Buy, Apple and the NBA, slingshotting their way into households on multimillion-dollar ad campaigns. “It wasn’t about the check,” says former manager Seth Friedman.
The promotional blitz continues. Within the last year, the Peas’ TV performances have included an NFL season-kickoff show, New Year’s Eve in Times Square, the Grammys (they’ve won six), a Victoria’s Secret fashion show and the season opener for “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” for which they summoned a flash mob of synchronized dancers to downtown Chicago. The group’s current tour, for which AEG Live has booked 100 international dates, is a test of whether the band can consistently fill big arenas. It’s off to a good start: In 22 U.S. concerts, the band has grossed about $18 million.
Once, when pop music was synonymous with rebellion, a band getting into bed with a large corporation was as improbable as a Brooks Brothers suit at Woodstock. For companies, too risky; for fans, a betrayal.
This changed when advertisers began to leverage elements of the counterculture, which was no longer threatening. First they targeted baby boomers, from the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” for Microsoft to John Mellencamp’s Chevy commercial. Cries of “sellout” diminished. As CD sales and the marketing surrounding it began to fall into a bottomless pit, younger bands rushed to find other sources of income and publicity. The Peas were among the fastest learners of the industry’s new math.
The band still hears muttering that they are shills. “You have to take the criticism, and sometimes it hurts a lot,” says Fergie, also known as Stacy Ferguson, whose joining the group in 2002 coincided with its first mainstream hits and a steady string of brand deals.
Will.i.am shrugs it off. “I get the credit from the brands. They know. I used to work with the marketing people and the agencies, now I work with the CEOs of these companies.”
Last Friday night, sitting in his dressing room before a Peas concert at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., will.i.am gulped a fistful of vitamins. A gadget aficionado who that night would drop “Google” into a song and send a shout-out to the fellow geeks in the audience–"All the technology lovers make some noise!"—he had just come off a run of about 20 meetings, many of them with tech companies based in Silicon Valley.
They included a sit-down with the heads of Twitter and a speech to employees about music and social media. At the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco, he hosted a fundraiser for his i.am scholarship fund that was attended by about 50 tech leaders. Among them was Symantec President and Chief Executive Enrique Salem, who came to the concert the next night with a gaggle of kids lining up for a photo op with band members.
Will.i.am, born William Adams Jr., was raised in the projects of East Los Angeles. Now 35 years old, he cites Run-DMC’s 1986 song “My Adidas” as an influential blend of art and commerce. “When I moved my mom out of the projects,” he recalls, “I did that with a 30-second song for a product,” Dr Pepper.
At the time, the group had a different sound and image, working in the street-wise but literate vein of rap groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. In addition to will.i.am, the group included Allen Pineda, a Philippines-born rapper who goes by apl.de.ap, and Jaime Gomez, whose stage name is Taboo.
The Peas remember the 2001 Dr Pepper gig as a point of departure from what will.i.am calls the YPs, or “yesterday people” of the industry. The L.A. band had decamped to Bodega Bay near San Francisco to write songs for their next album, but the Dr Pepper jingle took priority in the initial sessions. “I remember thinking, this is important to the band, but it’s taking up a lot of time,” says Mike Fratantuno, former backup band member. “Ultimately the goal was to be a world-famous band.”
While Fergie is arguably the group’s biggest star, projecting a coquettish girl-power appeal, will.i.am, as the Peas’ primary producer and songwriter, is “the captain of the ship” on corporate matters, she says.
Will.i.am also had help from a team of plugged-in veterans, including manager David Sonenberg, whose client roster began with Meat Loaf and grew to include acts such as the Fugees. With his partner William Derella, Mr. Sonenberg guides the California act from a limestone townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. With murky German expressionist murals on the walls and ceilings—they came with the building—the office stands in contrast to the Peas’ space-age image of late.
Mr. Sonenberg also used to manage producer Jimmy Iovine, who is now the chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M, home to Eminem, Dr. Dre and Lady Gaga. Interscope signed the Peas in 1997. Since then, more than 26 million albums by the Peas have been sold world-wide. “I wish I had 10 of them,” Mr. Iovine says of the band. He describes will.i.am as a trusted adviser.
Under the Interscope umbrella, will.i.am has his own label imprint, which will soon release an album by the R&B star Kelis. Interscope also invested in will.i.am’s online social network, Dipdive, the platform he used to launch the “Yes We Can” video that became a touchstone of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Mr. Iovine also facilitated what would be a trend-setting licensing deal. An acquaintance of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Mr. Iovine put the Peas forward when Apple was preparing the 2003 launch of the iTunes store.
The ad boosted “Hey Mama” into radio rotation after telephone surveys demonstrated to radio broadcasters that listeners were already familiar with the song from television.
With their stage show, the Peas seem to have shot for some hybrid of “Mad Max” and “Tron.” Taboo rides a glowing motorcycle out over the audience at one point. Later, Will.i.am strides out clad in metallic plating, beaming red lasers out of his face mask. Brand-wise, this is on-message, he says later. “Here’s our verbiage: ‘Futuristic. Electronic. Mega.’ “
Such a pitch helped the musician upgrade his relationship with BlackBerry maker Research In Motion. Last fall, the company struck a marketing deal with will.i.am’s Dipdive site, but was reluctant to sponsor a tour, according to Peas co-manager Mr. Derella. He says the band eventually scored the sponsorship in large part by presenting ideas such as the nightly freestyle rap, and a moment when will.i.am works variations of the company’s tag line, “Love what you do,” into a seemingly spontaneous monologue during one of the show’s closing numbers, “Where Is the Love.” Such gambits allowed the Peas to get away without putting any BlackBerry banners on the stage.
Of course few of these deals would have come about if the Peas didn’t have a flow of accessible hits to support them. The recent single “I Gotta Feeling,” with its refrain “tonight’s gonna be a good night,” has already become a staple of wedding DJs, sports stadiums and YouTube videos. “I’d pay any amount of money for that song,” says Marty Bandier, chairman and CEO of music publishing company Sony/ATV. An especially nice touch, Mr. Bandier says: the line “Fill up my cup, mazel tov,” which makes the song an instant anthem for bar and bat mitzvahs.
Will.i.am says the band has struck the right balance with the music in its corporate strategy. “You have to use it right. It’s a hammer and a nail. Most cats are just walking around with hammers as necklaces. I’m like, did you know it could do this? Boom boom! I’m gonna make a house.”