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Why Bill Hicks was Wrong

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As I mentioned in my first blog on music and brands for Huffington Post, whenever I have a conversation about music and brands, someone always pipes up quoting Bill Hicks' famous 'sucking Satan's cock' line or I hear the refrain 'what would Bill Hicks say about that?'.

What Bill Hicks actually said was 'let me tell you something right now, you can print this in stone and don't you ever forget it, any performer who ever sells a product on television is for now and all eternity removed from the artistic world'.

In fact, I know everyone's excited about the news from CERN but physics is just catching up with what I knew all along, that Einstein was wrong too, because there are in fact two things that travel faster than the speed of light, one are neutrinos as they discovered in their lab under the mountains of Switzerland. The other thing that travels faster than the speed of light are the cries of 'Bill Hicks, Bill Hicks' every time an artist has music in an ad, every time there's a sponsorship, or an endorsement, every time a brand is mentioned in any way associated with an artist.

Be it someone in the pub, a talking head on some TV show or a journalist in a music mag or a newspaper it is a certainty that someone will pipe up with the Hicks thing. It's like a Godwin's law for the marketing age (for Luddites and other MySpace users, Godwin's law states that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1"). It's the Hicks law, or shall we call it the Hicks Boson; "in the event of any music artist having any association with a brand the probability of someone quoting Bill Hicks is 1, from the get go".

Well you know what, after 15 years of hearing the same thing I'm going on record and airing what may be heresy to the many millions* of people reading this... (* give or take a few zeros)

Bill Hicks was wrong.

There, I said it, that's much better (I'm not being charged by the hour for this therapy session right?).

There are so many reasons this rather glib and predictable response is wrong, on many different levels, and lucky for you I'm going to take you through every single one of them. In detail.

The first thing that people forget is that making music costs a lot of money. Just go ask your friend in a band who you keep promising to see but always have something better to do when they're playing at the Toilet & Graffiti on Upper Street and 'oh I thought it was NEXT Monday' or 'oh sorry I lost one of my grandparents... Oh you've been keeping count, yes funny story I do actually have 5 grandparents... Well I did obviously... OH LOOK A BADGER BYE'. Go ask them when you're not avoiding their endless Facebook event invites (sorry) and they'll tell you that even being in a pub level band, if they sat down and did a P&L (the P in P&L being hopelessly optimistic there) they'd tell you they're spending thousands of pounds each year. Rehearsals, instruments and instrument upkeep, skinny jeans, transport (those cabs you see drum kits falling out of in Shoreditch cost money you know), I could go on, and that's just for crappy toilet circuit bands. How much do you think it costs to make an album or put on a proper tour?

You see, the thing people always forget is that creativity costs. Creativity takes time, creativity takes effort, creativity requires skill (in the most part) and creativity normally requires all of these things from a whole load of people.

Without wanting to reopen the whole piracy debate, we do live in a time when the old model, where a large chunk of the investment in a music artist would come from record labels (and publishers for those who write) has gone the way of the dodo and shark fin haircuts. The rights and wrongs of this are a moot point, the world has changed, but the need for investment in creativity has not. The irony is of course, that those who are most critical of the music industry not keeping up with the times and adapting are the bore-ons who most shrilly scream 'sell out' when an artist seeks alternative investment in the shape of a brand. However, I digress yet again, maybe the Pirate Party (tsssk what a twonkish name) will be the subject of a future diatribe.

The Bill Hicks line is often associated with people calling artists sell out. I think Andy Cato of Groove Armada dealt with this very well when we shared a stage at Midem to discuss the partnership between the duo and Bacardi which I was responsible for engineering. During our session someone held their arm aloft during the Q&A and asked Tom and Andy if they were sell outs, this is someone at a conference in Cannes for the global music industry I might add, asking about selling out... Andy's response was brilliant; he asked the question 'why is one major corporation any better than another one'? The band had been signed to Sony and had moved on to a partnership with Bacardi. Is there any more merit in being signed to Sony than another multinational corporation and if so why? Because they have the word 'music' in their name?

This is why people who bemoan sell outs are wrong; because there's an arbitrary decision being made between what is an acceptable type of investment and what is not. How far down that path do we go? Should artists only accept investment from people who never forget their mum's birthday (sorry mum)? Do we need to do background checks, maybe a 'fit and proper test', because that works so well in newspapers and football. If someone can come up with a fair and practical definition for what constitutes and acceptable then I'd love to hear it. Well I say that I'd love to hear it but essentially I reject the notion entirely that there's a some virtuous model for artists to get the investment and support they need so don't bother.

I think the Groove Armada/Bacardi partnership counters yet another of the criticisms of those who are always so quick to shout yet slow to consider, and that is that somehow working with brands restricts creativity. Do you know what; working with anyone can either restrict or inspire creativity. Record labels openly influence an artist's output, often looking for singles, and encouraging talent to continue with a sound that works or adopt new sounds based on what's happening in the market place. One of the results of that partnership was that if anything GA had more, not less freedom than working in the label system. There's nothing wrong with it but labels are looking for artists to deliver records that will do certain things, a single for x, y and z radio station, something for the clubs, increasingly something that will synch well for TV commercials. All totally understandable, but these can put restrictions on where an artist can go creatively.

With the partnership, the music brief was pretty simple, make something with a fiesta spirit. However, we'd worked hard identifying an artist to work with who already embodied that spirit already so really the brief was 'do what you do'.

Without the pressure of standard label release cycle the band ended up recording with a fully live band for the first time, something they'd long wanted to do, we then released the music using a legalised sharing mechanic we devised (based on a conversation I had with Tom from the band, where he said he wanted to give something back and my belief in the concept of 'social value') and for them, the ultimate outcome was a few months after the deal had concluded, when they released their self-funded Black Light album to a fanfare of critical acclaim. All of this made possible because the time and space that was afforded them by working with a brand, and without wanting to be crass, I'm sure the fees helped too, as we established earlier, albums aren't inexpensive to make, even if you do have your own studio - technicians, musicians and logistics all need to earn a living too.

That's not to deny that many, maybe most partnerships are shit, most do reek of an artist simply taking the money and running, but most people I know do that in their jobs whatever the field anyway. I'm not denying that when a Geordie-voiced nation's sweetheart advertises hair products whilst clearly investing thousands in time-travelling a top hair stylist from the 80s to buff up her bouffant that no-one believes for one second that she actually uses the product. But is that the concept of a brand partnership that's to blame, or is it the execution of it?

And here's the rub, because much as your average chin-stroking amateur critic quoting Bill Hicks is wrong, most partnerships between artists and brands do their bit to promote this view by being crap, by being ill-considered and badly executed. Most partnerships forget that authenticity is at the very heart of a successful and believable partnership. That if you don't match an artist to a brand where their personalities work well together, where they have mutually beneficial objectives and indeed, where one can believe that the brand are fans of the artist and the artist are fans of, or at least enjoy the brand, then it's going to look rubbish and crass and nasty.

This doesn't just come down to brands getting it right with their artist selection strategy (and if you're a brand or agency reading this who is working with talent you should have one but I suspect you don't... Call me), it also comes down to artists and their representatives turning down cash when the brand doesn't 'feel' right. A bit of homework I always ask managers to do is to sit with their artists and actually ask them what do they like to eat, drink, wear, do they have any hobbies when they're not making music? If you want an abject lesson in how it can damage your artist's reputation when it's inauthentic and reeks of taking the money and running just Google Justin Timberlake and McDonalds.

My point is that artists and brands aren't helping when it comes to me not having to face down the incessant quoting of Hicks.

That said, I'm not so sure my counterparts in other fields have it quite so bad. Hicks was a comedian, but when Alan Partridge was revived, brilliantly I feel, to advertise booze I didn't hear the usual chorus of 'sell out'. It was well executed, but there's a definite double standard when it comes to music artists. In the same way, I doubt Michael Angelo had to put up with some dweeb in a check shirt buttoned all the way up and no tie (it's always THAT person) shouting 'sell out' at him because the Sistine Chapel's roof painting was actually a brand communication for what was the world's biggest and most powerful brand at the time, the Roman Catholic Church. I know most people don't think of it this way, but if you do take a moment to consider it, this was a work created to promote the brand of the church, to a brief, for money.

It's these double standards that really boil my piss. It's all very well Charlie Brooker making a very broad attack on artists who work with brands in his piece which quite rightfully attacks the (unbelievably unethical) use of children as brand ambassadors, but why's an artist getting brand dosh any worse than a hack writing in a newspaper that makes millions every year from advertising? It isn't any worse, or indeed any better, that's why - IT JUST IS.

So please, for the good of my blood pressure, can we please move on from the Bill Hicks thing as the longer it goes on so the probability of it being met with a percussive response increases to 1. You know he was a comedian, right? You know he said things for comic effect without always being sincere, right? Or do you think he really believed everyone on trailer parks should be sterilised, and if he really meant it you think he was right, right?

No, he was a fantastically funny man who went before his time (though Hendrix went too soon, and before he ended up having to promote dodgy covers albums on Later with Jools), and he was a comedian. Can we please, oh have mercy please, stop using his quotes to decide what is and what is not an appropriate model of funding for the arts and can we please stop childishly calling people sell outs just because they work with a brand before I get a stress headache and have to reach for the FAST ACTING NEUROFEN PLUS (tm), which me and millions like me find goes straight to the source of the pain. Available at Boots, Lloyds Chemists and all good Pharmacists.