Hello again dear reader. The topic of this months column is sponsorship – a very contentious and divisive subject in the tattoo world.
It actually came up as a topic of conversation in an interview I did recently for this very mag but, as I have a slightly different – and possibly unique – view of the relative benefits and dangers of sponsorships we felt it would be better as a stand alone piece (I have been known to ramble and – if my thoughts on this subject had been included – the interview would have needed to be serialised!) . It also came up recently as a topic online which (for the first time in a long time) I felt strongly enough about that I actually weighed in with an opinion.
Why, you ask, is my perspective unique? Well firstly I’m a tattoo artist (in case you didn’t know) that currently has 4 sponsorship deals but I also own a company that makes clipcords – Evolution Cords and I also have an interest in a company that makes a solidifying powder – BlkPowder – EDIT: not anymore but watch this space 😉 So I see the business from both sides of the fence as it were. I’m contacted all the time by companies looking to sponsor me and by artists asking me (as Evolution Cords) to sponsor them. Some who’ve never even used my cords but still want to ‘do a deal’ ?!
Secondly, I was a professional musician for a number of years. Music is no different to a lot of other industries where business to business deals (which is what sponsorship/endorsement are essentially) are not only commonplace but essential for the survival and success of some artists. Any band that wants to release a record on a major label HAS to do a business to business deal, its an innate part of the structure of the music business. The relationship between artists, sportspeople or teams and brands is well a well established ‘norm’ that benefits the industry as a whole. Well, mostly…
So, lets take a look at why I think sponsorship benefits us as artists before we take a look at what I think is the downside and the possible pitfalls of said deals…
It’s all about free shit right? Wrong.
A sponsorship deal should be about 2 businesses getting together for a mutually beneficial outcome. This – in the case of a sponsorship deal – usually centres around cross promotion i.e: you tell your audience about our product and we’ll tell our audience about yours. Inevitably one brand has more to gain from the deal than the other so one side ‘sweetens’ the deal because they have more to benefit from the cross promotion and it’s here where the free shit usually comes in…
Done correctly this means that your favourite tattoo artist will be able to recommend his favourite aftercare to you or tell you why he thinks a particular tattoo machine, ink brand, needle brand etc etc is better for them than another and inform you of the benefits and drawbacks whilst benefitting from their work or image being used in advertising campaigns, on the web or in any number of cross promotional ways for the aforementioned brands in return for his (or her) endorsement of said brands. The artist uses the products at conventions where they are visible to anyone who’s interested and the brand benefits from that. Now, we all know that most tattoo artists will do this anyway (we love to talk about tattoo stuff don’t we?) so if the advice is genuine why shouldn’t an artist take the benefits of a deal done with a brand that they use anyway? This is – pretty much – the model employed in music and it works pretty well. Whether or not your interested you probably know the make and model of your favourite guitars players instrument. In some cases, a musicians endorsement of a particular instrument has been key to it’s success or renewed interest in the instrument by exposing it to a younger audience. Steve Vai and the Ibanez Jem or Slash and the Gibson Les Paul both come to mind in this example.
But have you ever seen either of these artists flying Ibanez or Gibson banners as big as their own logos at their shows? No you haven’t and thats just one of the things were getting wrong in tattooing it’s a part of the downside and I’m coming to that now.
So there’s no reason why sponsorships shouldn’t be great for tattoo artists right? Wrong.
As artists we’re seen as purveyors of the one thing thats really difficult for a brand to achieve. We’re cool. Capitalism has long known that cool sells but for most of that time it’s always been on the back foot. Whether it’s accidental, or innate the very idea of cool is defined by how arbitrary it is and it’s for this reason that brands find it hard to be cool. History is full of examples of ill thought-out attempts to gain the acceptance of the sub culture where brands just want it too much and by desperately trying to appeal to ‘the scene’ end up being marked out as phoneys, or a bunch of try-hards.
So instead they look to piggyback on an another brands cool (that’s us) in order to benefit from the reflected glow. Now, if this is say – a tattoo related brand – it makes complete sense and is a perfect fit. The reason I’m sponsored by 4 companies is that I already used their products and had selected them as the best in the business for me BEFORE they approached me. I can – hand on heart – recommend them and – as I’ve told them all – if they stopped sponsoring me tomorrow I would continue to buy their products anyway. I’ve built personal relationships with the owners and intend to work with them long-term instead of jumping on the trend wagon to the latest shiny new bit of kit. I’m happy to endorse them and confident that they’re good people who care as much about this shit as I do.
But what if – instead of a tattoo brand – it was a drinks or clothing brand? Or worse still, what if the tattoo brands start adopting the tactics of the big fashion conscious brands or major record labels when setting up their sponsorship deals? I’m starting to see this corporate thinking creeping into the way tattoo brands deal with artists and – to my way of thinking – that’s all kinds of bad. And that’s were the downside comes in…
I was offered a deal recently that required me to sign a 2 year contract. The contract included 2 pages of my responsibilities but only a single paragraph of the brands commitment to me. In return for my commitment which included me guaranteeing I would behave myself in the tattoo world – like that’s ever going to happen. Another offer involved me agreeing to use every product exclusively in the companies line in order to get the deal done and work in booths that are so heavily branded by the product that my name would have been relegated to the top left corner almost as an afterthought and that my booth would look identical to every other one of their puppets – sorry artists.
In both cases my answer was short and ended in ‘off’ .
The thing that annoyed me most about both of these deals is that there was an element of ‘were doing you a favour’ and that if you’re with us ‘you’re cooler’ and this started to remind me of my time as a professional musician and the corporate thinking that endangers the credibility of musicians trying to pick their way through an industry that has become ‘a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.”
The major labels and brands have long been in charge of what happens in the music business to the point that talent and ability are the least important things in the music business. Brands that would have once been condemned for trying to hijack the sub culture have now basically got it by the balls, slapping their logos and slogans all over events, websites, and music videos.
What’s left is a creative wasteland where the idea of cool has been studied and analysed beyond all integrity. Where anything that’s exciting becomes something that a brand can jump on, where the idea of “selling out” has become almost hilariously archaic. Everything is up for sale and any belief we have in the creators has been diminished beyond all recognition. The strangle hold deals held by the labels over artists has resulted – in recent years – in a exodus. Musicians simply leaving the majors in order to reclaim control of their lives and their music because when business and brands start being in charge of art then it’s time to get the fuck out of Dodge.
And this – worryingly – is where I can see tattooing going. Unless we do something about it.
We’re the creators, we’re the cool that the brands so desperately want but they’ve managed to convince us that we need their endorsement not the other way around. They’ve turned sponsorship into an accolade – something to be achieved and in turn they’ve started to dictate the terms of the deals making us the creatives servants of capitalism as if we need them, when – in fact – they need us far more.
As the first generation of artists faced with this problem we must start to reclaim our place in this 2 way deal immediately otherwise the ripples of this nightmare will be felt for by artists for decades to come. Just ask any musician about their business and they’d all tell you that if they could go back to a time when they were in control they wouldn’t sell out quite so easily. The short term gain just isn’t worth the long term loss.
The solution is simple, but unpalatable for some; We have to start paying for stuff, investing in the things we think are exciting and stop chasing deals from companies that offer nothing in return except some free shit. The brands should contact us NOT the other way round – if you’re chasing brands and hounding them for deals you’re doing it wrong. Yeah, you’ll get the deal but you’ll become travelling salesman not a respected artist and you’re value will be enormously diminished. We have to make brands work harder to gain our endorsements and stand our ground when negotiating these deals by remembering what we are worth to them.
An endorsement deal shouldn’t feel like a deal with the devil and if it does, leave.
till next time