How the Intersect Music Festival Demonstrates the Risks of the Band/Brand Relationship

Many brands try to create enduring emotional ties with people by being culturally relevant. Cultural relevance is about connecting with an audience through their beliefs, interests, and behaviors. Forming marketing relatinships with musicians is a way for businesses to achieve cultural relevance. The deal works like this: the brand uses its muscle to give the musician exposure; and the musician lend a cool factor to the brand with a desired audience, such as Millennials and Gen Z. Hence, YouTube affiliates itself with the Coachella Music Festival, and Red Bull embraces music through content such as the Red Bull Music Festival, to name a few examples (of which there are legion). But cultural relevance is a two-edged sword, as the Amazon Web Service (AWS) Intersect music festival illustrates.

What Is Intersect?

Intersect — officially Intersect by AWS — will be held December 6–7 in Las Vegas. Yes, that’s right. AWSone of the world’s largest the largest cloud hosting providers, is putting on a music event. Here’s how the Intersect website describes it:

At the place where music, technology, and art converge, you’ll find Intersect, a new kind of festival coming to the Las Vegas Strip this December 6–7. Presented by AWS, the most broadly adopted cloud platform, and produced by Production Club, the team behind some of music’s most state-of-the-art live experiences, Intersect was born out of the massive after party for AWS’s annual re:Invent conference, held in Vegas since 2012, with over 25,000 guests last year alone. Now open to the public for the first time ever, the festival offers an inspiring two-day journey to culture and tech’s leading edge.

And the line-up sure looks compelling, with right kind of mix of headliners (Beck, Foo Fighters, and Kacey Musgraves) emerging, critically acclaimed voices such as Weyes Blood.

But there’s just one problem: many musicians are speaking out against the festival.

How No Music for ICE Crashed the Intersect Party

The launch of Intersect has galvanized more than 1,000 artists and industry types (as of this writing) to sign a petition pledging not to participate in Amazon-sponsored events. The boycott is known as No Music for ICE. What’s their beef with Amazon and AWS? Well, it turns out that the mighty AWS cloud hosts the software for Palantir, a data company holding $150 million in contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). AWS also works with the Department of Homeland Security. Here’s what the petition says:

We pledge to not participate in Amazon-sponsored events, or engage in exclusive partnerships with Amazon in the future, until Amazon publicly commits to:

* Terminate existing contracts with military, law enforcement, and government agencies (ICE, CBP, ORR) that commit human rights abuses

* Stop providing Cloud services & tools to organizations (such as Palantir) that power the US government’s deportation machine

* End projects that encourage racial profiling and discrimination, such as Amazon’s facial recognition product

* Reject future engagements w/ aforementioned bad actors.

We will not allow Amazon to exploit our creativity to promote its brand while it enables attacks on immigrants, communities of color, workers, and local economies. We call on all artists who believe in basic rights and human dignity to join us.

In addition, two musicians originally scheduled to appear at Intersect, The Black Madonna and Japanese Breakfast, claimed they were not told of AWS’s affiliation with event. The Black Madonna raised such as stink on Twitter that she was released from her contract to perform. Her name no longer appears on the event’s website.

How No Music for ICE Reflects Changing Times

No Music for ICE illustrates the impact of changing times. In context of the fractured political climate and culture wars that grip the United States today, many musicians have embraced a social and political voice (a topic I blogged about here.) Their values reflect the surging Millennial and Gen Z populations, who are more likely to hold businesses accountable for their impact on society. In that context, AWS finds itself thrust into a conversation that the company most certainly does not want to be part of.

The Intersect boycott is especially significant because we’re talking about indie artists who could use the exposure, as opposed to a politically active musician such as Roger Waters, who can afford to pick and choose his venues. Fortunately for AWS, the headliners such as Kacey Musgrave have stayed out of the controversy. There is plenty of time for the issue to blow over (although there is also plenty of time for the protest to gain steam). AWS’s best bet is to keep the PR around the event focused on the big names and the up-and-coming acts on the bill who are committed to the event. Tell a narrative that focuses on their music.

The Lesson for Brands

The lesson for brands: tread very carefully when you make a play for cultural relevance through a relationship with an artist. You might get what you asked for, but not in the way you envisioned. Find artists who align with your brand (and, to be fair to AWS, it looks like the company has succeeded with the exception of Black Madonna and possibly Japanese Breakfast). And accept the baggage that comes with today’s climate of political and social consciousness in music.

The Myth of Fat Elvis

History has been cruel to Elvis Presley. Last impressions are usually the enduring ones, and our last impression of Elvis is the “Fat Elvis” of the 1970s: a sweaty, blubbery shell of his former self, spaced out on drugs in his gaudy Elvis suit as he butchers his song catalog on a Las Vegas stage. This impression is accurate for the latter years of his life, but it is not a complete one.

The Elvis of the 1970s — especially the early 1970s — was an innovator onstage. Invigorated by his stunning 1968 TV special, Elvis had returned to live performing after a lengthy layoff while he churned out horrible movies for most of the 1960s. He was hungry. He wanted to feel the heat and thrill of connecting with an audience in person. In Las Vegas, he found what he was looking for. But Elvis didn’t just play Las Vegas. He changed Las Vegas.

By the time Elvis came along, Las Vegas was struggling for relevance with younger audiences. The city too square for contemporary rock stars. And being too square for rock and roll was a big problem in the post-Beatles era. Sure, Las Vegas would always attract hard-core gamblers. But the old-guard stars such as Frank Sinatra, who provided essential entertainment for the gamblers, were fading.

And then Elvis hit town. Talk about right place and right time. Elvis rescued Las Vegas as a vacation destination and an epicenter for entertainment. He didn’t just parachute out of the sky and play songs like a country rube that many people thought he was, either. He hand-picked his band down to his back-up singers (including Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother). Elvis being Elvis, he also imported an orchestra to fill out the large stage he was about to call his home for two performances for weeks at a stretch at the International Hotel (which would become the Las Vegas Hilton). He told them what sound he wanted, arranged the show the way he wanted it, and rehearsed the band until they sounded as electric as he felt. As he rehearsed, he wore weights around his ankles and wrists to build his stamina.

Elvis also did his homework. So studied Tom Jones — by now a dynamic star of the Strip — and learned some tricks for winning over Las Vegas, such as using his body like a weapon. In the 1950s, Elvis had taught the world the power of swiveling your hips onstage, but it was a long way from the Louisiana Hayride to Las Vegas, a stage where he’d actually flopped when he played the New Frontier Hotel in 1956. He’d never performed night after night on a stage as large as the one he was going to play at the International.

He didn’t want to take his audience down memory lane, either. Now in his 30s, he was getting on in years by rock standards of the time. His musical instincts told him he’d need to play contemporary songs to be relevant — but they needed to sound like Elvis songs. He wasn’t going to make a fool of himself as Frank Sinatra had done in the late 1960s, trying to adapt his voice to rock songs that made him sound even more out of touch and a bit desperate. He wisely chose fresh songs that sounded timeless, such as the swamp funk of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Proud Mary,” as well as songs he’d just recorded in Memphis, such as “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto” (which would, of course, become hits).

In August 1969, he went onstage and completely changed everything — maybe not on the scale he once did in the 1950s, but in a big enough way to shape the future of a city. No one had brought a rock-and-roll show to Las Vegas like he did. And the critics loved what they saw and heard.

Richard Goldstein, writing in The New York Times, said that seeing Elvis “felt like getting hit in the face with a bucket of melted ice. He looked so timeless up there, so constant.” Ellen Willis wrote in the New Yorker, “Presley came on and immediately shook up all my expectations and preconceived categories. Their reactions were typical. Elvis was a smash.

Elvis stuck around for many years, and into the early 1970s, he refined his act, incorporating more stage moves (such as karate chops) and songs. But he didn’t just play Las Vegas. He transcended it. Frank Sinatra had been a legend in Las Vegas, but he was for the gamblers. Elvis was so big he attracted people who came to see him first and foremost. The entertainment industry noticed: instead of touring, a star could stay put in one location and perform for fans who came to the star. And so the modern-day residency was born. Over the years, artists such as Elton John and Lady Gaga would make fortunes off residencies. Elvis paved the way for them. He also arguably opened the door for hugely popular shows such as the Cirque du Soleil “Love” tribute to the Beatles, which would become attractions in and of themselves instead of a second-tier alternative to gambling.

As Richard Zoglin, author of Elvis in Vegaswrote in The New York Times, “Elvis brought something new to Las Vegas: not an intimate, Rat Pack-style nightclub show, but a big rock-concert extravaganza. He showed that rock ’n’ roll (and country and R&B too) could work on the big Vegas stage. And he brought in a new kind of audience: not the Vegas regulars and high rollers, but a broader, more middle-American crowd: female fans who had screamed for Elvis as teenagers, families who made Elvis the centerpiece of their summer vacation.”

You can get a taste of Elvis at his early 1970s peak by watching a video clip of “Polk Salad Annie.” Before he even sings a note, he’s in total command of the stage. First off, he looks like he owns the room: lean, tan, and confident, his trim frame almost a little too slender for the tasseled white suit he wears. He smiles and introduces the southern-fried tune with a short introduction that transports you to the country fields of the Deep South. And then he launches into the song, not only with his smoldering voice but with his lithesome body. He gyrates, shakes his legs, punches the air, and moves his shoulders like a singing gyroscope. Watch him closely, especially his right arm. He’s doing more than dancing and crouching: he’s using his body to control the tempo of his backing band. He’s running that show with his voice and his body.

Throughout the 1970s, he also recorded compelling music — the great Back in Memphis in 1970, the excellent Elvis Country in 1971, and the very good Promised Land and Good Times a few years later. Even a decent-but-not great effort like Moody Blue, released the year he died, contained moments of brilliance. Fortunately, some of his live performances from this time period were recorded, too, including Elvis in Person at the International HotelOn Stage, and That’s the Way It Is.

Unfortunately, the magic wouldn’t last. The pressure of performing twice-nightly shows for weeks got to him. He took pills to stay awake and get to sleep. He ate. His shows became sloppy. And you know the rest of the story. But he never lost his voice. Regardless of how out of shape he became, his voice retained that power. And the power of that voice endures for me.

How the University of Kansas Made Snoop Dogg Dangerous

God bless Snoop Dogg for proving that music still has the power to provoke.

On October 4, the famous hip-hop artist lit up the University of Kansas Allen Fieldhouse basketball court by performing some of his profanity-laden hits, while dancers gyrated on makeshift stripper poles. He also peppered a lively audience with fake $100 dollar bills (featuring his likeness, natch) shot from a money gun.

Snoop’s appearance was part of the KU athletic department’s “Late Night in the Phog,” an annual preseason celebration that happens along with scrimmages by the men’s and women’s basketball teams. And no one does late night like Snoop Dogg. Not surprisingly, the moment went viral:

But not everyone appreciated what went down. After Snoop’s performance, KU’s Athletic Director Jeff Long — apparently the only person in the United States who failed to grasp what Snoop Dogg is all about — issued a statement of apology:

We made it clear to the entertainers’ managers that we expected a clean version of the show and took additional steps to communicate to our fans, including moving the artist to the final act of the evening, to ensure that no basketball activities would be missed if anyone did not want to stay for his show. I take full responsibility for not thoroughly vetting all the details of the performance and offer my personal apology to those who were offended. We strive to create a family atmosphere at Kansas and fell short of that this evening.

KU Men’s Basketball Coach Bill Self fielded questions about Snoop, in addition to the usual questions about basketball, although he took the questions in stride:

Few reporters really wanted to talk about the basketball team. They wanted to talk about Snoop. And who could blame them?

Apparently the students loved it. “I thought it was super cool that we even had him here,” KU Student Geneis Garcia told WDAF-TV in Kansas City. “You know who Snoop Dogg is. You know he’s a rapper and comes from a background. Don’t bring your kids to his events.”

Exactly. Just what was KU thinking if they wanted a family atmosphere?

Now, by contemporary standards, the Doggfather’s performance was actually tame. The songs he performed, such as 1993’s “Gin and Juice,” cover familiar ground of drinking, smoking reefer, and sex — pretty standard themes for hip-hop. You can find mainstream movie stars such as Jennifer Lopez gyrating on stripper poles in one of America’s most popular movies right now, Hustlers. Snoop Dogg himself is so mainstream that he co-brands with Martha Stewart.

But cultural context makes an artist dangerous. Snoop Dogg performing “Gin and Juice” at the Las Vegas House of Blues is not news. But University of Kansas is another matter. KU wants to maintain an image as a sparkling institute of higher learning and noble athletic endeavors. But it’s been hard for KU to do that lately. On September 23, the NCAA charged KU with a lack of institutional control in its sports program, including responsibility violations by Coach Self. The charges do not specify what KU did wrong. But it’s public knowledge that KU men’s basketball has been associated with an FBI probe of illegal payments made by an Adidas consultant. And guess what? Adidas brought Snoop Dogg to Late Night in the Phog — in fact, Bill Self had promoted the concert ahead of time, wearing gold chains and an Adidas T shirt.

Snoop Dogg gave KU what they asked for. But somehow KU didn’t quite see the connection between Bill Self wearing gold chains and then Snoop Dogg making it rain with fake $100 bills. KU pushed boundaries, realized it had gone too far, and backpedaled.

Snoop Dogg was doing what he’s always done. He was true to his brand. He’s always been about weed, sex, and partying. He only became dangerous when KU responded with an uptight and clueless apology. This is how art become a threat: when institutions of authority make the artist dangerous. Perhaps KU would have been better to let the matter drop. Instead, they’ve tried to demonize Snoop Dogg and in doing so, have made him a hero, while exposing the university’s own hypocrisy.