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Why Apple Has Relied on Unknown Musicians for Decades

Affordable, new, and unconventional — win-win!

Photo by Waldemar Brandt via Unsplash

You expect to see a big-name artist in a brand’s commercial, right? Huge companies can afford it, obviously, but is it always good for their marketing strategy?

There are many benefits from using unknown, indie, or low-profile bands that go beyond the monetary cost.

Big brands have used this approach in the past, so it’s not unprecedented.

What’s there to gain with this approach?

New Associations

Ads use music to trigger certain emotions: nostalgia, happiness, fear, or any other emotion they want to convey. Music enhances the mood of the ad and makes the message more appealing to the public.

The goal is to make your audience transfer what they felt in the ad towards the brand, by association.

When big companies use mainstream artists, they expect that the audience’s positive relationship with the artist will also transfer to the brand. But there are two main problems:

  • The band’s fans may not buy it. They already know the artists’ views, personality, and the way they behave, so if they do something that contradicts any of these aspects they’ll see it as inauthentic.

    That’s what happened to pop singer-songwriter Bebe Rexha while promoting Lay’s potato chip products. People that knew her couldn’t match her with what she was doing with this brand, so it backfired.

  • Part of the target audience might even hate the artist. Popular musicians have both fans and haters (or people that don’t want anything to do with them). So there are positive and negative emotions already strongly established towards these music creators. It’s more difficult to change people’s minds about something they’ve cultivated over the years.
    Again, what if a portion of the brand’s consumer population actively dislikes that public figure? Those negative associations might stick to the brand too.

So brands can start with a clean slate when working with a low-profile artist. There’s less emotional charge and companies can take advantage of that.

Going Against the Conventional Approach

Photo by Dan Meyers via Unsplash

Companies can signal that they‘re part of a countercultural movement when working with unknown bands. They’re clearly stating that they don’t want to do what everybody else is doing.

They’re rooting for the underdogs. They’re giving them a voice when nobody else does. That may be appealing to the audience, especially to the younger generation.

Younger people tend to listen to more music than older people. They consume it regularly and they also like to discover new musical pieces. In fact, a study shows that people stop searching for new music in their early 30s, with a peak age of discovering new music at 24.

At that age, people are listening to ten new tracks each week. Therefore, new artists are welcomed and brands can tap into this behavior to include these low-profile bands into their marketing strategy.

Signing unknown bands doesn’t sound so unreasonable now, right?

Lower Costs

The difference between getting a high-profile artist and a low-profile one is huge in terms of cost. You can go from a five-figure payout for an unknown artist to a staggering seven-figure buyout for a mainstream artist.

Hence, costs are also part of the equation when marketers decide which kind of artist will a brand feature in their ad.

Take the example of the Canadian indie-pop singer-songwriter Feist. Her song “1234” was featured in an Apple commercial for the iPad Nano in 2007. She was paid $80,000 for it. On the other hand, PepsiCo paid just $8 million to have Britney Spears in their famous “Joy of Pepsi” commercial.

Isn’t that just too much of a difference?

The Case of Apple — An Overnight Success

Apple has been collaborating with less known bands for a while. It has certainly been a mutually beneficial collaboration. On one hand, it has helped these artists boost their careers and on the other hand, it has placed the brand among the younger generation.

These are some of the low profile bands that collaborated with Apple throughout the years:

  • “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?”: a song by Aussie band Jet was used in an iPod ad. Copies sold: Four million.
  • “1234”: a song by Canadian indie-pop artist Feist was placed in an iPod Nano ad. Copies sold: Over one million.
  • “New Soul”: a song by Israeli-French singer-songwriter Yael Naim was used in a MacBook Air ad. Reached number seven on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart.

But the most interesting collaboration happened with the Brazilian band Cansai de Ser Sexy (“Tired of Being Sexy”). They literally became an overnight success after their music aired in an iPod Touch ad in 2007.

Just a year earlier, in 2006, they released their debut album, and although highly praised, their sales were weak. They were selling 340 copies per week until their song “Music Is My Hot, Hot Sex” ran in that Apple ad, and their sales exploded to over 2,000 copies per week.

And all of this happened because of an unknown British 18-year-old student, Nick Haley, who used the song in a homemade commercial that caught the attention of Apple’s creative executives. They were so amazed by it that they flew him over to L.A and got him to launch it officially on Apple.

And without intending it, he made Apple interested in this low-profile foreign band. This kid changed their lives.

You would call this a win-win situation.


Working with low-profile bands is the least driven road, but it can have its rewards. These are the main advantages of working with the underdogs:

  • New associations: You start with a clean slate without any preconceived emotional attachments between the band and its audience, whether these are positive or negative.
  • Counterculture effect: The brand sends a clear message about defying the status quo which is very appealing to younger generations.
  • Lower costs:The amount of money spent on high vs low profile bands is staggering. Your six to seven-figure deals can be reduced to five-figure payouts.

There’s always a risk involved, but if big companies like Apple have done it successfully, why not try it in other firms too?

Thanks to Niklas Göke. 

By Pavle Marinkovic on July 21, 2020.

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