Let’s say you’re in the world’s most acclaimed indie band. You’re on a cool label like Merge, your debut record sold a million copies, and, like Spike Jonze, your success hasn’t tarnished or strained your credibility. So how do you get the word out about your next LP?
If you’re the Arcade Fire, you enlist two tech giants to promote you on their behalf. JustaReflektor.com is a Chrome-based music video that interfaces with your webcam and smartphone. You could argue it’s a product demo for the web browser, much like the band’s “Wilderness Downtown” project was itself a showcase for Chrome and HTML5.
Similarly, “Here Comes the Night Time” is a 22min. showcase directed by music video veteran Roman Coppola with a guest list straight out of the Approval Matrix‘s Lowbrow/Brilliant quadrant: Ben Stiller, Aziz Ansari, James Franco, Zach Galifianakis… even fucking Bono.
The whole thing aired on NBC immediately after the band’s SNL appearance. Was this an insane media buy for Merge Records, some kind of marketing moonshot? Not at all. They weren’t footing the bill: Intel and Vice were.
There are many reasons to feel conflicted about The Creators Project, the joint Intel and Vice partnership (organization? institution? shell company?) behind “Here Comes the Night Time.” On the one hand, it’s clearly a rainmaker in terms of arts funding for talented new media creatives around the world. On the other, their weekend exhibitions are closed to the general public with admission granted solely to those on the email list. The press that covers these events are not art critics but culture bloggers. The message seems to be: it doesn’t matter whether the art is good as long as it’s cool.
The most ambitious of Vice’s verticals is called the Creators Project—a venture devoted to the intersection of art and technology which Vice created with the chipmaker Intel. The front page of the Creators Project Web site recently featured a vaguely academic blog post and video about a “new cinema hackathon”: a two-day event in which the nonprofit Eyebeam and the visual-effects company Framestore partnered with techies to create new forms of “interactive storytelling,” using Intel products. Intel is the sponsor not only of the blog post but of the event, the video documenting it, and the Creators Project Web site. For the past three years, the company has paid Vice “tens of millions of dollars” annually, according to Deborah Conrad, Intel’s chief marketing officer, to fund and publicize similar projects.
The same hackathon video is also playing on YouTube, where, as of last week, it had been viewed close to ten thousand times. If that number seems low, it’s because, in the nebulous world of “content marketing,” the goal is not strictly to attract viewers. It’s to change the perception of the company—to make it seem cooler, or, in Intel’s case, Conrad told me, like an “experience brand,” something closer to Apple or Disney. She said that one of Intel’s goals was to generate publicity—and by this metric the fact that I was calling her meant that the project was already succeeding. “We wanted to reach media people, like you, that weren’t familiar with us. We wanted to see Intel coverage in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.”
It’s safe to assume “Here Comes the Night Time” was paid for with a portion of those “tens of millions of dollars,” all in the service of positioning Intel as hip with millennials. Regardless of your feelings about all this, it’s a fascinating snapshot of where the music industry is in late 2013, and what a band like The Arcade Fire has to do to break through the ever-increasing amount of noise.