Writing about the deal, Scott Thrill raised the issue of "selling out" in an article for Wired. He pointed us to an interview he did last year with Saul Williams, who allowed Nike to use one of his songs in an ad.
In that interview, he asked Williams, "Do you think working with a company with a questionable labor history skews strange with 'List of Demands,' which I read as a commentary on poverty and oppression?"
Williams's response puts an interesting spin on music sponsorships.
I think it guarantees that the people in power in that corporation are listening close to what I'm saying and what their kids are dancing to. I think it makes them question their ethics as much as fans or reporters question mine. It also exposes a whole new world of people to my music, my thoughts, my world view which will perhaps enlist more casual listeners into questioning authority, realizing their power, and all of the things that my music demands.I've long been a proponent of sponsorships because I come from a sports marketing background; sponsorships fund a lot of athletes and their events. It's a necessary and usually very productive alliance among all parties. There are rarely, if any, true ethical compromises. Generally either the companies are a perfect fit for those they sponsor, or at least the sponsors have enough redeeming characteristics that athletes/artists taking the money can justify the arrangement in some fashion.
At the end of the day, I think its a dangerous decision for Nike to popularize a song like "List of Demands." My belief in the power of music tells me that it could possibly work against them. So I applaud their courageousness. My intention remains for these songs to be heard by as many as possible. They are the virus that I wish to spread. I've infected Nike and all within their reach with a song that raises awareness as well as fists. It is indeed written in the voice of the impoverished and oppressed, which includes the factory worker. They know its their song when they hear it. The last thing it does is make someone want to go buy sneakers, but it may encourage someone to hit their boss over the head with a tennis racket. So be it. "Infecting Nike, Initiating Obama: An Interview With Saul Williams", Huffington Post, 9/28/08
Looking for an example of a potential sponsorship which was deemed too compromising to accept, I found this case of a someone offered an opportunity to work with a cigarette brand.
[Leslie] Nuchow, a powerful throaty singer-songwriter, had been bouncing around New York City's music scenes like many other talents, looking for the break, trying to scrape enough money together to get a CD made, playing often at the Mercury Lounge.Thinking about sponsorships and this issue of ethical compromise, I've listed a series of questions those being offered the sponsorships might ask themselves:
A 'scout' approached Nuchow and asked her to participate in a three women competition for the best unsigned singer-songwriter and the ongoing promotion had a number of great elements -- including tours and a potential label -- but there were two big hitches. The first: the whole effort was sponsored by Virginia Slims, owned by Phillip Morris. and second, Virginia Slims Women Thing music was to produce a CD that would only be available with the purchase of two packs of Virginia Slims cigarettes.
Nuchow said no way. "Virginia Slim SLAM,"AlterNet , 4/26/00
1. Are you being compensated?
It's unlikely you are going to enter into any sponsorship agreements if you aren't being compensated in some way (e.g., money, free goods, promotion). And if you aren't being compensated, there's no incentive to agree to any partnerships you don't fully embrace, so it's a non-issue.
Accepting compensation, on the other hand, is a double-edged sword. Payment makes the deal worth your time, but it opens you to criticism that you are either only doing it for the money or your values are so malleable that you'll adjust your thinking to fit the situation. Still, many people who work regular jobs have been hired by companies they don't fully embrace. Being paid does not necessarily mean we have lost our identities to a company.
2. Are you donating money?
If you are ambivalent about a sponsorship deal (i.e., perhaps you like some aspects but not others), you can go the charity route. You can donate some or all of your compensation to a cause you believe in. It allows you to play the system for a greater good. It's an example of "the ends justify the means."
3. Are you speaking out?
Saul Williams felt having Nike using his song would generate more interest in his work and his world view. The arrangement gave him a bigger platform to speak from. His take on the situation is unusual, but other artists could try a similar approach.
4. Have you discussed the issues with the sponsor and said that you want to raise awareness?
If you are going to be outspoken about an issue and it appears to run counter to your potential sponsor, you might want to let the company know before signing any contracts. This could avoid future conflicts. And if the company wants to change its image in that regard, perhaps it will even back you on your position.
5. Is the company willing to work with you?
This is an extension of the above point. If you feel strongly about an issue, you might want to talk to a potential sponsor about creating a campaign that supports and incorporates your beliefs. With the right company and the right cause, there could be positive benefits for all.
6. Are you helping them maintain the status quo or are you helping them make changes?
If the sponsor has had a poor track record in some areas and wants to sponsor you to modify that image, do you feel there are real changes being made, or are you being used as camouflage to allow them to continue questionable practices?
7. Do you see your music as a subversive act?
If you consider yourself a guerilla warrior, you may want to take on incompatible sponsors either to embarrass them down the road, or because your hardcore supporters already know you so well that they are able to interpret your sponsored message as a call to action to work against the company and/or what it stands for. Using a sponsorship this way is highly unlikely, though. Relatively few artists are so motivated as to infiltrate the system and put their careers on the line. Some may imagine such a scenario as a justification for signing a questionable deal, but then never carry it out. A more plausible situation is where the artist has a profound change of values after signing and then makes public statements which run counter to the sponsor.
As I have stated, I'm very much in favor of sponsorships. I think they can add value to everyone involved when done correctly. But artists and sponsoring companies should think through any real or potential conflicting values and either find ways to deal with them or not work together.