For the Cool Kids, going corporate was hardly a choice — it was the most obvious next step. The Chicago-based hip-hop duo quickly came up and out of the city’s tiny rap world five years ago. Despite claiming Kanye West and Common as hometown talents, “the Chi” boasts little in the way of a rap scene and even less in way of labels, industry or infrastructure. If you want to be known beyond the immediate metropolitan area, you need to hustle — hard.
For the Cool Kids’ Mikey Rocks and Chuck Inglish, their initial break arrived in 2007 when they were featured in two Rhapsody commercials. A Nike commercial followed, as did a Mountain Dew-sponsored single that was released as a free download. After three years of legal entanglements that ended in the Cool Kids wresting their debut album away from an indie label, they took it to the place that made the most sense: Mountain Dew. To get ahead in the music industry, they realized they’d have to bypass the industry entirely.
“This was like the Coast Guard showing up to your island after you have been putting out smoke signals,” explained Mikey Rocks of the group’s relationship with Green Label Sound, Mountain Dew’s promotional record label arm. “All major labels wanna do is put a stamp on what you’re doing and just take.” What they encountered with Green Label Sound was the opposite of any and every label around — a corporation so big it didn’t depend on making money off a Cool Kids product. The label fulfills what many artists dream of: someone to bankroll the recording and marketing of their record while they get to see profits.
Green Label Sound’s business model, on the surface, looks like nothing more than a cash-flush benefactor funding videos and releasing free singles online for eager bands. The Cool Kids’ debut, “When Fish Ride Bicycles,” is the first album that they will be retailing, primarily through iTunes. Jeff Kaye, who administers Green Label Sound for the marketing company Cornerstone, said that after iTunes and the online aggregator take their cuts, all album sale royalties will go to Cool Kids. Which is to say that Mountain Dew has no direct stake in profits, only in the hip cachet of an association with Cool Kids. “I don’t think anyone else could have a business structure like this,” Rocks told The Daily. “They just let me make my money. When you’re a soda company, record money is nothing. The $100,000 they spend is nothing. It’s like a commercial for them. This builds a relationship with them, and they get first crack at licensing tracks.” Rock paused before affirming his commitment to the brand behind his artistic vision. “I don’t even drink soda, but if they asked me to drink a whole case, I would. This is the perfect new type of situation no one has ever seen. The music industry died. [Mountain Dew] can do whatever they want. It’s a better situation.” Kaye’s simple explanation? “Cool Kids get the money, and Mountain Dew gets brand equity.”
The group is eager to please their new label — so much so that they offered up something that Green Label Sound didn’t even request: ad space on their album cover. The album art for “When Fish Ride Bicycles,” in the online and download editions of the release, features the classic, ’70s-era Mountain Dew logo as prominently as it does the band’s logo. The cover shows a person in a fish costume walking a bike past a corner-store entrance decorated with ads. The group’s explained that in the original photo there had been a Coca-Cola ad in that spot, and they knew that wouldn’t float, so they simply swapped it out for the Mountain Dew ad. “We can be proud of what we give up, that they are investing in us — that they want us to be part of their brand,” offered Inglish.
“It’s the first thing you notice,” said Tom Mahoney-Briehan, a writer in Chicago who has covered the Cool Kids extensively for Pitchfork, of the logo. “It’s seemingly brighter than anything else on the cover.” While tie-ins with tour sponsors is commonplace for recording artists, Mahoney-Briehan said that within rap, the nature of the relationships become much more difficult to parse. “Artists try and keep it under the radar, but there is sponsorship for mentioning products. Famously, Jay-Z got paid to say ‘Motorola two-way page me’ in a song,” said Mohoney-Briehan. “But rap is so brand-conscious, rappers are going to mention what cars they drive and what labels they wear regardless of whether anyone pays them. I think some rappers mention things in hopes they start getting them for free, or to start a reciprocal relationship — but I think that’s like rappers doing sex songs thinking it’ll get them laid more.”
While these sorts of relationships are quite commonplace, Mahoney-Briehan said that even for the Cool Kids, whose career has been aided by corporate integration, there is something that doesn’t quite fit in this next-level partnership. “There is a clang of dissonance to it. It’s great that they can pay an artist to put out music, but there is a lingering ‘What?!’ to Cool Kids putting a Mountain Dew logo on their cover. That said, I don’t think it’s going to impact anyone’s enjoyment of the record.”
In the ’90s, the chasm between corporations and artists was wide and deep — and one that you could suffer serious fan-fallout by breaching. In 2011, such choices barely register. “Now, if you get anyone saying anything negative about it, it’s just some snarky one-liner on [the blog] Brooklyn Vegan. And it’s always an anonymous commenter,” said Kaye. “Artists, sometimes they are apprehensive coming into this, but afterward they always say that the reactions they got were much more positive than negative.”
Fewer and fewer bands register any sort of protest over corporate involvement. As the music industry’s ability to discover and broadcast bands diminishes, and as social media replace older modes of print and radio, finding a way to get your music to the masses has become increasingly difficult. There is one medium that is now seen as a de facto method of breaking a band into the mainstream: TV commercials. Gabe McDonough, the vice president and music director for ad agency Leo Burnett, explained: ”A lot of bands that could have mass appeal, they no longer have the label support or the possibility of getting on the radio that they used to. A recent example is Phoenix. Their record came out to critical acclaim, but didn’t break for six months, until ‘1901’ was on a Cadillac commercial. Now they’re playing Madison Square Garden.” McDonough was unequivocal: “That wouldn’t be happening without that ad.”
Still, for the Cool Kids, it comes down to one thing: Mountain Dew provides them with a fair opportunity to usher their music into the world. “Any other label, any other situation … you do all the work and they take all the money. I can’t sleep comfortably with that,” explains Rocks. “I would take Mountain Dew any day of the week over that. Money comes and goes, you spend it stupid and it’s gone. But what we are doing, what we’ve made — no one can take that away from us.”