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Joah Spearman Headshot

How to Build a Brand That Gets Both Music & Style

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Last month in Austin, Texas, music and style collided like never before to make this year's South by Southwest Music Festival the epicenter of cool. The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, and his rolled up sleeves graced two stages -- one as SXSW's keynote speaker another as its marquee performer.

Jay-Z, partnering with American Express, performed at ACL Live at the Moody Theatre, Austin's premier new theater where Austin City Limits is taped. His stage set, perhaps better fit for an arena show, was jammed into the theater along with more than 2,000 lucky Jay-Z fans to get treated to one of the festival's most-anticipated, tweeted-about shows.

Like Jay-Z, who made millions on the sale of clothing line Rocawear, rappers 50 Cent and Nas have also dabbled in fashion over the years and were headliners at this year's festival. Kanye West and Lil' Wayne also appeared after recently launching clothing lines. Still, despite the rapper's delight at SXSW, the style/music mash-up was best exemplified by emerging musicians like Swedish band Niki & The Dove, Austin's pop-indie outfit SPEAK and Los Angeles R&B/pop singer-dancer extraordinaire Austin Brown.

These musicians, and the thousands of others in Austin for the week, represent the current and future beneficiaries of the ever-growing connection between music and style. It's not so much that this link is a new one, but that fashion brands are getting smarter about the partnership potential.

But as the saying goes, "If it was that easy, then everyone would do it!" This couldn't be any more true than when talking about fashion brands that understand the link between music and style. So many of them try, but few actually succeed. Primary reasons for failure: 1) lack of an authentic connection with musicians and fans and 2) too many marketing wonks contributing too many bright ideas that create something that isn't too smart at all.

Gifting both emerging and star musicians are more typical than ever as evidenced by brands like Billy Reid and RayBan, both of which sponsored shows during SXSW. Musicians are replacing famous models in print campaigns by brands like Cole Haan, which recently collaborated with Brooklyn rapper Theophilus London, among others.

At Style X, the newest major addition to SXSW, where I serve as executive producer, runway shows featured more than four-dozen musicians as models walking in front of hundreds of guests including editors from Elle, GQ.com, StyleCaster, StyleLikeU, Refinery29 and bloggers Marcus Troy and Grungy Gentleman. Established brands like American Apparel, The GAP and Neiman Marcus, each sponsors of Style X, took a backseat during the shows to emerging brands like African-inspired shoe brand Oliberte, Southern California women's line Piper Gore, San Francisco's Taylor Stitch, eyewear collection Tortoise & Blonde and Australian menswear line Zanerobe.

Needless to say, the collision course of music and style is a democratic one. It's not just for major brands partnering with major musicians, but also for upstart brands looking to organically connect with upstart musicians. Tortoise & Blonde, with a budget a fraction of what a brand like Nike has, focuses on developing close ties with bands and fans alike through pop-up events and online music sharing. It turns out that while upstart brands have to hustle harder for attention, the big brands have to use their dollars effectively to resonate authentically. My main recommendations for such major brands is two-fold: 1) Keep it real. 2) Keep it simple.

Brands that keep it real, both to their consumer audience and the audiences of the musicians they align with are primed to win with these alliances. So what does it mean to "keep it real"? Well, for starters it's about having an honest point of view on what music your brand likes. Don't hop around to whatever band or musician is on the top of the Billboard chart just because that is where the conversation seems to be going. Focus on treating your brand like a person, a person who genuinely loves music and discovers new music the way a true fan does. If it's a certain genre of music, that's fine, but a smarter bet would be to find characteristics of music you like.

Betsey Johnson is one of the best brands when it comes to keeping it real with music and style. From Madonna to Rihanna, Beyonce to Nicki Minaj, Betsey Johnson's brand oozes with female empowerment and colorful flair and personality. In an interview with The Hook, Betsey Johnson said, "I never separated music from dressing," and it shows every time her new collection is seen on runways and stages alike.

Keeping it simple is a bit harder for bigger brands. Brands have their marketing, PR and social media teams to collaborate alongside branding, digital, marketing and PR agencies. Magnify that with the design and executive input that often comes with celebrity endorsement or sponsorship, and you have the makings for too many cooks in the kitchen. It'd be like a sushi chef being asked to make a single roll with albacore, eel, salmon, tuna, yellowtail, and every other fish on the planet. You can try it, but it's not advisable.

Dickies keeps it simple by sticking to what it does best: focusing on creating functional style which musicians can appreciate. The past couple of years at SXSW, they've partner with Filter Magazine, experts in music selection, to book bands and musicians that hark back to Dickies' love of quality and a work-hard, play-hard mentality. Where some brands try to become booking agents once or twice a year, Dickies sticks to its expertise and partnerships to make their music showcase effective and exciting each year.

So there you have it Mr. and Mrs. Brand Manager or Marketer; follow those two rules -- keep it real and keep it simple -- and you'll join the above brands and those below as one of few brands that have seemingly mastered the are of demonstrating the inherent link between music and style.

Brand -- Accomplishment in Music and Style

• Nike -- Partnering with Kanye West to launch the Air Yeezys to great fanfare.

• Converse -- Created a Brooklyn studio for emerging bands to record on their Rubber Tracks imprint.

• John Varvatos -- Purchased legendary CBGB venue and now heavily promoting Green Day.

• Levi's -- Featured musicians and their passion for musicmaking in Craft Work Series.

• RayBan - Highlighting Guns 'N Roses guitarist Slash's upcoming record in a video series.

• Paul Smith -- Got his start screen-printing t-shirts at Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin shows; counts Mick Jagger and The Kaiser Chiefs as lunch guests.

• Vans -- Collaborated with Iggy Pop and Pearl Jam to create small musician-inspired collections of clothing and shoes.

• Adidas -- Secured film director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where The Wild Things Are) to direct a music-video-like ad featuring music by Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

• Urban Outfitters -- "Music Mondays" features downloadable tracks from emerging bands like Bear in Heaven; UO Blog features interviews and photos with artists such as Diplo and First Aid Kit.

• The GAP -- Past efforts have included well-publicized "Favorites" series in which artists like Alanis Morissette, John Legend and Keith Urban performed acoustic versions of their favorite songs. Customers who purchased 1969 Jeans were provided one free track on iTunes to further connect the brand with their favorite music.