Converse Rubber Tracks: What’s a Shoe Company Doing With a Recording Studio?

October 22, 2010
By | 5 Comments

Two weeks ago, the shoe company Converse announced plans to open a “community-based recording studio” called Rubber Tracks in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, later this year, where select up-and-coming artists will be allowed to record their music for free. That’s right: free. Musicians can fill out an application, and those accepted by Converse will receive not only studio time in a brand new, state-of-the-art facility but also rehearsal and post-production accommodations. This is a rather unprecedented move in the music industry, and one that perhaps signals another nail in the coffin of the major record labels. That is, musicians today can manufacture, distribute, and market their recordings for next to nothing via the Internet, leaving funding for professional studio recording as one of the few unmatched services that record companies have to offer – until now.

Marketing and promotion through so-called lifestyle brands – products or services that seek to identify with and embody the values and image of a particular cultural group – has already become de rigueur in the indie rock and hip-hop music scenes in recent years. Cross-promotional deals between musicians and brands and retailers, such as Kia, Starbucks, Urban Outfitters, and Converse parent company Nike, are already usurping the traditional record label marketing strategies of radio promotion, music videos, press advertising and publicity, and retail sales campaigns. These partnerships go far beyond just licensing music to commercials. A number of consumer brands, including Levi’s, Scion, and Mountain Dew, have sponsored tours or concert series and even started up limited edition record labels, mostly offering digital-only singles and seven-inch record style EPs. Indeed, Converse has been actively building up a presence within the hip, indie/alternative music youth culture for the better part of the past decade, in particular emphasizing its retro-tinged Chuck Taylor All Star brand. Previously, the company has tapped musicians like Tokyo Police Club and Matt & Kim to design shoes and sponsored collaborative singles from blog-hyped acts, including a recent release from Best Coast, Kid Cudi, and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij.

Still, these ventures are little more than cross-promotion, as even the record labels offer artists only “limited edition,” one-off partnerships for a single/EP release, specialty clothing or shoe design, et al. In other words, they are focused almost exclusively on marketing and promotion and producing short-term results (i.e. immediate sales of cars, sneakers, soft drinks, and so on), and thus do not offer a sustainable model that may support artists and the creation of their music over the long-term. Moreover, these partnerships ultimately provide only a limited number of opportunities to only the hippest acts of the moment.

Converse’s foray into recording, on the other hand, is unique in its emphasis on the production end of the process. In the music industry, production, manufacture, and distribution have primarily been the domain of record labels, and the development of Rubber Tracks hints at yet another way in which labels are becoming obsolete. As mentioned earlier, it has become increasingly easy for musicians to operate independently of the major record labels, and yet many artists still require some form of institutional support. Studio production, alongside touring, remains one of the more expensive and unavoidable costs that even the most independent of musicians must incur, and so perhaps Converse is onto something with Rubber Tracks, filling one of the few niches in the recording industry business model that the digital era hasn’t put squarely in the hands of the artists. (Sure, software such as GarageBand has made home recording remarkably easy, inexpensive, and professional sounding, but it has its limitations and most artists still desire to record in a fully appointed studio, especially if recording analog.)

There are a lot of questions that the Rubber Tracks initiative currently leaves unanswered with regards to ownership and use of the recordings. In the abbreviated Terms & Conditions that Converse has made public, it is clear that the company plans to use the recordings for promotional purposes, mostly online via free downloads and social networking sites. In a recent New York Times article, a company spokesperson claimed that the music isn’t intended to be used in commercials, however the Terms & Conditions vaguely reference Converse’s right to use the recordings for “‘industrial’ purposes” (their quotes around the word industrial). Converse also retains the right to shoot photos and video in the studio, meaning the musicians are lending not only their music but their image to the company for advertising purposes. Manufacturing and distribution are seemingly left in the hands of the artists, and so if the musicians wish to release the recordings in any kind of physical format (rather than just distribute them exclusively online), they will have to do so on their own or partner with a record label. But even though the Terms & Conditions indicate that “you will own the music you create,” it’s not clear whether the artists or labels will have to pay any kind of licensing fees to reproduce the recordings or if they will be restricted from releasing the music for any period of time.

It seems today that concerns over “selling out,” which so plagued the indie and punk communities for decades (and folk rock and rock’n’roll before them), are all but abandoned. Young musicians and audiences raise little suspicion over a corporation licensing songs or harnessing an artist’s image and credibility for commercial purposes. As record companies lose their marketing and distribution stronghold and, at the same time, struggle to gain greater control over their artists’ non-recording efforts through the likes of 360° deals, lifestyle brands are perhaps emerging as a sort of “lesser evil.” It’s notable, though, that relatively few artists are willing or able to support themselves completely on their own. That is, the roles of the record labels may now be chopped up and delivered by a variety of specialized companies, but artists are still looking to formal institutions to fulfill most of these traditional functions of production, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, and financing on their behalf.

In a final point, lest we forget, Converse’s Rubber Tracks initiative, novel as it may be within the music industry, is hardly lacking in precedent. Critics like Douglas Rushkoff and The New York Times are deeming it “patronage,” drawing comparisons to the Medici and the Italian Renaissance. But in modern times, art patronage implies a fairly neutral involvement from the donor, and Converse’s interests here are hardly philanthropic. Instead, Rubber Tracks is best viewed as a form of single sponsorship, a production model that has a long history in radio and television. Converse is, in effect, paying these artists for the opportunity to harness their cred and firmly embed their brand as an integral part of the indie music culture. This is hardly a simple interrelationship, however, since a shoe company like Converse and a rock band or hip-hop act clearly have differing and potentially conflicting motives. Despite claims by Converse that the company will not attempt to influence the content of the music, the single sponsorship experience from radio and TV provides a cautionary tale.


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5 Responses to “ Converse Rubber Tracks: What’s a Shoe Company Doing With a Recording Studio? ”

  1. Tim Anderson on October 23, 2010 at 10:12 AM

    A lot of good stuff here, but let’s begin with the fact that sponsorship has slowly taken over as a substantial form of patronage since the late 1980s when more and more beer and liquor companies got into the act of sponsoring tours. In the 200s Sprite became a sponsor to many hip hop events and Vans regained footing in the punk community (no pun intended) with their Warp Tour. In 2008, the same year that LiveNation make accelerated moves toward 360 signings of Jay Z, Madonna, Nickelback, etc, we see Bacardi signing Groove Armada. My point here is to frame your “long history” comment by reminding ourselves that the period of Rock dominance (not Rock and Roll) that lasts from 1964 til about 1990 may be the historical exception where finance, production and distribution practices were stabilized almost exclusively around label systems.

    That said, Converse’s grab of Synch rights isn’t new. Labels who invest in the masters keep the masters and all the rights that pertain to them. In fact, Converse is acting more like a traditional label than anything else.

    That said, I really love this post because we are in this great moment of flux where musicians MUST become more and more aware of their rights as the opportunity to exploit them for their own worth are growing exponentially.

    • Andrew Bottomley on October 23, 2010 at 11:28 AM

      Thanks, Tim. These are all great points, and I appreciate your putting all of this in a bit more historical perspective. For sure, sponsorship is nothing new to rock music; in addition to the concert tour sponsorships that you mention, bands have been receiving clothing and musical equipment sponsorships for decades. But as I see it, those sponsorships are almost exclusively limited to live performances and the marketing/promotion end of things – activities that happen after a musician or group is already well-established. Notably, the sponsors have little to no involvement with the creation of, let alone ownership claims to, the musical content.

      What I find unique about Converse’s Rubber Tracks studio is that the sponsorship is happening at the point of production (only a few prior deals like the Bacardi/Groove Aramada one have moved in this direction). Indeed, Converse is acting very much like a traditional label, but they’re doing so under the guise of patronage and “giving back” to the music community. We’re in a moment where musicians have an unprecedented amount of agency and autonomy at their fingertips, but at the same time the exploitative potential of initiatives like these are tremendous. It definitely raises a lot of concerns about musicians’ rights in this anything-goes environment.

      I’m trying not to be too cynical, but as someone who’s worked in and around the music industry for the better part of 15 years, I’m definitely observing a nonchalance and naivete on behalf of many “indie” artists today toward corporate sponsorship. It’s becoming uncritically accepted that the way to “make it” today – that is, to get a commercial break and be able to profit off your art – is to cozy up to these lifestyle brands.

      • Tim Anderson on October 23, 2010 at 2:06 PM

        For the past three years I have taught courses to musicians at Old Dominion about the music industry and I am always stunned by what they do not know when it comes to rights. Their naivete is in a lot of ways structural and what we need are new modes of education and, perhaps, we can work together on that.

        My main concern is that we need to educate musicians that what it means to “make it” has to change. This is hard work since mainstream media sources provide nothing but “all or nothing” narratives for artists and what we need is to represent the possibilities and the belief that middle-classness if optimal for artists.

        Also, ass I talk to musicians it is clearer to me that many of them are just not interested in doing their own promotional work. Honestly, I can’t blame them. What looks like opportunity to us looks like busywork for a person who simply wants to create beautiful sounds.

        Finally, the point of production issue is very interesting. The idea of giving back and patronage is a long standing rhetoric for indies who want to do things like document scenes and be there solely for the music. In many cases those indies were mismanaged and all too often couldn’t pay their musicians. At worst they simply ripped them off. My feeling about this is that the only way to counter such naivete is with systematic education at many levels.

        Great post!

  2. Eleanor Seitz on October 23, 2010 at 11:31 AM

    Interesting story – this type of “patronage” or sponsorship seems more insidious to me than corporate tour sponsorship or traditional label signing because Converse, part of Nike’s TNC intact with their corporate agenda, is filtering bands at the recording stage. And the application seems extremely vague – I am curious to know what kind of unlisted criteria is use to select artists.

  3. Angel Centeno on October 26, 2010 at 7:55 PM

    It seems to me that Converse is inevitably going to use the artists they eventually select as marketing “whores”, if you will. After taking a class on communication ethics I’ve learned that large companies, such as Converse love using a tactic known as “guerilla marketing” to raise awareness about their products to individuals who may or may not be intrested. Even though Converse is allowing these artists to record in a professional studio, I think the main agenda here is to use the product the artists create for creating advertisements that will in turn potentially increase profits. As you mentioned, in a recent New York Times article, a spokesperson for Converse claims that music isn’t intended for commercials, but the Terms & Conditions references their rights to use the material created by the artist they choose. I personally think this is a great oppurtunity for up-and-coming artist to get their names out. However, i am also aware of the possible motives Converse has in building the studio and selecting “hip” music acts to use the facility.