Suds ‘n’ Bucks ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll : Beer companies’ rock sponsorships stir controversy
When the Who performs an all-star production of its rock opera “Tommy” on Aug. 24 at the Universal Amphitheatre, it will be a battle of the brands--beer, that is.
Michelob has a sponsorship deal with the Amphitheatre. Miller Genuine Draft is bankrolling the Who’s stadium tour. Budweiser is sponsoring the production of “Tommy.”
The disturbing irony in this sea of suds: A founding member of the English band, drummer Keith Moon, died in 1978 of alcohol-related causes, and another member, Pete Townshend, has acknowledged an alcohol addiction.
The “Tommy” example reveals the extent to which beer companies have become involved in the financial workings of the pop/rock concert industry.
Approximately 75% of the nation’s key concert facilities--including the Greek Theatre and the Pacific Amphitheatre--have beer company sponsors, who pay fees ranging from $100,000 to $500,000 a year for the privilege of plastering their name around the venue and on the concert tickets.
The beer companies are happy to spend the money because it gets their message to an audience of young, active, affluent consumers. From the vantage point of the concert industry, the subsidies help protect their profit margins and help hold down ticket prices.
But critics contend that the sponsorships promote alcohol consumption to large numbers of concert-goers under the age of 21, which is the legal drinking age in 33 states. They fear that the tie-ins may encourage impressionable, music-loving young fans to start drinking or to drink too much.
Beer company sponsorship of pop and rock concerts is big business--and getting bigger. The beer industry spends an estimated $50 million annually to subsidize concert venues and performers’ tours. That doesn’t count the amount spent placing ads on TV and radio in which many of the same pop and rock stars sing the praises of their favorite brew.
The $50 million outlay for music sponsorships is a drop in the bucket compared to the $756 million the beer industry spent last year on all forms of media advertising, but it’s significantly higher than the amount the industry spent in several individual advertising outlets, including consumer magazines ($18 million), newspapers ($19 million), outdoor billboard advertising ($22 million) and cable TV spots ($34 million).
The business of beer and rock came to public attention when U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop attacked the practice at a Washington press conference on May 31.
“I have received a lot of praise as surgeon general because of my strong stand on AIDS prevention,” Koop said. “I was never afraid to say the ‘C word'--condom. I am also not afraid to say the ‘A word'--advertising.
“Certain advertising and marketing practices for alcoholic beverages clearly send the wrong messages about alcohol consumption to the wrong audiences.”
Koop, who is scheduled to leave office on Sept. 30 but has vowed to continue fighting for this cause as a private citizen, called the press conference to announce 10 recommendations for reducing alcohol-related traffic fatalities--the No. 1 cause of death among teen-agers.
Koop noted that more than 40% of deaths among 15- to 20-year-olds result from motor vehicle crashes--and that about half of these fatalities involve alcohol.
In his remarks, Koop singled out the practices of using celebrities who have strong appeal to youth, and sponsoring rock concerts and sports events.
“These practices tell youth that alcohol consumption leads to athletic, social and sexual success,” he said. “They send the message that drinking is a normal and glamorous activity without negative consequences. And our young people are believing these messages.”
Micky Saboff, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, echoed Koop’s concerns, though she stopped short of calling for a ban on alcohol sponsorships.
“It’s part of a whole package of influence, like the marketing of beer on college campuses and at beaches during spring break,” said Saboff. “It’s part of the whole issue of the content of alcohol advertising and the messages kids get. But we don’t have a position to discourage sponsorship. We recognize that liquor companies have a right to sponsor these events, but they have no right to sell to people who are under age.”
Beer company spokesmen deny that their advertising practices--including concert sponsorships--encourage young people to drink.
“Every study has concluded that advertising doesn’t cause alcohol abuse and underage consumption of our product,” said Stephen K. Lambright, a vice president at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, the nation’s top brewery. “Advertising does what it’s intended to do: influence a person to choose Brand A over Brand B.
“We as a company are in no way trying to duck the issue of alcohol abuse, underage consumption or driving under the influence,” Lambright added. “We only differ with the surgeon general on how you go about resolving the problem. We don’t agree with his conclusion, and we’re not going to change the way we do business simply because of this report.”
Until about 10 years ago, most pop and rock stars wouldn’t have considered aligning themselves with a corporate sponsor. It would have been viewed as “selling out” to corporate America.
Not that major companies were exactly besieging them with offers. Most companies were--and many still are--leery of rock stars and rock music, fearing that it projects the wrong image.
This started changing in 1977, when Rockbill Inc., a New York-based marketing company, persuaded Anheuser-Busch to sponsor a concert series in Cape Cod, Mass.
In the next few years, the dam burst. In 1981, the Rolling Stones signed a $500,000 deal with Jovan cologne. In 1982, the Who signed a $1-million deal with Schlitz beer. In 1983, Michael Jackson signed a $5-million deal with Pepsi-Cola.
“It’s really an ‘80s phenomenon,” said Gary Bongiovonni, editor of Pollstar, a weekly trade magazine that covers the concert industry.
“It’s gotten to the point now in terms of big tours that it’s far more common to have a corporate sponsor than not to have one,” he said. “A few acts, based on principle, won’t associate with corporate sponsors, but probably 75% of big tours have them. I think everybody looks at it as extra money to put in their pocket to help defray the expenses and risks of going on the road.”
Rockbill president Jay Coleman notes that corporate sponsorships have become a major part of funding for pop concerts.
“At a decent amphitheater, a sponsorship can mean anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000 a season,” Coleman said.
“It’s become a very important part of the revenue stream for concert promoters today. A lot of them rely on the money they receive from corporate sponsorships to help ensure that they’ll make a profit over the course of the season.”
John Marx, vice president in charge of the contemporary music department at the William Morris Agency, was even more emphatic: “Promoters and venues argue that without those revenues, they couldn’t be in business.”
Larry Solters, a senior vice president at MCA Music Entertainment Group, which oversees Universal Amphitheatre operations, said that it’s becoming harder and harder for venues to resist sponsors’ advances.
“In today’s economic climate, if somebody approaches you and says they’ll give you a couple hundred thousand dollars to put up a sign and be in your advertising, it’s something you have to consider,” Solters said.”
In addition to easing the bottom line for concert promoters, corporate sponsorships also help keep the cost of concert tickets down.
Rob Kahane, who co-manages George Michael, estimates that ticket prices would go up by $2 to $2.50 per show without the sponsorship subsidy.
While a wide range of companies are involved in sponsorships, breweries are especially active.
“Every major brewery has endorsements,” said Gary Smith, vice president at Pollstar. “And all the venues are trying to get endorsements whenever possible. It’s more than just a trend. It’s just simply good business.”
That’s the main reason that breweries have become involved in rock ‘n’ roll.
The prime concert audience and the prime beer-drinking market overlap to a degree that is a marketer’s dream. The core consumers in both cases: 18- to 24-year-olds (though, of course, beer marketers insist that they target only people of legal drinking age). The secondary market in both cases: young-end baby boomers in the 25-to-34 range.
But it’s not just the age of the fans at concerts that appeals to beer marketers.
John Hellweg, vice president of marketing services for Stroh Brewing Co. in Detroit, nearly drooled when he profiled a typical concert-goer.
“These are people who are active and outgoing, who have disposable incomes, who are cognizant of what’s hot and what’s not,” he said. “They are people who will spend their money, who go out of their way to get out of their homes and apartments. They’re exactly our target customers.”
Maile Buker, program manager of field marketing for the Coors Light Group in Golden, Colo., agreed that pop music is one of the best ways to reach a young, active audience.
“Music is integral to young adults’ life style,” she said. “It’s a big part of their life. We think it’s a way to speak directly to our consumers.”
Rather than sponsoring national tours by the biggest names, Coors sponsors 16 local and regional bands who play rock clubs around the country. Buker said that one of the reasons is to transfer the intense loyalty that fans feel for a favorite band to the brand of beer served at the club.
“Local bands are local heroes,” she said. “They’ve got a captive audience that we wish to try and access ourselves.”
John Shafer, manager of consumer affairs for the Miller Brewing Co. in Milwaukee, said that Miller sponsors artists and venues popular with fans in the 21-to-35 age group, which is their target market.
“People who are under 21 also enjoy some of the same kinds of music, but our sponsorship isn’t intended to encourage them to buy our brand,” he said. “I doubt that any of our concerts are put on where we expect a majority of the audience to be under 21.”
And what is it about rock that appeals most to beer marketers?
“A lot of the 21- to 35-year-olds who drink beer also enjoy rock music,” Shafer explained. “If they enjoyed opera, we’d sponsor opera.”
Some believe that artists are becoming more conscious of the need for responsibility in this area--or at least more aware of the repercussions of associating with alcohol products.
“Musicians and athletes are taking a second look at whether they should promote alcohol,” said Pollstar’s Smith. “If it’s going to give them a negative image, a lot of artists will stop doing it.”
Jerry Hall, vice president/publisher of Live Concert Network, which publishes handbills distributed at 50 venues nationwide, drew an analogy to tobacco endorsements.
“It would be hard to imagine an artist these days aligning with a tobacco company,” Hall said. “In talking to artists and managers who are seeking sponsorships, we don’t even ask about tobacco sponsors, and now more and more they’re telling us that beer is a no-no.”
Last month, Ringo Starr announced that he won’t endorse an alcohol product on his current tour--and won’t even allow any alcohol backstage. The ex-Beatle, who did commercials for a wine cooler a few years ago, has admitted to past alcohol problems.
Starr’s sponsor on his upcoming tour: Diet Pepsi.
George Michael is another pop star who won’t accept an alcohol company sponsorship. His co-manager, Kahane, said that Michael turned down a sponsorship deal with Michelob on the grounds that many of his fans are underage.
“George won’t touch anything that has to do with alcohol or cigarettes because he has a tremendous amount of influence over kids and he doesn’t want them to think that it’s cool because he’s endorsing it,” Kahane said.
Michael takes it a step further. When he is playing facilities that are alcohol-sponsored, he demands that all alcohol signs in the building be removed.
Performers aren’t the only ones trying to exercise more restraint.
The beer companies say they are cautious about sponsoring any act known to have a large underage following. They don’t even want to give the appearance of an association.
On their “Licensed to Ill” tour in 1987, the Beastie Boys used a giant replica of a six-pack of Budweiser beer as a stage prop. Because the rap trio was then one of the hottest acts in pop, Anheuser-Busch briefly considered entering into a sponsorship deal with the group. But Ken Anderson, the trio’s New York-based lawyer, said that the discussions came to an abrupt halt as soon as Anheuser-Busch executives saw the Beasties’ show, which focused on their rowdy, chug-a-lug image and drew a large number of underage fans.
Busch not only passed on the sponsorship, but filed suit to force the trio to stop using the Bud trademark.
“Anheuser-Busch didn’t think it was appropriate to be affiliated in any way shape or form with the act,” company spokesman Gary Pagano said. “To have the prop on stage might leave the impression that there was a connection.”
But occasionally there is a slip-up. Anheuser-Busch included teen heroes New Edition in the lineup on its recent Budweiser SuperFest concert series.
Pagano contended that the group’s target audience is in its early to mid-20s, a characterization disputed by several people interviewed for this article. New Edition’s manager, Craig Fruin, declined to comment.
Lesa Ukman, editor of Special Events Report, a Chicago-based newsletter that reports on sponsorship, suggested that demographic studies by an outside company be required to ensure that at least 80% of a performer’s core audience is above the legal drinking age. If it’s not, she said, a beer company shouldn’t be allowed to sponsor it.
“It’s in the beer companies’ interest more than anyone else’s because the last thing they need is having public sentiment turn against them,” said Ukman. “They saw how quickly things turned around in public tolerance for tobacco.”
Key figures in the entertainment industry are split on the beer/rock issue.
Ron Weisner, whose management client Steve Winwood had a sponsorship deal last year with Michelob, said that he is against government attempts to control what an artist does.
“Once you start doing that it’s almost a type of censorship,” he said. “Where do you stop? They could beat up the soft drink manufacturers because caffeine isn’t good for you. I think it should be every artist’s individual decision--not the federal government dictating what you can and cannot do.”
But Danny Goldberg, who manages Belinda Carlisle, Sheena Easton and Bonnie Raitt, was supportive of Surgeon General Koop.
“I’m not sure whether or not I agree with him, but I think his ideas have to be taken very, very seriously,” Goldberg said. “He comes from a medical point of view, not a religious agenda or a demagogic political agenda.”
Goldberg’s position is surprising because he is an American Civil Liberties Union activist and an outspoken critic of the Parents’ Music Resource Center--the Washington-based organization that advocates warning stickers on selected rock albums.
“I have a lot more respect for Koop’s concerns than I do for the PMRC or a long list of cheap, headline-seeking politicians who are trying to give advice to entertainers,” he said. “I think it’s time that people in Washington started identifying alcohol as the biggest drug problem this country has. That leads you into the true complexity of dealing with the drug problem as opposed to simplistic phrases like ‘Just Say No.’ ”
Many in the concert industry believe that a compromise can be worked out, in which concert facilities would be allowed to keep the beer sponsorships if they display messages urging young people to exercise moderation and responsibility in their drinking.
“The first thing kids see when they walk into a venue should be signs saying, ‘Pick a designated driver’ and ‘If you drink, don’t drive,’ ” said Johnny Podell, director of the East Coast contemporary music department at the William Morris Agency.
“If they get that message from the time they start going to concerts, you haven’t just neutralized the issue, you’ve turned it into a positive. It brings rock ‘n’ roll and safe drinking together, not where rock ‘n’ roll is cool and safe drinking is something your parents tell you to do.”
At his press conference, Koop expressed the hope that the alcohol companies will exercise more responsibility.
“I am the nation’s surgeon general, not the nation’s chaplain,” he said. “Nevertheless, I think we should all pray that those who are caught between their conscience and their pocketbooks on this issue make the right choice.”