Forget the black ink, these days, most record labels are happy just to keep the florescent lights humming. Still, the situation isn’t hopeless. This year marks the tenth anniversary of one label that continues to take chances on fringe acts, allowing its artists ample funds for events, videos, and albums. What’s more, it accomplishes all this while providing consumers with the steady stream of free content they’ve come to demand. All Scion Audio/Visual asks in return is a chance to bend your ear about the exciting, new features in the xD.
The situation: Back in ’03, Scion launched an in-house record label as part of its effort to woo Millennials (then Generation Y) back into the arms of its parent company, Toyota. The arrangement was simple: in return for the kind of budget only a multinational corporation could muster, musicians would produce original content for Scion’s promotional campaigns. To date, Scion A/V has collaborated with upwards of 1,500 musicians to produce roughly 150 albums, EPs, and singles. Lately, their sponsorship of original media has grown to include a metal festival, radio program, and an annual conference dedicated to mapping the future of the record industry (knife twist).
The upshot: Don’t expect to see Coldplay or Justin Timberlake with the Scion logo stenciled on their bass drums. Bucking the conventional wisdom that brands should collaborate only with celebrities with the widest appeal, Scion A/V decided to place a lot of eggs into a lot of different baskets, working with artists in marginal subgenres as a means of delivering microtargeted messages to niche audiences. So now, instead of paying for Lars Ulrich’s gold-plated shark tank bar, cult favorites like Katie Got Bandz and Mike G get to do an open mic set in Brooklyn. Sure, the stakes are a lot lower, but some ignored talent is finally getting the time of day from a record label.
The downside: For an outfit so insistent about its street cred, censoring profanity is a real boneheaded move. Forget that it neuters all their rap collabs, the conspicuous editing reminds every listener they’re dealing with a PR-frightened corporation.
The verdict: While Scion A/V’s outreach is admirable, its artists’ contributions are lazy. By working almost exclusively with signed acts, it practically encourages them to see their work for Scion as secondary. This attitude is instantly recognizable on the label’s tenth anniversary compilation. Perusing the selection, the level of disengagement among otherwise talented musicians is astonishing. Chromatics “Red Car” sounds like a castoff from the After Dark 2 compilation, abusing auto-tune to confuse their distinctive brand of Italo-disco with the voguish R&B sound of Drake and The Weeknd. Riding a beat from Harry Fraud (one of the rare Scion A/V collaborators genuinely interested in proving something), Smoke DZA is even more checked out than usual, offering up maxims on success that sound lifted straight from an ESPN halftime show. Poolside’s “If We Make It” sacrifices all the booty clapping goodness of “Slow Down” for the sappy lyrics and shimmering instrumentation that almost ruined summer 2009. Then, Jonwayne and Jeremiah Jae show up to remind everyone the Brainfeeder formula is still Stones Throw compatible and that Jonwayne shouldn’t rap.
If nothing else, Celebrating 10 Years of Scion is instructive. Just because below radar artists are desperate for recognition doesn’t mean they’re going to fork over their most promising material to a car company. Arts marketers intent on forgoing arena idols are better off cultivating their own stable of dedicated artists than pandering to the “indie” crowd.