Laura June Kirsch – Thundercat
ENDEMIC AND/OR EXPERIENTIAL? Thundercat takes the stage of a repurposed high school auditorium as part of the House of Vans Detroit pop-up show on Jan. 24, as the venerable shoe brand remains committed to live music.
Late January in Detroit isn’t the most ideal climate for a sneaker brand to host a four-day concert and culture series. The zero-degree temperatures and recurring snowstorms have created a glacial effect on streets and sidewalks that has somehow extended to the grass outside The Jefferson School, where sneaker-clad attendees are slipping, sliding and falling as they make their way inside to catch an all-star lineup at Vans’ House of Vans Detroit pop-up.
And yet, the packed turnout for opening night with freak funk/R&B headliner Thundercat, hometown rock heroes Protomartyr and rising soul crooner Amber Mark is all the more impressive. A multi-generational, richly diverse group of music and skate culture enthusiasts has braved the winter elements to participate in a cultural experience that is unabashedly branded, but decked out in the kind of retro-cool décor and mural artwork that pervades non-sponsored skate parks and music venues.
Even Thundercat (Stephen Lee Bruner) is feeling the love moments after taking the stage of a repurposed high school auditorium, jamming longer and harder for the room of Vans fans than recent sets at the Smokin’ Grooves and Boston Calling festivals.
Laura June Kirsch – House Of Vans
“Music has always played an important role for us because we see musicians as an important part of expression,” says April Vitkus, senior director of global brand marketing at Vans.
Five or six years ago, such a scene was all too commonplace in the music industry, as brands like Converse, Mountain Dew, VitaminWater, Scion, Intel and many others created their own festivals, concert series, recording studios and other ventures to support emerging and established talent across the entire music spectrum.
But as activation costs grew in scale and sales on certain brands’ products flattened, the infrastructure to maintain many of these programs started to evaporate. Converse, who went from hosting over a half-dozen versions of its Rubber Tracks studio concept around the globe from 2011 to 2015, quietly folded the pro¬gram shortly after its four-year anniversary following a disappointing sales quarter. Mountain Dew, Intel and VitaminWater’s leadership changes at the respective brands pivoted to different sponsorship approaches, while Toyota opted to discontinue Scion vehicles altogether in 2016.
Today, only a handful of companies still support the fringes of music culture and subculture at the same levels as the hey¬day when a SXSW lineup looked like logo soup. And it’s a position that April Vitkus, senior director of global brand marketing at Vans, is proud to still represent.
“Music has always played an important role for us because we see [musicians] as an important part of expression,” says Vitkus from the dressing room of Detroit native Danny Brown, who was set to headline Night 3 of House of Vans Detroit. “We want to support young, burgeoning artists, grow them with the brand, and do everything from giving them a stage and a microphone like Sessions, all the way to doing things on the big stage at the House of Vans. It’s so important to us to do both, to support the younger musicians and the family that has grown up with us for so many years.”
Vans’ longtime commitment to music dates back to 1994, when the brand became the presenting sponsor of Kevin Lyman’s Warped Tour, which sold over 11.5 million tickets across its 24-year run and hosted early performances from now-global superstars like Katy Perry, Eminem, Blink-182 and many, many more.
That tour’s closing in 2018 marked a turning point for Vans’ support of music, as it dovetailed with the shuttering of Vans’ permanent House of Vans venue in Brooklyn last September after eight years in operation.
And as music tastes evolve, so has Vans’ music and culture strategy. Still the brand of choice for punk and hard rock heads, Vans has made inroads with hip-hop, electronic and R&B communities, which was reflected in its Detroit lineup and recent global partnership with Schoolboy Q, who headlined and programmed three House of Vans Share the Stage concerts in Chicago, London and Guangzhou, China, with unsigned artists for the brand last fall.
Though the Brooklyn House of Vans may have closed in Greenpoint in favor of an on-the-road approach to reach more markets, , Vans sales are still sturdy enough (revenue was up a whopping 26 percent in Q2 of Vans’ 2019 fiscal year) for music initiatives to remain on the brand’s balance sheet.
“The reason Vans is so successful is because our consumers know we’re not signing someone to something that is transactional and moving on to the next band,” Vitkus says. “We think in terms of mutual partnership, and working with someone our consumers are interested in.”
As Vans continues to back musicians, there’s evidence that other music-brand alliances may be starting to pivot back toward the patron model pioneered by soft drink and shoe brands half a decade ago.
In December, Proximo Spirits’ 1800 Tequila teamed with Pusha T for an event and original compilation (1800 Seconds) curated by the rapper to showcase a diverse lineup of talent across multiple genres. The project was supported by a launch event in Manhattan with a line of hopeful attendees that stretched six city blocks.
“It was exciting to see consumers do care about music discovery, and to be part of something more from the ground up,” says Alyssa Convertini, co-founder of Brand New, A Collective, experiential and content agency, who developed the program with Proximo. “1800 is a brand who wants to play in the space the right way, and provide a platform for an emerging culture without coming in and exploiting it or only using it to their benefit.”
Andy Cohn, president of The Fader, which has produced many emerging-art¬ist programs for brands like Converse, VitaminWater and Anheuser-Busch over the years, hopes the renewed investment from Vans and other stalwarts like Red Bull reverses recent marketing cycles.
“Brands are getting away from the middle,” he says. “What happens is this new brand manager comes in and says ‘Fuck this emerging artist program, give me Ed Sheeran.’ There’s nothing wrong with that, but brands need to be doing both, or have a strategy that threads those two together and be really committed so you can see the amazing stories that can come from that.”
Andrew Hampp is a music marketing consultant and founder of 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, Calif.