By BEN SISARIO
RIGHT now it is just a shell, the peeling remnant of an old dry cleaner on a graffiti-covered block in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. But soon the 5,200-square-foot space will be transformed into a sleek new recording studio in the heart of the underground-rock capital. And in the latest twist in pop’s relationship with Madison Avenue, the struggling bands making music there will already be encountering corporate America: the studio is being built by Converse, which will let them record free.
A shoe company giving away studio time might seem peculiar. But with its new project, Converse — whose sneakers have been worn by generations of bands, from the Ramones to the Strokes — wants to become a patron of the rock arts. The company is not alone: lifestyle brands are becoming the new record labels.
Looking to infiltrate the lives of their customers on an ever deeper cultural level, they are starting imprints, scouting for talent and writing checks for nearly every line item on a band’s budget. And as the traditional record industry crumbles, plenty of musicians are welcoming these new rock ’n’ roll Medici.
“Artists are finding the only way to achieve any financial safety is to become a lapdog of the great corporations,” said the author and media critic Douglas Rushkoff, “just like the great painters did in the Renaissance, when it became impossible to sustain oneself as an artist without a patron.”
Not long ago most youth-minded brands’ pop strategies were limited to tour sponsorships and licensing songs for TV commercials. Now they compete to offer bands the kind of services once strictly the province of record companies: money for video shoots, marketing, even distribution. Red Bull and Mountain Dew have record labels with credible rosters. Levi’s, Converse, Dr. Martens, Scion, Nike and Bacardi have all sponsored music by the kind of under-the-radar artists covered in Pitchfork and The Village Voice, and they blitz the blogosphere with promotional budgets fatter than most labels could muster.
For the brands the desired payoff is coolness by association. And while a generation ago these arrangements would have carried a stigma for the artists, branding deals are now as common in rock as guitars. A band’s decision to do business with a soft-drink company is often no different from its decision to sign with a record label.
“Music is everywhere now, and if you have it tied to a brand, there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast, a girl-group-meets-grunge band from Los Angeles likely to dot critics’ Top 10 lists this year.
Ms. Cosentino’s band has existed for barely a year, but she is already a branding vet. Well before she signed a proper record deal, with the small label Mexican Summer, she released a single through a boutique headphone company. And when Converse asked her to collaborate with the rapper Kid Cudi and Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend on a song that would be given away on its Web site, she didn’t hesitate. “It was an amazing opportunity,” she said by phone recently from a gig in Iowa. “If I said no it would have been stupid.”
Converse’s studio, called Converse Rubber Tracks, is the brainchild of Geoff Cottrill, the company’s chief marketing officer. On a tour of the raw space he wore a pair of ripped jeans, a Rolex watch and a big, I-swear-it’s-true smile as he described the plans for the studio, which is to open by the end of the year. After applying online, bands deemed dedicated and needy enough will be able to record whatever they want there. No need to prepare rhymes for “Chuck Taylor” — Converse says it will have no influence on the music, the artists will keep ownership rights, and, as with many brand-as-patron projects, the songs aren’t intended to be used in ads.
Mr. Cottrill said the company wants to “give back” to its loyal customers, but of course the enterprise is not purely altruistic. The idea is that helping new bands will build good will for the brand (and generate future sales) and also give Converse an advantage over all the other companies out there competing for young eyeballs.
“Think of a cul-de-sac with four garages, and in those garages are four bands,” Mr. Cottrill said. “On the street are all the big brands of the world — Coke, Apple, the car companies — standing there waiting for the garage door to open and the cool band to step out so they can tell them they’re going to make them famous. But I would venture to say that inside those garages those kids are already wearing our shoes.”
To run the studio Converse has hired Cornerstone, a media and marketing company in New York with a history of seeding corporate branding campaigns with hip music. It also operates Mountain Dew’s Green Label Sound imprint, which releases free MP3s by blogger favorites like Neon Indian and Chromeo. Jon Cohen, a founder of Cornerstone — who is also an owner of The Fader magazine and its related record label — said his brand-run projects fill voids in the beleaguered music industry. “A brand now has the ability to really break an artist,” Mr. Cohen said.
Lifestyle brands have been cultivating their roles as music curators for years; Starbucks even started a label after its success with albums like Ray Charles’s “Genius Loves Company.” And the patronage model grows out of the same kind of margin-trolling philosophy that has led big companies like Apple and Nike to license music by rising but still low-profile artists, said Josh Rabinowitz, director of music at the Grey agency.
“Indie-inflected music serves as a kind of Trojan horse,” Mr. Rabinowitz said. “Consumers feel they are discovering something that they believe to be cool and gaining admittance to a more refined social clique.”
An early adopter was Scion, Toyota’s Gen-Y line, which started a giveaway label in 2005 and still puts on dance and metal shows around the country. Red Bull Records began in 2007 with a team of former major-label executives, and other companies offer bands more specific forms of support: Motel 6’s Rock Yourself to Sleep program, for example, gives free rooms to touring groups.
Full feature at nytimes.com/music