Perhaps the most useful overview to date of the importance of American Express’ “Unstaged” concert series – in which leading artists played live for millions of Vevo viewers, their concerts shot by leading directors – came at an impromptu rooftop conference at the Cannes Lions advertising festival, which focused inparticular on Arcade Fire‘s part of the project. The conference was organised by Momentum, a division of global advertising group McCann Worldgroup which specialises in organising branded events, like Unstaged.
Our below report is followed by an exclusive Q&A with American Express’ Jessica Igoe, who ran the shows; and notably paid for them all…
When asked at the conference why Amex decided to get involved in this ambitious project, Igoe answered: “We’ve always done music, but this time we wanted to create a true online experience,” i.e. beyond standard livestreaming. “So we went for the idea of the triumvirate of band, director and platform (Vevo, with YouTube), using the latter to allow fans to interact by doing things like choosing the encore songs. Would it sell credit cards? Maybe… but the key thing was engagement with the audience.”
For example, Igoe said one of the best tweets she read about Unstaged was ‘”this is the best concert I’ve ever seen in my living room“.’
Did the band not fear selling out by working so closely with a brand? Scott Rodger, Arcade Fire’s manager, said the group was concvinced by The National‘s Unstaged show, as they noted that “it wasn’t overbranded: they weren’t wearing (Amex) t-shirts. Plus we saw they got 3 million viewers. But it was more the concept than anything else” that got the Canadian band on board, said Rodger.
Said legendary director and Monty Python Gilliam, filming the concert and a behind-the-scenes documentary on Arcade Fire was a great “chance to do something different.” The director truly enjoyed “following the band around,” and indeed said “that was what intrigued me the most: a chance to show that the band are good people.”
“Today, we can do extraordinary films, technically speaking,” said Gilliam; “but without ideas, they’re nothing! What counts is people getting together. Usually transparency is used to cover the truth;” and here, this was not the case. “none of it was ruthlessly planned: Amex stayed in the background,” said the director.
Asked if Arcade Fire would do something like this again, Rodger answered – tellingly – that “the days of the label doing the marketing for you are over. The band comes up with the ideas. Labels just distribute. We would work with Amex again, though.”
Gilliam went further, suggesting “maybe the best way for brands to approach clients is to work with artists they like. Like patrons of art back in the 19th century. There’s a new world developing.”
“We have shareholders,” said Amex’s Igoe, “but we know people are passionate about art. So we partner with great artists; but it’s always about the customer at the end of the day.” That said, of course the brand measured Unstaged’s return on investment: 4 million streams, and an average watch time of 22 minutes. That’s the sort of attention span most brands dream of.
Joe Killian, who executive produced Unstaged for Momentum, said that although Igoe wouldn’t say so herself, “Amex clients that followed the shows stay with Amex; and they spend more…”
And the proof, as they say, is in the pudding: Momentum has since gone on to produce other equally ambitious music+brands projects, most recently a Jane’s Addiction concert to launch LG’s new 3D smartphone. Mr Gilliam may well be right about a “new world developing”…
Q&A with Jessica Igoe, VP sponsorships & entertainment access, American Express
– Why did Amex got involved with Unstaged, and what did you get out of it?
American Express has been providing our cardmembers with memorable music experiences for years through our Early On Sale Cardmember Ticket Access programme. We did however have heart to try and get more scale in the market while cracking the digital space. We came up with the idea for Amex Unstaged in order to drive business to our partners (artists, YouTube, VEVO, etc) while also creating a never-been-done before music experience online. Service is at the core of the American Express brand and this is just one way to serve music fans all over the world.
– Why are brands like Amex now happy to stay in the background in projects like Unstaged? Arcade Fire’s manager said they got involved when they saw they wouldn’t have to wear Amex t-shirts; surely you have some minimum requirements?
We believe that if we focus on the music fan first and create a quality experience with amazingly creative artists, music fans will credit Amex in having a role in bringing them amazing experiences. We don’t have to shout at our customers. Also, many times we try and create an environment where artists can collaborate and then they are the ones who are speaking on our behalf, we don’t have to.
– Are brands the new equivalent of 19th century patrons of art, as Terry Gilliam put it?
I think that many brands are realising that they can get from point A to point B in many different ways and one way to ingratiate you to your customers is by supporting and enabling their passions whether it be music, film, fashion, etc. I’d like to think that Amex has some role in providing a new perspective on what our cardmembers already love. I’m not sure I’d compare ourselves to “19th Century patrons”, however!
– You said you might like to do future Unstaged concerts with bigger artists, like Beyonce. Doesn’t Amex make more of a statement by teaming up with lesser-known or cult artists like AC or Duran Duran?
We have the fortunate position of being able to do multiple streams in one year so we can create a diverse lineup from indie to pop to rock. It’s both/and, not either/or. I look forward to announcing our Amex Unstaged fall shows very soon.
This is the third of a series of midemblog posts on the “Unstaged” concert series; you can check out our interview with Vevo’s Rio Caraeff here, and our Cannes Lions music+brands panel report (with Pharrell, Universal, Digitas and more) here.