In a pristine living room of a Clinton Hill brownstone, the members of Baltimore indie pop band, the Sun Club, were chilling hard. The band, a gaggle of long-haired men of vaguely crunchy college variety who describe themselves as a “group of buddies playing happy music,” lolled on the meticulously curated furniture from Brooklyn Flea, amidst the deliberately placed tchotchkes. Were it not for a neon light bent into the lumpy shape of a Sour Patch Kid hanging just above their heads, the scene could have been ripped straight from the pages of a design magazine aimed squarely at moneyed co-eds.
Though they looked at home, the Sun Club boys were here for just one night as part of a new project called the Patch, which gives touring bands and artists an opportunity to stay for one or several nights in Brooklyn at an enormous crash pad rented out by Mondelez International (the multi-billion dollar, multi-national corporation formerly known as Kraft), completely free of charge.
The Patch, if you haven’t heard already, is linked more directly to a specific brand: Sour Patch Kids, or those mouth-scratching, movie concession chew toys. A floor-to-ceiling shelf devoted entirely to sweet and sour gummies, dorm room-like signs designating a variety of painfully unclever names for each bedroom (Sour Scape, Beats & Berries), and of course the sexless, sugary monster that loomed over the Sun Club were a reminder that this is the house that candy built.
“We’re going to take advantage of this experience until there’s no experience left,” laughed Shane McCord, the vocalist and guitarist who is often the band’s spokesman. The boys– Devin McCord (brother of Shane), Mikey Powers (the McCord’s neighbor growing up), and latecomers Adam Schoen and Kory Johnson– informed me they were intent on making the most of their stay in what they called the “crazy candy mansion.”
“I think we’re staying up all night and taking bubble baths,” added bass player Adam Schoen.
Right on. I guess.
On one level, I could totally relate to the boys’ glee– the Patch, a fine hotelier’s vision of a place where hip kids would be honored to lay their heads at night, is a veritable mansion of a home, a chateau by Brooklyn standards, complete with four floors (including a finished basement), a backyard, a sound booth and recording set up, several flat screen TVs, a brand new kitchen, and three-and-a-half baths. Multiple bedrooms are adorned with decor worthy of an Urban Outfitters home spread: antlers, metallic rugs, an AstroTurf Ottoman, eye-popping graphic work by local artists, and Brooklyn-themed French toile. You get the idea.
But on another level, taking handouts from a corporation that makes junk food is a bit sticky.
Musicians who stay in the Patch are selected by the brand with the help of a music agency, NUE. Of course, there are two sides to the deal. A stay at the Patch means that bands are obligated to post social media updates to their own accounts while being pampered. It sounds bizarre at first, and when the publicity stunt first came to light back in early November, it was a dead ringer for awkward corporate lack of self-awareness (perfect fodder for Gawker). Other outlets simply read the Patch as an abomination, a venture that would spell ruin for “indie cred”(see: Gothamist, Digital Music News, Stereogum).
But the Patch actually asks for less than what most of those articles led us to believe. Despite all the talk of bands being required to produce “content,” guests of the Patch don’t have to write songs about the amorphous candy blob, their images won’t appear on packages of Sour Patch Kids, and you won’t hear them singing a candy jingle on Spotify or something. If they happen to use the recording studio downstairs, which the Sun Club thought of as more of a toy than anything, their music won’t be owned by Mondelez. Seriously, all the bands have to do is update their own social media pages with a photo or video from the Patch and that’s it. They’re home free.
As much as this particular photo might make you cringe, it’s just one of over 300 on the band’s personal Instagram, and the only one with an @sourpatchkids or #brooklynpatch. I clicked through nearly every photo on the Sour Patch Kids social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram) and found no reference to the Sun Club. The Sour Patch neon light is nowhere to be found in the photo of the boys, and they don’t appear to be munching on candy. Most striking is that every response to the post appears to positive: “Hahaha super cool!!!”, “I could see y’all doing this,” “this is amazing,” etc. Where’s all the talk about “selling out”?
But considering the other goofy marketing tactics alluding to an image of laid-back cool, the Patch and related social media strategy totally make sense. And it’s funny, but when I met them, the Sun Club band members radiated a vibe of chill, LOL slackerdom that also happens to be Sour Patch Kids’ new angle. I mean, just look at the content that appears on the candy’s personal Facebook Page: a young lad eating candies without a care in the world, this is his favorite thing to do, and he’s not ashamed. Hell, he’s got a remote control on his belly. You better BELIEVE this kid isn’t showing up to any of those college classes his parents paid for.
The Patch not only offered the Sun Club all the goddamned sugar they could possibly eat (and the boys obliged–to hell with diabetes, to hell with parents) but also the opportunity to experience New York without the struggle. “They’re so, so cool about me just bagging up some Sour Patch Kids and taking it to my girlfriend. There’s just so much candy in this house, it’s amazing,” said Devin McCord.
Though the Patch is undeniably luxurious, the Sun Club didn’t seem too perturbed by their usual tour digs. During my visit to the house, one of the guys gestured toward two plush beds in a room upstairs: “That would cost us at least $100 on tour.”
During our conversation, the boys alternated between rounds of chuckling and facetious banter. All they seemed intent to impress upon me was that they hadn’t finished college. “We all dropped out of school and stuff,” drummer Devin McCord explained. “I was in school and we did a tour and I almost failed all the classes I was in.”
But guests at the Patch are not given completely free range. A PR representative watched our conversation with a tentative smile, and the band’s management team sat across the living room, probably planning how they were going to get the Sun Club to the Bowery Ballroom a few hours later. Around the house I found little nanny reminders (“Takeout menus are here!”) and the boys spoke of a house manager who’s on call 24 hours a day.
The band’s manager, Josh, explained how they found out about the place. “Our friends were in the band Joy Wave and we saw them posting when they were here, so we inquired about what the deal was,” he said. “We [the managers] knew it would be perfect for them. I’ve never seen a place that you can just have a band come through and stay [for free], especially in New York.”
And let’s be real: Most touring bands couldn’t dream of crashing at a place that’s even half as nice as the Patch.
As with many corporate branding schemes, the Patch seems like an outrageous stunt at first. But all the jabber about a big corporate candy company threatening the delicate authenticity of indie bands left out an important truth about this rather sticky arrangement.
The music industry has changed significantly in recent years, as confirmed by Lyle Hysen, founder of Bank Robber music. “As the revenue streams have sunk for the labels, it’s meant that labels have become less dependable than licensing, which meant that now everyone wanted to do licensing,” Hysen explained. “So even those bands that didn’t want to do it before were like ‘Wait, we’ll do this now.’ So everyone’s chips got on the table. […] So that’s been the change — it’s become the thing instead of just something.”
As record companies have struggled with how to convince people to pay for the same music they could easily download for free, profits have fallen precipitously and musicians who would have traditionally looked toward major label contracts for support, are looking elsewhere.
Licensing, something that was once off limits for many bands, is now only off limits for very few bands. It definitely still threatens artistic integrity, but it’s turned into something that’s not at all surprising, and it doesn’t seem to be a problem for the “indie rock” fan base. From the perspective of many bands, if giving corporations a piece of their work to use in advertising keeps them on the road and allows them to continue making music, then so be it.
For bands, a relationship with the Patch is a lot like licensing. They’re just trading one capitalist player for another. The incentives for bands are still the same. But because artists aren’t obligated to share their creative output and aren’t giving Sour Patch Kids the opportunity to exploit their actual work, it might even be the lesser evil.
Instead of capitalizing on a band’s artistic output for brand cred, Sour Patch Kids are seeking to cash in on the authentic, IDGAF attitude of bands like Sun Club. In exchange for a piece of themselves, bands are getting a plush place to stay while they play shows in the city. That piece isn’t necessarily creative capital (like a song), rather, it’s their image and ability to connect with fans over social media.
Overall, this new kind of arrangement isn’t spoiling the street cred of bands that wouldn’t otherwise readily sell themselves to major labels for the same kinds of perks (fancy digs, bubble baths and an unlimited supply of energy boosting white crystals). The bands that would never have sought major label backing in the first place are not going to stay at the Patch. Bands that don’t care for perks won’t gobble them up. They’ll rely on their existing network of artists and friends for help when they’re on tour, because that’s who they care about appealing to. And bands that feel icky about partnering with brands won’t being staying at the Patch either.
I asked the guys of Sun Club how they felt about taking handouts from a brand: “Have you ever associated with brands before?”
Devin was the most serious he’d been all night when he uttered a decisive, “No.”
“Then how do you feel about teaming up with Sour Patch Kids, did you have doubts about it at first?” I asked.
There was an awkward silence for several seconds that was suddenly broken by nervous laughter. Shane giggled: “I feel like of all the brands, the Sour Patch Kids fits us the best.”
Adam: “I’m pretty hyped up on stage and so is the candy.”
Kory: “Adam’s always sour and then he’s sweet.”
They quickly brushed off the question about corporate “opportunities,” in favor of celebrating all the benefits they were receiving. Certainly, they were in an awkward position that probably confined them to a certain kind of talk (PR was watching, as was their manager), but the boys responded as if they truly didn’t care, as if my questions were ridiculous. At this point, at least for this particular genre of music (i.e. not punk, not “underground” anything, but a type of music that nevertheless has the confounding label of “indie”), dealing with advertising at some point is kind of a given.
So should we be shocked that bands like Sun Club have teamed up with Sour Patch Kids? No. Does a sour union like this one ruin their credibility as “indie” artists? Well, no. This is what we’ve come to expect of “indie” artists in a post-record label era. “Indie” means pretty much nothing now, it’s simply a category occupied by bands that would be working day and night for major label contracts if such things still existed.
Sun Club has no reason to turn down corporate offerings that don’t lay a hand on their music. Given the constraints of their genre, their success is kind of dependent upon it. And actually, it seems less likely that the bands are being taken advantage of by a pot-bellied gelatinous sugar blob, and more likely that the bands are playing the candy man.