It's getting toward 10 p.m. at the offices of Rumblefish in Portland, Oreg., but founder Paul Anthony will not be going home anytime soon. Instead he is sitting in front of an elaborate mixing board, staring up at computer monitors that show graphic representations of the sounds coming out of the adjoining recording studio. A local singer named Liv -- with a style reminiscent of Jill Scott -- is laying down vocal tracks at a leisurely rate, and Anthony is anything but impatient. "If I'm not producing something," he says, "I go crazy."
Anthony, who is 27, means that in the sense of producing music, but he's also had a productive couple of years in his day job, as the "Big Fish" -- that's his official title -- of the unusual "music delivery" company that he started while still a student at the University of Oregon. Combining a passion for music with boundless energy and a willingness to shift his business model to find opportunities, he has created a concept he calls "music identity" to reel in clients such as Adidas, Red Bull, JCPenney, and Pabst Brewing and quickly crank up revenue into the seven figures. That's not bad for a start-up with 10 employees, and it's a case study in making it up as you go. Doug Fieldhouse, CEO of Portland-based Vesta, the highest-revenue company on last year's Inc. 500 list, encountered Anthony as a contestant in an Oregon Entrepreneur's Forum business plan competition (Rumblefish won) and ended up investing in the new company and joining its board. "I had no idea if Rumblefish would be successful," says Fieldhouse, "but I had no doubt that Paul would be."
In about 24 hours, Liv will be performing at an event for another Rumblefish client, Umpqua Bank. If the idea of music identity sounds a little confusing at first, the relationship between Rumblefish and Umpqua is a helpful introduction. The theory is that one way consumer-oriented companies can give meaning to their brands is by way of the music they associate with -- whether it's simply the soundtrack to their advertising or through more ambitiously unpredictable marketing tactics. Anthony argues that while plenty of brands are willing to rely on teams of specialists -- design firms, color experts, and so on -- to craft a logo, they often give too little thought to how the brand sounds. And this matters, he contends, because music can reach any customer or potential customer who is watching an ad, who's on hold, or who's in a retail environment. "That's pretty much everybody," he says.
And for Anthony, music is not just a trendy new way to make brands stand out -- it's pretty much his life. He was playing drums in San Francisco Bay area clubs at the age of 14. And that's why, after a full workday, he has settled into Rumblefish's in-house studio to record Liv. Her collaborator, Sedell, shows up with "the MPC," a device that is somewhere between a musical instrument and a portable computer, used to create beats and loops. Soon Sedell's latest backing-track creation is flowing through the speakers, and Liv starts working through her lines. It's slow going; every phrase seems to require dozens of takes. But Anthony looks energized, which is good, since he'll be here until almost 4 a.m. On some level, it's this deep connection to music that he delivers to clients.
As aggressive as he is about finding creative ways for his clients to use music, Anthony always comes back to how much licensing can help the artists. Too many musicians simply don't understand business, and either naively fail to exploit their creativity for all it is worth in the marketplace or just as naively hope that they'll hit the increasingly rare jackpot of old-style rock-star megasuccess. Smart musicians, he argues, "don't want to be rock stars anymore." They want control over what they create and a steady, fair income. "That's what's driving the new independents," he says.
You can see why a youth apparel firm or a beer maker might see the appeal of the Rumblefish music identity theory, but does a bank really need a music identity? The fact that Umpqua -- which has 92 branches, from Seattle to Sacramento -- has decided the answer is yes says something about both the bank and the state of marketing and branding today. Ray Davis, who took over as CEO about 10 years ago when Umpqua was a small chain with about $100 million in assets under management, wanted to push for aggressive growth, but faced the obvious question: How do you differentiate a bank? Since bank products are pretty much interchangeable, he has decided to address this dilemma by treating Umpqua as something like a lifestyle brand. "We're almost more of a marketing company than a bank," he says. This is why the company pays a lot of attention to things that don't seem to have much to do with banking -- such as the design of its "stores" (not branches) and its own line of coffee. And it's why it tries to connect with consumers through, for example, ice cream trucks.
Specifically, it was a stunt to promote the opening of new branches (um, stores) in northern California that started Umpqua thinking about music identity. The bank's advertising agency, Portland's Leopold Ketel & Partners, hired three ice cream trucks to drive around the relevant neighborhoods pumping out music, handing out free ice cream, and in the process spreading buzz about a different kind of bank. But what music, exactly? Up-tempo numbers like Outkast's "Hey Ya" and James Brown's "I Feel Good" made the 20-song playlist, and Rumblefish was brought in to help with the sonic logistics and to make sure any licensing issues were handled correctly. That was the opening: Anthony has since convinced the bank that its "handshake marketing" style is a perfect fit with music identity, and he has a couple of fresh projects in the works.
Rumblefish is not an advertising agency or a marketing or branding firm per se, he says, "but I've met a lot of brand managers who invest heavily in new ways to speak to their consumers." In a world where every consumer is assaulted with marketing messages, music can be a way for a brand to make a connection through all the clutter. "That connection," Anthony says, "is what they're buying from us."
Improvisation is part of music and part of business. Anthony's improvisation skills got a test in college that set him on the path to starting a business rather than a band. He had a double major in composition and recording technology; what he didn't have was enough money to get by. He hit on an idea: licensing.
Of course, he didn't really know anything about how to, say, license his music to a filmmaker or an advertiser. So he cold-called every production company listed in an off-the-shelf filmmaker directory, and showed up at a local television station and asked, "Who makes your commercials?" In other words, he didn't really know what he was doing. But the cold-calling hooked him up with small-budget filmmakers who were thrilled at the idea of obtaining a full orchestral score for a few thousand dollars. Films like Dawn of the Dwellers and The Killing Club didn't become box-office smashes, but the money was pretty good for an impoverished college student. Meanwhile, Anthony's persistence with the local TV station led him to a gig writing a jingle for the local power company.
The bad news: The music department kicked him out -- "for licensing my homework," as Anthony puts it. Improvising, he changed his major to business and took a few law classes. There was something to this whole idea of licensing, he figured, that could benefit musicians and generate good money, too. As he was working out his theory, corporate advertisers were becoming more and more interested in the power of music. Mitsubishi and Volkswagen, for example, each released ads that boosted little-known acts such as Dirty Vegas and Nick Drake onto the radio and the record charts -- and got serious buzz as a result.
But as anyone who brushes up against the recorded music business knows, there's a dense legal thicket between any piece of music and anyone who wants to license it: performance rights, composition rights, different rules for different countries. And if it's a hip-hop tune with three samples, the complexity level triples. There are scores of small companies that help pick songs for commercials or negotiate clearance deals and the like. Because this market has so many players, it's fairly disorganized, and pricing can be all over the map.
Rumblefish has placed songs on The Sopranos and on a forthcoming video game.
This is the realm Rumblefish entered, but with a twist: Anthony, a relentless networker, started to put together a stable of upstart independent artists from every genre he could think of; they agreed to let him represent their music to licensees in exchange for favorable terms. That way, Rumblefish could offer clients something different. The company would be happy to do a search for the perfect tune, but if getting rights to a hit single by a well-known band proved too expensive or complicated, it could offer something similar from its own network and do so quickly and nimbly because all the clearance issues were worked out in advance. (Now Rumblefish has more than 400 artists in its stable, including George Clinton, of Parliament fame.) The company has placed songs for use in JCPenney commercials, for The Sopranos and other TV shows, and for a forthcoming video game.
"It generated a lot of buzz," says a Pabst brand manager of Rumblefish's campaign. "They did it in such an authentic way."
Then Anthony hooked up with Neal Stewart, brand manager for Pabst Brewing's resurgent Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, for what became the first test of Anthony's bigger idea of music identity. Because PBR wanted to maintain a kind of grass-roots image -- and also because its marketing budget was lean -- the brand wanted to be associated not with hit songs but with up-and-coming local bands that connected with its product. Rumblefish researched the music scenes in two markets, Kansas City and Cleveland, identified a handful of appropriate bands, and executed a quasi-underground program that involved helping those artists cut singles (in PBR-branded packaging) that they could sell or give away as promotions. That way PBR was positioned as a supporter of local indie music -- a part of the scene rather than just some outsider trying to exploit it. Stewart used Rumblefish again for a similar project for another Pabst brand, Ranier, and is figuring the firm into plans for future online marketing because he liked the way this initial foray into music identity played out. "It generated a lot of buzz," he says. "They did it in such an authentic way." In other words, it made a connection for the brand -- music to Anthony's ears.
Another trait that can help a musician is comfort -- even hamminess -- as a performer. That can help an entrepreneur, too, and Anthony definitely has it. His goal for 2005, in fact, is to concentrate on doing his song and dance for as many big clients as possible, and he should be freed up to do that with the addition of Carr Biggerstaff, one of his board members, who has come out of semiretirement to serve as president and basically be the operator while Anthony sells. Biggerstaff, 47, is an amiable and low-key guy with deep experience in technology and marketing, having worked with Andersen Consulting and Intel, among others.
Fieldhouse, the Vesta CEO whom Anthony considers a mentor, thinks this is a critical step for Rumblefish. Much of the day-to-day operations of the company amount to research and detective work: networking with musicians and others to help meet obscure requests (from figuring out the coolest PBR-friendly bands in Cleveland to finding hip-hop tracks for a Nike project in Asia), identifying samples and sorting out the thorny legal clearance issues, and so on. Last year the company brought on a full-time lawyer, Stacy Ison, who specializes in music rights. Now Biggerstaff can oversee those issues, and 2005 should be the year, Fieldhouse says, that Anthony manages to identify 20 top potential clients to "attack" before the real competition emerges. Fieldhouse's company, Vesta, which provides back-end commerce technology for telecom companies and others, followed the same strategy. Rumblefish, Fieldhouse believes, needs to get its story out there: "There's been basically no marketing."
In the two years since that PBR test case, Anthony has sold his music identity concept in mostly seat-of-the-pants fashion. The closest thing Rumblefish has to marketing is the "fish car," a tiny, 100% electric vehicle that's been tricked out to resemble a fish and equipped with a thumping stereo system. (Anthony funded this, somewhat remarkably, with an obscure Department of Energy grant.) Tooling around in the fish car one day, he stopped next to one of the modified trucks that energy drink company Red Bull uses for its street team marketing. "Hey, fellow theme-car guy!" Anthony called out. This led to a conversation with the Red Bull rep, which led to Anthony getting Rumblefish involved in the company's Red Bull Music Labs events (where wannabe musicians learn recording technology and cut their own songs in five-day marathons in various cities), which in turn led to involvement in creating giveaway CDs for the company.
Adidas hired Rumblefish to help it tap the under-the-radar vibe and create some "good noise, relevant noise."
And it was at a Red Bull event that he connected with a local agency doing work for Adidas. The shoe giant has been opening stores to sell its Originals products, aiming at consumers more concerned with style than athletics. Robert Felt, who heads U.S. retail for Adidas North America, wanted to do something different to get attention for the Adidas Originals Store opening in Portland, and Anthony came up with some ideas built around music. He had recently become familiar with a Denver company called Allied Vaughn that had created a Web-based media-on-demand technology. So what if, Anthony suggested, the invitation to the Originals Store opening directed people to a website where they could pick tracks and have a custom CD -- of Portland artists -- sent to them in the mail? Rumblefish had all the connections, including the wide selection of talent in its stable (including, of course, Liv). Felt loved the idea -- it tapped into the under-the-radar vibe he wanted and was the kind of idea that created "good noise, relevant noise."
They repeated the process in Chicago, with local musicians from that city. Next came another Rumblefish brainstorm involving, of all things, street musicians. The company identified musicians in Cambridge, Mass., Miami's South Beach, Portland, and New York City's SoHo, and got them permits to set up in the vicinity of Adidas stores in each place. If a passerby gave the musicians money, the musician handed it back -- along with an Adidas Originals coupon. "And they think they're getting it from the musicians," Felt says, "which is the best part." That might sound as if it borders on tricking consumers, but to marketers these days the key issue is coming up with anything that breaks through the clutter of traditional ad messages that so many of us ignore.
If the specifics of the music identity concept shift from project to project, the underlying tune remains the same, the drumbeat of integrating brands into consumers' consciousness. And not just for obvious lifestyle companies, but also for nonobvious ones -- like Umpqua Bank. When Umpqua needed the right music at a big party to celebrate the opening of its new headquarters, it called Rumblefish. "We're not a booking agency," Anthony says, but hey, the meaning of music identity is fluid. He hooked them up with Liv. "She was hot," says Lani Hayward, Umpqua's marketing director. "I'll use her again."
More to the point, the company is working with Rumblefish on a new project. Hayward has known of Anthony for some time and kept an eye on Rumblefish's progress. She and her colleague, Umpqua brand manager David Hawkins, had puzzled over how to make a music-to-brand link for the bank. They had considered working with the likes of Muzak, but after the ice cream truck project, they decided Rumblefish was the company that had a take on music identity that made the most sense. Working with Umpqua, Rumblefish has come up with a way for customers to burn custom CDs in some of its stores, choosing from a menu of hundreds of bands, broken into categories that match up with consumer groups Umpqua has devised to match with banking needs (from the young person opening a first account to the retiree looking for investment help). As part of a welcome kit, new customers will be able to pick songs from lists put together by Rumblefish, point and click at a computer in the bank itself, and receive a custom CD in the mail. They're working together to add a music component to the bank's website, as well, and talking about a concert series for the bank's most valuable customers. "We've decided to play up Umpqua's position as a community bank," Hawkins says, "and support of local artists and local events, and it makes sense for our music to reflect that." Anthony, no doubt, likes the sound of that.
Sidebar: How Rumblefish gives its clients street cred
Adidas, the footwear and apparel giant, has been opening a string of Adidas Originals stores that target lifestyle-oriented consumers who "crave authenticity." This can be a tough demographic to reach because one wrong move can make a brand look like a phony outsider trying to cash in on what's cool. To do the legwork of making Adidas seem like a knowing insider, Adidas turned to Rumblefish, which devised special invitations to the opening parties of Adidas Originals stores in several cities. Invitees were able to go to a dedicated website, choose from a list of songs, and get a free CD. Adidas wanted up-and-coming artists that would impress even in-the-know music connoisseurs, and the company wanted many of the artists to be local. In Chicago, Rumblefish had two weeks to network with its DJ, label, and musician contacts to come up with a list. "We want the list to send the message that the brand knows the market," says Rumblefish founder Paul Anthony. Some highlights from the Chicago list:
"Why Wander Off," by Unique Chique.
A Chicago indie art-rock band with a solid local following. The melodies are innovative and the pulse confident, Anthony says -- it'll inspire you to spend the extra bucks you didn't have and feel good about the sneakers you found.
"Breaking Treaties and Burning Flags," by Clouds Forming Crowns.
With a neo-David Bowie sound, this band came to Rumblefish's attention by way of a Chicago DJ. These guys aren't poseurs, says Anthony, they mean it -- which is his riff on the brand-band link: The Originals customer feels good about the gear even on "a lonely walk with no one around."
"I Love Tomorrow," by Maker.
This "low-fi, hip-hop artist" is an Anthony favorite, with a growing Chicago rep. The mix of jazz and hip-hop matches the brand, in his view: "Restating the old in a new and respectful way is the essence of Adidas Originals."
"The Sound," by Contriband.
A seven-piece band whose sound includes turntables and trumpet and fuses jazz, rock, and soul. Both the band and the brand, says Anthony, are about "self-expression. It's unique gear, limited edition, all the time."
"Chesapeake Shore," by Sarah Siskind.
A Nashville singer-songwriter who has written tunes for Alison Krauss and others. Her sound is sexy but classy, Anthony says -- a perfect match for the brand.
Rob Walker wrote about Kalle Lasn and the anti-Nike sneaker Blackspot in Inc.'s October issue.