The Welcoming of Brands Into Music Journalism
a.k.a. Thoughts on Resident Advisor's new creative agency.
Resident Advisor has taken its fair share of lumps in recent years, and while it’s unclear whether the company’s reputation will ever fully recover—accepting a £750,000 government grant during the pandemic isn’t something people will forget anytime soon—it nonetheless remains active, and has arguably retained it status as the world’s most prominent electronic music publication. (Full disclosure: I myself have previously written for RA in a freelance capacity, although my last contribution was in 2019.) More importantly (at least from a financial standpoint), Resident Advisor also continues to serve as an online ticket-selling portal, and as of last week, a new branch has been officially added to the company’s scope of operations: its own in-house creative agency. As reported in Adweek, the new venture is called 23:59, and will be led by RA’s “recently appointed chief brand and creative officer Kazim Rashid, with Italian fashion house Bottega Veneta as one of its founding clients.”
Launched as “an incubator for ideas, creativity and culture” and touted as “the leading solution for brands wanting to connect with the huge global electronic music and nightlife community,” 23:59 might seem like a significant (and potentially eyebrow-raising) addition to RA’s mission. In reality though, the change may ultimately be more cosmetic than concrete. Looking at the company’s newly designed brand partnerships page, the 23:59 name and associated messaging are new, but much of the highlighted work—which includes collaborations with Nike, Asahi, Absolut Vodka and Rockstar Games—dates back years.
Nevertheless, the launch of a creative agency (or “creative studio,” as 23:59 is billed on the RA website) is absolutely the kind of thing that will rankle electronic music purists and traditionalists, particularly those with ties to the genre’s DIY roots and community-oriented foundational values. Admittedly, those ties have become increasingly tenuous over the years as dance music has grown into a global, multibillion-dollar industry, but that hasn’t stopped Resident Advisor from positioning itself as an organization “dedicated to shining light on the passionate people and communities around the world that make electronic music tick.” It’s a compelling narrative, and one that RA hasn’t cultivated alone; back in 2015, a New York Times profile hailed the company as a “staunchly independent” enterprise, citing its “devotion to the ‘underground’ side of the culture that is at odds with the music’s mainstream popularity.”
Although words like “underground” have become rather vague—some might say entirely meaningless—in today’s music landscape, they still carry conceptual weight, particularly for brands in search of entryways into various pockets of youth culture. For them, “underground” is often just a code word for “passion,” and their need to access that passion—and hopefully direct it toward the buying of certain products—is often at the heart of brand partnerships, and media outlets have been able to cash in. How? By utilizing their knowledge of (and standing in) various creative communities, the Resident Advisors of the world can serve as a bridge between artists—many of whom are themselves struggling to make ends meet, especially in a music ecosystem increasingly characterized by the limited financial returns of streaming—and the multinational corporations who want to tap into their devoted fanbases.
From the outside, this might seem somewhat nefarious—it certainly doesn’t feel very journalistic, let alone DIY—but it’s also a reliable revenue source during what’s undeniably a tough time for online media. Ad sales might have paid the bills back when publications only existed in print, but once most media shifted online during the 2000s and 2010s, it didn’t take long for advertisers to realize that digital ads weren’t particularly effective, no matter how much clickbait outlets churned out in an attempt to boost their pageviews (and fulfill all of the ad impressions they’d sold). With each passing year, digital advertising sales are increasingly dominated by outlets that offer scale above all else, meaning that tech giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon (i.e. the companies that attract the most eyeballs) routinely pull in giant shares of online ad revenue while more niche outlets (e.g. music publications) are left with dwindling returns.
Knowing that, it’s not surprising that a media company would look to bolster its brand partnerships business, and Resident Advisor is far from the first publication to do it. Vice has been working with brands since the mid 2000s, and has its own in-house agency called Virtue. Dazed has Dazed Studio, which aims to “create innovative and award-winning co-branded and white label campaigns across the luxury and lifestyle sectors.” Crack magazine might be an extremely niche publication, but it also launched its own creative agency last year, Crack Creative Company (CC Co.), which built upon the company’s prior work with clients such as New Balance, Apple, Burberry and Sonos. In truth, the list of in-house creative agencies is endless, and it’s not something that’s solely restricted to music and culture publications. Even the New York Times, arguably the most respected media outlet on the planet, has its own “branded content studio,” T Brand, which has been active since 2014.
From a business perspective, Resident Advisor is actually arriving late to the party, a delay that was likely only possible because the company for so long was primarily fueled by another revenue source: ticket sales. The pandemic obviously blew a giant hole in that business model, and the recent explosion of mobile ticket platforms like DICE—which notably bolstered its editorial / curatorial profile by acquiring Boiler Room late last year—likely hasn’t been good for RA’s bottom line either. Leaning into brand partnerships (and formalizing something the company has already been doing for years) is probably one of the few potential growth areas for Resident Advisor, so the creation of 23:59 makes good economic sense, but what does it mean for the site’s future as a bastion of electronic music journalism?