Musicians as product pitchmen

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So Usher is designing and selling lingerie – for men. Opera star Renee Fleming helped design a new perfume, “La Voce by Renee Fleming,” unveiled on opening day of the current Met Opera season. Jennifer Lopez has a new line of clothing, as well as perfume; The RZA of Wu-Tang Clan has co-founded a subscription-only internet chess club; Common is hawking Microsoft’s Zune mp3 player; and Peter Gabriel has co-founded an internet website that attempts to take what you already like and suggest other artists and films and TV shows that you should try.

This goes way beyond musicians simply endorsing a product. In each of these cases, the artists involved are actually stepping into second careers as entrepreneurs. Other artists have plunged into the deep end – the so-called “360 deals” signed by Madonna and U2, where all kinds of merchandising, touring, and other related sources of income are signed over to Live Nation, the country’s behemoth music presenter and venue owner, in return for a megamillion-dollar contract. Here, the musicians have become business partners of the corporation. (U2’s deal differs a bit from Madonna’s, in that their music rights are not included.)

So, is the music industry now in such bad shape that even the top acts need to find another way to make a buck? Does Jennifer Lopez really care so deeply that teenagers smell good, or is her perfume just a way to hedge her bets when CD sales tank? The 360 deals, of course, seem to be all about the money. Some of these other ventures, though, seem quite unlikely to make a fortune. In fact, some of them are intended NOT to: the RZA’s chess club costs $48 a year to play, but that money is headed towards a foundation that brings chess to urban schools. Renee Fleming’s perfume is being sold as a fundraiser for the Met, at least initially. And Peter Gabriel has a history of entrepreneurial pursuits that seem to be bottom-line-blind, most notably his longstanding world music record company, Real Music. The company has survived more than 20 years because it’s artistically excellent and commercially viable, so it pulls its own weight even if it doesn’t make anybody rich.

Thousands of smaller bands and lower-profile musicians have also become entrepreneurs – because they’ve had to. So they start their own labels, manage their own affairs, create and merchandise their own t-shirts, etc. So when a band like Vampire Weekend gets buzzed about, maybe it’s time to think about that complete line of designer dental products…

Would you buy products because a favorite musician had a hand in creating them?