Music and Fashion: Looking for Viral Synergy

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Dan Black

Dan Black is staring down the barrel of the camera wearing thick black eye makeup and a skinny, pale plum suit, while singing along to a recording of his song "Yours." Other cameramen circle, while a manager, a publicist, the hair-and-makeup guy and a stylist watch carefully. As he reaches the chorus — "I don't wanna be yours no more" — he begins to artfully remove the jacket. Suddenly everything stops.

The publicist, Abe Gurko, who just called a halt to the proceedings, wants to make sure everyone knows that the last shot of the video can't be of the singer in the T-shirt. "The T-shirt's styled," he says, meaning it was provided by this shoot's stylist. "It's not one of the designer's."

Such forethought is key in a shoot like this, which is not a commercial nor an artwork nor a fashion shoot nor a music video, but a hybrid of all four — an exercise in content creation that is designed to summon up that most elusive of things: a digital video that will go viral.

Black, a taller, skinnier, more refined Billy Joe Armstrong look-alike, is remaking a video for one of his songs while wearing clothes made by Paul LaFontaine, who was head designer at such places as BCBG and Claiborne. HMX, one the biggest menswear companies in the U.S., is launching LaFontaine's eponymous line as part of a new test division; his first collection, which will be out this fall, is also backed by SKNL, an Indian textile and clothing company.

This video is a way of promoting both the crooner and the clothier. As fashion and popular-music newcomers struggle to find a way to break through to an audience in an increasingly fragmented media market, they are finding that together they are more than the sum of their parts, especially on the Internet. The two disciplines have had a symbiotic relationship for decades — Madonna and Jean Paul Gaultier helped define each other, as did Vivienne Westwood and Johnny Rotten. As recently as this spring, Burberry used young British rocker George Craig in a fashion shoot and played his song over the accompanying behind-the-scenes video. But the union is not usually commercially consummated when brands are this young. Both Black and LaFontaine are babies — even embryonic — in the brand world.

Black is not the celebrity face of the label. (Indeed, for his show at New York City's Webster Hall that evening, the singer slipped into Dior Homme.) He's not just a distinctive-looking 6-ft. 3-in. coat hanger for the clothes either — that's his song, which already has a YouTube video, that he's singing, so he's bringing something that models can't. And this is not just a retake of something he's done before. The director of the shoot, David McIntyre, a former fashion photographer, has taken Black's song and reconceived it, putting another layer of meaning on top of the musical and fashion statements already being made.

Gurko, the brains behind the collaboration, believes the only way to launch a new menswear collection like LaFontaine's is through social media. "In social media, you have to tell stories," he says. "And the only way for fashion to do that is through music. Otherwise, what story are you going to tell?" When completed, the video will be placed on fashion blogs, which always crave cool new content, and on Black's and LaFontaine's websites as well as YouTube, of course.

While it's unusual for an emerging fashion designer to invest so heavily in creating content, LaFontaine — and his deeper-pocketed backers — are part of a bigger trend. According to the Custom Content Council, an industry group, in 2009 companies spent $47.2 billion on custom marketing — making magazines or stuff to go on websites.

Recently, computer giant Intel partnered with content-creation company Vice to generate websites and events that subtly burnish Intel's name among young hipsters. The point of such campaigns is to reach an audience that's beyond the grasp of TV commercials and print media. The actual moving of merchandise comes later.

For his marketing dollars, LaFontaine will get a shot, somewhere in the video, in which the dusty plum jacket is lying artlessly on a guitar case, with his label showing. And hopefully, lots of hipster eyeballs gazing on his clothes.

For Black, who was just nominated for two MTV Video Music Awards for his video Symphonies, it's a paying gig, like licensing his music to video games or movies, but it's also a chance to get his music to a wider, similarly minded audience. "An artist can no longer just make some music and say, 'There you go.' There has to be a universe around it," says the 34-year-old Brit, who has so far sold around 15,000 albums and 50,000 downloads. "This shoot is not a million miles from what I already do."

It helps that unlike many artists, Black seems to have no problem blurring the lines between art and commerce. Although his music is distributed by Universal, his record label The:Hours is owned by an advertising agency. He likes that it gives him access to more commercial opportunities than other artists have. "I have to diversify my income streams," he says. "I need to make sure enough money is coming in to finance my stupid ideas."