Ford Motor Co.’s latest collaboration with the music industry isn’t with Ariana Grande, Jason Mraz or Maroon 5. It’s with an artist that most people have never heard of — an independent songwriter named Ben Arthur.
The project with Arthur, entitled “Songs of the Road,” represents a novel turn in Ford’s effort to reach millennials via content marketing. The videos, which debuted this week, feature Arthur teaming up with an up-and-coming blues singer Jackie Venson to write, record and perform a brand new song within a single day while on the road. The videos were produced in conjunction with ad agency Team Detroit on behalf of Ford, which funded the series.
What’s interesting about this campaign is that Arthur isn’t a household name. Though he released his first album in 1997 and has opened concerts for Tori Amos, Dave Matthews Band, Shawn Colvin and others, he’s never had a major publishing or record deal. When Arthur released his sixth album in 2012, a web magazine accepted an offer to interview him because they thought the offer was for Golden Girls grande dame Bea Arthur. (They did the interview anyway, with hilarious results.)
Rather, Arthur is an artist’s artist. On the indie circuit, he is known for his Web series, Songcraft Presents, a kind of reality boot camp for songwriters. In each episode of Songcraft Presents, Arthur coaches, croons and cajoles a promising musician to write and record an original song in 24 hours or less. Now in its fifth year, the online series is amplified by segments about each featured artist and song that air on Acoustic Café, a syndicated radio program hosted by Rob Reinhart.
“The whole magic trick of what we do on the show has to do with the constraints — the time and the pressure,” Arthur said. “Put talented people in a room and say, ‘Go! You just have to get it done.’ The constraints are to be embraced and become part of the form.”
With Venson, the duo began writing the song early Tuesday morning in March while driving from Lake Travis, Texas to Austin, Texas in a Ford C-MAX Plug-in Hybrid. They recorded the basic tracks for the song, “Texas Night,” in an old schoolhouse and performed it that same afternoon before a live audience. The results are packaged in a music video and a behind-the-scenes video.
While Arthur’s work doesn’t quite inspire throngs of screaming teens, it does resonate with a segment of millennials who look kindly toward authenticity and craftsmanship. In other words, his work has just the kind of indie vibe that megabrands like Ford are keen to tune into.
“Our job is to be relevant with audiences,” said Curt Jaksen, Managing Partner of Brand Content and Alliances for Team Detroit, the ad agency that worked with SongCraft Presents and Acoustic Cafe to sponsor the series on behalf of Ford. “It’s hard to do that through mass advertising. So we try to find ways to be hyper-relevant to people with content that’s interesting to them. And we try to bring them that without interrupting them with messages.”
This new era of corporate marketing means that indie artists like Arthur has a shot at working with the world’s 45th most valuable brand, something that would have been unthinkable two decades ago when 30-second TV ads with the budgets of small Hollywood films were the norm.
“I didn’t get invited to this party through the old system,” said the 41 year-old songwriter. “But the new model works for someone like me.”
Arthur argues that his credibility as an independent artist isn’t sullied by his work with corporate sponsors. In fact, the changing economics of the music industry at large makes it easier, and more culturally acceptable, for indie artists to engage with big brands.
“Successful artists like Rihanna have always engaged with brands,” he said. “And now because of the broadening of the online platform, brands are interested in engaging with a much broader array of artists. I don’t need to be Michael Jackson to have a conversation with Ford.”