Here's what isn't news: it's become increasingly difficult to make a living in music. The collapse of the music industry affects everyone, from the old-style record company executive elite to the lowliest garage band selling merch from a dubious van. Here's more not-news: for quite some time now, large corporations that have nothing to do with music otherwise have found that buying up the "cool" of popular musicians with paid sponsorships helps to widen and strengthen their brand. With each new alliance, there is always a segment of the audience who cries "sell out!" while others believe corporate moolah helps keep musicians in business, not spending the bulk of their days working at Home Depot or quitting altogether.

News that caught my eye and raised my eyebrow today: a new corporate collaboration, this time between indie smash Bon Iver (otherwise known as the project of singer-songwriter-musician Justin Vernon) and Bushmills Irish Whiskey. Hmmmmm. From the press release:

"Bushmills® Irish Whiskey, one of the oldest names in spirits with more than 400 years of distilling tradition behind it, is welcoming the national expansion of its “Since Way Back” initiative with the announcement of acclaimed band Bon Iver, actor Elijah Wood, and the return of electrofunk duo Chromeo to its family...“Since Way Back” is inspired by the heritage of Bushmills Irish Whiskey and its longstanding tradition of recognizing enduring kinship. The initiative celebrates the lives and brotherly relationships of artists and influencers across the world, and collaborates with each to produce creative, inspired content that reflects each of his passions. Upcoming content will include custom pieces of music and art developed by each group, and will serve as an additional venue to remind others to please drink responsibly.

Justin Vernon, a native of Eau Claire, Wisconsin and front-man of the acclaimed band Bon Iver, is joining “Since Way Back” with brother Nate and close friends Kyle Frenette and Brian Joseph, all of whom form the backbone of the band as Co-Managers and Audio Engineer, and whose relationships define the “Since Way Back” brotherhood. Vernon released Bon Iver’s widely acclaimed debut album For Emma, Forever Ago in 2008, receiving spots on many critics’ end-of-the-year lists that year, which has gone on to sell over 400,000 copies worldwide. Vernon, fronting a band comprised of friends, recently released Bon Iver’s self-titled second album, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 Charts. 

'I owe everything to the creativity of my friends and neighbors who have all influenced and supported me along the way,” Vernon said. “Bushmills approached Bon Iver about collaborating with them on ’Since Way Back,’ and I didn’t hesitate when I knew all of us - Nate, Kyle and Brian - could be involved. The way the campaign was presented to us, as a program that rewards groups of friends who have built success around what they love, made it feel right and appropriate for us to participate. The founders of Bushmills developed a recipe that lasts. We hope to do the same with our music.'"

I don't really think Justin Vernon wrote those last two lines of his statement, but let's move on.

Call me a crazed eyebrow-raiser, but I think there is good reason to look twice at some of the realities and ethics that come into play with influential public figures partnering with  a company whose product has proven health risks, and whose misuse can cause devastation and misery to millions of people affected by substance abuse, drunken driving, etc. Now hang with me here a second -- I'm not going to go all Prohibition Hag on you, or anyone else. But just because you toss in "OH, and DRINK RESPONSIBLY! No, REALLY, we mean it!" lines in your PR pitches really doesn't change what whiskey IS and what it DOES, or that Bushmills is hoping to use Bon Iver to sell more whiskey to his fans, many of whom are college-age or younger. Bushmills isn't giving Justin Vernon and the other participants in "Since Way Back" money because they just love music so much, no matter how glowing and glossy the PR blurb may be.

Some other troubling things, to me, anyway:

-- Vernon has struggled with alcohol in the past.

-- Wisconsin, his home state and mine as well, is ranked #1 in the U.S. in binge drinking, percentage of alcohol drinkers in the population, and driving under the influence.

-- Diageo, the corporation who owns Bushmills as well as Johnnie Walker, Guinness, Smirnoff, Cuervo, Captain Morgan, and many others, looks like they are not as "cool" as they'd like folks to think. According to Corporate Watch, Diageo:

  • undermined small-scale and independent alcohol production, both in the UK and in East Africa (see Corporate Crimes section);

  • assisted a shift towards casualisation of employment terms (seeCorporate Crimes section);

  • Specific instances of environmental damage and irresponsible marketing (see Corporate Crimes section);

  • Diageo's 'ethical' image has also allowed it a significant and increasing role in formulating government policy, both individually and through various alcohol industry bodies. Diageo's networks of links with policy-makers should be especially highlighted (see Influence section );

  • Diageo promotes the idea that the major problem of alcohol harm is anti-social behaviour caused by binge-drinking. Many health experts dispute the industry assumption about alcohol harm, suggesting that liver failure caused by sustained drinking, account for the majority of people treated in Accident and Emergency for problems caused by alcohol (see Influence section ).

    I don't believe that musician-corporate sponsorships are necessarily a bad thing, cries of "sell out!" be damned. They can lead to good work being produced and sustaining money being placed in the pockets of artists. But before signing on, I'd sure think long and hard, look deep into the company I would be representing and identified with, and imagine how I might answer to my audience and myself.