Creativity and Commerce: The Arcade Fire


Yes, this blog is a commentary on the Business of Fashion. But, it is also a blog, more generally, on how you can take artistic and creative ideas and channel them in a way that is economically sustainable (and commercially lucrative) over the long term; how you can make the worlds of creativity and commerce co-exisit and feed off of each other harmoniously, without worrying about "selling out." Yes there is always a tension between the creatives and the corporates, but if the right balance is struck, the results can be magical.

Dior_by_galliano_aw_2007For example, when John Galliano takes his fantastical ideas from Haute Couture origami and oriental dreams and declines them for his RTW show in a way that is sumptuous, beautiful and (just slightly) more accessible to a larger audience, he understands the realitities of the business, but does not compromise his creative energy for this. He just finds a way for them to co-exist. In this way, the high costs of designing and showing a couture collection are justified not only by the brand-building and awareness of the Dior brand that comes from these spectacles, but also because his couture collection acts as a creative playground from where he can take the most extreme creative ideas and then use the same raw material to adapt them for RTW, fragrance and accessories which are huge money makers.

Today, I was reading an article from the New York Times on one of my favourite Indie bands, The Arcade Fire whose balance of creative and business sense, one could argue, is equally astute as Galliano’s. I first came to hear of the band through word of mouth a few years ago from friends in Montreal and New York. Intrigued, I showed up outside the venue for Arcade Fire’s intimate sold-out European debut concert in a tiny venue at King’s College in central London, without a ticket in hand. With a bit of patience and some luck, I managed to snag a ticket from someone who had an extra one to sell and walked into this concert, knowing almost nothing about the band. There was a palpable sense of expectation in the air. The room was filled with important European music industry execs who wanted to see what all of the trans-Atlantic fuss was all about, hard-core fans who had been following the band’s progress on blogs and music media like NME and, and many former Montrealers like me who wanted to share in the excitement of a homegrown Montreal talent creating waves in the global music industry. I walked away that night knowing I had witnessed a magical creative moment.

Since then, The Arcade Fire have gone on to play sell-out shows all over the world, their debut album Funeral has sold 750,000 copies, and they now count Bono and David Bowie among their biggest fans. Not bad for a bunch of former McGill University students who were signed up to an independent record label. Expectations have therefore been even higher for their second album Neon Bible. which comes out on March 6th.

Arcadefire_hi The Times article today struck a chord (really, I swear, no pun intended) with me as it was clear from the article that it is not only their creative talent and vision that has propelled them to success. It is also their common sense approach to business, aptitude for marketing and PR (while still remaining somewhat mysterious), and the strong collaborative and consensus driven leadership style of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne.

First, the common sense. This isn’t a band that went on alcohol-binge-benders bashing up hotel rooms and burning through cash like the paper it is. This is a band that paid for the recording of its own albums, bought a studio-cum-Church to record its second album, retained rights to its master recroding and brand, and then licensed it to  music companies Merge and Universal. Furthermore, they are constantly pushing the creative envelope (another similarity to Galliano) but do so in way that is still reasonable (which Galliano has learned though the year). For example, they shipped themselves off to Budapest to work with a 60 piece orchestra there because it was more financially realistic to do so than doing the same in North America. In short, they have kept control of their affairs, their cash, and themselves so that they can shape their creative output in a way that is consistent with their values and insipiration, but that also allows them to reap financial rewards. To be clear, these are not ascetic idealist types who  think that commercial success somehow invalidates the value of their creative success. They have found a way to be comfortable with both.   

Arcade_fire_on_time_cover When it comes to marketing, these guys have combined the use of edgy new media and traditional mainstream media platforms to create a huge profile and awareness of their music and brand. First, they seize the zeitgeist of their target audience and deliver marketing messages that resonate because they are authentic and true to what Arcade Fire stands for. As the NYT article points out, instead of a ‘professional’ marketing strategy for their new album they produced instead an iMovie for distribution on YouTube, complete with a toll-free 1-800 hotline number for fans to call in to hear material from the new album. What the article fails to mention is that their professional marketing strategy has also been built on venerable media outlets like TIME Magazine and the New York Times reporting on the band’s curious modus operandi and cult following as a cultural interest piece, while at the same time giving them another important audience to reach: the audience who will pay for their music because it is perceived as cool and hip by those in the know. Broad media coverage like this is priceless, but the band manages to do it without losing their creative edge. To top it all off, their penchant for theatrics is not just a little similar to Galliano’s use of spectacle and  fantasy in his runway shows. Both Galliano and the Arcade Fire understand that conjuring up and delivering dreams that people want to be part of  is always the making of great marketing.

Arcade_firepress1 Finally, they also seem to have the management of their ever-growing cast of musicians and complex business affairs under control. And, while its seems that the band is driven by consensus and shared values of what feels right and consistent with what Arcade Fire is about, there is also clear leadership in place in the form of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne. Butler strikes me as a visionary leader who knows where he wants to take things and inspires others to come along with him. Regine pushes people to test the limits of their creative energy and this brings the most out of her bandmates. Even if the results arent always spectacular, she encourages risk-taking. At a recent London show that didnt go off as they wanted, she improvised and brought the audience outside the concert venue and fired up one of their hits from the first album. Leadership in innovation, clarity and vision is something this band has in spades.

And so, I think Arcade Fire is a great case study for any young designers who want to be true to their creative selves while still recognise the need for commercial success. You can check out a video of their impromptu performance in London’s Porchester Hall lobby below to witness the almost religous fervour that captivates the audience as they launch into one of Arcade Fire’s best songs from the first album. If you look carefully you can see Coldplay’s Chris Martin amongst the Arcade Fire faithful.


First Arcade Fire photo from the New York Times. Galliano for Dior photo from   © 2007 Copyright Imran Amed.

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1 comment

  1. Beautiful moment of the video, congratulations. I’d like very much the article’s aproach. Actually, I want to flag to the power of naming too. Don’t you think that 30% ( or more ) of a brand power are in the name choice? Arcade Fire, first of all, have a very good name. Thinking in fashion brands it will be more important at all. All the best, leo moura