Besides attracting local attention for walking around the Plateau wearing a raccoon hat before kicking off his current tour in Montreal, Usher has made headlines recently for following in the footsteps of generations of toy manufacturers and announcing that his latest single will be exclusively distributed as a cereal box prize. The song, “Clueless,” won’t appear on his upcoming album UR, and, for at least the foreseeable future, the only way to legally own it will be to purchase a specially-marked box of Honey Nut Cheerios from Walmart and then download it using a digital code. Usher is just one of many artists to entertain unconventional promotional techniques in a market where music sales have diminished greatly. He’s certainly not the first to receive corporate sponsorship prior to a release—but by inextricably tying the sale of his single to two non-musical organizations, he’s only damaging his own artistic image and opening the door for companies to negatively impact the music industry.
When I use the phrase “damaging his own artistic image,” I don’t mean to say that Usher is some kind of a sellout for agreeing to promote his music in partnership with Walmart and General Mills. He’ll be heavily compensated for his efforts and even if he has an estimated net worth of $110 million already, Usher has every right to try to increase that number.
The issue with Usher’s decision, however, is that he’s not just using the companies as a platform on which to promote his song—or even giving consumers the option to let a company profit while supporting his work—his song essentially is one of the companies’ products. Fans who want to download “Clueless” are now obligated to make a trip to Walmart and leave with a box of Honey Nut Cheerios. As with any promotion, it’ll be a welcome offer for some and a complete annoyance for others; but unlike a regular promotion, there’s only one distributor for Usher’s song. It’s a disservice to fans to ask them to purchase something they may not want in order for them to own a copy of an artist’s work. Even if “Clueless” were to be Usher’s best song to date, the terms of its release will still stand as something capable of alienating fans—not to mention making it tougher for many to take him seriously as an artist.
Because album sales are no longer the robust revenue source they once were for musicians, the lure of corporate sponsorship is tempting, and corporations stand to gain the most by offering promotions to artists like Usher that fuse together commodities from a purchase standpoint. It remains to be seen whether or not this type of deal will actually begin to frequently affect the music industry, but it’s already clear that the biggest and wealthiest artists aren’t immune from going for it. Even Jay-Z—Hova himself—agreed to a promotion for 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail that allowed Samsung to distribute one million copies of the album three days early to fans who had bought certain products of theirs and paid him $5 million. Of course, the album was made available to other retailers after those three days, but it’s an example of the power that even fleeting exclusivity can bring.
The irony in the Usher discussion is that in spite of the exclusivity that Walmart and General Mills have with the Honey Nut Cheerios promotion, anyone who wants to can realistically find “Clueless” on the internet and listen to a free stream—I certainly did. Still, for those who have nobler ideals when it comes to supporting their favourite artists, there’s no reason they should have to also support a company they haven’t directly chosen to endorse. Or, perhaps if a financially secure artist insists on tying the sales of their music to an unaffiliated third party, they can learn from Taylor Swift, who is donating the proceeds from her recent single “Welcome to New York” to New York City public schools. Maybe Usher’s real motivation in all of this is taking responsibility to ensure that his fans understand the value of a proper breakfast, but in the almost-certain likelihood that that isn’t the case, he should get a clue and find a new way to promote his single.