He Puts the Soda in Pop SongsBurt Helm
Adam Kluger is in a hurry and this Ford Explorer won't get out of the way of his Bentley. He's driving north from Miami to a music video shoot in Fort Lauderdale featuring both his new recording artist and his corporate client. It's 3 p.m. The shoot doesn't start until after 4, but still.
Kluger muscles his black coupé almost on top of the SUV's rear bumper. "The music industry's very laid back while I'm very, very aggressive," he says, clutching the wheel and his BlackBerry (RIMM) in a two-handed grip that lets him type and tailgate. He's 24, short, lean, and talks as fast as he's trying to drive. "I just need to get stuff done immediately."
In the past two years, Kluger has built a boutique agency that's become a conduit between the revenue-needy music business and a growing source of cash: consumer brands. Those who have seen the parade of products in Lady Gaga's Telephone video have gotten a taste of The Kluger Agency's work. With a check and Kluger's help, products end up in music videos, lyrics, even song titles.
Kluger's newest project is managing a pop singer, an aspiring teen idol named JRandall. To build buzz, Kluger hired Grammy-winning singer T-Pain to appear in JRandall's video and sing a verse for the song, a dance track called Can't Sleep. Kluger's funding the music and video production both by the traditional method (with JRandall's label, Poe Boy Music Group) and with money from Zoosk, a dating website and one of his agency's clients.
Singers have name-checked brands since before Janis Joplin asked the Lord to buy her a Mercedes-Benz. But the practice of advertisers paying for a mention in songs has exploded. "I get calls on country, rock 'n' roll—today it's across the board, in every genre of music," says Brooke Wilson, head of music entertainment at The Marketing Arm, an agency that deals in endorsements. This year she got State Farm's logo into a video by rock band OK Go. "It's really started happening in the past 5 to 7 years. It comes down to the labels not having enough money and needing other avenues to promote themselves." Kluger's specialty is bringing product placement to niche brands and fledgling artists, not just big products and stars.
Approaching Ft. Lauderdale as Can't Sleep blasts through the Bentley's 1,100-watt speakers, Kluger talks about replicating JRandall, who got a placement deal before he released his first album. He wants to build a record label based entirely on brand dollars. He wants to party with his pals in the Ford (F) Excursion stretch limo he just bought. There's so much to do, it hurts. "I call it my burning ambition," Kluger says, still riding the Explorer's exhaust pipe. "It literally pains me. Like, really pains me."
Before the cars and the rock stars, Kluger grew up in Tampa, the distractible son of a jeweler father and a mother in the apparel business. While other students sat attentively in class, Kluger doodled business ideas. After school hours he bounced around fast-food jobs and sold knives door-to-door. Childhood pal Joel Cardieri remembers the few weeks Kluger worked behind the counter at a local Boston Market. "He'd say things like, 'I'm not going to be here long. Something's going to happen soon, I feel it!' "
Kluger says he's always been obsessed with pop music. He recalls coming home from camp in 1999 with a song stuck in his head—Summer Girls, a bubblegum rap ditty with brand-conscious lyrics such as "I like girls that wear Abercrombie & Fitch." The song made him want to dance—and shop. "I was like, I gotta get Abercrombie & Fitch!" he says.
In 2006, after attending a two-year college in Gainesville, he moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in a for-profit vocational school to learn how to make it in music. As he sat through classes on royalties and audio engineering, he got a sense of just how much the recording industry was suffering. If it wasn't file-sharing sites obliterating CD sales, it was Apple (AAPL) tearing apart the album model by selling songs for 99 cents. "No one was making any money," says Kluger. "And I was like, 'I like money.' "
The one music-business trend that caught Kluger's attention was product placement. Ever since Busta Rhymes' Pass the Courvoisier became a hit in 2002—causing sales of the cognac to shoot up—artists and marketers had awakened to the possibilities of "brand drops," to use Kluger's term. Kluger's thoughts drifted back to Summer Girls. How many kids felt the urge to shop at Abercrombie & Fitch after hearing that song, as he had? (Abercrombie & Fitch says it didn't pay for the mention.) Kluger says he quit the L.A. school after a semester and a half.
Beginning in early 2008, with no useful connections and a surplus of nerve, he started calling companies telling them he could place their brands in pop songs. Then he called the labels, telling them he could get brands to pay to be in their artists' songs. "There's a bit of bullsh-----g you have to do to get in the door," Kluger says.
In the summer of 2008, after "about 400" such calls, Kluger got a break. He reached the head of marketing for Interscope Records, Steve Berman, whom Kluger had heard of only because of his appearances on Eminem albums. (They had goofball skits where Berman would berate Eminem for recording vile, unmarketable music.) "Steve Berman said, 'I don't know about your company, I don't know about your brands, but I have a video,' " Kluger says. Beautiful, Dirty, Rich by a new artist named Lady Gaga, was going to shoot in just a few days.
Twelve hours later, Kluger signed his first client, Vixen's Visions, a maker of lingerie and "sexy club wear." The resulting placement was near the end of the video as Gaga uses a Vixen's Visions shopping bag to dump cash on the floor. It was one second long. Kluger won't specify how much money changed hands in this or any ensuing deal, other than to say that his commission is up to 23 percent. According to clients, fees typically run between $40,000 and $250,000 per placement, depending on the artist. Getting a brand into song lyrics can fetch $500,000 and higher. (Berman did not return requests for comment; Vixen's Visions President Tony Paris Sr. says he's pleased with Kluger's work.)
Kluger quickly turned his Interscope relationship into a new deal. This time the product was Drank, a soft drink named after the slang term for a soda and codeine-cough-syrup concoction popular in the hip-hop scene. Multi-platinum superstar and Interscope artist Lil Wayne often rapped about the latter beverage. Kluger approached Drank founder Peter Bianchi about getting the non-narcotic Drank into music videos by Lil Wayne and other Interscope talent. Bianchi says he liked the idea and signed a multi-video contract.
Kluger celebrated by taking a month-long cross-country trip from L.A. to Florida in a Mercedes SL500 convertible. He was so happy to be back with his old high school friends in Tampa, he decided to move his business to Miami, just a few hours' drive away.
By April 2009, Kluger landed a Drank placement in the video for Sugar by Flo Rida. At the shoot, Kluger met Elric "E-Class" Prince, the chief executive of Poe Boy, Flo Rida's label. Prince had just received an object lesson in the power of product placement. The previous summer, Flo Rida had a smash hit, Low, which mentions Apple Bottom Jeans, Reebok, Cadillac, Rémy Martin and Hennessy cognacs, and Patrón tequila. Another hit, Forever, by R&B singer Chris Brown, had the line "Double your pleasure, double your fun," the old Wrigley's Doublemint gum jingle. Crucial difference: Brown had a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with Wrigley; Flo Rida recited his favorite consumer goods gratis. "Never again," says Prince.
Kluger's relationship with Prince has evolved into a sort of "marriage," as Prince puts it. Kluger brings brand prospects to Prince; Prince gives Kluger access to artists and managers on the Poe Boy label and throughout the industry. Earlier this year, Flo Rida and T-Pain recorded a song called Zoosk Girl, about the attractive women they meet on Zoosk. Prince, meanwhile, asked Kluger to manage JRandall, a singer from Delray Beach he had recently signed.
Kluger says he'll reach $5 million in revenue this year. In March he secured an investment from Hadley Capital, a private equity firm in Wilmette, Ill. He used the funds to hire a four-person sales staff and lease a 3,000-square-foot office in downtown Miami. Then he got himself an Aston Martin Vantage convertible.
On the set of the Can't Sleep video, Kluger paces as JRandall puts on his first costume, a sexy fireman's outfit. Like pop star Justin Bieber, Kluger's 23-year-old talent has dreamy hair and elfin good looks. But the lyrics of JRandall, who played a lifeguard last summer on a late-night cable series called Beach Heat: Miami, are more overtly sexual than Bieber's. Kluger hopes teenyboppers "hop on the J Train" as they get older, he says.
The shoot is inside the Sawgrass Mills mall near Ft. Lauderdale at a kid-friendly attraction called Wannado City, complete with a mini-courthouse, carnival, fire truck, and a building that looks like it is on fire. The concept of the Can't Sleep video is an homage to Little Monsters, the 1989 comedy in which a monster under the bed befriends a little boy. In this version, JRandall befriends a girl—who's up late surfing zoosk.com—and whisks her away to an underworld, played by Wannado City and a lot of smoke machines. According to Kluger, Zoosk paid "in the mid- to high six figures" to appear in the lyrics and video for Can't Sleep, and one other JRandall song, Oo La La. (Zoosk declined to comment.)
The Zoosk fee more than covers the production costs for both videos, and Kluger is lining up other brands, too. He tells JRandall that a prospective sponsor for the Oo La La video will be on hand.
"It's a cream liquor," says Kluger.
Randall stops picking through a tableful of sunglasses. "Cream liquor? But I'm allergic to dairy."
"It doesn't matter, you'll love it!" Kluger replies.
Between takes, Kluger pumps his fist and yells "I'm Zooskin' For Love!" (a line in the song). Just as the burning-building scene wraps, Prince gets a message on his phone. T-Pain has arrived.
Stars such as T-Pain, who's had nine songs on Billboard's Hot 100, are a core part of Kluger and Prince's marketing strategy. The addition of T-Pain's trademark auto-tuned voice (he sounds like a singing robot) will ensure that JRandall's single gets lots of radio play and YouTube views. (The other single, Oo La La, has a guest appearance by another star, Akon.) Kluger and Prince managed to get T-Pain because Flo Rida had worked with him before, and Kluger arranged a placement deal for one of T-Pain's budding artists. To seal the deal, says Kluger, "E-Class bought him a watch."
As T-Pain, wearing a tracksuit and a necklace bearing a ruby-and-diamond-encrusted Kool-Aid Man, gets ready for his close-up, Kluger turns his attention behind the camera. Chris Hansen, one of his salespeople, has brought in the prospect from Cream, the "cream liquor" (actually a 30-proof whipped cream). Hansen is telling the Cream guy, who looks starstruck, "You can get the big star for the up-and-coming-artist price!" It's a good pitch. And it seems to work. "There's no better way to get your brand out there," the prospect says, staring at T-Pain.
Kluger breaks into a grin.