In Rolling Stone‘s series At Work, we go behind the curtain with decision-makers across the fast-changing music business — exploring a range of responsibilities, burgeoning ideas, advice for industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
Interscope wasn’t a wine company until Daniel Sena decided otherwise. Sena, the label’s head of strategic marketing, has no shortage of unconventional ideas to leverage music as a marketing tool. Take Electric Sky, Interscope’s wine brand, which makes shatterproof single-serving glasses, perfect for concerts and music festivals. It’s just one of many projects he’s spearheaded.
Sena also led the charge to broker major brand partnerships like Imagine Dragons’ collaboration with Southwest Airlines, making headlines as passengers were given an in-flight acoustic show, and he helped catapult X-Ambassadors’ “Renegades” to a 2015 Jeep commercial campaign; later that year, the song went platinum. Recently, Sena and Interscope helped One Republic frontman Ryan Tedder launch a hemp-infused water line called Mad Tasty, debuting that product at Coachella last year.
“I really enjoy when the artists have a vision,” says Sena, a 14-year music-industry veteran with previous stints at Immortal Records and Sony Music. “My job is helping them be able to facilitate and support that vision.”
Sena spoke with Rolling Stone about how brand marketing at labels has changed, how the pandemic forced him to pivot, and how he’s turned ad campaigns into hits.
Walk us through a typical workday.
It’s a lot of emails when I wake up in the morning, a lot of phone calls. There are meetings that have already been set up, and then a lot of tasks that sort of come out of left field throughout the day. But usually, the people I’m working with on a daily basis are the Interscope staff and our brand and agency partners. And, of course, it’s working with our artists’ managers about different projects and timelines, and getting these partnerships going.
You’re in a business built around live events and activations. How have brand deals changed through the pandemic? How do you pivot?
All that we had planned for March, April, May, and June — all of these activations that we’ve been working months on prior to that — it almost became a dry-erase board that was erased when we left to quarantine. A lot of the things that we’d been looking at doing didn’t make a lot of sense anymore. Production shoots or artist travel, that’s not an option anymore.
We’ve had to recalibrate and come up with new campaigns in the interim. It’s been a bit of a moving target. You know, a lot of the things that are happening in culture and in society right now are unpredictable. We’re sort of creating as we go along here. Some of that can be our own doing, where a song is moving a release date and we’ve got an ad campaign that was set to launch with that song. So it’s having to solve the discrepancy and dates on that. Or we were set to do a production shoot and suddenly the state is going back into lockdown or new restrictions are imposed, and how are we going to be able to do this safely or do we have to move the date of the shoot? There are a lot of things like that that add tremendous complexity.
Between the wine brand, and all the different song and album promotions your team has come up with, you seem to be willing to try so many different things. Where does that come from?
The thing with Interscope is that we pride ourselves on thinking outside the box, and that goes to anything from the campaigns we do for our artists to bringing new products to the marketplace. Whether that’s chartering a Southwest Airlines plane from city to city with Imagine Dragons and 150 fans, or working with Bud Light and Lady Gaga to concoct the Dive Bar Tour to promote a new album, or smaller-scale stuff like partnering Yungblud with Xbox for him to learn to drive via a driving game because he’s stuck in quarantine, we run the gamut of what we’re doing with brands. Part of the challenge is managing our bandwidth, because we enter these partnerships and we’re in it for a long time for the execution phase.
So how do you market something like a drink compared with albums? It’s not like we’ll be seeing the cans in Interscope music videos the way Jimmy Iovine pushed with Beats.
This is where you can grow it from an organic standpoint. We’ll have Mad Tasty at Interscope parties and events, and it’ll be there when artists have album-release events. And it’s already been at cool cultural events like our Grammy parties in January or Coachella parties. We’ll put it there, but we want it to feel organic as a trial experience, and if people like it, they’ll engage with it.
In today’s streaming-based music industry, what used to be the ancillary parts of artists’ businesses are becoming increasingly important. How do partnerships and marketing reflect that change?
I think the industry has evolved a lot, and the brands have taken on a heightened importance in the ecosystem of the marketing rollout of an artist’s project. Now, when you sit at a marketing meeting to discuss the launch of a project, you’ve got your traditional sort of tent poles. You’ve got the radio team there, you’ve got the press there. You’ve got the music-video content team there. You’ve got the sales and streaming team there. But equally at that table, now you’ve also got the brand team there, and you’re asking about “who are the brand partners that we’re going to have around an album release?” It helps with media amplification and brings visibility to help make a hit single.
You’ve talked before about launching X-Ambassadors’ “Renegades,” which became a major hit for the band. Is there a strategy you think is most successful for matching music to ads? What’s the difference between starting a hit and a song getting lost?
The right campaign helped take this unknown band that was from Brooklyn, touring in a broken-down church van, and put their music out there for the world to hear and show what special artists they are. When you see those commercials airing in primetime moments, or you’re overseas at a restaurant and you hear the song come on the radio and you had a part to play in that, it’s gratifying. That’s really special.
It’s hard because we’ve had similar opportunities where we’ve had a song featured in a really great piece of creative with a big brand advertising campaign behind it, and it didn’t react in the way that we had hoped. A lot of reasons can contribute to that. There is no secret recipe, believe me. If there was, we’d be replicating it in every instance. It’s such a crowded space for one’s attention, that we really have to surround the track with a combination. That’s where we really get all components of Interscope working in conjunction with one another. So our digital and our social teams in conjunction with our streaming strategy and our radio, our press, and getting the right looks and opportunities with our brand partners and our film and TV. If there’s a recipe for success, it’s that sort of alignment.
Plenty of artists have been reluctant to take part in these types of partnerships or syncs because they think they’re selling out. Is it ever difficult to get artists to jump on what could be a crucial marketing chance?
The team and I are serious about being a filter for deducing whether or not an opportunity makes sense for the artist before we even bring it to them. When it doesn’t feel right or it feels like it’s just a cash grab, we’ll avoid it. It’s gotta be an authentic partnership, and it has to make sense for the artist, because if it doesn’t it isn’t good for the brand or the artist. Some artists feel more strongly than others about aligning their name, their likeness, their music with a brand. We do have some artists who don’t do a lot of brand partnerships.
But I think that over the years, the stigma that used to exist about selling out and aligning with the brand has been sort of removed. Now it’s more about finding the right partnerships that reinforce an artist’s aesthetic and making the right decisions that provide visibility for a song.
Is there a piece of advice that’s stuck with you over the years?
It’s just to never take a day for granted. And also, invest in the new crop of personnel and employees that are coming up through the industry. The power of mentorship is important. I’ve had some incredible mentors over the years, and the notion that I can be one to somebody entering the industry right now is particularly gratifying.