Rodney Jerkins has worked with Lady Gaga and other music stars. Hes behind… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times,…)
Producer Rodney Jerkins is a heavyweight in the pop music world who's worked with an array of A-list artists, including Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Mary J. Blige and Britney Spears. But now, the urban music hit maker has set his sites on a new kind of star — one who can sing the praises of two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese.... Well, you know the rest.
Jerkins and his Chicago-based company Artists & Brands are mining new musical talent from the rap and R&B world, coaching young artists on the art of a catchy hook, then offering the tunes to companies such as McDonald's (their main sponsor) for use in their commercials.
The idea is that, at some point, Artists & Brands will strike gold with an artist by breaking the songwriter or vocalist via a burger commercial, then using the recognition from the ad to bolster his or her career beyond the world of catchy jingles. Jerkins and company are currently developing six new acts. "I think there is so much room for other artists who need that help," says Jerkins, 34, who launched the company in 2009 with producer-songwriter Ira Antelis and entertainment attorney Daryl Jones. "Take Lady Gaga: She is so massively successful it doesn't clear up any room for the label to market other artists. Artists are getting dropped every day. We are trying to create a new system where the label doesn't have to tap into their budgets."
Antelis believes it's a win-win situation: Upstarts gain visibility by debuting original tunes — a coffee ad featuring hand dancers and newbie R&B singer Dejion went viral last year — and McDonald's no longer has to pay the big bucks for superstar talent.
Over the years, the fast-food chain has offered millions to top-grossing acts like Destiny's Child and Justin Timberlake (2003's "I'm Lovin' It" campaign earned Timberlake a reported $6 million). "The record companies don't have budgets to support [new] artists, so branding has become the new way of getting artists out there," says Antelis, who wrote Gatorade's "Be Like Mike" and McDonald's' "I'm Lovin' It."
Marlena Peleo-Lazar, McDonald's chief creative officer, said the union is based upon more than acquiring ad music at a discounted rate. "This isn't about cost-savings, it's about the sense of discovery and what's right about the product," Peleo-Lazar said. "Whether it's a famous person like Justin Timberlake or up-and-coming artists, we open our minds to it. We don't discount [big artists], it has to really go with what we are doing … since we have music in virtually everything that we do."
McDonald's is also tapping its own payroll for talent with the Voice of McDonald's, an "American Idol"-like contest featuring franchise employees.
The traveling competition has auditioned hundreds of candidates (only currently employed McDonald's staff can compete) to find 16 vocalists from around the world who will compete for the $25,000 grand prize at McDonald's global convention in Orlando, Fla., in April. Jerkins, who helped pick the contestants from North America, will serve as a judge in the finals. Jerkins then has first dibs on working with the artist in the future.
Jerkins knows a bit about nurturing talent. He served as a mentor/producer on "American Idol" this past season, and he recently logged studio time with Nelly Furtado, "Idol" finalist Pia Toscano and produced the debut single for "The Voice" champ Javier Colon. So far, his McDonald's venture has yet to produce a major breakthrough artist, but it has helped raise the profile of several unknown artists, including I.B. Fokuz.
The 25-year-old Chicago rapper won a contest from the franchise, and as a result had his track "Got It in the Bag" featured in a commercial for the Big Mac. He then landed a production deal with Artists & Brands, where he'll work on songs to be placed in future ads and shop for a record deal with the help of Jerkins and company. He recently wrote a jingle for a Twister commercial through Artists & Brands.
Fokuz, born Dominic Pettis, said he sees the company as "more of a driving engine to get him to a bigger playing field" without having to compromise. "I feel that it's not technically selling out if it's already coming from you originally. It's different if you're sitting with McDonald's and they say, 'We want you dress up in a Ronald McDonald suit and we want you to sing this,'" he said and laughed. "That's something totally different where you are being a puppet."
Pettis received a signing bonus for a sum he declined to disclose, but confirmed he didn't get paid for "Got It in the Bag" as it was offered as a free download. "The biggest thing out of it was the opportunity," he said. "As far as the compensation, that's going to come in due time."