Going Commercial: What Happens When String Stars Venture Outside the Realms of Music for Endorsement Deals?

By Brian Wise | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Violinists have appeared in advertisements for soap (Ole Bull), beer (Jascha Heifetz), scotch whisky (Mischa Elman), and stereo equipment (Fritz Kreisler, Yehudi Menuhin). But these days, the product endorsements are mostly limited to luxury goods: watches, handbags, electronics, and high-end hotel chains. And the terms have shifted. A cash payout is not always guaranteed. Rather, the focus is on raising profiles—both for the brand and for the artist.

A few examples: Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the fast-rising British cellist, has donned suits by the veteran designer Paul Smith when performing at prominent events, including the 2017 BAFTAs (Britain’s version of the Oscars) and the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018. In exchange, the company has highlighted his recordings on its website and social-media channels.

Sony Electronics, in 2019, enlisted Ray Chen as a brand representative. Chen’s Instagram feed shows the violinist sporting Sony headphones as he announces his newest recording, Solace. A YouTube video features him playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, juxtaposed with images of a young woman wearing noise-cancelling headphones on the streets of Berlin.

Sony Electronics, in 2019, enlisted Ray Chen as a brand representative.

And in 2015 Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti appeared as a spokesperson for Swiss watchmaker Raymond Weil. Not only did the company issue a limited-edition watch whose chocolate brown band was inspired by the color of Benedetti’s 1717 “Gariel” Stradivari, but it featured her along with a group of student musicians at a launch event in London.

Rebecca Davis, who runs a classical-music public relations agency, says that most “brand ambassadorships” involve “exposure” rather than a monetary agreement. Describing one photo shoot for the watchmaker Tourneau, she says, “the artist was seen with a brand that was a good fit and with an audience that might not otherwise encounter a classical musician. The watch company got the cachet of having the endorsement of the artist.”

In the Instagram era, an artist’s leverage is often determined more by the composition than the size of their online base. “Let’s be honest, with classical music you don’t have that many artists who have a million followers or even half-a-million followers on social media,” says Lawrence Perelman, CEO of Semantix Creative Group, a PR and marketing firm that represents violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Salzburg Festival. “That gauges your strength of brand. But maybe that doesn’t even matter. Even if you have only 10,000 followers, it’s who those 10,000 followers are.”

Perelman says that an exchange can be significant, involving custom-made suits or free stays in a hotel chain while on tour. And the benefits can expand over time. “A brand may say, ‘We are going to give you visibility, then we may contribute to your educational foundation,’” he explained. “They are not necessarily going to write you a check for $50,000 or $100,000 up front.” Still, Perelman admits, “Everyone will say, ‘We’ll give you visibility.’ Visibility isn’t cold, hard cash.”


It also helps an artist’s cause if they display a genuine interest in a brand. Kanneh-Mason became an unofficial ambassador for Paul Smith after he and the fashion designer bonded over their shared roots in Nottingham, England. A promotional video shows the two men casually chatting about music and menswear. Kanneh-Mason “loves wearing his suits for the comfort of them onstage and Paul supports Sheku at his concerts whenever he can,” says Rachel Tregenza, who oversees international communications for Universal Music Group’s classics and jazz division.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason became an unofficial ambassador for Paul Smith

Commercialism or Savvy Marketing?

Historically, notable performers could supplement their incomes with occasional advertising work. When Itzhak Perlman appeared in an American Express campaign in 1981, he earned $10,000, the equivalent of about $30,000 today.

“Everybody got the same: me, Luciano, the others,” he later told the New York Times, referring to Luciano Pavarotti. “But I was happy to do it. It was great publicity for the records.” Perlman also appeared in TV commercials for Sara Lee in the United States and Fuji Xerox in Japan. But like Heifetz, he acknowledged some limits. “I will only do commercials that relate to quality,” he insisted.

But how to define quality is a larger concern. There are pitfalls when corporations step into the patronage roles that once belonged to foundations or state arts councils, says Bethany Klein, author of the 2020 book Selling Out: Culture, Commerce, and Popular Music. Artists risk becoming too eager to please. “If we see corporate sponsors as the kind of solution to a revenue issue,” she said, “then we are potentially ignoring [funding bodies] that will do a better job of providing a space for less popular sounds or less popular messages.”

Even so, Klein believes there is no shame for the musician who writes jingles or takes on other commercial work. “There is a long and historical precedent for artists to have both a romantic artistic output and a commercial output, which allowed them to survive,” she says. “That was pretty ordinary back in the day.”

Not all musicians voice inner conflict. British violinist Charlie Siem has held a second career as a fashion model, fronting campaigns for Chanel, Dunhill, Giorgio Armani, and Hugo Boss. “The collaboration with the brand is really about discovering a new audience,” he says. “I feel it’s an opportunity to possibly awaken people to what I do.”


Siem says he appreciates how the fashion industry has cultivated its audience. “In my experience, the audience that they have is so vast, and so malleable in the sense that it follows what it’s told by the fashion industry. You want to be able to reach out to their audience because they are engaged and will do what they are told, as it were.”

Soap, Scotch, and Stereo Equipment

Siem says he is a descendant of Ole Bull, the 19th-century Norwegian violinist—and a swashbuckling pioneer of self-promotion. Before embarking on his first United States tour in 1843, Bull joined up with French perfume and soap makers, who developed products with his name emblazoned on them. “The great mastery of Ole Bull is that he knew how to promote himself,” says Siem. “When he would travel in America, he created all of these busts of himself. He would sell his own bath water.”

British violinist Charlie Siem has worked with many brands, including Dior.

By the 1920s and ’30s, magazines showed the likes of George Gershwin promoting Lucky Strike cigarettes and Cole Porter pitching Camels (tobacco companies also enlisted opera singers to promote the bogus health benefits of their products). During the same era, Victrola featured violinist Fritz Kreisler in a magazine ad for its new Orthophonic Victrola phonograph, promising readers a window onto his “precision . . . superb technique, [and] warm, lyric tone.” By the early 1940s Kreisler was featured in patriotic ads for Magnavox record players (“to salute him as the world’s greatest violinist does not do justice to Fritz Kreisler”) while Yehudi Menuhin touted the high fidelity of Capehart radio-phonographs in 1954.

When, in 1949, violinist Jascha Heifetz appeared in a magazine campaign for Pabst beer, he was pictured, along with his second wife, Frances Spiegelberg, enjoying a drink in their home studio. “Finest beer served anywhere,” read the caption as the eminent violinist clutched some sheet music and a Beethoven bust gazed upon two sudsy glasses of the Milwaukee lager.

In 1949, violinist Jascha Heifetz appeared in a magazine campaign for Pabst beer.

But some three decades later, Heifetz had taken a different view. He had received an offer from an unnamed brewing company to appear in a television spot, this time with a promised fee of “several hundred thousand dollars,” according to his assistant, Ayke Agus, in Heifetz as I Knew Him. Asked to play a few notes on his Guarneri and say, “Now here is our sponsor,” Heifetz flatly turned it down, for fear that it would make him a laughingstock.


Yet still other string players embraced liquor ads, including Mischa Elman, who appeared in commercials for Old Angus scotch in the 1950s, and Pinchas Zukerman, who fronted a 1984 magazine campaign for Smirnoff vodka.

Celebrity endorsements had reached a tipping point in the 1970s, but there were growing questions about their effectiveness and sheer ubiquity. New York Times columnist Russell Baker lamented in 1975 that, in earlier times, “great people of the world simply did not hawk consumer goods on television.” Neil Young’s 1988 song “This Note’s for You” satirized corporate sponsorships in music, while Bob Dylan’s ads for Victoria’s Secret fueled ongoing debates over “selling out.”

Elizabeth Fildes, an account director and creative producer at 21C Media Group, sees little risk for most classical artists. “At least in our industry, it’s very rare that somebody has a Pepsi deal, a Gap deal, and a Rolex deal,” she says. “You’re really lucky if you can get one or maybe two.” She adds, “I don’t know if this is a 2020 phase but I find that many artists are more aware of this: ‘If I am going to align myself with this fashion brand, do they use fur, do they use sweatshops? Ethically, does this brand meet my moral standards?’”

Some companies have sought to stress their magnanimity. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group donates money to a charity of a spokesperson’s choice, instead of paying them in cash. Rolex has recently sponsored pandemic-era concerts at noted European venues, and since 2002 has hosted the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which pairs prominent figures in seven disciplines with emerging artists. Among the beneficiaries of the philanthropic program have been American violist David Aaron Carpenter and Peruvian violinist Pauchi Sasaki.

For a musician in search of a deal with Rolex or similar brand, he or she will have to do some homework, says Perelman. “You really have to go in and have a great case for why you matter, what you are going to bring to the table, and how that all fits with the brand identity,” he says.It can’t be, ‘I love Rolex and I want to be an ambassador for Rolex.’ That’s not going to cut it. You really have to think it through.”