Remember Scion? Purveyors of weird, colorful subcompacts and the occasional coupe aimed at getting the average Toyota buyer’s age below 87? Scion did some cool stuff back in the day, and not just in car form. My colleague Kevin Williams’ interest in the brand’s impact on the music scene — and his recent great piece on Scion mixtapes — got me thinking: there’s more to Scion than just mixtapes and electronica.
People forget this today, but Scion went as far as funding metal and punk bands’ records, even throwing massive, free-admission festivals. All in the name of getting the youths stoked on the Scion brand, right?
All of this was part of a strategy that coalesced inside the walls of Scion Audio/Visual, a lifestyle marketing division of the brand. Their focus was essentially this: Help recording artists produce and cut records, put on concerts, and do all the necessary marketing and promotion to make it all work. The end goal was to raise brand awareness among young people (namely millennials) and get them to, well, buy Scions.
Time to dive into the angrier side of the more than 1,500 artists Scion A/V worked with in one way or another.
The Bands and Where They Played
I’m legitimately surprised automotive media has never really discussed this before, at least in the past couple of years since Scion’s demise in 2016. Maybe everyone was too busy listening to Jack Johnson or something? Regardless, the tale of Scion A/V and its involvement in punk and metal music is extensively chronicled in music journalism.
Distinguished publications like Decibel and Metal Insider (definitely not to be confused with Business Insider) have pages of content dedicated to this subject, but real quick, some of the bands that played Scion Rock Fest were Mastodon, High on Fire, Pig Destroyer, Boris, and Torche. Well, that was actually just one single festival in 2009! That’s a stellar lineup. And what’s really cool is they’re all pretty different from each other, but good, heavy music nonetheless. These fests were known for having solid variety.
Many other bands were on bills during Scion Rock Fest’s six-year run, at venues all over the country. And not just big names, either, but bands that were very much on the DIY, touring-around-the-country-in-an-old-Econoline status. Riffpedia explains exactly who played where, and when.
It seems like there was a slight preference to putting on SRF in Pomona, California at four separate venues throughout the course of a single day: The Glass House, The Fox Theater, Sky Fox Lounge, and Acerogami. Bands were loosely grouped in each venue by the kind of music they played, and their level of prominence.
In 2014, big-crowd-drawing metal names like Machine Head, Orchid, and Crowbar, played the Fox, while other bands like Queens of the Stone Age, Lord Dying, All Them Witches, and MOAB played in other venues.
What’s more: admission to all Scion Rock Fest concerts (er, shows; concerts are for civilian music, like Jack Johnson) was free. As long as they RSVP’d ahead of time, attendees got wrist bands that allowed them to walk right in and out of each venue. Again, it was a great way to get younger fans involved in the scene, and hopefully, they’d walk away with a positive view of Scion to go with their ringing ears.
Weirdly, yet kind of awesome actually, Scion made an e-zine that was not unlike a zine one could find on the shelf in a small, independent bookstore, or sitting on a folding table in a basement punk venue. Just, you know, in electronic form. It included record reviews and promos, highlights of past Rock Fests, and more. All done up in a very punk-zine-looking fashion.
An example of what it looked like can be found here, and, my stars… how wild is it that this was greenlit by a car company?
Scion A/V Also Paid To Release Bands’ Records
Scion didn’t just throw a bunch of money at events and snazzy media. It also funded the recording, engineering, and release of various bands’ records.
One particular band that had its entire record paid for was Magrudergrind, with their EP Crusher:
Because Scion footed the entire bill, they decided to release it completely free-of-charge to fans.
The band actually received some heat for this, getting called “sellouts” and the like. They actually released a pretty extensive bullet-pointed explanation of why they went the free-Scion-money route in this article on MetalInjection.net, explaining why they were glad to pass along the free-ninety-nine cost to their fans.
A quote from Magrudergrind in the article:
Over the years, Scion has dished out tons of money to support this scene. They have made it possible, so that we can all attend and play shows, for FREE, that we otherwise wouldn't be able to attend and play.
— What have we got out of this deal that we would have otherwise have worked with a standard label and the standard record label business model? Scion covers all recording and record manufacturing expenses. They have provided YOU with the platform to have a high-quality Magrudergrind record for FREE.”
The author, Robert Pasbani, points out the fact that some labels that are historically very anti-corporate are still in one way or another distributed through corporate channels. I don’t think he’s pointing fingers or calling anyone a hypocrite, but rather explaining that it’s tough to get your band’s music out there.
“To prove my point even further, Dischord Records, owned by Ian MacKaye, founder of Fugazi and Minor Threat and the last person anybody would ever call a sellout, is distributed through Fontana, which is owned by Universal, which is owned by GE, who can very much be considered an “evil corporation.’
Where is the walkout on Dischord? There is none! Because this is how the world works. This is how music works. Magruder got the best deal to put out their music and they went for it. There is no money in grind music, so any help matters!”
A Breach of Punk Ethics?
Still, the thing about Scion A/V was that it was quite far removed from DIY ethics that typically permeate through the punk, hardcore, and metal communities. I’m not talking about anyone signed to a big label, of course, more on the mid-level-or-smaller side of things. The kind of band member (or, a person who goes to punk shows and wants to be more involved in the community) who fronts their own money from their 9-5 job that allows their friends in other bands to press and burn records, spreading their sound and helping finance their very, very low-budget touring schedules.
A lot of these bands, particularly on the hardcore/punk-end of the spectrum, are very anti-corporate and tend to lean left in terms of their political views and ideals. DIY is a cornerstone belief in the culture, and for some, the idea of accepting corporate money — like being signed to a truly major label — is a major breach of ethics, or at least the spirit of the scene. There’s a reason the catch-all term for all of these scenes is underground music.
Straight From the Source
Personally, I know or know of some bands who opted to either not participate in Scion Rock Fest, not accept Scion funding for their pursuits, or both, because they saw it as a breach of punk ethics.
My own brother, Andy Nelson, was a part of Chicago punk band Weekend Nachos at the time, who were approached by Scion A/V to play one of their Rock Fests. The band called it quits in 2016 after many years of playing punk and metal shows all over the globe. I recently reached out to him (who played guitar) and singer John Hoffman via group text for more insight on their thoughts of it at the time.
Hoffman: “I thought the Scion thing was really, really dumb at the time. I don’t think I’ve changed my opinion on it, either. A lot of people had the attitude like ‘hey, if this company is willing to pay for it… fuck it.’ I guess I still didn’t think it was worth it to let them use punk as a marketing experiment, regardless of the convenience.”
Nelson: “I kinda saw it from a couple of angles. It felt gross to accept money from a corporation that was very transparently trying to co-opt an underground music scene in order to advertise ugly “cool” cars (alas, not all siblings think alike —Peter). On the other hand, though, bands were offered a lot of money/flights to play big shows. Trying to fund your endeavors as a punk band isn’t easy and I try not to begrudge people for taking advantage of it. I have no regrets about Weekend Nachos turning down an offer from them, but I do recall thinking it would’ve been nice to have easily funded van repairs at the time.”
Hoffman: “To me, it kinda had a Pablo Escobar effect to it. Yes, the benefits were amazing, but it’s coming from a manipulative and evil place. It’s like you don’t want to get in bed with a gangster who has ulterior motives, but the offer’s gonna be great. For me, felt much better to tell them no, haha. Andy hit the nail on the head about how there are two ways to see it.”
Early Emphasis on Social Media
One thing I heard from friends that sticks out is that part of Scion’s inclination to do free shows was social media advertising. They wanted it all over Facebook and MySpace and Twitter, with discussion and hashtags. Moreover, Scion wanted to reach out to draw attention in a very unique way; after all, it was trying to be the hip, young, artistic brand, unlike its traditional, less-cool parent Toyota. The reach was probably thought to be far more effective and substantial than traditional print and TV advertising.
The brand’s strategy is detailed thoroughly in this Decibel Magazine interview with Jeri Yoshizu, Manager of Marketing Strategy for Scion at the time. When asked what Scion gets out of this, Yoshizu said:
“For example, we go to Columbus, Ohio. We have Rock Fest. Scion takes over the town. We get social media out of it. We get the reputation with the bands, the labels, and the management teams. We get press. And from there, it’s a slower path to get to car sales, but that builds loyalty and that top-of-mind. We’ve looked on a lot of blogs. We’re constantly looking at what people are talking about Scion whenever we do a release or an event. And the feedback you always see is kids saying ‘They’re supporting the community,’ ‘It’s a free show,’ etc.”
And speaking of unique ways to create buzz, just take a look at how increasingly expansive social media marketing is every year? We’re at a point now where it’s legitimately creepy how brands try to get inside our brains. Scion saw the effectiveness of social media buzz long before many others.
A Totally Different Approach To Selling Cars
Whether it’s an attack on DIY/underground music ethics or an easy, no-fuss way for bands to get their music out there, one thing’s for sure: No car company has done something like this for youth music since. No brand has tried to dig into this subset of alternative culture and thrown a massive amount of money (who knows what the figure was, maybe tens of millions?) to try and make itself the purveyors, or as Metal Insider called it, the “patron” of metal.
In the end, it wasn’t enough to save Scion, which got folded into the main Toyota brand in 2016. If anything to blame, it was a lack of fresh, frequently updated new cars over the years. In the end, even the most genius marketing moves can’t save you if the product isn’t there.