Southwest Airlines is known for trying to inject fun into air travel, such as employees at an airport gate creating a spontaneous karaoke moment or a flight attendant turning a routine safety speech into stand-up comedy. The $20 billion company embraces an undeniable quirkiness, which is saying something for an airline. So it makes sense for Southwest to rely on the power of music to build its brand, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Since 2011, Southwest has featured surprise pop-up music performances on flights through a series known as Live at 35. The Live at 35 concerts give emerging artists such as Valerie June and Gavin DeGraw a chance to literally sing and strum their guitars in the aisles for whoever happens to be on a flight.
Live at 35 (#Liveat35) is part of a broader artist discovery program that includes efforts such as sponsorship of more conventional concerts in places such as Bryant Park in New York; and a website, southwest.fm, dedicated to sharing music content.
Doing the unexpected and quirky can also be risky. On October 26, Southwest and Warner Music Nashville disclosed to Billboard magazine that they will extend the Live at 35 series as a broader co-promotion. The announcement didn’t go over uniformly well.
A number of news media reacted to the story by mocking the idea of in-flight music for a captive audience, such as:
- The A/V Club: “Southwest Airlines launches new innovation in in-flight misery: Inescapable live music”
- New York Daily news: “Southwest Airlines Forces Passengers to Listen to Live In-Flight Music.”
- Vice: “Southwest Airlines Will Regularly Inflict Live Music on Trapped Passengers.”
And reaction on social media included plenty of snark and criticism, such as these tweets:
But the immediate reactions to the news don’t tell the full story. I did some digging and found the following:
- Passengers have been supportive of #Liveat35. The social media backlash post-October 26 comes from people who apparently have not heard any of the concerts and are reacting to an airline doing something without the passengers’ consent. But prior to October 26, I see many positive reactions from passengers who actually experienced the pop-up concerts, aside from the occasional criticism from someone who just didn’t like the performer.
- Emerging musicians contribute to more positive social sentiment. The emerging musicians who actually participate in #Liveat35 have used social to (understandably) support the in-flight concerts, adding to more positive social sentiment.
- The story is bigger than #Liveat35. As noted, #Liveat35 is part of a broader narrative that the knee-jerk news media coverage in the past few days overlooked. Recently Southwest relied on #Liveat35 to offer musicians a chance to play at the fabled Red Rocks concert venue in Colorado (see #DestinationRedRocks). In addition, Southwest and Warner Music Nashville have sponsored events that have nothing to do with in-air concerts, such as a music concert series organized with the Grand Ole Opry.
Why a Backlash?
So why the backlash? My take: by using conventional PR to promote #Liveat35 as a passenger-friendly effort, Southwest and Warner Music Nashville unintentionally tapped into the broader American consumer frustration with the airline industry. You know the story:
- Airlines overall have been diminishing the flight experience, charging more while offering less.
- Consumers feel powerless to effect long-term improvements.
- So an airline touting in-flight concerts without the passengers’ permission comes across as foisting upon travelers yet another uninvited change to air travel.
As Augie Ray of research firm Gartner posted on Facebook:
If they did this in a section of a concourse where people could choose to listen or go elsewhere, I’d give them props. This just seems damn annoying and a desperate way to get some PR. “Hey, we could’ve spent six figures giving you an extra inch of space or a free drink — instead, here’s a band playing in a tiny space where you’re trapped!”
Obviously Southwest should monitor reactions such as Augie’s, weighing such feedback against reactions from passengers who actually experience #Liveat35. Comments such as Augie’s should be considered signs that #Liveat35 might turn away potential customers. Meanwhile, here are some approaches for Southwest Airlines to build its brand with music:
- Choose PR opportunities carefully. Save PR for activities such as the Grand Ole Opry concert series that focus squarely on music without the air travel.
- Rely on organic social media from passengers and musicians to tell the story of #Liveat35. The reactions of passengers in particular are more authentic and credible especially for passengers who might be skeptical.
- Feature great music. Quality matters. People complain about unwanted advertising until they see a trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi pop up on their Facebook feeds. Well-curated artists who know how to handle an audience in such an unusual environment will help #Liveat35 gain the kind of viral attention Southwest Airlines wants. #Liveat35 musicians have included Nashville artist Devin Dawson, one of Rolling Stone’s 10 new country artists you need to know. Similarly, Valerie June is the type of hip artist who lends street cred to #Liveat35. June and Dawson are wise choices. Musical tastes are subjective, and any kind of program that relies on concerts will experience misfires, but interesting, high-quality music will win over passengers.
- Be selective with routes. Continue to focus on routes with a more receptive, music-friendly audience, such as Austin and Nashville (the latter being the focus of the relationship with Warner). And any route that includes Las Vegas as a destination is likely going to cater to a more convivial and receptive audience.
If any airline can make pop-up concerts a long-term success, Southwest can. And the Southwest Airlines broader artist platform reflects one of the important ways that people discover music now: through brands. We find music in hotels, restaurants, clothing stores, soundtracks, commercials, and many other experiences curated by companies whose core business is not music. Companies ranging from Converse to Red Bull have become quasi-record labels for bands.
Southwest Airlines being a platform for emerging artists is good for music. How good #Liveat35 is for passengers comes down to Southwest reading its audience and creating a great experience that people want to share.