Adult Swim, the popular night-time TV programming block, is well known for its innovative and unorthodox content. But the network has also been ground-breaking with its long historical partnership with musicians and record labels. How has this relationship benefited both parties in bringing their distinct messages to audiences?
For those unfamiliar, Adult Swim is the 9pm-6am time slot on Cartoon Network that is specifically geared towards adult audiences. After a number of original series aired in 2000, the block officially began broadcasting in September, 2001. The popularity of the network (now technically considered separate from Cartoon Network by Nielsen Media Research) allowed them to explore outside original animated programming, airing Japanese anime, live-action British comedies, and cancelled series from other networks.
By mid-2010, Adult Swim’s Total Day delivery among young adults repeatedly scored the #1 ranking among all ad-supported basic cable networks. Their telecasts also accounted for almost half of the Top 50 Telecasts of the Week on ad-supported basic cable among adults 18-34. Clearly, they were reaching their audience.
But Adult Swim took their commitment to innovative programming a step further by establishing creative partnerships with musicians and independent record labels. The broadcast’s primary audience is high school and college students, people with the disposable time and income necessary to explore and seek out new music. The network also sought out music that matched and reinforced their unique tone and aesthetic. While U2 could partner with ABC, and Lady Gaga with MTV, neither would be a good fit for Adult Swim’s brand.
The network has implemented their collaborations in a number of ways:
A common tool in the past, most networks have done away with these brief fillers that buffer between programs and commercials. However, Adult Swim has long used bumps in a creative manner that has become visually iconic and instantly recognizable as part of the brand. There a few types—black screen with clever white text, short clips of upcoming shows, static shots of landscapes—but all are set to a blend of hip-hop, electronic, and rock music that fans are now familiar with.
The different series over the years have been so well loved that fans have collected them and put them on YouTube, using the comments to note time markings of their favorite tunes.Viewers have posted that they have gone on to buy CDs of the musicians they discovered through these bumps. Los Angeles artist Flying Lotus found his first audience after he submitted his beats to be used on-air.
The network became involved in the production of music records in 2005 for the collaboration between MF DOOM and Danger Mouse called The Mouse and the Mask. Danger produced the beats from sampled music from various Adult Swim shows, and included quotes from different characters, in a sense, immersing the listener in Adult Swim’s world. The network heavily promoted the record’s release, which went on to peak at #41 on the U.S. Billboard, quite a feat for a first-time pairing on an independent label.
Stones Throw Records originally partnered with Adult Swim to license their catalogue for bumps. They went on to co-produce Chrome Children, a compilation of new, original tracks from Stones Throw artists, with an accompanying DVD of live performances filmed by Adult Swim. This would be the beginning of the network partnering with small but well-recognized record labels, including Chocolate Industries, Definitive Jux, and Ghostly International.
Adult Swim has also curated their own records, often focusing on a specific genre (indie rock, hip-hop, metal). Many of these albums are titled in a way to specifically hearken back to the network’s brand: Chocolate Swim, Ghostly Swim, Metal Swim, African Swim… With the exception of The Mouse and the Mask and the Stones Throw albums, the records are free and downloadable, giving them a much wider reach.
It should be mentioned that the network has also produced a few albums originating from its programming, such as an Aqua Teen Hunger Force Christmas album and an record supposedly made by the band in Metalocalypse. However, as these solely promote Adult Swim content and do not heavily feature outside musicians, I won’t be covering these.
The network has also collaborated with musicians to create original television programming. This ultimate pairing can take a musician’s themes or aesthetic and showcase them in a totally new way.
Freaknik: The Musical was a TV special produced by T-Pain, and featured Lil Wayne, Young Cash, Snoop Dogg, and Bootsy Collins, among others. It is named after the actual music festival in Atlanta, Georgia, and the soundtrack for the special was released by Jive Records.
Cheyenne Cinnamon and the Fantabulous Unicorn of Sugar Town Candy Fudge is an animated pilot featuring Neko Case, T-Pain, and MF Doom’s voices in this commentary on the current state of pop music. A teen singer lives in a Candyland outside of Detroit, and magically arrives to solve controversial issues with manufactured pop songs.
The network is also in the middle of developing two pilots, one featuring the colorful DJ duo Major Lazer (whose videos have been directed by Adult Swim alum Eric Wareheim) and the artist collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, two musician groups familiar to Adult Swim’s main viewership.
Music videos have been another form of collaboration, with the videos often promoting new releases by the artists.
Adult Swim produced the short video for Flying Lotus’ “Zodiac Shit” off his most recent album, Cosmogramma. The psychedelic style mimics Flying Lotus’ themes, while using colorful animation reminiscent of the programming block’s strange cartoons.
[Click through to watch] They also produced a video for Mastodon, the song being featured in their newest Adult Swim Singles Program. The warped Sesame Street style puppets match the unorthodox beginnings of Adult Swim’s growth out of a “children’s” network.
The partnership with Definitive Jux to create the Definitive Swim record was partially motivated by Cartoon Network animators Daniel Garcia and Nathan Love’s music video for Jux’s founder, El-P. The compilation record, the music video, and El-P’s album I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead were therefore used to cross-promote each other.
Such partnerships can be an integral part of a transmedia rollout.
On the musician’s side, these collaborations can serve to spread their expressions in an artistic and creative manner. The stewards at Adult Swim clearly care about the music, and craft these production and distribution methods in ways that do not compromise the artist’s message or credibility. The network creates a “safe” form of corporate partnership, for while a number of the records are sponsored by companies like Kia, Scion, or Esurance, it is filtered through the Adult Swim brand.
The original programming is also an opportunity for musicians to express their art in new ways, with platform advantages not available through pure music recording. The character Major Lazer, seen in promo art but lacking narrative in the music, will be the protagonist of the upcoming TV show, “a one-armed Jamaican ex-commando and nightclub owner who battles the forces of darkness while making reggae-tinged booty-shaking jams.” A television series will allow the musicians to create new content without having to force it into their music albums, where it may not be appropriate.
On the network’s side, the presence of the music reinforces their aesthetic and tone. As a television network, it is risky to spread their resources and focus on music production. Instead, they search out and cultivate existing musicians that already communicate a similar artistic message. This allows the brand to cross platforms with little effort.
Both parties also benefit by introducing themselves to new audiences. Adult Swim introduces the music to new fans who are naturally receptive, due to similar appeals between the network’s programming and the musician. In turn, the musicians can drive their fans to Adult Swim, publicizing their involvement in the compilation albums, the music videos, or the new TV shows.
This is a perfect fit, but with the right amount of care and thought, any content producer can replicate a mutually beneficial partnership.