Gorillaz are currently in the midst of commemorating their ten year anniversary. As part of the celebrations, they recently announced a partnership with Converse to release limited edition Gorillaz sneakers next February. Is this merchandising or transmedia extension? Given their history and quality of storytelling, there is a lot to consider while answering this.
Gorillaz are a fictional band, created by former Blur vocalist Damon Albarn and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett. The music videos and narrative of the group feature four “band members,” however, Albarn is the only permanent member as the voice of frontman 2D. Each album features guest musicians from various genres—Mos Def, Bobby Womack, Little Dragon—some of whom have performed live with the band. Their four albums have sold tens of millions of copies, granting them the Guinness Record for Most Successful Virtual Band.
Albarn and Hewlett have made their commitment to world building very clear. Hints at narrative are woven into the lyrics, and character story arcs span across multiple platforms, allowing for long and intricate character profiles for fans to piece together. They have explored print media, browser-based games, phone and pad apps, figurines, and social media. While critical reception has varied somewhat over the course of ten years, the extensions have been generally of medium-to-high quality, and almost always have added to the story and canon as opposed to repurposing old material.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Gorillaz would partner with Converse to create special Chuck Taylor All Stars to commemorate their ten year anniversary. In typical fashion, the “band members” announced the project, with drummer Russel explaining:
“To converse: the exchange of thoughts, feelings or ideas. That’s what Gorillaz are all about, working and collaborating and exchanging ideas with other artists and global communicators. We’ve been trading in ideas and conversing with one another for ten whole years. So I couldn’t think of a better bunch of people to help celebrate our decade in the business than the good people over at the Converse shoe company. Plus I’ve been wearing my Chuck Taylor’s since forever.”
There will be four designs, each created by Jamie Hewlett. Only one has been revealed so far, but as fans would be able to tell you, the print incorporates the cover of their self-titled debut.
Gorillaz is creating other elements to accompany the shoes. A free new track will be released with the launch of the sneakers, in line with Converse’s “Three Artists. One Song.” series, presumably indicating they will be collaborating with two other artists. And on December 1st, Converse will be hosting a Gorillaz Sound System, “a Gorillaz-endorsed audio-visual experience that includes music, live percussion, and projected visuals, [that] will take place at the 100 Club in London.”
One could argue that the shoes are merely merchandising. There are no literal narrative elements accompanying them, and the designs may be repurposed from other materials. However, there are a number of reasons this could be considered transmedia extension. Aesthetic is a great way to extend music, as it often does not have an easily translatable story or narrative to use. Having elements of cover art or other world design on the sneakers immerses the wearer in the larger Gorillaz world and calls out to their affection for the music.
The sneakers are also being designed by one of the two creators of Gorillaz. While the definition of transmedia storytelling will be argued forever, it is generally agreed that effective transmedia implementation uses content originated by one or a very few visionaries. Given that Gorillaz only have two creative stewards, it is exciting to fans that one of them constructed the designs, and indicates that they will be of great care and value.
The last argument for transmedia extension is the quality of the sneakers and their presentation. Crass merchandising is often very obvious, pumped out quickly and with little care in order to turn a profit. Partnering with Converse is a good sign; they are a well respected line, and have already proven success with partnerships with brands such as DC Comics and Dr. Seuss, as well as bands like Grateful Dead, The Ramones, and Metallica.
Yes, the sneakers are products. The band poked fun at this, with bassist Murdoc stating, “As Russel says, we’re happy to help sell their soles.” Even fans are aware of this fact, with one excitedly responding to their Facebook post, “SO GETTING THEM! I don’t care about supposed ‘commercialisation’ GIVE ME MERCHANDISE! Woop :D”
But by paying attention to quality and aesthetic and building off an established history of successful multiplatform exploration, they have elevated what could have been run-of-the-mill merchandising into transmedia extension.