My boss turned the corner and made a beeline toward me; his hard bottoms clickety-clacking against the concrete floor with a hurried rhythm. He had a bright and excited child-like look in his eyes. He opened his mouth to speak:
“We should write a piece about Ellen.”
“Ellen?” I retorted, quizzically?
“Yea, Ellen. About Ellen’s Sonic Identity, you know, her brand and how it relates to music. She’s hosting the Oscars, she’s dancing all the time. She’s got the new Beats By Dre commercial with a bunch of bears. Ellen’s relationship to music,” he expounded, like a proud scientist explaining a major breakthrough to a bewildered lab assistant.
“Ellen’s relationship to music?,” I parroted back, half statement, half question. “Um. Okay. I’ll check it out.”
Over the next several days, I wondered, what the hell does Ellen have to do with music? What fool’s errand had I been sent on? I quizzed my brain, trying to jump start an answer like the hopeful driver turning the ignition of a 17-year-old bucket, only to hear that dreadful, metallic gurgle of nothingness. After consulting the wise, magical wizard Google, ideas began to come to light. Ellen did have an uncanny love affair with music; the cheese hadn’t actually slid off of my boss’s cracker. As a matter of fact, it seems Ellen might just be a powerful, joyous, dancing typhoon spinning around the music industry.
But how does a middle-aged, openly-gay comedian become an influential, gynormous force of popular music? If Ellen’s a typhoon, what’s powering it? Confused at first, I was now intrigued. I had to take a peek behind the curtain to see the results of Ellen’s passionate love affair with music.
The 7 Keys To Ellen’s Love Affair With Music
Ellen has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the entertainment industry, with comedy at the root of her success.
Her career tree has grown from the soil of joy, fertilized with fun. As that tree has grown, its most important limb is dancing, one of the best physical representations of fun and joy. It’s a natural extension of Ellen’s nature and one of the strongest parts of her musical identity.
But, one needs the right music to dance. Ellen’s not just jamming out to any particular music. We don’t see Ellen boogying to hardcore Mobb Deep, or somber Radiohead. Dance musicwith upbeat tempos and thumping kickdrums is her drug of choice, the medium where she can fully express the most flavorful ingredients of her musical identity.
Her identity is so rooted in dancing that she begins each episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show dancing with her audience:
A lot of people say coming to a taping of my show is like going to a dance party…which makes me realize I should start charging admission. Ellen DeGeneres
She even features a video on her site, “Ellen’s Dancer Of The Day,” which deepens the importance of dance and fun in her musical identity.
Ellen’s connection to dance has been a foundation of her identity for years. Fortune 100 financial company, American Express, enlisted Ellen’s marketing muscle, relying solely on Ellen joyously boogying her way throughout an ad. “My life’s about dancing to my own tune,” Ellen says at the end of the commercial that shows her dancing along to a number of popular records as she goes about her day. The ad would foreshadow more music-based dance-marketing in the future.
Ellen’s deep roots of fun, comedy, and music translate into dancing and form a substantial part of who Ellen is musically. Out from those roots, Ellen has flowered into a tastemaker, a curator, and essentially, a prominent daytime DJ.
Being a brand ambassador and pop-culture icon, it would make sense that Ellen be on the cutting edge of popular music, and place a great emphasis on getting behind the right kind of music.
The great thing about a dance party, here’s the key to it. You have to pick the right music… On this show we pay so much attention to the dance music we play here… Ellen DeGeneres
Talk shows and popular artists share a symbiotic relationship; the former leveraging performances for entertainment and ratings, the latter promoting singles and albums to a viewership of millions. From Ellie Goulding, to Pharrell, to Aloe Blacc, if they’re hot and they make the right music, they’ve graced Ellen’s stage. With musical performances from major and rising artists, hosts like Ellen become some of the most influential DJ’s on earth, sans two turntables and a laptop. Calvin Harris. Avicii. Ellen DeGeneres. And because her fans already know a true love of music is encoded into Ellen’s DNA, they put an extra bit of trust into her golden opinion of what’s hot.
As an influential DJ, Ellen is the musical delivery mechanism that feeds current pop hits to the masses, making artists household names. Ellen’s reach and influence are the reason unassuming parents have artists like Nicki Minaj playing from their smart phones, painting the faces of their children with 90% confusion and 10% disgust.
“Dad, mom’s playing Drake again!”
“I see you’re up on that new Drake too, huh son? That’s what you kids say, right? “Up on?” The child cringes.
Furthermore, since the beginning of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, several prominent DJ’s and guest DJ’s, including Tony Okungbowa and Jon Abrahams have spun on the show, adding that extra musical element to her production. Curated playlists follow each of the show’s episodes and are published online afterwards. Custom playlists give her fans a chance to engage with the show musically at any time, well after episodes have aired. It’s another clever way Ellen creates engagement and builds her brand using music.
Over the years, Ellen has become the Ed Sullivan for talented children so overwhelmingly cute, it hurts. What boosts influence more than featuring cute kids showcasing great musical ability? First, Ellen’s interaction with these kids is pure gold. She’s able to pull amazing and hilarious interviews out of them right before they perform and knock the audience dead.
I was one of the last to learn about Sophia Grace & Rosie, two pint-sized British munchkins with immense talent and charm compared to their size. The girls conducted several performances on the show, including a tongue-twisting, lyrically complex cover of “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj. The world swooned to the tune of nearly a hundred million combined views on Ellen’s YouTube channel. Deals with NBC, and movies soon followed.
Also on Ellen’s show have been musical prodigies like 7-year-old Elias, who plays piano like the ghost of Mozart, and 13-year-old John-Robert Rimel, who looks like the flashback from the future of pop music.
With a show airing during the day, a program safe for kids to appear on, a more wholesome image than edgier late-night show hosts, and a heavily diverse demographic of fans, Ellen’s emphasis on children really makes the strength of her musical influence unique among her contemporaries. Her work with talented children and teenagers is critical to Ellen’s musical identityit’s how she’s become a big fish swimming in a pond few others can wade in.
In 2010, Ellen founded Eleveneleven records, transforming her role as a curator on the cutting edge to a record label owner taking the risk of bringing to the world’s stage the talent she believes in. She’s signed a variety of artists, from well-knowns like Jessica Simpson to undiscovereds like Greyson Chance, whose Cover of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” and subsequent performance on Ellen’s show rocketed the then 12-year-old to stardom.
With Ellen taking to platforms like YouTube to find talent, Eleveneleven represents the democratization of music business possibilityanyone who is able to capture the world’s attention with their talent has a chance. She’s even socialized the discovery of new talent, asking her massive community of fans to introduce and vote on artists her label should sign next.
I thought the founding of Ellen’s label to be one of the most significant elements to her musical identityher willingness to go beyond supervising the music for her show, or being the face of a brand, and roll up her sleeves to tussle with the music business head on. If you really think about it, it’s an incredibly impressive feat brimming with great potential. How many famous people who have started record labels have the public actually taken seriously? The fact that Ellen hasn’t been “laughed off of the stage” is a massive sign of respect and a reflection of how powerful her musical identity really is. From a business point of view, how many people with a following as large as Ellen’s have taken that kind plunge? She could probably sneeze a tweet at 9:00 am and make an act go gold by noon. She’s developed her own Oprah-like “midas touch,” specifically within music.
When you add together the various factors of Ellen’s musical identity, the dancing, the curating, the kids, the label, what exactly does it amount to?
As a successful comedian and actress, host of some of the biggest events on earth, award-winning talk show host, aspiring record label executive, covergirl, and brand ambassador, Ellen’s an influencer of the highest order with the potential to reach any and all.
If you don’t watch her show, you’ve seen her host an event with 40 million viewers. If you haven’t seen her host the Oscars, you’ve seen her do stand up. If you’ve missed her standup, you’ve seen her starring in her own shows or in box office smash like Finding Nemo. And in each and every medium, she’s great. And she’s probably referencing or dancing to music in some form or fashion.
Trusting your brand to the able hands of Ellen DeGeneres means you’ve afforded yourself certain benefits not afforded to those who invest in the ordinary.
“What artist is hot right now that we can do a deal with and put their smiling face on our package?” goes that question that commences the search that becomes the next run-of-the-mill company/famous human partnership.
Ellen is “the other option.”
She’s the play you call when you don’t want your opponent to see what’s coming next, when you want to catch them on their heels to score the game-winning touchdown.
With Ellen, you get the beautiful benefit of working with a famous musician minus the “boooring” aspect of yet another brand fervidly vampiring the success of a famous musician. She’s the prom queen you wouldn’t expect, as pretty as the popular girl, but without the popular girl baggage and meanness.
She’s the black sheep who’s authentic. She has a unique voice and means what she says and says what she means. And that resonates with brands, evidenced by the number of companies who have engaged Ellen to speak on their behalf:
“The executives at Telepictures have spent the better part of a decade trying to better understand what it is about DeGeneres’ show that has enabled it to cut through the daytime clutter in a way that most shows don’t – or can’t. What they’ve found, according to Telepictures executive vp current programming David McGuire, “It’s all based on Ellen not trying to be anybody but who she is.” Lacey Rose, The Hollywood Reporter
If you’re like me, you were enjoying the Oscars, dilly dallying on your internet-connected device of choice during the commercials, when you glanced away from your screen to see Ellen dancing with a family a bears. You thought to yourself, raising the pitch of your last two words a half tone to denote a puzzling question: “Ellen is the face of the Beats Music streaming platform?”
Imagine several suits filing into a beautiful conference room, taking seats around a huge, gorgeous conference table. Dr. Dre, his face fixed into an emotionless mask, occupies one of the seats in a location that denotes his bossness. Someone belts out: “We’ve figured out who is going to be the face of Beats By Dre!” The brave soul pauses for dramatic tension. “Ellen!”
Odd scene to picture, eh? Think about how great of an influencer she must be for a group of people to suggest such a thing. Think about how central to music she must be for a group to say in agreement, “YES! Ellen!”
Ellen DeGeneres. Not some cool, recognizable OG of the music space, like Snoop Dogg (I’ve known him for twenty years as Dogg, I don’t do the Lion thing), or You’re-So-Cool-I-Hate-You Justin Timberlake? Ellen. Middle-aged, comedian Ellenthe force behind launching a multi-million-dollar music streaming service. Ellen. Trusted to help a brand launch what they hope is the future of music consumption.
That’s impressive. And so is she. But it shouldn’t be surprising. When you stand back, giving yourself a good look at her, putting into focus the many pictures that comprise the musical mosaic of Ellen DeGeneres, it all makes sense doesn’t it? And you also realize that there really isn’t anyone quite like her.
“My life is about dancing to my own tune…” It wasn’t just a sales pitch.
By: Christopher Rucks, Music Dealers