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Converse chases indie cred by boosting emerging musical act

At Q Division Studios in Somerville on a recent Monday afternoon, Reuben Bettsak, the guitarist and singer for Boston indie-pop group Guillermo Sexo, picked at his guitar strings while tapping distortion pedals with his teal Chuck Taylors. Bettsak, 37, and his four bandmates were preparing to record their new song “Graffiti Sky” in a free recording session.

That’s right. Free.

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Guillermo Sexo was one of five Boston-area bands selected for a free recording session through Converse Rubber Tracks, the shoe brand’s grass-roots program to support emerging musical artists. Picked by a screening process that requires applicants to detail their efforts at career-building and social-media networking, the bands are provided with studio time and technicians, and retain all rights to the recordings that result. Essentially they pay for those perks with the hipness and credibility that Converse gains by association: a mutually beneficial transaction that many retail brands, including Vans, Red Bull, and Puma, have tried on for size lately.

The recording sessions coincided with the company’s new Rubber Tracks Live Tour, a five-date national excursion featuring popular hard-rock band High on Fire, which kicked off at the Sinclair in Cambridge on Aug. 12. The convergence of tour and sessions is among Converse’s earliest efforts to highlight the company’s relocation from North Andover to Boston proper in April 2015 — a move that will include the opening of a second flagship Rubber Tracks recording studio, housed within its new headquarters. Leading up to the opening, Q Division will continue to host Rubber Tracks recording sessions, one week per month for the rest of the year.

Since opening its first studio in Brooklyn’s arty Williamsburg neighborhood of New York in 2011, Converse has mounted concerts and recording sessions in cities around the world, including Cambridge. (A lively Tumblr page, conversemusic.tumblr.com, showcases multimedia content from Rubber Tracks sessions and shows.) But this month’s activities in Boston marked the first time that Converse has linked those ventures. Jed Lewis, the company’s global music marketing director, said that combining the two platforms should open up more opportunities for artists to expand their audiences.

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“Throughout [Converse’s] history, the artistic community has adopted the Chuck Taylor All-Star [brand],” Lewis said. “This is our chance to say thank you, and give back where music needed us most.”

But the shoe brand needs the music it presents under its banner just as much, said Kristin Lieb, associate professor of marketing communication at Emerson College. Lieb, who teaches entertainment marketing and branding, said a giant brand such as Converse needs to be rooted in its consumer base to help maintain its relevance.

‘It’s great to see when a large corporation gives a [expletive]. I love taking part, and it’s a decent way to be. I wish larger companies were more like that.’

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“Converse gets credibility with its target market by saying ‘I understand your lifestyle and I’m willing to coincide with that,’ ” Lieb said. “The secondary thing, as Converse looks down the road at celebrity endorsers, [helping emerging artists] is an effective way of talent-scouting.”

Converse has been associated with the music scene on a grass-roots level for decades, solidifying its place as a legacy brand, said Lieb. Chuck Taylor All-Stars remain a staple in the music world. And artists these days, Lieb suggests, might not view corporate alliances as harshly as their predecessors did.

“[Younger artists] are thinking, if I can get a brand to help me produce my music and get it out there for people to hear, how is that a bad thing?, whereas older generations would have viewed that as selling out,” Lieb said. “Newer artists are looking at what corporate alliances enable, rather than what they take away.”

High on Fire frontman Matt Pike said that he was glad to be part of Converse’s effort to help emerging performers. He and his bandmates chose Brooklyn hardcore-metal quintet Blackest to open their shows in Cambridge, Brooklyn, and Toronto, and tapped hard-rock band Arctic for its Los Angeles and San Francisco gigs. Both Blackest and Arctic had recorded with Rubber Tracks.

Cambridge, MA - 08/12/14 - Concertgoers line up outside the Sinclair in Cambridge before a Converse Rubber Tracks sponsored Live Series show with the bands Blackest and High on Fire. - (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section: Lifestyle, Reporter: Kelly Gifford, Topic: ConverseRubberTracks, LOID: 7.4.990153585.

barry chin/globe staff

Concertgoers entering the Sinclair for the Rubber Tracks Live Tour.

“It’s great to see when a large corporation gives a [expletive],” Pike said. “I love taking part, and it’s a decent way to be. I wish larger companies were more like that.”

Outside the Sinclair, the line for High on Fire’s show stretched down Church Street. Inside, a huge banner behind the stage read “Converse Rubber Tracks Live” in sleek black and white. Attendees sipping Narragansetts and mingling before the show barely seemed to notice.

“I wore Converse all the way through high school, and haven’t thought about them since,” said Peter Thom, 27, from Salem. “But this has my attention.”

“Anything that gives us free metal shows is fine by me,” interjected Thom’s friend Kate Griffiths, 23, from Salem.

Despite the bright-red Converse-branded wristbands they were wearing, many concertgoers didn’t seem to realize the show was backed by the sneaker company. But Tracy Putnam, 33, from Malden, and Robb Lioy, 36, from Whitman, appreciated that one of their favorite retail brands showed an interest in their kind of music.

“I remember the first pair of black high-tops I bought in eighth grade,” Lioy said. “I may not be wearing them tonight” — he was sporting DCs — “but I have owned and still wear many a pair of Converse.” Putnam thought it was only fitting to wear her Converse sneakers, noting that she and the brand go back to her middle-school days.

Cambridge, MA - 08/12/14 - Converse Rubber Tracks sponsored concert at The Sinclair in Cambridge. Appearing onstage is opener Blackest. - (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section: Lifestyle, Reporter: Kelly Gifford, Topic: ConverseRubberTracks, LOID: 7.4.990153585.

barry chin/globe staff

Blackest opening for High on Fire earlier this month in a show on the Rubber Tracks Live Tour.

That performers active in non-mainstream genres like heavy metal and underground hip-hop have found an ally in Converse might seem surprising at first. But Jeff Dorenfeld, a music business-management professor at Berklee College of Music, said since companies like Converse are not dependent on sales revenue from the artists that they work with, the corporation has no agenda to steer or tamper with the music that results. Generating good will — and good songs — is enough to help promote the brand among music enthusiasts.

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” Dorenfeld said. “It gives Converse awareness of where their demographic lies in their market.”

Clearly, performers have something to gain in the exposure and resources that Converse provides. Blackest bassist John Sokorai, 31, said that his band’s integrity had not been diminished in any way by working with Converse. If anything, he noted, its music was enhanced through a full day of recording last month in the Williamsburg studio with Will Putney, a seasoned producer who has worked with well-known metal bands such as Shadows Fall and Body Count. Sokorai said that Putney brought Blackest’s song “The Parish” to a new level.

“We thought we were just getting to work in a great studio,” Sokorai said. “So getting a great producer that we really respect and has a similar sound was icing on the cake.”

And, at the end of the day, for Converse it’s also about selling sneakers.

Kelly Gifford can be reached at kelly.gifford@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kelgiffo.
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