Cashing in on Pussy Riot

There was an interesting piece in the Moscow Times last week looking at what has already become the iconic Pussy Riot ‘brand’, saying that it would be worth a fortune if it was exploited. The piece quotes a marketing expert as saying that over the next two years, the brand could feasibly generate over $3 million in gross revenue, with a net income of around $2 million to $2.5 million, from touring, merchandise, digital sales, publishing, speaking fees and film and book rights.

But Katya, the band member who was released from jail on appeal, has said that they will never allow the brand to be registered. “We’ve always said our band would never be commercial,” she said. “To an extent, it was created to fight commercialism.”

The fact the brand hasn’t been registered as a trademark though means that anyone is free to produce Pussy Riot merchandise. Some – including Madonna and Bjork – have sold Pussy Riot T-shirts at their concerts and online to raise money for the band’s defence fund but Katya says that she hasn’t seen a penny of the money raised, and wasn’t party to any agreement to sell merchandise. “Nobody agreed with me, Nadya or Masha,” she said. “The only thing I can say is we will never sell T-shirts with our images on them. It’s not us that’s doing it.”

The problem over the missing money could be that the legal defence funds were set up in the names of the band’s original lawyers, who have now been replaced. There is also a row brewing with one of those lawyers, Mark Feygin, over claims he tried to register the Pussy Riot brand name. (The attempt failed because the Russian authorities refused the application).

Nadya issued a statement from the prison colony where she’s serving her sentence in Mordovia, 400 kilometres from Moscow, saying: “Stop the brand showdown! Stop the registration of the brand! Stop the madness. I’m deeply disgusted by the financial and branding discussion. Money is dust. If someone needs it, take it. … I need freedom, but not for me, for Russia.”

Reproducing the Pussy Riot name and image is of course not just about creating something to sell, whether that’s to raise funds for their defence or to make some unscruplous entrepreneurs a tidy profit. It’s also about highlighting their cause, keeping their name in the public eye. A Russian expert said to me the other day that Pussy Riot is ‘absolutely huge’ in terms of global reach, that the Russian authoriites really don’t know how to handle it. The ‘brand’ is a big factor in this.

Ironically, given that the Pussy Riot image was designed with anonymity in mind, with the band saying that it didn’t matter who they were or what they looked like, it’s not just the balaclavas and bright clothes that are now part of the brand. Nadya, Masha and Katya are instantly recognisable in person, and some of the photographs, such as the three of them in the glass box of a dock in court or Nadya clenching her fist on her way into court wearing a No Pasaran T-shirt, have been reproduced endlessly. This is also going to be an issue for them when they are out of jail. Katya has already turned down requests to appear on stage with well-known musicians since her release, as that would mean appearing as herself, not as an anonymous member of Pussy Riot. She has however been giving interviews, to explain her politics and to call for Nadya and Masha to be released.

It’s going to be a difficult tightrope to walk when all three are out of jail. How do they remain true to their original ideals, yet make the most of their brand recognition to ensure that their ideas get the attention they’ve wanted from the start? It’s too powerful a weapon, the brand, to lay it aside. But in a world where everything is commercialised and commodified, where we’re already starting to see cheap reproductions of Pussy Riot designs being sold to people who have little idea who they are and even less idea what they stand for, how do they ensure that the purity of Pussy Riot as a concept is preserved? That it means something more than a great looking T-shirt? (See other Louder than War pieces on the misappropriation of punk imagery!) If they stick to their current stance and refuse to take control of the brand, are they in danger of seeing it diluted as everyone else helps themselves to a piece of it?

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