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​How McDonald's work-for-free offer backfired

Take a hipster arts festival, a multi-billion dollar fast-food giant, and an offer to work for free, and you've got a recipe for a public relations disaster

McDonald's (MCD) is raising the ire of artists and hipsters across the country after asking an indie band to play for free at the SXSW arts festival in Austin, Texas. Despite making a profit of $4.76 billion last year, the company asked indie band Ex Cops to play at its McDonald's Showcase without pay. The renumeration would instead come in the form of "additional exposure" and "cross promotion" from the fast-food giant's digital team, according to an account from Brian Harding of Ex Cops.

After Harding went public with McDonald's request for free work, negative sentiment exploded from all corners of social-media, with consumers calling for people to stop buying the chain's food and calling the company "greedy." The backlash comes at a touchy time for McDonald's, given that it's already dealing with slumping sales given consumers' preferences for healthier food. Adding to the problem, McDonald's is having a tough time attracting millennials, which is exactly the demographic that attends SXSW and listens to bands like Ex Cops.

"It is a horrifying and gross reality when one sees the true nature of corporations and their pathetic attempts to achieve relevance with millennials," Harding wrote in his Facebook complaint about McDonald's offer. "Doritos received a lot of flack for their stage a couple years ago, but I'm going to assume they paid Lady Gaga."

Harding noted that McDonald's had dangled other compensation, such as free food and getting featured on screens throughout the event, as well as possibly being mentioned on McDonald's social media accounts. He noted that the fast-food giant told him, "There isn't a budget for an artist fee (unfortunately)."

But McDonald's attempts to make the offer enticing failed to win over Harding, who pointed out that the company's employees must work four months to earn what the CEO makes in an hour. He added that his band recently played a show for a small independent business in Brooklyn, which managed to pay them "very very fairly."

McDonald's didn't immediately return a request for comment. In a statement issued to Gawker, the company said its policy was to "follow the same standard protocol as other brands and sponsors."

That might be the case, but McDonald's is a big enough brand to afford paying the going rate for a band at an indie arts festival. Its tone-deaf response is all the more remarkable given its dismal sales, with January's same-store sales declining 1.8 percent.

As for McDonald's claim that it was only offering what other sponsors were offering -- no pay -- Ex Cops singer Amalie Bruun told Rolling Stone that was flat-out not true.

Bruun added, "They're not following any guidelines because everyone else is offering money. They'll have to take that up with South by Southwest if they think they're following the guidelines...Other, much smaller corporations are offering us money."

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