2019 was a busy time for Nicolle Maroulis, bandleader of New Jersey-based indie pop outfit Hit Like a Girl. The group had recently followed up their impressive 2017 debut album, You Make Sense, with two new singles, and Maroulis had just launched a nonprofit called No More Dysphoria, which gives financial and emotional assistance to trans and nonbinary people going through any gender-related transitions. Getting ready for a handful of fall tours added another layer of stress, but before they hit the road, Maroulis woke up one morning to find a pleasant surprise in their inbox: Their band had been accepted into Taco Bell's Feed the Beat, a program that’d give them free food on tour.
“They mailed us a box with $500 worth of the Taco Bell gift cards, and a little note inside that said, ‘Congratulations on being on Feed the Beat!’” said Maroulis, who said they’d applied to the program multiple times. “I think I still have the letter at my house, just because we were so stoked about it.”
Since 2006, Taco Bell has been giving bands $500 worth of gift cards in $10 or $5 increments that work at any of their franchises. Less a traditional sponsorship than a no-strings-attached corporate subsidy, the program has become a secret weapon for any act that applies and hopes to turn a small profit from the razor-thin margins inherent to touring small venues and the occasional festival side-stage. For artists like Maroulis, the opportunity to eat free food in every town they visit can go a long way towards making the math work.
“I don’t know how other bands run their finances but for me, everything comes out of my pocket,” they said. “I pay and hire musicians to play in my bands. I pay for all the gas and everything by myself. The expenses add up really quickly, so any chance I get to save a couple bucks on even food, I’ll take it.”
One not particularly surprising open secret in the music industry is that touring bands like to go to Taco Bell. It’s cheap, open late, offers a relatively wider selection of vegan and vegetarian options than the competition, and it’s everywhere. The Feed the Beat program was started in 2006 by Will Bortz, a member of Taco Bell’s marketing department who, according to those in the know, picked up on the phenomenon on MySpace. But for most of its run, the program's day-to-day operations have been handled by an outside firm called The Syndicate, which has handled artist management, radio promotion, or PR for acts like Thursday, The Killers, and Portugal. The Man.
Jon Landman, owner of the Syndicate, said the partnership was a perfect fit for his company. “It was an opportunity to really, if nothing else, pick up the late-night tab of these musicians who work so hard on the road,” he said. As the program has evolved, some Feed the Beat artists have additionally been paid to have their music synced in Taco Bell commercials, as heard in a 2012 Doritos Locos Tacos spot featuring Passion Pit's "Take a Walk." (It’s not quite the 90s Taco Bell ad, with Johnny Cash but it did the trick.)
Feed the Beat enlisted 15 bands for its inaugural run in 2006, and some its early acts included Gym Class Heroes, Andrew W.K., and Pittsburgh mashup icon Girl Talk who used his $500 worth of Taco Bell gift cards to buy the audience at his hometown venue, Mr. Smalls, hundreds of beef and bean burritos after his set. These days, Taco Bell awards the gift cards to 200 bands per year, with application windows for the spring and fall. Its last class featured acts like Lala Lala, Ona, and Slow Pulp.
Over the years, Feed the Beat has given out a total of over $850,000 in gift cards, to an array of artists ranging from Tyga to Deafheaven to Lydia Loveless to Jeff Rosenstock. “Very rarely do you see a program run for 15 years, and it really hasn't changed much,” said Matt Prince, Taco Bell's senior manager of PR and brand experience.
From 2014 to 2017, Kaity Davie worked with The Syndicate and helped run the Feed the Beat program. “We probably had anywhere from like 600 to 1000 bands that would apply,” she said. “I was organizing and tracking applications, reading the notes artists would send accompanying their submissions. The biggest part was the listening party: We would literally block out three or four days to just go through and listen to every single band that applied.”
Hit Like A Girl’s fall tour with New York outfit Nervous Dater lasted three weeks, but Maroulis and their bandmates only had $100 worth of gift cards left after that short run. “We definitely went to Taco Bell, if not every night, almost every other night,” they said. “I’m vegan and my band nine times out of 10 is usually vegan or vegetarian as well. Taco Bell is one of those open late fast-food chains that are more easily vegan/vegetarian-friendly.”
When Davie worked on Feed the Beat, she remembers reading countless applications from artists with dietary restrictions. “We had a lot of submissions that were like, ‘I’m vegan, I’m on tour, and this is really tough for me, so I really always appreciate when there’s a Taco Bell around,’” she said. “Even if it sounds silly, getting those bands on Feed the Beat made me feel like I was helping.”
Of course, as is often the case when art and corporations collide, Feed the Beat has not been without criticism. In 2016, punk group Hard Girls requested they be removed from the program, with one band member later claiming via Tweet to have discovered that “Taco Bell’s PAC”—or Political Action Committee—had “donated the max amount to the Trump campaign." (They appeared to be referring to donations made by Taco Bell franchisees as TACO PAC, which as it turns out, was unaffiliated with the PAC connected to Taco Bell's parent company, Yum! Brands). Elsewhere, critics on Twitter have lambasted the selection process, claiming already well-off artists have been chosen for the gift cards. (Also, and this should go without saying, but fast food is bad for you.)
“There’s obviously some skepticism, but everything is opt-in with the program,” said Landman. “They weren't taking advantage of artists, and they weren't putting artists in weird situations. [Musicians] didn’t have to sign a contract or anything to get the gift cards.”
In 2015, the band Ratboys, then mainstays of Chicago’s DIY scene, became one of the bands Davie helped approve into Feed the Beat. Fresh off of their album AOID, the group was embarking on their first extended European jaunt and U.S. venue tour supporting Chicago emo veterans Dowsing.
“Since we had all these shows on the books, I just applied via their website, and didn’t really have expectations,” said Ratboys singer Julia Steiner. “But they emailed us back and we got in. We were so stoked. We didn’t have a booking agent at that time. We were very much grinding on our own, and any small amount of help in that way was very appreciated.”
Maroulis of Hit Like a Girl echoed that sentiment. “Artists in general just always get the short end of the stick constantly, so it’s really cool to get one bone thrown at us,” they said. “I’m not one to be any sort of proud supporter of any big corporation, but I think it is cool when a couple [companies] every now and then support the punk community."
Taco Bell paused Feed the Beat during the pandemic, when America's live music industry ground to a halt. But with fall tour calendars filling up and bands finally starting to hit the road again, The Syndicate said the program will come back in some form this year, with the expectation of going even bigger in 2022.
“Next year, Taco Bell turns 60, which is a nice big number,” said Landman. “Over the rest of 2021, with concerts opening up, we’ve had a lot of folks—from managers, agents, labels, and artists—reaching out to us about Feed the Beat. It's been really, really welcoming and really a warm feeling.”
Because of those early Ratboys tours with the $10 gift cards, Steiner said, she can sometimes have a hard time separating the idea of traveling to play music for people from the experience of eating Taco Bell. She even joked that she hasn’t eaten Taco Bell during the pandemic, because it reminds her too much of being on the road.
“When we get back out,” she said, “I am so excited for that first post-show, late-night Taco Bell drive-thru experience. It’s gonna be like an emotional marker that we're really back.”