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Velcro Mary



 Original Music in Commercials: the Winners, the Losers, and the Sell-Outs


It was late Saturday night at college, and my roommates and I had just stumbled home.  We were all in an especially silly mood after our night out.  Hungry as horses, we called up the late night pizza place to deliver to us a huge pizza.  Someone turned on the television even though none of us were paying any attention to it.  Television is so often just in the background of scenes such as this one.  We were laughing, drinking, eating pizza, and then all of a sudden, I heard a familiar sound that evoked a certain emotion in me that was not silly joy after a night out with friends.  However familiar the sound, I didnt recognize it instantly because of the happy-go-lucky, carefree environment I was in at the moment.  I turned my head toward the television, the source of this sound, and I was greeted with a skin lotion commercial.  There was a woman on TV sensually rubbing her legs with lotion.  The soundtrack to this commercial was a song by The Catherine Wheel, Black Metallic.  This 7-minute 21-second ballad had always been a very special tune to me.  I had considered it the kind of song to be listened to while lying in bed alone in ones room with the lights out.  But instead here I was, surrounded by drunk friends watching some actress rub lotion all over herself while I listened to this beautiful ballad.  In a matter of seconds, the music lost its magic. 

My purpose for writing this article is not to declare sell-out status for all musicians who sell the rights to their music to advertisers.  Rather, I hope to show several perspectives on this issue.  Interestingly enough, many respected musicians throughout the industry have very differing viewpoints on allowing their songs to be used in advertisements, and I hope to showcase a few of them. 

One popular perspective among music lovers is that, put simply: commercials are evil, and good music is beautiful.  They are separate entities that have nothing to do with one another.  They feel that to use music, a piece of art, that has nothing to do with any sort of product for sale, in an advertisement that is being shown for the sole purpose of accumulating profit, is a severe abuse of the music.  This is the perspective of the Beta Band, a Scottish group that has been approached numerous times by US companies, including Oldsmobile and Gap.  For the rights to the bands music, Oldsmobile offered $250,000, and Gap offered each member of the band a whopping $10,000 cash bonus in addition to an original offer that the band refused.  Here is the kicker: the Beta Band is completely broke and has been for over a year, living off its record label.  According to, the bands lead singer, Steve Mason, compared the "constant stream" of approaches at using their music in ads to repeated tempting by the devil, although he expressed that the final decision of no thanks was an easy one.

While artists of any form should applaud the Beta Bands decision to protect their creations from commercial corruption at all costs, the flipside is that by allowing its songs to be in advertisements, a band can provide wide exposure to its music that the bands record label and commercial radio alike cannot begin to provide.  There is a cause for the recent eruption of independent music in television commercials.  The dominance of over-produced, mechanical pop music in commercial radio has left independent artists with even less of an avenue for getting their music heard by a sizable audience.  A select few artists have a monopoly over commercial radio, producing hit after hit, making their music very expensive for advertisers.  Thus advertisers seek the music of these undiscovered, independent artists, offering them sums of money that are miniscule to the corporation but are massive to a struggling musician.  The offers appear to be symbiotic; the musician gets exposure for his music along with a hefty sum, and the company gets to use the music to sell whatever product.  Only the aesthetic value of the music does not benefit from the arrangement.

This is the attitude that artists such as Moby and Sting have adopted.  Both have recognized the lack of paths for their most current music to find listening audiences given the present state of the music business. They saw commercial radio as a failing method, and instead opted to purposely use television commercials as the preferred method for reaching an audience.  Sting confessed that his new album was not much to his own liking anyway, so why not try to sell some copies by using the single in a Jaguar commercial.  The commercial, not radio, broke the album, and sales skyrocketed.  Moby uses a more philosophical justification perhaps because he feels more of a need to justify his decision, coming from punk roots.  He simply states that he has great respect for his own music, and his aim is to have as many people as possible hear it.  Logically, the best way to accomplish that was to sell song after song on his latest album, Play, to advertisers.  (With Mobys truly hippie-like mentality, it would not be fair to argue that he did it for the money.)  His plan worked like a charm; sales of his album sky-rocketed in the weeks after the latest commercial featuring his music despite the fact that it had been in stores for almost a year with modest sales.  On one hand, people who had never heard the music and most likely never would, were exposed to this artist, and might even expand their musical tastes a bit.  On the other hand, many of Mobys accomplished songs will forever carry the stigma of being remembered as the Nissan song or the American Express song.

A select few punk rock veterans harbor yet another viewpoint on the commercialization of songs.  While selling ones songs to a commercial is admittedly about the most un-punk thing a musician can do, punk rock veteran Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks) and Punk Magazine's John Holmstrom openly endorsed it in specific instances.  The highly influential and greatly under appreciated classic punk band, the Buzzcocks, allowed their song, What Do I Get?, to appear in a Toyota Rav4 commercial.  This occurred only after 25 years of the band working hard and making great songs with virtually no monetary reward.  Morris commented on how many years of hard work the band endured, and Holmstrom remarked that he hoped they finally made some money [from the commercial].  And who can argue with that?  Should bands who have struggled to stay intact for years simply because they believed in their music, be deemed sell-outs just because years later they finally accepted some well-deserved compensation? 

There are no hard and fast answers to these questions, but it is important to look at every aspect of the situation before judging musicians for their decisions.  For instance, does the band desperately need the money?  If a talented band is forced to break up and move on resulting from lack of funds, is it not better that it accepts some money in order to continue creating music?  These are some important questions to ask before declaring sell-out.

-Catherine Nicholas

Other Feature Articles

Related articles and websites:   

Music From TV Commercials

Beta Blocker!

Executives Should Learn We Just Can Get Enough of Music in Commercials from Daily Bruin Online

Where's the Beef? With the Music!

Know (no) Your Product (scroll down for the article) from Columbus Alive 

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