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 NME.com, 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.
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