MUSIC & CORPORATE ADVERTISING: New Perspectives

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Jim Morrison would say that everyone’s selling out today. Flip on the tube…it seems that everyone-from legends like The Beatles (Target) and Bob Dylan (iPod, Victoria’s Secret) to lower-flying comets M Ward (Volkswagen) and Regina Spektor (XM Radio)-is licensing music to television commercials. Even previously outspoken opponents like Steve Earle and John Mellencamp signed on for Chevy truck campaigns in 2006.

Jim Morrison would say that everyone’s selling out today. Flip on the tube…it seems that everyone-from legends like The Beatles (Target) and Bob Dylan (iPod, Victoria’s Secret) to lower-flying comets M Ward (Volkswagen) and Regina Spektor (XM Radio)-is licensing music to television commercials. Even previously outspoken opponents like Steve Earle and John Mellencamp signed on for Chevy truck campaigns in 2006.

Many supporters of Indiana’s favorite son were shocked. “April 1984-Market Square Arena, Indianapolis, Uh Huh Tour-Mellencamp states to the audience that he would never use his songs in commercials,” one disillusioned blogger wrote after hearing “Our Country” in the Chevy ad. “Yeah, I was there and heard it. ‘I was born in a small town?'”

Mellencamp defended his decision in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine: “There’s certain people who will say, ‘I can’t believe Mellencamp’s done that!’ But at the time I was making this record, Tom Petty had just put out a beautiful record, you know? Times have changed. Dylan’s selling his songs. If nobody’s playing Petty’s record, why the fuck would they play mine?”

Good point. This hasn’t been Morrison’s world for some time. Starchy corporate radio formatting has made irrelevant his notion that it was artistically feeble for the other Doors to sell “Light My Fire” to Buick in 1967. Most modern day songwriters have to look to outlets other than radio to spread their music; a paradigm shift has redefined artistic integrity. In fact, many songwriters argue that it’s now more respectable to hear their songs on television commercials than to have them played on the radio.

“As long as I’m not doing something for a cause that I don’t believe in or expressing a viewpoint that I don’t believe in, I don’t think it’s selling out,” folk-rocker Citizen Cope says. “Radio has its own formula, and I haven’t been accepted by even the smallest forms of radio. Deep down, the question is: Is your music credible? I’m not going to be defined by someone else’s ideals as far as selling out or not.”

Cope makes no bones about it. He’s proud that his music’s been on television commercials. “If you look at it, radio has no credibility anymore,” he says. “So, you know, is getting your music on the radio today selling out? Historically, it’d be great to have your stuff on radio, but there’s nothing breaking there anymore-nothing with any edge or importance. It’s actually kind of corny to be on radio now. On the other hand, visual and music [in commercials] really work well together. You might even see one and think, ‘That was cool.'”

Pontiac gave Cope his first significant boost in 2004. It came at the right time. Cope’s RCA debut The Clarence Greenwood Recordings had been critically lauded earlier that year, but it achieved only modest initial sales. The Brooklyn resident gave an eager thumb’s up when the automobile manufacturer asked permission to use his “Son’s Gonna Rise” in an ad campaign. Results came quickly.

“There were people at shows who’d say, ‘I heard your music the first time in that commercial and went out and bought the album,'” he explains. “It definitely had an effect on my career. Television is so powerful, and the exposure of having my music in that commercial was so big. There are so few outlets to get your music out there right now that it seems absurd to miss an opportunity. And I feel good enough about my record to feel that it’s a good thing.”

But Cope does draw a line. He refuses to compose music specifically for a commercial. “I’ve been asked to write songs for [commercials] and film,” he explains. “It just doesn’t work that way. Would I write a song specifically for a commercial? Most likely not. It’s just not what I do. I don’t know if I’d be inspired to do that.”

Then there’s Robert Randolph. The steel guitar virtuoso would gladly dream up new licks if the right company asked. “Yeah, definitely,” he says. “We’ve been given the gift of songwriting. So, for someone to say they want you specifically write something for them, it’s a challenge. I’ve talked to Eric Clapton and John Rich from Big & Rich and Hank Jr. about that…it helps expand your career and broadens your mind. I would be up for it if the product’s something that I could stand for, something that’s not derogatory toward anyone.”

Like, say, AT&T Wireless. The corporate giant used “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That,” the lead track on Randolph and the Family Band’s 2006 album Colorblind, in a huge advertising push during this year’s Super Bowl. Talk about reaching a few new listeners. Randolph chalks up that stroke of fortune to AT&T identifying as much with his personal values as the songs.

“These companies aren’t only looking for good music, they’re trying to find somebody who has the right image and isn’t mixed up in all kinds of negativity,” he figures. “It became an embarrassment, for example, when Sports Illustrated put Carmelo Anthony on the cover and then he had that big fight. The guys at AT&T really appreciate what band and I stand for and that we come from the church.”

Randolph’s grounded nature helps him process the business and promotional side of his career. The New Jersey native agrees with Cope’s assertion that television has usurped radio as the most viable route for deepening-or maintaining-an artist’s fan base. “Television is the new radio with all the commercials,” he says. “Bob Dylan or U2 wouldn’t sell as many records without the iPod commercial because they can’t get on pop radio. It’s the same artists constantly on mainstream radio.

“Television gives us a broader audience. If you’re talking the Super Bowl, that’s hundreds of millions of people hearing your song on a commercial-way more than you’ll get on the radio in a month.”

This afternoon’s alliteration: Petulant poets prosper posthumously.

In Nick Drake’s case, thank Volkswagen for that. The British songwriter, an obscurity during his brief lifetime, has become a folk icon in the past decade-largely because VW used his signature tune “Pink Moon” in a 2000 commercial. Just think of this: In some circles, because of a car company, Drake’s name has found its place next to Cohen, Dylan and Van Zandt. It’s amazing. So are his album sales, which have skyrocketed from the ground level in this new millennium.

Trevor Dann, author of the latest Drake biography (Deeper than the Darkest Sea), believes Drake would’ve disagreed with the tactic. But he also thinks it was ultimately harmless to Drake’s reputation. “It’s like Robert Johnson’s deal at the crossroads, isn’t it?” Dann submitted to American Songwriter via email. “Did the VW spot bring a new generation to Nick Drake’s music? Yes, he sold more records in 2000 than in all the previous years his albums had been available-put together. In Nick’s case, VW even added a button to their website directing people to a music retailer. So it was probably a good deal in the end. Would he have approved if he’d been alive? Probably not, but that’s life-or, indeed, death!”

Besides golden slumber, in passing Drake has another distinct advantage over those like Earle and Mellencamp; it’s hard to accuse a dead man of selling out. “For two reasons, the VW spot didn’t damage his credibility,” Dann continues. “First, the ad was beautifully shot and his music was used tastefully (the directors were both big Drake fans). Second, he didn’t make the decision. It was his estate, literally his sister Gabrielle, who will have agreed to the request.”

Cally, a representative of Drake’s estate who identifies herself only by first name, feels that longtime admirers were on the fence over the VW spot. “I think a few were appalled, but many felt good that Nick was gaining recognition,” she says. “There are a few older fans who would prefer that he remained their secret, in the cult-status tiny bracket that Nick himself was so eager to get out of. I am a little perplexed that they are happy to deny him the very recognition he deserved whilst he was alive and would have quite enjoyed, we think.”

Listen for Brett Dennen’s “Blessed” the next time the Hilton hotel logo pops up on the screen. The lead track on the home-schooled Californian’s 2005 self-titled, self-produced debut represents this new age of advertising. It’s far more likely that viewers will discover independent artists like Dennen than hear an old favorite like Bob Seger, whose “Like a Rock” was a Chevy staple for years.

“I think, if anything, people are more aware of independent music as an option,” says Pump Audio CEO Steve Ellis. “People now realize that independent music is useful and can be good. Right now it’s a wide trend in the mindset of songwriters to be more independent, and to think independently. Also, the people choosing the music for commercials are more musically-oriented editors.”

Ellis has had first-hand experience. His 1990s band, The Simpletons, licensed music to commercials in an era when canned music was still the norm. Weary of his group sliding from major to indie labels and back with scant success, the experience redirected the British-born songwriter’s career path. He founded Pump Audio in 2001 as a means to serve as middleman between independent artists and commercial music editors. It’s been a hit.

The company’s centerpiece is “The PumpBox,” a database of more than 75,000 songs that Ellis offers prospective clients looking to place music in commercials, TV shows, videos, Internet downloads…you name it. The agreement (profits are split 50-50) between Pump and indie artists is mutually beneficial, and songwriters maintain all rights to their songs. Ellis says songwriters should use Pump to shoot for long-term success as a working musician-not overnight glory.

“A lot of people get sort of star struck, and they think that a big commercial might help you do this or that,” he reckons. “It’s hard to get in those commercials. A lot of people and labels are competing to get in those big commercials. You need to have the right song at the right time. We think aiming for one hit like that is no way to make a living. It’s more about having a system where there’s an ongoing opportunity to earn.”

Pump Audio has helped Bibi Farber hit it both big and small. It placed one of the New York-based musician’s songs in a Kodak commercial (payoff: $10,500), as well as more than 250 lower profile television and video spots last year (which she estimates combined for about $7,500). Her tunes reached a diverse crowd, too. Pump placed them in everything from Food Network segments to a World Wrestling Federation DVD.

“Pump is really wonderful because they’re open to all genres of music,” Farber says. “You could be a struggling jazz guy who writes big band arrangements, and if you can just get them recorded and mastered, Pump will probably have a use for it. Boy, there’s some good music on commercials these days-fresh, original sounding. I think the canned, jingle-sounding music is never going to return. Contemporary original music on TV is par for the course now.”

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