Selling the Sizzle
Published Oct 01, 2002You know that song? The one from the commercial? Advertisers are betting you do. Or you soon will.
This spring, North America heard its first 30 seconds of UK band Dirty Vegas in a Mitsubishi commercial. The ad showed a girl dancing in a car while listening to "Days Go By" with her hipster friends. Audiences loved it, and the name of the brand was on everyone's lips as they phoned into radio stations to request "that song from the Mitsubishi ad," (which Mitsubishi had thoughtfully arranged to be on play lists around the country). A simple web search using the words "Mitsubishi" and "ad" would immediately reveal the name of the artist, and pull up hundreds of chat rooms infected with the topic.
Shortly after the ad's debut, the band went top ten. In June, the self-titled Dirty Vegas full-length was released. July saw the beginning of the band's first North American tour as part of Moby's Area 2 festival.
A clever music video for "Days Go By" was also in heavy rotation on MTV and MuchMusic. The video showed an older businessman transformed into his younger self by break-dancing outside a retro diner in what passers-by inform us is an annual dance performed in honour of a lost love. A single shot of the man makes up most of the video, with occasional footage of the band inside the diner. Strangely, a second version of the video later replaced the original. The video now opens with Dirty Vegas driving through L.A. in a Mitsubishi Eclipse. Instead of the band swilling coffees inside the diner, they watch the break dancer from the luxury of their car.
This isn't the first time an ad effectively "broke" a song. Volkswagen brought Nick Drake back from obscurity with their "Pink Moon" spot, prompting reissues of the album to feature a "from the commercial" sticker. The Gap has tried to do it many times over. But the level of collusion between band and brand sent clear signals through the ad business that things had changed bands were now more open for business than ever before.
Dirty Vegas knew exactly what they could expect from the ad. In the last few years, Levi's in the UK has made number one hits out of every song they've put in their ads (the latest features "Taxi" by Pole), exactly as Mitsubishi has done in America in the last four years. Bran Van 3000 went to number two in the UK charts when "Drinking in L.A." appeared in an ad for Rolling Rock beer. Last year, a Vodaphone UK spot propelled the Dandy Warhols into number five.
Dirty Vegas's Paul Harris admits to being ecstatic when he got the call. Along with money and some exposure in a country that is notoriously hard for British bands to break into, one of the reasons he gives for making the deal is that "people are spending so much money now on adverts. They're not as dull as they used to be, and what they're trying to sell isn't the most important thing. In the Mitsubishi ad, you don't even know what it is until the very last second."
By advertising standards, the Mitsubishi campaign is relatively innocuous, and truthfully it does look more like a music video than a traditional ad. There's no product commentary, and the song itself is used to set the scene more than to pitch the product. Still, the agency contends that it paid nothing for product placement in the video. Eric Hirshberg of the L.A. agency that shot the commercial comments, "They're not quite paying us yet, but all kidding aside, I could envision a day when product placement reverses itself."
The banal truth of selling out is that you can hardly tell it's happening. Since Run DMC's shameless money-grab with "My Adidas" in 1985, more and more high profile artists have given up songs to advertisers. Moby, still the most spectacular example to date, licensed songs from his 1999 Play a record 600 times to TV shows, films, and commercials, earning an estimated $10 million in the process. In the meantime, other respected and influential artists have made one-off licensing deals to little fanfare.
Aphex Twin got $125,000 to put "Girl/Boy" in a Bank of America ad, just one of his many licensing deals. Richard James confesses to having "no morals" when it comes to advertising, but what he really means was that it doesn't register as something that is bad. How is licensing a song to a bank commercial any different than being featured in a soundtrack? Or playing at the Molson Amphitheatre? The only immediate difference is the pay out.
There are famous cases of exorbitant money being paid for songs that ad executives decided they just had to have. Microsoft reportedly paid $12 million U.S. to the Rolling Stones to use "Start Me Up" for the launch of Windows 95. Excite spent $7 million U.S. for Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" While some of the exuberance of the ad world has faded in the past year, there will always be enough money to attract those outside the biz.
James Mercer, singer/songwriter of Albequerque, New Mexico band the Shins, has licensed songs to television shows, films, and commercials. This summer he went one step further, composing an original piece for the Gap. The song, "Whoa Trish," appeared in a gentle little black and white commercial featuring Ashton Kucher cycling on a hilly road amongst friends.
"They were gonna give me a certain amount of money just for ideas so I thought, how can I pass that up?" Mercer says. He sent over three demo songs, all of which the Gap initially rejected. Later, they changed their minds and a cheque turned up in the mail.
Why did the Gap do it? According to Mercer, who speaks with the jaded tone of a man well-adjusted to a commercially mediated world, "they believe that if you're involved it will give legitimacy to their product. Of course, it doesn't actually do that. Really, I think the [anti-corporate] sentiments that existed in the 70s have waned. In the music biz it seems that people have a little bit more understanding that as a musician, you're not expected to be the upholder of anti-establishment dogma that existed in the 70s to the extreme. Those rules don't seem to apply to kids struggling to make their way."
For Mercer, it took very little work and saved him having to take a day job for a while. Plus, says Mercer, "I think it's a pretty good ad. I think advertising can be beautiful."
James McNew, bassist for Yo La Tengo, refers to his band as one of the last in the world to resist licensing deals. The band has declined countless offers and enticements, and McNew is clear that selling songs is not going to happen. "I attach a lot of emotional significance to these songs, and seeing them in ads ruins that experience," he says.
But this summer, Yo La Tengo got around their anti-commercial sentiments, composing two original 15-second pieces for Starbucks' bottled coffee. The band had the freedom to write whatever they wanted ("we wouldn't have hired them if we didn't want it to sound like Yo La Tengo," the ad exec says). No pre-recorded songs were exploited, and few fans would be able to tell that Yo La Tengo had even been involved unless they read Yo La Tengo's own web site, which announced the news under the headline "Yo La Tengo Sells Out."
Nobody can fault the band for participating in what turned out to be what James calls "kind of neat and dreamy" animated commercials. And few will. Most people realise you can't find fault with someone trying to make a living from music, McNew included, for the record.
It isn't just the bands' attitudes that have changed. The Napster debates have raised awareness around issues like music copyright, and people understand that if you don't pay for it, it's hard for bands to make music. Like James Mercer says, "Everybody knows someone who's trying to make it. They understand that it's difficult and if you have an opportunity to get some bread and butter like that, you'll take it."
Toronto musician Andrew Cash has been in the music industry for years, as a solo artist and member of the Cash Brothers. Once an activist heavily involved in fighting tobacco sponsorship at music events, he's also come around to the idea the same way that most have: by realising that artists are finally getting a fair shake.
"It really was different in the late 80s," Cash says. "There weren't as many corporate money tie-ins." Less corporate money was just one of the reasons that it became cool to stay independent. There simply weren't lucrative alternatives waiting. In the 90s, staying indie became status quo. But Cash says, once people start examining the status quo, things change. "Now, I think you try to do whatever you can to help keep things from getting too corporate, but at the end of the day, you have to say, okay, well this is the reality, now how do I deal with this reality because I like music."
James Mercer believes the change has happened already, and the few bands who do seem to be holding out aren't always doing it for the music. "Sometimes I look around and think, oh God, what's going on? We're in all this shit, is everybody else against it? But I've found that bands at or around our level of pop or record sales, those bands that have not done a lot of licensing, often times the reason is they don't have a label that is soliciting it for them."
Andrew Cash poses a fair question: "Why should musicians have higher ethical standards than anyone else?" The answer is that, until recent times, they didn't, and they weren't expected to. "Woody Guthrie used to do commercials," he points out. "People forget that, but he did it all the time, to make a living. Of course I've always lusted after a sponsorship from the Toronto Public Library or something, but obviously they don't have the money for that."
An article in the New York Times last year detailed the adventures of the Apples in Stereo, once a band that would shun most forms of commercial endorsement. The band licensed 30 seconds of "Strawberryfire" to Sony for $18,000 U.S., and later licensed tracks to J.C. Penney and Bank of America. The fan backlash was practically non-existent, and best of all, singer Robert Schneider said, was a call from his stepfather saying how proud he was. They had become downright respectable.
It's a blanket policy in the ad world that you risk everything to look cool. Whether you're selling fast food or sneakers or life insurance, the goal of every television ad is to make teenagers think your brand is hip. The average age of Mitsubishi owners is 38, but the ads are targeted squarely at 16 to 20 year-olds (now "generation Y" in ad speak). It's no surprise that Mitsubishi would take almost any risk, in bringing a band unknown in the U.S. on a free ride in their huge campaign. But the thing is that it's not risky at all.
Music is a subjective thing one person's Beatles is another person's Chuck Berry is another person's worst nightmare. Yet the music industry is based squarely on facts. Radio stations broadcast the ten most requested songs hourly. The charts are updated morning noon and night. Top 10s, 20s, and 100 lists are a regular feature on all-music television. Concerts, bands, and recordings are dissected daily by the attentive music media; statistics are compiled and believed.
The sum total is one gigantic market survey for advertisers, which is perfect because as much as advertisers claim to be looking for that elusive "cool," what they really want is quantifiable cool. The myth of the all-powerful ad executive who decides he just has to have a certain song persists, but it really isn't true. Agency people aren't screwing around in corner offices they're plotting, scheming and calculating to figure out how they might turn a profit for their clients. In other words, advertisers just want results.
They usually get them. Mitsubishi reported a dramatic increase in brand recognition and sales in the months after successful ads aired. Even if you're not shopping at the Gap, you have to admit that some of their television commercials are greatly improved as a result of a good soundtrack. And if a few viewers decide to boycott the Gap for exploiting poor musicians, they were probably not Gap customers in the first place.
From the perspective of the advertiser, licensing fees are a small amount to pay for the immediate payoff in cachet. The money that it cost Royal Caribbean to license Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" was just another expense in a $50 million advertising budget. Perhaps few people in the coveted youth demographic trust brands, maybe even fewer trust advertisers, but product endorsement is a method tested and true. James Mercer signing on with the Gap can be seen for what it is an artist making an honest buck or for what the Gap wants you to see it as: the Gap, as loved, appreciated, and worn by this cool, credible guy. But even the Gap knows that's not likely (they didn't even bother to send Mercer any free clothes). They know that up-and-coming musicians find it hard to turn down money and free exposure.
Most bands are not yet standing on their heads to get ad agencies to notice them, but labels certainly are. Mitsubishi's agency now receives two or three crates a month of unsolicited CDs sent by labels and publishers hoping to get in on a campaign.
Music sales have declined for the last two years and music publishers are seeking use a new source of income. Canadian advertisers spent $2.4 billion on television commercials in 2000, roughly 20 times the total income in the music industry. Naturally, the industry has been quick to realign itself around this new source of revenue. All of the major labels now actively promote the use of their recordings in films, television shows, and commercials, many through special departments created specifically to assist agencies in finding the right song for their ad. Some labels have been incredibly strategic with this new business opportunity.
During this year's World Cup BMG UK successfully got a remix of an obscure Elvis song "A Little Less Conversation" to show up in a $90 million global Nike campaign. The single, released parallel to the ad campaign, shot to #1 in the UK charts. After the campaign, the single was deleted from BMG's catalogue, despite steady sales, in order to make way for BMG's full-length Elvis: 30 #1 hits compilation. "A Little Less Conversation," not previously a chart-buster, is now featured on the compilation.
BMG UK Brand Marketing Manager Adam Bradley told the press "the Nike deal is massive for us, because it will deliver Elvis to a younger demographic in an unexpected and credible way across the globe."
Smaller labels are getting into the action by signing up with one of the new "music consultancy" shops that have popped up to serve ad agencies. The shops, generally run by people from the ad business, are hired by labels to send product samples to large agencies. Conversely, the consultant advises labels on which ads are going to look cool, which commercial directors shoot the sexiest spots, and what brands might be "a good fit" for their artists.
Sarah Sciotto of the commercial music consultant company Ten Music, has seen the shift in musicians' attitudes. "Album sales are down and aren't coming back up. You have an industry that needs additional income. Artists have had to change their minds about the way they market their music." Sciotto hasn't come across an act yet that's said no to an ad. Another reason she started the shop was to place music where it was authentic and not replicated. "One of the reasons why artists were so reticent for so long is because so much of their music had been borrowed for so long."
She's referring to the process of "ripping" songs, where agencies take a track they like to a jingle house and ask for a version just different enough to stand up to the expert testimony of a musicologist in a court of law. A music engineer/sound designer at one of the biggest jingle houses in the U.S. says that he just finished a "rip" of Jay-Z's "Renegade" for a Jeep ad. The engineer estimates that the jingle house charged $20,000 U.S., much less than an artist like Jay-Z would command. The same shop also re-did versions of "Eyes for You" and "Shining Star" by Earth Wind and Fire for Mercedes.
"We use musicologists to make sure that everything will stand up to legal scrutiny," the engineer says, adding that it's the client that would be sued, not the music house. "However, Mercedes is being sued by Moby for a track we did a year ago, even though we got it cleared."
An optimistic ad executive explains the shift in attitudes from his perspective, "It used to be that the advertiser paid to buy some of the cache of the song, and now it's more like strategic alliances where the band is almost picking up some of the cache of the brand." It's a dubious notion Spiritualized is probably not booking gigs because Volkswagen thinks they're a good band. Then again, the booker is bound to know that Spiritualized won't be a new name to potential ticket-buyers. It all boils down to the same thing: exposure. Straight into the living rooms of the nation.
In the future, the last 40 years of music will be considered an anomaly. From Zeppelin to Nirvana, John Lennon to Ice T, we've witnessed the rise and fall of the anti-establishment rock star. The hold-outs, like Bruce Springsteen, who famously turned down $12 million to license "Born in the U.S.A." to Chrysler in 1986 (a company at the time busy transferring its manufacturing plants to Mexico), are already a thing of the past. John and Yoko have appeared in ads for Ikea, and Ice T is now endorsing his own brand of lollipops. Bob Dylan sold "The Times They Are A' Changin'" to a Bank of Montreal ad in 1995, and the public publicly mourned the death of more idealistic times.
As long as it's cool not to care, and it seems like it is, then moral outrage over corporate rule remains part of a regrettable past. Advertisers want you. They want your hairstyle, your clothes, your youth and your tastes. As long as people like good music, the only way to stay clean is to listen to some real garbage.
Agencies know as well as you do that radio sucks, that television is a load of crap, and that neither is likely to change very soon. In Toronto, Sleemans has even gone so far as to purchase radio air time to play 60 seconds of songs from local independent bands, and announce their name at the end. To music fans facing the ugly world of commerce all the time, the discussion might seem moot already. Compared to finding a CD sampler in your Kellogg's cereal, hearing a song you like in a television ad seems relatively innocuous. After all, you're the one watching the ad.
Does anyone think that television is going to get any worse because it makes use of better music? Andrew Cash says, "If I hadn't heard Nick Drake and I saw that VW ad, I would probably think, Wow! Who the fuck was that? That's great!'"
Exactly what I thought.
You're Not Hearing What You Think
Buying the rights does not carry any obligation to use the original recording. David Basskin of the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency (CMRRA) explains that advertisers "only want 14 or 15 seconds of a song and they want a particular, precisely produced recording. Usually they'll license the song and produce the recording themselves with studio musicians." Blur's "Song 2," in the Labatt's ad with racing grocery carts? Not Blur an adept recreation. In the U.S., artists have the right to appeal a poorly produced recording of their song but the issue has never come to trial in Canada.
Jingle House As Label
Minneapolis jingle house In the Groove has effectively "signed" Detroit rapper Froggdogg (famous for appearances on Eminem's Slim Shady) as a way to build some "authenticity" into their shop. Froggdogg now raps for Fox Sports ads while recording his next album, to be published by In the Groove.
Behind The Camera
David Lynch has shot ads for PlayStation 2; Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) shoots ads through an Italian production company; Tim Burton, John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, and Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) all troll for ads through a production shop in L.A.; and Wes Andersen (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) plans to direct Ikea ads for the upcoming holiday season.
Pass The Grey Poupon
Hip-hop artists often showcase their own brand of product placement and receive plenty of swag in return. In the spirit of Busta Rhymes' "Pass the Courvoisier," Foxy Brown's latest single "Stylin" mentions Frankie B. jeans, Marc Jacobs handbags, Mike's Air Force 2 sneakers, Juicy Couture sweaters, Bentleys, Range Rovers and Burberry.
Big In Japan
In Japan, pop songs that appear in commercials commonly list the song title and artist on screen, like a music video. Musicians have next to no chance of getting a recording deal without having already done at least one commercial "tie-up." In the U.S., a recent ad campaign for Six Flags amusement park did the same thing with bands like Sugar Ray and Simple Plan.
What's That Song?
Matching Band to Brand
Casino Vs. Japan "It's Very Sunny" for Hummer
FC/Kahuna "Nothing Is Wrong" for Hummer
Modest Mouse "Gravity Rides Everything" for Miller Genuine Draft
The Ramones "Blitzkrieg Bop" for Nissan Pathfinder
Mum "I'm 9 today" for Sony
Pole "Taxi" for Levi's
The Hives "Main Offender" for Agent Provacateur (with Kylie Minogue)
Talvin Singh "Jaan" for Philip's Recordable CDs
The Orb "Little Fluffy Clouds" for VW
Basement Jaxx "Where's Your Head At" for Pringles
Lou Reed "Walk on the Wild Side" for Honda Scooter
Iggy Pop "Lust for Life" for Royal Caribbean cruises; "Real Wild Child" for FTD; "The Passenger" for Guinness
Spiritualized "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space" for VW
Nick Drake "Pink Moon" for VW; "Know" for Nike
Badly Drawn Boy "The Shining" for The Gap
Stereolab "Parsec" for VW beetle
Smiths "How Soon Is Now?" for Labatt Ice and Nissan
James "Born of Frustration" for Westin Hotels
The Rolling Stones "She's A Rainbow" for Apple iMac; "Start Me Up" for Microsoft
The Beatles "Revolution" for Nike
The Dandy Warhols "Bohemian Like You" for Vodaphone; "Boys Better" for The Gap
Blur "Song 2" for Labatt Blue, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan Sentra
The Who "Bargain" for Nissan Sentra; "Baba O'Reily" for Nissan Polo; "Won't Get Fooled Again" for Nissan Maxima
Led Zeppelin "Rock & Roll" for Cadillac
Bob Segar's "Like A Rock" for Chevrolet
T. Rex "20th Century Boy" for Mitsubishi
Sting "Desert Rose" (and Sting appears) for Jaguar
The Shins "Whoa Trish!" for The Gap; "New Slang" for McDonalds
Beta Band "B + A" for Bailey's Irish Cream
Andrew WK "Time to Party" for Expedia.com; "Party Hard" for Coors Light
Son Volt "Chanty" for VW
The Clash "London Calling" for Jaguar
Massive Attack "Angel" for Adidas
Amon Tobin "Get Your Snack On" for BMW; "Deo" for Coke
Mazzy Star "Fade Into You" for Coke
Apples In Stereo "Shine a Light" for J.C. Penny; "Strawberryfire" for Sony
Madonna "Ray of Light" for Microsoft
Mos Def "Umi Says" for Nike
Thompson Twins "Doctor Doctor" for Dr. Pepper
Ladytron "Mu-Tron" for Nissan Altima
AC/DC "Back in Black" for The Gap
Peaches & Herb "Shake Your Groove Thing" for Old Navy
Daft Punk "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" for Palm Computing; "One More Time" for Victoria's Secret
Styx "Mr. Roboto" for VW
Gary Numan "Cars" for American Express and Oldsmobile
Judas Priest "You've Got Another Thing Coming" for Burker King
Sam Prekop "A Cloud to the Back" for Tylenol
Korn "Freak on a Leash" for Puma
Aphex Twin "Industro Garbage Beats" for Pirelli Tires (original track); "Girl/Boy Song" for Bank of America, Compaq and Orange (UK communications company); "73-Yips" for Schick; [as Caustic Window] "The Garden Of Linmiri" for Pirelli Tires