The Paper Chase

Sell out or opportunist? This is the question that has been asked ever since pop music and advertising has combined. Gone are the days of the jingle. No more will a simple melody and memorable line such as ‘plop-plop-fizz-fizz, oh what a relief it is’ be enough to make it in today’s savvy advertising markets. The only jingles making it to the air are for local businesses. Those of you who share a home in the Northwest with me will recognize the annoying yet memorable commercial jingles for Garlic Jim’s and Empire Carpets (ed note: they’re in California too, bro). I’m sure there’s an equivalent no matter where you live. Gone too are the original pop songs, such as the American Werewolf in London star David Naughton singing “wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?” But larger corporations need something more. They need something contemporary, something recognizable, and yet hip. So what’s to stop all of these companies from using Green Day or Gwen Stefani songs? They had some of the most popular albums of the year, so wouldn’t those tracks have helped them out? Why choose the Gorillaz, the Shins, Iron & Wine or the Postal Service?

The ultimate answer is that the marriage of indie music and corporate advertising is a match made in heaven. Maybe not in sensibilities, grant you, but in satisfying correlating needs. Indie records don’t make a lot of money, and with the increasing amount of illegal downloading going on, bands seem to be making even less money than ever before. Corporations, on the other hand, have a lot of it to spread out, yet are unwilling to shell out the major moolah it takes to land a major label band. One of the biggest targets for advertising is the 18-35 demographic and just who do you think listens to most of the indie music out there? As I said, it’s a match made in heaven. But are the artists that you know and love selling out? I don’t know if I can answer that for you personally, but I can say that many have cried foul since hearing songs from the likes of Dylan and Led Zeppelin on car commercials. These are easier to defend as both were and are on major labels. If they sold out, they did it long ago and far away. Hell, Dylan even made a CD of his exclusive to the monolithic bastion of evil Starbucks! Doesn’t anyone remember that Dr. Evil owns it?

But what about the indie bands? Not every indie band is itching to jump to a major label. Some have stuck to their guns for years, never even thinking about mass exposure. You just had to know that there was some kind of in-joke collusion going on when the Shins agreed to allow their song “New Slang” to be used for McDonalds. “The dirt in your fries?” There must have been a young advertising exec that had a blast with that one. But the songs have gone way past clever joke into the realm of either particularly apt or particularly unsettling. One that falls into the former category is the inclusion of Everclear’s “AM Radio” in a General Motors ad. Art Alexakis’ ode to all things seventies made a great juxtaposition for the GM cars that featured satellite radios. (OK, still not an indie, but we’re getting there.) In the latter category we find freak-folk auteur Devendra Banhart who allowed Fat Tire Beer to use several songs of his to hawk their brew. Huh? Unsettling indeed. Then there are the commercials, which feature a combination of the two such as with Honda using the Postal Service’s pollution / nuclear war song, “We Will Become Silhouettes,” for their hybrid car. Or, there’s the M&M’s commercial with Iron & Wine covering the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” Maybe not entirely apt, but definitely unsettling.

Ever since Apple’s iPod hit the market, they’ve been cornering the market on the catchy hit single that can boost sales and exposure. Of course, since the product is a music player, everything’s fair game from the Gorillaz to the Caesars, Wynton Marsalis to Wolfmother. But since when did telecommunications companies, shoe manufacturers or tax consultants become music aficionados and why do the bands so readily agree? One need only ask the L.A. band Five for Fighting whose song “100 Years,” used in the Chase Bank commercial, has hugely increased sales for their album, The Battle for Everything. After comparatively lackluster sales, Oasis agreed to let AT&T use “All Around the World.” Could they be far behind in cashing in?

One commercial very specifically brought up something oddly familiar from my past. One of my first ‘dates’ was a group date. I was ‘seeing’ a hot little number named Tina while my friend Chris was ‘going out’ with her friend. We were all of fourteen so it wasn’t all that ‘adult.’ Alright, enough with the quotes. Our friend Jennifer, coincidentally my ex (we held hands for about a week in the fourth grade), came along for the ride and turned out to be one of those people who continually ask questions during movies. We saw Pretty in Pink, the Molly Ringwald / Andrew McCarthy / John Hughes teen drama, which would have been great for making out had it not been for Jennifer’s continually nagging questions. One example, “is it called Pretty in Pink because her phone is pink?” Yes, seriously. Lo and behold, the other day I catch a commercial from Cingular hawking their new pink Razr phone using, what else, the Psychedelic Furs’ “Pretty in Pink.” Coincidentally, the movie actually took the name from the song, written years earlier.

I’m actually surprised that it isn’t being used as much in film trailers. Instead, it seems as though most film companies keep reusing the same music, either Thomas Newman’s Shawshank Redemption score, or the Kronos Quartet’s dramatic music from Requiem for a Dream. Every once in a while there is found a great example of good music being used for a film’s trailer. The film Everything is Illuminated had a great soundtrack, but nowhere on it could be found the song that really sold the movie to most trailer watchers, Devotchka’s stirring, “How it Ends.” Sofia Coppola’s next film, the historical biopic Marie Antoinette, juxtaposes modern music with 18th Century images and thus uses New Order’s “Ceremony” for the film’s trailer. I’m not quite sure if it works. Maybe the movie will shed some more light on the subject.

If you want my opinion, and if you’re reading this I’m guessing you do, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as ‘selling out’ anymore. Artists will continue to be exploited and mistreated no matter if they’re on a major label or indie. Whether it’s Prince’s beef with Warner Brothers or Lookout Records losing all of their master tapes, there are problems on both sides. CD’s might eventually go the way of the dodo, but until then, bands must find a way to stay monetarily viable. The changing face of how we attain music must also change the ways in which music is marketed. One of the first to realize this was electronic artist Moby. Like him or not, he revolutionized the way we market music when he licensed every single song off of his 1999 release, Play. A few short years later, while on tour with David Bowie, both theorized in an article, quite assuredly, that music sold on CD’s would most likely not exist within the next ten years. While that may not be revelatory, think about the massive number of places you can currently buy CD’s. Now think of how many places allow free Internet access. We’re still on the ‘room to grow’ side of that progress with Bowie and Mobystradamus’ prediction through its first five years (that’s all we’ve got). In order for us to hear the bands that we want to hear, we’re all going to have to figure out how to pay them. Maybe Internet downloading services, such as iTunes, will become the next labels, paying bands to make songs exclusively available on their respective sites. In the meantime, I can’t wait to hear a-ha’s cover of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” play over a Viagra commercial.

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