Saturday, January 29, 2011

The question of music in advertising part 1

While I am a long standing leftie and anti-capitalist, I find the use of music in advertising a tricky subject to negotiate. The reason for this is because a lot of small bands have a decent payday and exposure if their music is featured in an ad. As making money from music becomes harder and harder (therefore sustaining the creative process of making music harder), does a foray into commerce make you a bad person. Well, yes and no.

As such, I think there's three parts to this musical conundrum:
1. What does selling out mean?
2. How/what is the music used for commercially.
3. Can an artist maintain integrity when their music is used in a volkswagon?

I'm going to explore each of these ideas in turn over the next few days but be warned, my thoughts on this are constantly evolving and confused so I'll probably be asking more questions than giving a solid philosophy on it.

This was brought home to me when a friend alerted me to a Motorola ad featuring Death from Above 1979. The song, Romantic Rights, which was remixed by Erol Alkan for the Romance Bloody Romance album is used to promote images of beautiful people getting fucked up at some decadent party while not scratching their phones. If I was at a decadent party I'd sure like DFA 1979 to be my soundtrack but watching the ad makes me feel a little queasy. To be honest, I'm not sure why (apart from the hideous people in the ad).

Did the members of DFA 1979 make a promise to me they wouldn't sell out? While they are ostensibly an indie band is there anything wrong with what they're doing apart from slightly cheapening my associate with the song? As I mentioned recently, DFA 1979 are reforming for Coachella and with this ad as well, I can only speculate that they've done this because they ran out of drug money (I JOKE! - hello lawsuit). At a certain level, if a few kids go and buy a DFA 1979 album because of this ad, that can only be a good thing, right? Right? Maybe?

What does it mean to sell out anyway? This was a big debate when indie bands joined major labels in the 90's but if you're an artist, surely you want as many people to hear your music as possible. Is that selling out? Is your music only valid if a bunch of turtleneck wearing hipsters in Brooklyn have heard it?

People also say things like "I used to like them before they became all commercial and sold out..." In this context does commercial mean making music more palatable for mainstream audiences. There are a number of artists that have been making successively more unlistenable albums as they go along (PJ Harvey, Dandy Warhols) but does that make their art any more noble? As uncomfortable as Kurt Cobain was with post Nevermind fame, his promise to alienate the fairweather fans with the release of In Utero never happened. That album is imminently listenable and no amount of Albini dry production can hide the fact that Cobain was a gifted writer of pop songs. Would the world have been better if Nevermind had sold 50,000 copies? I don't think so.

The next step in selling out is licensing your music for commercials and this is where the conundrum is for me. I despise the Rolling Stones for selling Start Me Up to Microsoft but I feel that's it's ok that Bob Mould to sell a song to another computer company. Why is this? Well, the Rolling Stones could not possibly need any more money so their rampant commercialism is crass and whore-ish wheile Bob Mould is essentially a cottage industry trying to survive by selling a small number of records so it's kinf of ok. However, the end result is the same, they are both making money and I feel that it acceptable for one and not the other. Hypocrite much? By the way, is licensing your music for a film soundtrack different? I don't know...

The thing is, unless you're Ian MacKaye, rich enough to refuse all advertisers (Neil Young) or you're just not of that ilk (PJ Harvey, Nick Cave etc...), making music is your work and making money from ads must surely be a consideration. Unfortunately, we work in the capitalist system, not the Fugazi system and as much as I admire and love the Dischord ethos, I know that model doesn't work for everyone. I actually don't mind that Queens of the Stone Age have songs on Guitar Hero because I know they get good money for that and the exposure they get helps spread the word of the band.

The recent rash of indie bands being used in ads has not really upset me but is the notion of selling out still valid? It makes me think of this Tool song (really!) called Hooker with a Penis (really!) where Maynard sings to a fan accusing them of selling out. The break down goes:

All you know about me is what I've sold you, Dumb fuck
I sold out long before you ever even heard my name.
I sold my soul to make a record, Dip shit
And then you bought one.

So in the context of Tool, unless you're making music in your bedroom that no one has ever heard - you've sold out. My God, this is confusing. This even makes Ian MacKaye a sell out but we all know that logic is fucking crazy. At the height of the post-Nirvana indie buying frenzy, major labels would turn up (literally) with suitcases of money to buy Dischord off MacKaye. He gave them a short shrift of course.

With the increasingly tremulous position of major record labels, commercial advertising is one potential revenue stream for small bands. I can't fully condemn this even though I feel uncomfortable with this. I know not everyone is a punk and not every band can survive without considering this kind of commercial venture. I think my discomfort is in part due to how the music is used and what that means to an artist's integrity - and that means different things to different artists. I will discuss these two points tomorrow.


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