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To sell out or not sell out- should artists go broke on a pile of dignity?

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Monday, Oct 10, 2005

One lesson that I always try to pound into writers’ heads is that you shouldn’t do an article that tries to be all-inclusive about a topic that you could only cover adequately in a book.  I’m going to break that rule here but also suggest that I can’t give the final word on the topic and this is mostly meant to initiate some discussion about the topic (like most editorials or blog posts).



  
Two particular stories got me thinking about the idea of corporate spons0rship and the dreaded idea of ‘selling out.’  In the first article, Dead Kennedys Cancel Appearance Over Sponsorship, the L.A. punk legends decided that they didn’t want Coors Beer sponsoring one of their shows because of the company owners’ overtly ultra-conservative leanings.  Still, we shouldn’t forget that the band themselves have had a long-standing legal beef with Jello Biafra and now tour with a new singer while keeping their old name- in other words, integrity is a sticky thing, ain’t it?


Meanwhile, the L.A. Times reports about Doors drummer John Densmore and his battles with his own former bandmates: Ex-Door Lighting Their Ire (a terrible title).  While Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger teamed up with the former Cult singer Ian Astbury tried to revive the Doors name for a new tour, Densmore and Jim Morrison’s estate stopped them and got the courts to agree to give them a split of a tour that the 21st Century Doors just did that netted millions of dollars.  Densmore’s other contention with his former bandmates is that their back catalog shouldn’t be used for commercials, which in a way is firmer stance than the DK’s.  Manzarek makes the point that this is one of the few ways to get the word out about the band nowadays and I agree with that to an extent though in some ways, I do find Densmore’s stubborn resolve to be admirable.


Both of these stories raise the question of what does it actually mean for a rock/pop band to ‘sell out.’  One blog entry isn’t going to answer this but maybe some precedents provide some food for thought.


GENERAL QUESTIONS


- What’s the context?  This depends on who the artist is, what their history is and what type of product they’re hocking- doing an ad for Greenpeace obviously ain’t the same thing as doing an ad for Halliburton.  As Jeff Greenfield, a Boston marketer, said: “As long as [the connection] makes sense ... as long as there’s something real, then it’s OK.”  Maybe…


- How is it being presented?  One angle is artists actually acting in a commercial versus using clips of them performing, which is a big difference because the later is something of a removed association with the sponsor.  For instance, it’s one thing to have a U2 ad with the band miming to a hit in the background and a different case where we have the singer saying directly to us, “Hi, this is Bono from U2.  Whether I’m on tour or flying around the world shaming world leaders into forgiving Third World debts, I’m still all about music.  And that’s why I always have my I-Pod with me…”  Also, think of how name actors appear in ads in Japan but not the States (i.e. Jody Foster) or only do a voice-over non-appearance in a commercial (i.e. Gene Hackman).


- What alternatives are there for any media recognition otherwise?  This goes back to Manzarek’s argument and it’s not something that you can totally scoff at: Why you shouldnt laugh at shilling dinosaur rockers.  Radio and TV aren’t kind to oldies acts- eventually, whoever was hot in the 80’s and 90’s are going to be relegated there and they’re have to face the same decisions too.


SOME EXAMPLES TO PONDER:


- Earlier this year, Apple created special U2 I-Pod’s with the band’s name on it and their songs preloaded.  Tying themselves to Apple was a clever move and for a good decade now, the Irish boys have been fascinated with the idea of the consumer markets (remember their recent appearance at a K-Mart?).  How many actual I-Pods they sold probably isn’t as important as the campaign itself (though it would be interesting to find out what the sales were).


- This year, Paul McCartney’s tour sponsored by Fidelity investments.  Sir Paul obviously isn’t hurting for money but did think it was a good idea for Fidelity to flip the bill for a multi-million dollar tour.  Note that Macca does a passive appearance in the ads, appearing only in old clips.


- Earlier this year, Nike’s ads illegally copying Minor Threat’s artwork.  Despite a company apology, you have to wonder, does a multi-national company have lawyers to vet ads?  Of course they do.  Did the marketing people who came up with the campaign maybe think that they could cause a stir with the ads and get away with it because Dischord Records wouldn’t have enough money to fight them in court?  Quite possibly.  Also, a company like Dischord which made its name as being staunchly independent wouldn’t go along with something like this and obviously would be very pissed when Nike did it.  In other words, this stealth piece of advertising did what Nike probably set out to do.  Hopefully, it doesn’t set an example for the future.


- Also earlier this year, one of Bob Dylan’s earliest live shows (1962 at the Gaslight) would turn up in a exclusive deal, sold only at Starbuck’s (as would Alanis Morissette with an acoustic version of Jagged Little Pill): some retailers would respond by yanking Dylan’s CD’s off their shelves.  A similar thing happened when the Rolling Stones initially offered their 2002 live album Forty Licks album only at Best Buy stores.


- Bob Dylan appearing in a Victoria’s Secret ad.  Easily the most head-scratching example here, especially as Dylan himself was filmed as part of the ad.  What motive you’d want to ascribe here (perversity, exposure), this surely had an effect on other artists’ thoughts on commercial appearances. 


- Chumbawamba’s “Pass It Along” used in a 2002 GM ad for $70,000: “Chumbawamba sold their music-file swapping anthem, “Pass It Along” to Pontiac, a division of General Motors. The band then turned the money they made over to CorpWatch, a U.S. group whose motto is “Holding Corporations Accountable” and UK’s IndyMedia, a network of media activists.” 


- The Who’s “Tommy Overture” is used in a 2002 Clarinex (allergy drug) ad.  “Who Are You” would also be used for the TV series CSI.  Townshend would deny the use of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 though.


- Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” is used in a 2002 Cadillac commercial.  It’s estimated that the band was paid several million dollars for this (personally, I think this had a lot to do with numbing the boomer audience to the shock of seeing their favorite songs being used in ads).


- Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” in a 2000 Volkswagen ad.  While this did revive interest in Drake’s career, there wasn’t also a chorus of offended fans.  Maybe they were gratified that their hero was finally getting props from SOMEWHERE…


- Sting’s “Desert Rose” is used in a 2000 Jaguar commercial.  The story of how this came about is worth recounting in detail as seen here.  No matter what you think of this kind of marketing (I thought it was pretty f-ing crass myself), it worked as it jacked up sales for the ex-Policeman.


- Moby licenses every track on his Play album for use in commercials (1999).  Sure enough, you heard ‘em all over the place and though he already made major in-roads into the pop market, this album proved to be his major break-through.  Coincidence…?


- R.E.M. turns down Microsoft’s offer to use “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Fee Fine)” for a Windows 95 commercial.  The Rolling Stones are happy to oblige with “Start Me Up” and are paid an estimated $12 million for their trouble in 1995.


- Madonna 1989 Pepsi ad.  A set back from the soda company, as they decided that “French kissing a black saint in church, witnessing a graphic murder, and then dancing in front of a field of burning crosses” wasn’t family fare.  In 2003 though, the material girl did a pretty innocuous ad for Gap with Missy Elliot.


- Neil Young’s “This Note’s For You” (1988).  Definitely not one of his best songs but a classic anti-commercial stance from this iconoclast. “Don’t want no cash/Don’t need no money/Ain’t got no stash.”  The video’s a wonderful poke in the eye at Mad Ave. too.  Part of the inspiration was supposedly Clapton’s ad below.


- Eric Clapton’s beer ad: “In 1987, Eric Clapton’s classic tune “After Midnight” (“After midnight, we’re gonna let it all hang down…”) was featured in an ad campaign for Michelob beer. Where was Clapton when he first saw the results on television? In a rec room - in an alcohol treatment center” (I remember reading a Clapton interview where he recounts this horrible incident).


- The Beatles’ “Revolution” used in a Nike ad (1987).  Maybe this was a little too early for this kind of rock tie-in for ads but the company saw fit to run the ad through its normal course despite howls of outrage from fab fans.  Wonder if anyone from marketing was still around when they did their “Major Threat” campaign…?


- Michael Jackson’s 1984 Pepsi ad. You probably remember this incident where his hair caught on fire from some fireworks and his scalp was singed.


- Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” (1984): “Chrysler offered Springsteen $12 million to use this in an ad campaign with Bruce. Springsteen turned them down so they used “The Pride Is Back” by Kenny Rogers instead” (from Songfacts website).


- Bob Seger’s “Like A Rock” (1983) is used for Chevy commercials.  Seger donates part of his take to autoworkers.  As I seem to recall, the outrage level of this at the time was fairly low.


- Debbie Harry in Vanderbilt jeans ads (early 80’s I believe), saying that she wanted to support American businesses (which is why the Blondie title Autoamericana came about too).  Some wags pointed out that the pants weren’t being manufactured in the States though…


- Pink Floyd hawking soda circa early 70’s: as the article notes, this was another idea before its time, embarrassing the band enough to donate their paycheck to charity.


- Jefferson Airplane- 1967 Levi’s ad (appears on their 2400 Fulton Street box set).  An even earlier dabbling in the world of commerce.  Yes, these proud leaders of counter-culture rock indulged in a commercial.  But note the context- they probably did wear Levi’s, right?


All of which doesn’t even scratch the surface (I know that I forget hundreds of other interesting examples) but is to say that, as always, art and commerce don’t make easy bedfellows.  Tour sponsorship goes back for decades and there’s thousands of ads that appear in both music and non-music publications for as long as that,  which don’t ruffle feathers or make any enemies: remember Ray Charles Pepsi ads in the early 90’s (“You’ve got the right one, baby!”) or ever seen one of the thousands of artists who have endorsed instrument companies in music mags?  Also note that in the chronology above, the sense of outrage lessens more recently as we come to expect this more and more (though I have to wonder who cleared a Ramones song about Nazis and an Iggy song about kinky sex).  I have to admit too that when I now hear M.I.A. and Postal Service in car ads, far from being disgusted, I’m actually gratified that they’re getting that kind of recognition (which I’m sure they’re happy about too).  Hell, I was happy when Herbie Hancock was doing Pizza Hut ads in the mid 80’s for the same reason (though don’t look for him there now- they’ve got Queen Latifah doing voice-overs).


All of which also brings up a bunch of other questions too:


- The people who usually criticize these ads usually aren’t artists- usually it’s editorials (like this).  It would be interesting to hear from more artists themselves about this, both pro and con.


- What is Madison Avenue’s thinking about this?  What are they trying to achieve?  Obviously, they’re looking for to connect with certain demographics but it would be worth exploring some of their specific strategies here.


- What kind of self-imposed standards exist for other genres?  Is it considered just as or less sinful for the same things to happen in country or jazz or blues or…?  Why or why shouldn’t it make a difference?  Hip hop provides a fascinating example as some of the artists themselves have proved to be brilliant entrepreneurs.


- How far do you take the idea of non-commercial ideals?  What does it mean to be tied to a major label in this context, considering what other companies they own or what they support?  Ideally, a truly non-commercial artist wouldn’t sell their music period or any merchandise or charge anything for their shows, right? (which means you only survive by having a day job or a VERY supportive spouse).


- Which artists will never get endorsements?  Do you think that we’ll see Hafler Trio, Borbetomagus or Zoviet France in ads only because they’re too principaled?


So, no… I don’t have the answers or final word but I’d love to see some other people who had more to say about this.  Don’t you think this would make a great book topic too?  Not for me though, thanks…


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