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Selling Out to Survive

Ze Pequeno

Placing songs in advertising remains a touchy subject. PopMatters spoke with a few artists whose music has appeared in advertising to find out what motivates them to do what some people claim is “selling out.”

The television has hit a commercial break, and you go and grab a drink. While you are at the fridge, you hear something very familiar playing in the background of one commercial. You barely miss it, but find out the product advertised, so you hit up YouTube to see what it was. That’s when you realize the background song in that commercial was in fact a song off one of your favorite records. And it’s not even some pop artist that’s playing, it’s an indie or underground band that you doubt too many have heard of, but one you really like, maybe one you’ve even seen live a few times. You sit there, a bit dumbfounded. And you think, “What a bunch of sellouts.”

But what if that artist needed to do it to actually survive, let alone make a decent living?

After all, the goal of most musicians is to make some money off of what they do. It cannot be discredited that even the most underground artist hopes to make a buck or two out of their work. The problem is, being a musician these days is a hard business. Long gone are the days when musicians could hope to earn any money through record sales. In fact, it is becoming increasingly apparent that artists are being discovered through the sharing of their albums on P2P networks, with no money earned, but all-important “exposure” gained. This does contribute to increases in merchandise revenue and ticket sales, as well as chances to appear at prominent festivals. However, such income fluctuates wildly over the course of a year or few, and maintaining a consistent flow of money would require a musician to tour about eight to ten months out of the year, if not more. Furthermore, even touring cannot help matters when the world is in the middle of a mass recession, the likes of which was last seen when Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong were popular artists, live shows were broadcast over AM radio, and the term “Nazi” applied to an existing political party in Germany. In short, the ways of making a living as a musician have dried up.

So musicians have sought other means to earn money. One way is through song placement in advertising, an act that many fans of indie music, as well as many hipsters, still see as blasphemous. Even among the many bands who have done this, it remains a touchy subject. With this in mind, PopMatters spoke with a few artists whose music has appeared in advertising to find out what motivates them to do what some people claim is “selling out”. The results offer some different views as to what it means not just to place music in ads, but what it means to be a musician these days.

Meric Long, frontman of indie folk band the Dodos, lives out in the Bay Area, in a place he’s stayed in for about five years. The Bay Area can be really expensive, he notes, and he “really lucked out” with his living situation in a rent-controlled apartment that he secured back then. “My roommates are really nice,” he says, “and they just kind of let me live there and come and go.” It makes for an ideal situation for touring. Still, he says with a chuckle, “I live in the living room of a four bedroom apartment, which I suppose makes it five bedrooms now.” He says that his band mates are lucking out in similar situations in the Bay Area.

The Dodos are relatively new to the placement game. Their song “Fools”, from the 2008 album Visiter, was placed in an ad campaign for Miller Chill, a lime chelada beer, that started in May this year. Miller approached the band during the past winter. After the band accepted, “they came back with the commercial mock-up literally a week later,” Long recalls. “It happened like that.” They received, as is standard with most ad placements, a placement fee, as well as residual fees for each playthrough on television. While the Dodos had previously been offered placement in a few ads, this was the first ad placement they have actually done. Since that time, a few more offers have streamed in. But, “the offers that have come in have been for drinks,” Long says, laughing. “Apparently, we’re the ‘drink placement band’ now.”

In speaking to Long about how bands are reacting to placement, something becomes clear: A lot more bands are compelled to place their music in ads. “I’ve talked to some of my friends in other bands, and they’re looking for placements,” he says. “One of my friends in one of my favorite bands told me, ‘Yeah, dude, I’ve been sending stuff out [for ads] for long time, and nobody’s responded yet!’” A lot of other bands he considers respectable have done the same. To Long, the reason is obvious: “That’s where the money is these days.”

Petra Haden, a cappella artist and violinist, one-time member of the Decemberists, and frequent collaborator with the likes of Beck and the Foo Fighters, wears a lot of hats for a reason. “I’ve been a struggling musician, a struggling artist, if you would,” she says in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “Though I have been able to pay my bills and do recording sessions -- do odd jobs as a violinist for other people’s bands.” She doesn’t mind the studio work too much, however. “I’m happy to be labeled as a studio musician. I see myself as both Petra Haden and a studio recording musician,” she says. “If I like the [collaborating band’s] music, I’ll do it.”

Haden’s a cappella work, however, is what got the ad people’s attention. Her cover of “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers has been featured in a very creative ad for the Toyota Prius that has received positive reviews over the Internet. The development dynamic was a bit different for the singer. A music supervisor who was a fan of her work approached Haden’s manager about doing a song. “[The supervisor] thought that it would be a good idea for this ad because of the art... the environment being made of people,” she says. “She said that my vocals would work well with that commercial.” She recorded a demo of “Let Your Love Flow” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” by Jackie DeShannon. Toyota loved the former, so she went into a friend’s studio to record a full version with more tracks. After that, Toyota requested some original a cappella tracks to go with two additional commercials. “Basically, they sent me the commercial and I sang to it,” she says. “Kind of like scoring a movie or TV commercial.”

Natalia Yanchak, keyboardist and vocalist of Montreal baroque pop pioneers the Dears, has a certain comfort and advantage to her current situation: Establishment. Her band has been around for about 14 years, though they had only gained wider notice starting in 2000, and has four albums in their catalogue with a fifth being worked on. “We have an established audience,” she says. “Not to say that they will be there forever, but it’s like we’ve laid the foundation for our career in a certain way. We have a sense of security because of that.” The only time they notice any significant trouble is on the road, but even then, Yanchak has a better understanding of the situation than most. “Nobody goes to shows, and not even just our shows, but any show,” she says. “People have to choose only one show for that month because they don’t have that kind of disposable income.”

The Dears

The Dears’ veteran status extends to placement as well. The band’s first placement was actually “End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story”, from their debut album of the same name. “It was used for an ad for a wine company in Ontario,” Yanchak recalls. Since that time, they have placed songs in a few ads here and there, but have rejected a few as well, mostly taking an aesthetic stance. Of particular note was a recent request for placement of a song from last year’s album, Missiles, on a website “radio station” advertising a shoe company’s product. “Companies are getting strategic now,” Yanchak says, “because they want the music to give an identity to the product they’re selling now.”

There is also an additional dynamic involved with how the Dears manage their existence. In 2005, Yanchak and Dears frontman Murray Lightburn had a daughter together named Neptune. The costs of raising a child, especially in the first few years, are incredibly high, and can influence the business decisions anyone makes, especially those in bands. However, the Dears’ structure as a real-life couple made raising Neptune less an impact on their band decisions, particularly with regards to placement. “The band is not just like a job, it’s a part of our life,” says Yanchak. So when Neptune came around, “it didn’t change the dynamic much. It was like she became another member of the band.”

Bishop Allen (photo by Sebastian Mlynarski)

Bishop Allen, an indie rock duo from Brooklyn, have seen as much luck as the Dodos, though they've been around for longer. Despite being located in one of the most expensive cities in America, they still manage to do quite well for themselves. Christian Rudder, the guitarist half of the duo, remarks, “We’re doing pretty well. We don’t spend much money, and we’ve saved up in case of bad times.” Even in terms of touring, they are bucking the downward trend. “Actually, our audience has gone up quite a bit,” Christian says. “I guess part of it has to do with the fact that we’re kind of lucky, but I also think it has something to do with us not charging as much for our shows.”

Bishop Allen are also veterans of ad placement, though not to the extent of the Dears. Of particular note was the song “Click, Click, Click, Click” from the album The Broken String, fittingly placed in an ad for a Sony digital camera. “Usually, when the ad companies ask you for a song,” Rudder says, “they tell you what it’s for. They usually are openly transparent about it.” Recently, another song off The Broken String, “Middle Management”, was included in the soundtrack to the sports video game Major League Baseball 2k7. While the artistic merits of video games remains a matter of debate, it seems at least a non-issue for musicians to place their songs in there. “I feel like video games and movies are apiece, and they’re more much similar than video games are to ads,” Rudder says. “Ideally, you hope that your song contributes to the mood of the game somehow, and that in a small way, it is an artistic component to it.”

All of these artists have placed their music in ads. While many of them go for placement for obvious reasons (i.e., money), what makes placement more appealing these days is the subtlety of it. “It’s definitely more feasible nowadays,” says the Dodos’ Long, “You can find placements that are pretty harmless. They have a small impact on your career, and a great impact on your ability to sustain yourself and keep making records.” In context to the ad placement itself, Long says “it’s an unrecognizable thing. It’s a ten second blip of a song. It’s not like our faces are being shown.” Rudder also argues that “commercials are irrelevant in terms of long term grosses of a band.”

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