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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.”

Commerciality vs. Piracy

Still, even with this subtlety, there is a general concern about the usage of a particular song for any particular product. When the aesthetics clash between song and product, even the musicians themselves can be concerned. A recent example can be found in synth-pop duo Matt and Kim, who in recent interviews maintained that while they are doing an increasing amount of ad placement and sponsorship, they have always approached it in a “tasteful” manner. The artists we spoke to have taken great care with it as well. “We never license anything unless we know what exactly the song is going to be in,” Yanchak says. “You’re taking the identity of the music, and you’re attaching it to another artistic vision. As soon as you attach that vision with something else, you’re taking the personal experience away, for it’s been decided for you by the product.”

As a result, sometimes even the largest offer seems implausible due to the lack of aesthetic integrity. Yanchak relates the story of how they were recently offered a placement with a car company ad for six figures. “Murray and I could have bought a house,” she says. However, “it was tough for us to accept, with what oil and cars represent to us.” While they hoped that the ad would at least talk about alternative energy or a hybrid, “it was the exact opposite,” she says, “it grossed us out. We had to turn it down.”

Rudder, while just as concerned, takes a different approach in regards to how aesthetics are handled. “You just can’t compare the aesthetic of a song to a commercial,” he says. “They’re just two different things.” Bishop Allen as a whole decide on these offers based on whether they wish to be associated with the product. In the case of the Sony digital camera, even though the song is about taking pictures, “it’s kind of irrelevant that there’s such a coincidence.” They have done other ads before, and there are some cases where the song and product don’t match up. In those cases, though, “it doesn’t feel any different.” Given that the band has no direct contact with the ad agencies, they don’t know what these agencies see in their songs either. “In a perfect world, you’re licensing a song to a product that is as great as your song,” Rudder says, “but that is never the case. You have to decide whether or not to take the offer, regardless of what you may think the ad agency is thinking.”

Then there is the matter of rewriting original songs to fit an ad. Such a practice was in play in probably the most controversial ad placement of the decade, Kevin Barnes’s rewriting of Of Montreal’s “Wraith Pinned to the Mists and Other Games” for an Outback Steakhouse commercial. (Of Montreal declined to be interviewed for this article.) Artists remain split on the issue. Rudder is hesitant about the whole approach. “That’s something we’ve never been asked to do, and I don’t know if we’d do it,” he says. “It’s impossible to say what would lead someone to do that, because it is extreme stuff. And yet people still do it.” Haden, herself an artist who has scored ad music, is disinclined to accept the idea, especially for the company involved. “I would consider rewriting a song if it were who I’m working for now, but I wouldn’t do it for most places, especially a place like Outback,” she says. Yanchak, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to mind the concept. “You’re being hired to write something. It’s just a gig,” she says. “You’re not writing a great piece of art, but you are writing something artistic, something that has an identity. At least it’s something well-written.”

The Dodos (photo by Charlie Villyard)

The necessity of going to such measures has been linked to various factors bringing down the rest of the music industry. The most prominent of these, at least according to the labels, is piracy killing record sales. Artists have been generally split on the matter. Amongst the four artists PopMatters spoke to, the Dodos can probably cite the most recent and immediate impact in regards to piracy. In early July, their newest album, Time to Die, was leaked on the Internet, well ahead of its planned October release. In response, their label, Frenchkiss Records, released the album digitally in late July, while the physical release was moved up to September. Despite this, the Dodos seem to be very upbeat about it. “I’m actually kind of glad it leaked,” Long says. “We’d been playing with these songs for a while, and people wanted to listen to them. It messed with our schedule a little bit, but me and Logan [Kroeber, the keyboardist] had a very mellow response to it. I guess it doesn’t surprise me that people still care about us!”

While the Dodos seem to be okay with their album leaking, Petra Haden is not okay when even a streaming song is made downloadable without her knowledge. She once spotted a website that offered her a cappella covers for 15 cents a download. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “Why would someone do this without asking me? I don’t get it! It bothered me.” Of particular note was her cover of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, which was not even released publicly. “I had only made that available through my MySpace page, not downloadable,” she says. “I don’t know how it even got to that point.” It became an awful experience for her.

Meanwhile, both the Dears and Bishop Allen take the sort of detached view of the situation that many bands in the post-Napster era have adopted. Bishop Allen feels like they were never part of the industry’s old order. “So not having been on that side, we’re not really sure how it has affected us,” says Rudder. Still, the Internet has been a helpful tool for them. “Without it, I doubt that anyone would have ever heard of us, because it’s not like we’ll ever be on the radio,” he says. The Dears, on the other hand, have taken a rougher stance on the Internet. “Our last two albums, Gang of Losers and Missiles, leaked,” says Yanchak. “Hearing about that elsewhere, it’s kind of disappointing.” Still, she sees some reasoning to the situation. “Piracy kind of seeps into the recession, and people having less money to spend on music,” she says, “But they still want the music.”

Petra Haden (photo by Jed Johnson)

Over the course of many years, the fan response for even the slightest attempt at earning money through this method would have been to call the band sellouts. Some bands still get a harsh response from this, especially those with DIY roots and/or those who have pledged to be as anti-commercial as possible. However, the overall backlash from fans has subsided considerably. “[The response has] been mostly positive, which was kind of surprising to me,” Meric Long notes. “I was expecting more of a backlash. But I think we’re a small enough band that people understand we need to make our money somehow.”

The subtlety of these ads certainly helps. “When people do see them, they’re like ‘Oh, cool, there it is,’” Natalia Yanchak says. “I think a part of it is we aren’t doing ads that are so gross or jarring, so fans go through the experience pretty well.” Some have even gained fans out of it. “I’ve been getting comments from strangers, and from people who I haven’t heard from in years,” says Petra Haden. “All of them are very impressed, not just with the cover, but with the other two songs as well. It’s really helped.”

Even with all the support, both financially and fan-wise, does placement still feel worth it in the end? Ideally, not really, but still, it’s a better option than most. “I don’t think bands like to have their music on a commercial,” Christian Rudder says, “but they aren’t outside to clout, either. So, sometimes, you need to do it.” Sometimes, it allows a band to be a better band and reach out. “Placement allows us to do things like more touring, especially internationally,” Yanchak says, “it allows us to do more of the things we weren’t able to do before.”

Sometimes, placement does more than pay the bills. “When they were mixing the song to the commercial, all the Prius people were there,” says Haden. “When they watched the final cut, they all had smiles on their faces. If I can see that, and know I’ve affected people in that way, then that’s the biggest payoff.”

But more importantly, placement can allow a band to be a band. Long says, “I’ve been able to experience, for the first time in my life, getting paid to play music and nothing but. Now, I won’t just do anything for that, but I will do a lot, just to get paid for something as simple as that.”

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