Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Hawk 'n' roll: Artists, advertisers in harmony

New York Times News Service

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- You say you want a revolution -- uh, sorry, an evolution -- to chart how rock stars have gone from denouncing the use of their songs in ads as "selling out to The Man" to embracing the practice as a viable selling strategy?

Look no farther than Paul McCartney, who's currently on tour.

Think back to 1985: Michael Jackson, who owns the rights to the Beatles' songs, sells Revolution to Nike. McCartney sues, to no avail.

"'Revolution' was a serious song with a serious message -- not a jingle to sell sneakers," McCartney later tells reporters.

Jump to 1991: Jackson sells All You Need Is Love to hawk Panasonic stereos and Good Day Sunshine to sell Oreo cookies. McCartney meets with Jackson, tells him he's gone too far. "What Michael is doing cheapens songs which mean a lot," McCartney tells reporters.

Fast-forward to 2002: When I'm 64 is licensed for use in an Allstate Insurance commercial, with Julian Lennon, son of McCartney's late band mate, John Lennon, singing the tune. McCartney is silent, but reports say he is fuming.

Cut to 2005: McCartney, who has already licensed 20 of his post-Beatles songs for advertising, appears in a national TV ad for Fidelity Investments. Footage of McCartney from his days in the Beatles to knighthood is shown, accompanied by one of his songs. Also, Fine Line, a song from McCartney's new album, appears in a spot for the Lexus RX 400 hybrid SUV. Lexus is sponsoring McCartney's tour and running a promotional sweepstakes on its Web site.

McCartney states in a press release: "It's good to be involved with a company that sees the value of an environmentally conscious product. I was happy to provide the music for the spot."

Cynics might dismiss McCartney's earlier protests as sour grapes because he didn't own the rights to Beatles songs and, hence, didn't receive money for the ads. But others might say McCartney now seeks advertising opportunities for his music because "selling out one's artistic integrity" has become an obsolete concept. The taint is gone.

Those who still refuse to license song rights to advertisers often are seen as either quaintly retro or hopelessly behind the times. Others, of course, see them as lonely voices upholding the integrity of rock 'n' roll.

Neil Young, whose This Song's for You lambasted artistic sellouts, and Tom Waits, who sued a European car manufacturer for using a "sound-alike," are among the last major holdouts. Last month, the Doors' John Densmore made headlines by refusing to let Cadillac use Break on Through to sell cars.

"People lost their virginity to this music, got high for the first time to this music," Densmore told the Chicago Tribune. "I've had people say kids died in Vietnam listening to this music; other people say they know someone who didn't commit suicide because of this music. Onstage, when we played those songs, they felt mysterious and magic. They're not for rent."

But almost every rock icon -- from Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin and the Clash -- has let his or her songs be shilled on the air. And younger artists such as Death Cab for Cutie, the Shins and Modest Mouse seem to wonder what all the "selling out" fuss is about. For Generation Y, it's become cross-marketing to appear on The O.C. or in an iPod commercial.

How did we get to the point where Young's caustic lyrics ("Ain't singin' for Pepsi/ain't singin' for Coke/I don't sing for nobody/makes me feel like a joke") have been replaced in pop culture by U2's Bono writhing on the screen with white iPod headphones as he sings Vertigo?

It's simple, says Gregory Grene, a vice president and music producer at Foote, Cone & Belding, a global advertising firm whose clients include Diet Coke, Kraft and Taco Bell.

"They want to sell records," he says from his New York office. "Increasingly, record labels don't have the budget for marketing, and this is a phenomenal way to market an artist. Radio station formats are getting narrower, too."

So, is it self-preservation?

"Absolutely," says Catharine P. Taylor, a staff writer at AdWeek. "As an artist, you've got to put yourself in some interesting places and do some things you might not have done when rock radio was more dominant and when MTV actually played videos."

The Rolling Stones, who are completing a two-night stand tonight at SBC Park in San Francisco, certainly have found new places to go with music from their new album.

To make a bigger buck for their newest album, A Bigger Bang, the Stones have been written into the story line of the daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives, and their song Streets of Love will be played during the show at dramatic, tear-jerking moments throughout November. The Stones reportedly were paid handsomely for the exposure, but critics see it as being beneath a band of the Stones' stature.

These one-time bad boys of rock also appear this month in magazines hawking Mercedes minivans.

"Wow. That's a little surprising," said Tyler Bacon, president of Position Music, a Los Angeles company that serves as a licensee between advertising agencies and music artists. "Each artist has their own standards, I guess. Our thought is, we don't want to cheapen the artist's image."

Bacon's firm, founded six years ago, manages the licensing of Elvis Presley's songs, among other notables. He said Presley's family is selective about how Elvis' songs are used.

"It's all about retaining his image," Bacon said. "If Elvis is going to be used in any joke situation, the estate will automatically turn it down, no matter how much money is offered. You've got to retain the value of the artist."

One example of going too far might be the 2004 bid by Preparation H to use Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire to sell the hemorrhoid cream. Cash's daughter, singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, refused to allow it, telling Advertising Age magazine the idea was "moronic."

Some rockers rebelled against advertising in the '60s because advertising was seen as "square." The Stones raged in Satisfaction about the man who says "how white my shirts can be." The Who mocked this whole business by titling an album The Who Sell Out, with a cover showing Pete Townshend using a giant deodorant and Roger Daltry sitting in a tub of Heinz baked beans.

Yet no less a rock deity than Dylan has sold his 1960s protest anthem The Times They Are A-Changin' to Kaiser Permanente. Now, the song once associated with the civil rights movement and images of voter-registration drives is played with clips of a paunchy, middle-aged man choosing an apple instead of a sweet roll to lose weight. Dylan himself appears in a Victoria's Secret ad, leering at a scantily clad model while he croaks Love Sick.

Led Zeppelin has sold its rebelliously rocking Rock 'n' Roll to Cadillac, putting this heavyweight group on the same footing now as Kansas, which sold Dust in the Wind to Subaru.

The '70s punk movement is not immune, either. The Clash raised eyebrows when it sold London Calling to Jaguar, and the Ramones licensed Blitzkrieg Bop to Bud Light and Diet Pepsi.

"I'd say the Clash selling songs was the tipping point," says Grene of Foote, Cone & Belding. "Advertising has become a lot cooler and has no stigma now. It used to be full of jingles like 'Ace is the place with the helpful hardware man.' Now, you've got creative (types) in advertising that are pushing vigorously to create as artistic a product as they can. It's all about branding for the companies."

But what does the artist get out of it?

"Are you kidding? Exposure," he says. "I'm incredibly impatient with music artists who feel they are offending their artistic gods by turning down licensing. It's more than them being naive. It's kind of a false snobbery.

"For every (fan) who'll say, 'Oh, (rock stars) aren't what I thought they were' because they hear a favorite song in a commercial, you have literally hundreds of thousands of people exposed to the song who didn't know their work before. A lot of young people don't know the songs from the '60s."

A prime example is once-obscure '70s folk musician Nick Drake, who died of a drug overdose in 1974. Volkswagen, in 2000, used Drake's 1972 song Pink Moon in an ad, which revived interest in his career. He has sold more albums in the past five years than when he was alive.

"That spot is considered a classic in advertising," Grene says. "You saw a lot of artists decide it was accepted to use songs after that."

It worked for Sting. In the '80s, the former Police frontman once refused to allow Don't Stand So Close to Me to be used for a deodorant ad. But in 2000, Sting not only licensed his song Desert Rose to Jaguar, but he appeared in an ad meditating in the back seat of a car. Sales of Sting's album, Brand New Day, which bombed in 1999, suddenly picked up and hit the Top 40 charts.

Taylor, who also runs AdWeek's blog, says most of her readers don't consider these rockers sellouts, provided they pick a product or TV program that is perceived as cool. So it's acceptable that Modest Mouse's music appears on The O.C. or the Shins' songs are used on Gilmore Girls, because their fans watch these shows, she says.

But the Rolling Stones on a daytime soap?

"I can't relate to that one," Taylor said. "I thought it was really peculiar, sort of geriatric. Can't they at least put their song into 'CSI' or something, like Madonna did?"


  1. I think its better for the artist to get to choose than to have them sold by the "new owner" .... Paul may not want "Yesterday" on an ad, but he may be OK with some other tunes. Paul and Sting have made good choices.

    Most artists are pretty good about having "taste" with the licensing of songs, but some don't.


  2. "Don't Stand So Close to Me" in a deodorant ad? That's rich!

    I'm with you on this one. As long as the use is tasteful, I think it's smart and lucrative to sell songs for commercials.

  3. Dude, I would have LOVED to hear the pitch meeting for team wanting to get Johnny Cash's kids to sign off on "Ring of Fire" for Preparation H.

  4. "And it burns, burns, burns"

    I can't believe they went there!

  5. somehow assuage (or suab) the generations who thought this was an ode to gonorrea?........

    my sister's ob/gyn used 'ring of fire' to describe the final stage of childbirth. have it all on video

    ewwww. if the anesthesiologist doesn't get there, that ring definitely burns, burns, burns..........

  6. Needless to say, I'll ver be able to listen to that song without laughing anymore!! :-)