Monday, March 17, 2008
In The "Jingle" Jangle Morning
A documentary about Pete Seeger has been airing on public TV all week. I've watched it three times because it inspires me. In one segment Pete talks about why he quit the Weavers. "We were asked to do a cigarette commercial and I didn't think we should do it. They said we needed the money but I said we didn't need the money that bad, so I left the group."
I often find myself flipping the tube late at night pondering what has happened to the self respect of so many artists who seem to sell out rather quickly on their climb to fame.
Back in the good old pretentious 1960s and 70s it was very unfashionable for any artist with credibility to sell his song for the purposes of advertising exploitation. Can you imagine Bob Dylan at the height of his popularity allowing "Blowing In The Wind" to be used in a fabric softener commercial? Now, a rock star like John Mellencamp will release his first single as a TV commercial six months before the CD comes out. "This Is Our Country"-- I don't think I ever heard it on the radio, did you?
These days the list of artists willing to gamble their popularity on a product or a company's ad campaign looks like the playlist for Sirius Radio : Ben Lee, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, U2, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Eyed Peas, The Flatmates, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, The 6ths, ELO, Blondie, Justin Timberlake, Shakira, The Who, Thin Lizzy, Lou Reed (yes, Lou Reed), Josh Ritter, Ryan Adams, Billy Idol, Queen, Guns N'Roses...and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Oh, and there's one more conspicuous name : Paul McCartney. Remember way back in the dark ages of 1995 when McCartney tried to prevent his publisher, who happens to be Michael Jackson, from selling "Revolution" to Nike? Sir Paul may have been a holdout, but in September of 2005 he allowed his song "Fine Line" to be used in a Lexus ad. Ok, a Lexus is a classy car, and Sir Paul is a classy guy, it was a marriage made in heaven. And what about the success stories of deserving artists like Brett Dennon and Leslie Feist, who burst into the national spotlight after TV commercial tie-ins? Hey, maybe this ain't such a bad thing after all. Is there really a huge difference between sandwiching songs BETWEEN the commercials on the radio and hearing the song IN the commercials on TV?
Some of you may be old enough to remember the days when companies hired jingle composers to write their own ad songs. "Things Go Better With Coke", was a popular one. But in 1971 Coke decided to take a fresh approach and enlist three songwriters to compose a new jingle that would also be released as a single to radio. The resulting song was "I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke" (also known as "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing") as recorded by The New Seekers. The campaign was a flop at first until Coke paired the song with a short film featuring people gathered on a hill holding hands and singing the song in unison. This was essentially the first successful music video although it only lasted a minute and was aired as a TV commercial. The commercial revolutionized the advertising industry and led to more and more companies attempting to utilize the combination of a hit song and a compelling visual campaign to sell their products. The most successful so far has featured a different Seeger's song called "Like A Rock". How ironic is it that this humble Seeger name should exemplify both ends of the TV commercial spectrum?
It's inevitable folks. With the virtual death of land radio (someone drive a wooden stake through it's heart please), artists are turning to the only means they have of getting national exposure. Or should we call it "national over-exposure"? True, some don't need the exposure or the money. But consider what a little bump from a TV commercial can mean for an artist who hasn't received national airplay. In 2006 Gary Jules and Michael Andrews hit the #1 spot on itunes after their version of the Tears For Fears song "Mad World" ran in a TV ad for the Gears Of War game. Feist's story is even better. Prior to her Apple iPod Nano commercial airing, her latest CD called The Reminder was selling at about 6,000 copies per week, and the song used in the commercial, which was called "1234", was getting about 2,000 downloads per week. Following the commercial, the song passed 73,000 total downloads and reached No. 7 on Hot Digital Songs and No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100. Apparently consumers don't care where they hear a song as long as they like it.
A few names besides Pete Seeger's don't appear on the TV commercial logs-- Neil Young, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, the names we'd expect to opt out. It would be naive to think they've received no offers. Another missing name, not surprisingly since he recorded a CD of Seeger's songs, is Bruce Springsteen. Granted, Bruce could probably afford to buy most of the companies that would offer him a TV commercial, but as an appreciator of integrity and principals I have to say I'm proud of his decision to just say no.
I, for one, quietly mourn the end of the days when the "purist" Seeger and his ilk desperately tried to separate artistic integrity from commercial ambiguity. TV commercials might be the only viable solution for some new artists but I'm skeptical that art and advertising can be comfortable bedfellows. The line has already been blurred to such an extent that many people can't tell whether an artist is genuine or a slickly marketed chimera. I even expect that one of these days Coke will start a record label and sign acts just to sing their jingles. And probably the songs will hit #1 on itunes.
copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt