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


Anonymous said...

Actually Bobby D sold out to Victoria's Secret. I am a huge fan of both.

menachem said...

Dylan has an ipod ad.

Anonymous said...

I love Dylan as much as the next guy and certainly don't begrudge him his cash...

but remember a little thing called Victoria's Secret???

chromehead said...

Ok, so I'm distracted by women in sexy underwear and didn't notice Bob's voice. That's a good thing. I also left Sting off the commercial list and his ad was huge...

Anonymous said...

If great music is being heard and explored through the vehicle of advertising, then who cares? Heaven knows I hear a lot of cooler songs on the tv than I do on Clearchannel controlled radio.

Allen said...

A couple years back a local powerpop/rock outfit, The Features, were dropped by Universal when they refused to cover The Beatles' "All You Need is Love" for a Chase credit card commercial. Their A&R S.o.S. committed them to do it without asking the band, and then gave them an hour to think it over and 24 hours to deliver the song. The band said no. Universal said "you're oughta here". They were already set to go into the studio and record their second album.

chromehead said...

Thanks Allen. Heads up, Anonymous, this is exactly why we should care. This is worse than the 1950s when artists were told what to sing. At least back then the motive wasn't to sell money market funds, it was for the sake of the hit record and the advertisers had to sell their goods between the hits. Labels are so lazy they want it handed to them on a silver platter. Break a band with their music? Hell no, let 'em cut a Beatles tune and sing for Chase Bank, that's MUCH easier.

Tim McMullen said...


I really appreciate your blog—it is fun, interesting, and doesn’t pull punches; furthermore, I find that I agree with you on most issues. Your insight into the business is rooted in years of top level experience. Nevertheless, I need to disagree with you on this one. Pete Seeger wasn’t a hero for refusing to let his song be a commercial; he was a hero for not letting it be attached to a product in which he did not believe. As you stated, jingle writers were once a mainstay of the industry: Bosco, Brylcreem, Nestles, Pepsodent, and a million other products had catchy little ditties that popped into your head for weeks no matter how much you didn’t want them to.

Then, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, both movies and commercial creators learned the same thing; baby boomers had a great love and nostalgia for their music. Easy Rider found that rather than an instrumental soundtrack that merely gave musical cues to the desired emotion, familiar songs with words could have the same effect, but because they were familiar, they brought even greater resonance and depth, a more complex reaction. This effect is similar to the brilliant art form of music videos as pioneered by Michael Nesmith and the early creators. You had a song with its text; then you had the video that was not just a slide show of images mirroring the song but a new story that paralleled the story of the song. Together they created a complex, multi-layered experience that was worth multiple viewings. As usual, it was much too difficult a genre to maintain, so very soon the now nearly dead music video became swishing, circling blurred shots of bands lip-synching while they jump cut between ten costume changes….

Yael Naim singing “I’m a new soul/I came to this strange world/Hoping I could learn a bit ‘bout how to give and take” while they pull the new Macbook out of a manila envelope is not a cop out; it’s a brilliant win-win for Yael and Apple. Apple gets the quirky innocence of her song, and she gets a billion hearings and YouTube hits and iTunes downloads. How about Sara Bareilles featured as the artist singing and playing in the living room while the guy comes out of the bathroom, goes to the TV and punches Rhapsody to change to another of Sara’s songs. How great is that? This young, relative unknown is the commercial. It’s funny and we get two of her songs to boot!

Paul Williams is one of the great pop song writers of the 20th century. His “We’ve Only Just Begun” sung by Karen Carpenter for a bank commercial was a very moving piece of Americana. Tom Paxton, probably our greatest living “folk singer,” having “My Dog’s Bigger Than Your Dog” on TV is not a sell out unless the dog food is bad. Hearing Ramblin’ Jack Elliott sing Woody Guthrie’s “Car Car” introduces two American icons to contemporary culture when neither one could get heard in the last thirty years of schlock jock radio. One of my favorite singers and songwriters, Dave Loggins, wrote "We Do It Like You'd Do It" for Burger King, and sang a very touching song for a poignant McDonald’s commercial. In these days, it might be better to think twice about helping to promote fast food, but thirty seconds of exposure thirty thousand times for a semi-decent product seems like a fair trade-off.

I end with Roly Salley’s song, “Killing the Blues,” an absolutely brilliant little upbeat lament done previously on one of Shawn Colvin’s least known albums, Cover Girl, and on a John Prine album, and perhaps most obscurely, but most brilliantly, by Roly himself on the Rounder compilation, Music From Mud Acres (just a few months ago, Rowland Salley, the bass player for Chris Isaaks, finally rerecorded it on his new solo album).
Within weeks of it being recorded and released by Alison Krause and Robert Plant, it became the heart of a new series of ads for J.C. Penney. I don’t see it as a sell out by either the performer or the writer. Those little spots are certainly more entertaining and more artistic than the “entertainment” between which they are sandwiched.

Personally, and no offense to your brilliant career, I don’t even like most “pop/country/rock” songwriting. It is too formulaic; too mechanical. As a performer/songwriter attempting to work in LA during the 70’s, I can’t tell you how many times, after playing a song that just slayed live audiences, I was asked by the record company exec, “Don’t you listen to the radio?” Though it never got me anywhere, I generally took their disdain as a compliment to my integrity. But a nice thirty-second or one-minute vignette of a nice little tune does not seem like a cop out. I’ve got my anti-capitalist rant on my intro to my Woody Guthrie lecture on YouTube, but “I’m a New Soul,” or “Not Gonna’ Write You a Love Song” or “We’ve Only Just Begun” or “Killin’ the Blues” get my vote everytime.

The Greatest Threat to Democracy is Hypocrisy! Seek Truth! Speak Truth!
Tim McMullen

Tim McMullen said...

As usual, I didn't read the other comments before chiming in. Abuse and exploitation by the industry is precisely why we should dismantle much of the music industry as quickly as possible and replace them with more personal forms of promotion as Craig has so eloquently and so often championed in this blog. This might then make inroads like They Might Be Giants and their great bits for Dunkin' Donuts, including the goofy video attached to "Doin' Things is What I Like to Do" or the surrealistic "Time Has Taken My Boat Away." In many cases we might remember the message of the song and forget the product. Now that's real subversion.

chromehead said...

Tim, these are insightful comments, thank you. I agree, as I hope I communicated in the blog, there is legitimate benefit and even some art to the pairing of a visual ad and a great song. What worries me is not the media itself, but the tendency for labels to see this as an easy means of exploitation and promotion. As long as there is a buffer between the artist and the advertisement it will continue to be a fun and creative adventure. But when labels smell the money and begin to drop acts who won't sell products we're in trouble.

Anonymous said...

This is regarding Allen's and Craig's commentary on "The Features" not recording a Beatles cover for a tv ad. I say, shame on them for not recording it.

A) it pays the bills, B) it keeps the boss happy, C) it exposes your band's performance to millions who might check them out and then hear their original tunes.

It's a freakin' commercial for goodness sake. It's not an album, it's not radio and it's not XM. The label puts up a pile of money to promote them, I feel like it's their right to demand a thing or two from them in return if they choose.

Ya'll might have made oodles of money from your music/writing careers, but there's a lot more of us out there scraping by. Integrity is one thing, but there's a point where it just don't pay the bills.

chromehead said...

Actually, Anonymous, I'm doing my taxes and it's a pretty typical year for me. I gross about as much as the day manager at the local Burger King, and I'm sure I work as hard as anyone for it. When averaged out over a long career, I've made anything but oodles of money. I live modestly in an 1800 sq. ft. house, and I struggle to make ends meet, too. My opinion is that the jingle tie-in isn't about paying the bills for most of these successful artists, it's about vanity.

Tim McMullen said...

In response to anonymous,

We all have to earn a living, but if you are suggesting that integrity doesn't matter, that the company owns you and can demand that you do things which lack integrity, then you are embracing an attitude that is at the heart of this moral free-fall that we are facing. Businesses that cheat or defraud to get ahead, news corporations that consciously present biased or inaccurate information, corrupt politicians on the take, companies that break the rules and illegally exploit their workers, wars predicated on known lies, citizens who cheat on or evade paying taxes: all are emblematic of a failure to maintain personal integrity.

Bruce Cockburn said, "The trouble with normal always gets worse." So, yeah, we're just talking about making money from music, but many iterations of that concept could have negative moral implications. If you need to sacrifice your morals to pay the bills, you need a new line of work!

Seek Truth! Speak Truth!

Tim McMullen

Anonymous said...

What's morally wrong with singing a Beatles song to advertise something? Since when are the Beatles some kind of rubbish that nobody would dare cover?

And as far as the label goes, they were right-on morally and ethically for firing that band for not doing the song.

I write songs, but I also own a business with employees. If I have a money making venture posed to me that doesn't endanger or humiliate my employees in any way, then they refuse to comply with my request just because they don't feel like being presssed to do it? You bet I'm firing them.

Does that make me a company man or a label hack? Nah. It's just smart business sense. The music industry is an industry no matter how many artists are involved, and the band should have enough intregity to stand in there, stiffen up their chins and deliver a little something for the hand that's feeding them.

chromehead said...

Your example isn't quite appropriate, Anonymous. First of all the band wasn't a group employees of the record company, they're considered independent contract labor. They're not entitled to any benefits or health care, no pension, no unemployment compensation, etc. This is a more appropriate example of what happened, and it's significant : let's say your company negotiates a contract with an outside company to paint the inside of your offices. The terms are negotiated, the colors and paint type are agreed upon, the work date is set, and the price per sq ft is determined and agree upon. Both parties sign the agreement. A week later you tell the painting company you want them to paint the outside of your offices, too, and you want it done in 48 hours and you want the company to use your brother-in-laws paint, which has been in the garage since 1967. The painting company balks at this because they've never used this type of paint before and it's old-- maybe it won't go on easily or maybe the tint will be off a bit and people will say the painting company did a lousy job, nor can they do the work on time because they've scheduled other jobs. So, you just tear up the contract and send them packing. That's more like what happened in the case of The Features. It isn't a morality issue, it's a breech of contract and an over-reaching demand made by a record company.

Anonymous said...

My analogy may not be techincally right on as to the relationship of the label to the artist, but I wouldn't think your anology would be nearly correct either.

The original story Allen told didn't mention prior commitment conflicts of any kind or anything other than they'd need to hurry up and get it done. It ain't like painting a building; it's playing a 3 minute song with professional musicians in a pro tools home studio world. The label was probably still paying them advances and I still maintain they had the right to ask it to be completed, even if it was an irritation.

chromehead said...

The band had every right to refuse to endorse Chase. The label, of course, also had the right to drop the band if this action was based on a clause by which they could legally accomplish this.

But I think what you're really saying here is that the band was damn lucky to have a record deal, and they should've been willing to do whatever you might've done to keep it. But what if the band has heroes who don't compromise this particular way? Doesn't that suggest a different course of action whether you agree with it or not? Should a record label have the "right" to expect an artist to compromise his/her principals? I say no. You may see no harm in it, but obviously some artists do.

At any rate, my original post (long since forgotten by now) does acknowledge in paragraph 6 that many young artists can justify doing the commercials, and its hard to break nationally these days without the tie-ins. For those who are willing, more power to 'em.

allen said...

Well, I just checked back in for the first time after leaving my comment about The Features and the Chase commercial. Perhaps Anonymous and others would care to read the whole story in all its gruesome glory? If off-site links are permitted, here's where to go:

Just for the record, I'm not kin to these boys, and don't have any particular axe to grind. What I have done is hovered around the edges of the non-country Nashville scene for over 2 decades now. The Features' story is,speaking in generalities, hardly unique. In fact, it's typical. Jason and the Scorchers. Walk the West. The Questionnaires. Royal Court of China. (Their song Half the Truth - "take what you say and throw half away" - was an ode to their label rep.) The Katies. Enough? But perhaps I digress. The original post was more concerned with artistic integrity, not major label malfeasance.

The Features:

Jannie Sue "Funster" said...

At the risk of sounding 'way too mooshy, what you've said in this post (and your blog in general,) touches my very heart & soul. Thank you!