Auricle: Music Discovery and Discourse

Artistic Freedom and the Quick Buck

Heavily discussed in recent months is the rampant use of lesser-known tunes in commercial advertising (see here and here for some background discussion, and read this New York Times article for some artists' perspectives). Opponents of these practices say the idealism of musicians and their music is being compromised; numbers-oriented people point to the advantages and necessity of "selling out." What matters most is the way the artists feel -- an opinion that is largely overlooked.

Is it jarring to a music fan to hear "Crazy Train" in a Mitsubishi commercial? Yes. Is it bad? Not necessarily.

Sure, commercial use has its drawbacks. It's fun hearing Stereolab in a Volkswagen Beetle spot and 30 seconds of Cream's "White Room" during the Snow iMac campaign, but once viewed, listeners face the risk of visualizing cars and computers whenever hearing these songs. (This author has gone so far as to avoid music videos for certain songs -- U2's "Mysterious Ways," for one -- so as not to replace self-conjured images with those supplied by an unknown director.) Musicians often do not own the rights to their songs, and cannot stop the use of their music in ways they dislike (think "Revolution" and Nike).

The main thrust behind music sales is money. The record-label and radio oligarchies make it difficult for lesser-known artists to break into the mainstream, where increased airplay and sales lead to profitability and a sustainable career. While independent artists like to claim that they are avoiding controlling forces, they still need to eat dinner at night.

And that's where advertising comes in. A well-known advertiser will pay as much as $50,000 for the perfect music for an ad, sometimes more. If the spot is inoffensive enough, an artist is hard-pressed to say no: The money for a single ad is often far more than the income from an album or a small tour.

Some artists see a commercial as the ultimate compromise. Others see it as an end-run to popularity; witness Sting's embrace of Jaguar, whose usage of "Desert Rose" woke up dismal album sales, and Moby, who sold the rights to every track on his album "Play" in order to gain exposure he knew he wouldn't receive on the radio or MTV. Only now, a year after his "sellout," is MTV embracing his music, and that may be attributable to Gwen Stefani's presence on his most recent single.

Look at the end result for Moby: Three million album sales translates into at least $1 million in his pocket on top of the licensing fees. What if he had not sold the spots? There's a good chance "Play" would have been another typical electronica album, selling 50- or 100,000 copies, and making his artistic future far more bleak. Instead, he can continue to make music, and his increased public profile is good for his entire musical genre.

An artist should never give up on his principles. But artists should not have to starve or live in squalor to pursue their arts. Advertisements give musicians an opportunity to make money while they continue to work as musicians, and for that, the public might even be grateful.

July 27, 2001 | revised July 30, 2001


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"Gay/Not Gay"
King Missile (1998, off Failure)

The Ultimate Bill Withers Collection (import)
Bill Withers (2000)

"Island in the Sun"
Weezer (2001, off Weezer)

Weezer (2001)

De La Soul (1989, off 3 Feet High and Rising)

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