From Neil Young singing about how selling his music for a product (Pepsi, Coke, Miller, Bud) would make him a joke to The Who parodying the concept of selling music to big business (The Who Sell Out), marrying music with commercialism used to be absolute rock ‘n’ roll taboo. Over time, things have no doubt shifted away from the mindset that commercial relationships were whoring yourself and your music to licensing your music out to reasonable outlets being viewed in a respectable light that can actually serve to prop your art up.
Few things have as conflicted a relationship as rock ‘n’ roll and commercialism. In many ways, they are like violence and football. The two can’t exist without each other (although they may want to). In many ways, commercialism (whether it’s licensing, large label distribution, sponsorships, etc.) lie very opposed to the defining spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, which values independence, freedom of expression and a never-ending vendetta against the so-called “man” (i.e., parents, big business, the police, government and so on). However, since the musical paradigm has shifted with the rise of digital music and fall of major record sales, it’s no longer possible for the majority of artists to make a sustainable career out of record sales.
Take underground rapper MC Lars’ recent interview with the Huffington Post about his primary forms of revenue. He makes a measly 13 percent of his revenue off of digital album sales, but guess what is pulling in the largest chunk of Lars’ change? Yes, that’s right: souvenirs (of all things). The artist is actually making more money off the shirts and hats you buy after the show (47 percent) than the show itself (40 percent of Lars’ revenue). This is a guy that doesn’t even license his music for commercials, movies or other media channels, which is pretty much the easiest money a musician can make.
Most people nowadays are not going to have their opinion altered about a band just for appearing in a commercial, and many may even find it cool to witness a band they love get some much-deserved attention.
Also, gone are the days when MTV or radio hold enough weight to determine taste. Now there are so many different outlets to get one’s music from. For instance,
Internet radio (Pandora)
Social media music sites (Spotify)
And even then, people are still having a hard a time as ever getting their music heard by the masses. But there is a common phenomenon that continues to draw attention, and in large numbers: television. More than 115.9 million households still have televisions, and studies show that we are watching an increasing amount of TV, up to 34 hours a week in Nielsen’s 2011 survey. That’s practically a day job. With that kind of artillery, television commercials have not only become a shrewd way to get paid, but also to get one’s music heard by millions.
A shining example of this is the band Fun., who hit it huge earlier this year when their song “We Are Young” was featured in a Chevy Sonic commercial that aired during the Superbowl. That day, 111.3 millions Americans heard Fun., and they continue to listen to the group. “We Are Young” charted at No. 1 on the Billboard 100 for an unprecedented six weeks in a row.
When Fun. toured with Janelle Monae (who contributed guest vocals to “We Are Young”) in late 2011, Fun. was the opening act. Fast forward less than a year later, and now Fun. is sure to be the headliner in virtually any lineup they’re thrown against. The reason? The power of one commercial. Other recent examples of bands who broke it big by licensing out their music for TV ads are Chairlift (Apple), The Asteroids Galaxy Tour (Heineken), Matt & Kim (Bacardi), and Grouplove (Apple). Not to mention plenty of already-established indie acts who just took that extra step with a presence on TV: Grizzly Bear (Volkswagen), Jose Gonzalez (Sony), New Pornographers (University of Phoenix), Vampire Weekend (tons and tons) and many more.
So what to make of this rise of indie music in TV ads, and music and commercialism in general? Look at it this way: as long as promoting the product doesn’t jeopardize the message and values of the band—if the music is a natural fit for what it’s sponsoring— why not? TV commercials appear to be a phenomenal way of generating some (much-needed) revenue. It removes some of the pressure to tour like dogs and promote like crazy. It can even prop a band out of the cellar and give them the resources to produce a great-sounding record and deliver an even more robust tour.
Limited now are the opinions once held strong by artists such as Neil Young and the Who. Those anti-commercial artists still exist (legends from the past few musical eras such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello still won’t budge), but they are a dying breed in rare company when it comes to artists who can survive without commercial handouts since they built up their fortunes in decades past. Most people nowadays are not going to have their opinion altered about a band just for appearing in a commercial, and many may even find it cool to witness a band they love get some much-deserved attention. Vampire Weekend and the Black Keys were even smart enough to crack on themselves on “The Colbert Report” last year with their well-publicized “Sell Out Off,” dueling back in forth, one-upping each other with TV spots.
Getting wrapped up in such matters nowadays is just petty; focus on the music, and don’t get bummed when your favorite band gets some deserved air time. Even if ol’ Neil won’t give in (and a good rule of thumb is to side with him), there are better fights to be had.