Monday, June 06, 2005

Sell Your Song, Pimp My Stuff

Believe it or not, young readers, there once was a time when mainstream (and non-mainstream) musicians did NOT supplement their income by allowing their songs to be used as advertising jingles. Honest, it’s true! I know! Seems like sometimes the CD is barely out of the factory, and on your radio, that you can also hear it in a commercial – yes Pink, I’m looking at you and your “Bally’s Mix” of that “I’m Coming Out” song of yours.

Now, I might have some kind of quaint, antiquated notion that musicians /singers (even Pink) are “artists”. That they got into the music biz not because of a desire to be filthy stinking rich, at least primarily, but because they had a gift, a talent, and had to express it somehow. I am not ignoring the fact that getting rich is a big lure, especially when you’ve been raised in relative poverty, heck that’s the American Dream right? Hell, if someone paid me to write this, I would gladly accept the cash (but then again, I’m no artist!). What I’m specifically railing against is the naked greed involved with pimping your song to sell deodorant, sneakers, cars, drinks, whatever. An additional example, to a somewhat lesser extent, of this is having your tour underwritten by a corporation, which makes performers traveling shills.

The first example of the latter that comes to mind occurred in 1982, for The Who’s “farewell” tour (their first of several moneygrabs promoted under the guise of their “last performances”). Once seen as the forefathers of the British Mod movement, and one of the original inspirations for early Punk, The Who were bad asses back in the 60’s. Famous for trashing their instruments on stage after each show, the high pitched perfect screams of Roger Daltrey, and the manic Keith Moon pounding his drums like they owed him money, they were the most notorious live act of the day. Couple that with their notoriety for thoroughly destroying hotel rooms while on the road, and you were looking at a band which no respectable corporate entity would ever dream of aligning itself with. “Hope I die before I get old”, indeed.

Fast forward to the aforementioned farewell tour, where the 40-ish British lads would be playing very large venues (e.g.. Shea Stadium). The tour was announced amidst great fanfare, and it would be brought to you by Schlitz. “Schlitz Rocks America”, they told us. Um..okay, if drunken frat boys stumbling over their beer can pyramids on their way to puking on the lawn was what they were after, they were in business. The logo would appear on every t-shirt sold, making the audience members pay for the privilege of pimping this piss water while proving to everyone that they were at the show. There were articles written by music journalists (specifically Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh, who took the band to task), but like every other outrage foisted upon the public, the fanfare eventually died down, and the practice continued to the point where it has virtually become standard operating procedure.

Touring can be an expensive enterprise, and having a big corporation underwrite some of the costs in exchange for splashing their logo all over the place seems, on the surface, to be a good idea. BUT, it is well known that most artists derive the majority of their income from touring, not record sales, and a big name act like The Who, going out on tour for one last time (ahem), would have absolutely no problem selling out large stadiums, and would likely have made everyone associated with the band a tidy profit. Why then, would their management have enlisted this? Well, a company like Schlitz was looking to score points as being “hip”, and what better way than to associate yourself with the rock and roll music that the kids seem to like? The following year, Schlitz “Rocked America” with ZZ Top, but it would appear on the surface that this had little effect on the beer’s long term popularity. Still, the whole thing smacked of pure, unadulterated greed.

Still, I don’t fault the artists as much in these instances. I’m betting that, these days, the record company has more to do with setting up the cross promotions and putting the tour together than they do, so they can almost get a pass here. Almost.

Where they catch flak from me, though, is when their songs are used in commercials. God, does this drive me nuts. This is the height of artistic prostitution, in my book, and it pains me to list some of the names of the guilty parties. I’ve been tempted to make exceptions in some cases, most notably with one hit wonder type acts, who probably aren’t rolling in the dough, but it still irks the hell out of me to hear a throwaway bomb like Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” being used in an ad. Not only that, but it displays a decided laziness coupled with a lack of creativity on the part of the Advertising agencies, who find it easier to throw in some familiar ditty than to actually come up with something catchy. There was a time when ad jingles were almost an art form unto themselves, and to this day most people over the age of 35 can sing the entire Burger King song from their youth (“Hold the pickle…hold the lettuce, etc.”). That is a rant for another time.

Like most public outrages, this started slowly, and eventually became so prevalent that we got numb to it in a hurry. In the mid to late 80’s, one could hear older songs like “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys used to sell orange soda. Most of the songs were from the 60’s, meant to capitalize on the whole Big Chill era yuppie’s newfound purchasing power. Again, when using the Motown catalog, the blame falls not on the artist, but on the record company, since the artists on those great old records were notoriously underpaid (and in the case of the house band, virtually uncredited). Gradually the fertile field of old pop songs was mined, and it became almost impossible to watch an ad that didn’t feature some old tune.

Now, the trend is to use things that are a bit more current, what with the 15 second attention span of the average person today, and the prevalence of the clicker. The biggest asses are the ones who don’t even wait for the song to become ingrained in the public consciousness, or even wait for the song to become an “oldie”, but instead use it to cross promote their current record. Lenny Kravitz, who likes to paint himself as some psuedo-new-age-hippy-Jimi-Hendirx for the modern age, is a big offender here. His “Get Away” was being used by Toyota while his record was dive bombing down the charts.

But the real kickers are the ones like Eric Clapton, who probably lights his cigarettes with $10 bills, selling a song to Michelob in the 80’s, and placing his mug in their ads along with having the beer giant sponsor his tour. Clapton, an alcoholic mind you, saw nothing hypocritical about this little arrangement. What was he trying to tell us? That he was so completely recovered from his alcoholism, he could sell beer to you and not have an issue with it? Was he using the irony of this setup to show us his twisted sense of humor? Whatever the reason, it smacked of greed, and was a complete joke. Then he hooked up his old pal Steve Winwood with Michelob as well, allowing the aging former child prodigy to peddle his Yuppie Muzak to a whole new generation of deep pocketed thirtysomethings. I won’t even discuss Phil Collins’ jump into this same setup.

It pained me personally to hear acts I respected, like The Ramones, get caught up in this. Granted they were never a chart topping act, but had a large enough following to move beyond cult status, thus earn, I suspect, a decent chunk of change. Hearing “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths used in a Toyota ad was painful as well. At this point I begin to wonder if the artists no longer had full control over their catalog, as was the case when Michael Jackson peddled “Revolution” by The Beatles to sell Nikes. Not a chance in Hell the three surviving lads from Liverpool would have allowed this, but nobody ever said the King of Pop (his term, not the rest of the world’s) would ever shy away form a chance to line his pockets. I don’t know the circumstances for these artists, so they get a temporary restraining order from me on the rant. Only those who willingly pimp their own songs receive the snark from me.

Which brings me to one person who is a genuine hero here. A performer who has been approached multiple times, and has never succumbed: Bruce Springsteen. At the height of his popularity, at least in a pop music sense, in the mid 80’s, The Boss was inundated with offers to use “Born In The U.S.A.”, and said no every time. The irony here is that the song was far from a patriotic anthem, which shows either how dumb the ad agencies are, or how dumb they think you are. Also, some of then-President Reagan’s staff also approached Bruce about the song, and he politely refused to let his art be used to pimp a politician whom, it could be argued, was directly responsible for some of the hardships Bruce wrote about in this and other songs. There are a few others who come to mind who also haven’t succumbed, at least as far as I know, but none were at the level of stardom attained by Springsteen.

The bottom line is this: yes, this is America, with free enterprise and all that. Everyone in a capitalistic society has the right to make money. I understand how some of these artists feel the need to strike while the iron is hot and the need to capitalize. Still, unless you were thinking about selling out when you first put the pen to the paper (like many Rap artists, who think nothing of dropping actual product placements in their rhymes), the practice is, in my book, inexcusable. But, I’m only one guy, with one opinion. What do you think?
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