From the Los Angeles Times:
Bands and brands going hand in hand
In licensing songs, musicians make money, products get promoted — but it’s fans crying foul.
By Chris Lee | July 22, 2007
[snip]… the fracas now commonly referred to as “Heavensgate” may be most notable for its nostalgic value — for reminding pop fans of a time when their idols would rather have been caught dead than appear in TV commercials, vogue moodily in print ads or shout out product placements in their songs. Nowadays, those practices have become an acceptable, if still not altogether palatable, part of the cultural scenery as advertisers increasingly look to pop music for sizzle and to some extent, vice versa.
Jay Babcock, editor and co-owner of the countercultural Arthur magazine, sees ad pop’s ubiquity altogether differently, viewing it as the bellwether for a kind of cultural decay. “What kind of culture sets up a system where the only way to hear good music is through TV commercials for products you don’t need?” Babcock said. “What little art is out there has to sneak in wherever it can, being stand-ins for jingles. It’s the sign of an unhealthy culture. The culture is eating itself.”
I often recall the words of author/filmmaker Jim Munroe when faced with this debate (sometimes the “other” side is quite convincing, artists I respect like the Shins, Flaming Lips, the Violent Femmes, Jose Gonzales, Lily Frost, Dandy Warhols, etc have all unapologetically peddled their music to advertisers):
“… product placement is like inviting someone to a party just because they have a car – on the surface, everyone wins, since the driver gets to go to a party, and no one has to pay for a taxi. But it casts an insincere light over the whole affair.”
The simplified argument for having a product placement slumber party is this: radio hits do not sell records anymore; MTV/MuchMusic barely plays videos; so, artists need a mainstream vehicle to get their music in front of fans and what better way than to shack up with Starbucks, Mitsubishi, Wendy’s, Sony, Chevy or Vodaphone?
Like Munroe said, on the surface it’s a win/win, but it’s short-sighted. What happens when television advertising becomes just as fractured and ineffective at selling products as radio is at stimulating music sales? What happens when the next CD doesn’t get placed or the next tour sponsored?
You’re quite possibly left with a “fanbase” who doesn’t really know who you are and can’t relate to you beyond an association with a product (as opposed to an experience). For example, I can guarantee with 99% certainty that you’ve heard music by The Fratellis but I bet you can’t recall the track without a little help. This is a great example of how getting off with advertisers is not sustainable and quite simply devalues the artist and his/her music in the longterm. I love the Fratellis’ song, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a blip on the iTunes/iPod radar and everytime I think of it I think of the commercial.
Listen to people who talk about Broken Social Scene – you always, always hear a passionate story about an experience at a live show, friendships that began at a live show, or why a certain song has so much meaning. I don’t know if BSS have commercially licensed any of their music, but my point is that they’re commited to their craft and fans first and foremost and for that they’re rewarded with enviable careers and credibility.
I’m convinced that the only way to create a longterm, sustainable career in the music industry is to write good music, cultivate a fanbase slowly, play live shows and keep keeping at it.
Otherwise we’re creating a culture in which it’s okay to exhume our dead heroes to sell shoes.