Commercial appeal

Remember how reliably bad TV commercial music used to be? It’s hard to recall now because we’ve been blessed with years of iPod ads. The jingle would be a thing of the past if it weren’t an essential component of video-produced spots for local retailers (“Mel Farr to the rescue! Mel Farr to the re-e-es-cue”). This, of course, excludes the “lingle,” when an ad is punctuated by a choir singing the company’s logo and slogan. I don’t know if that thing will ever die.

Furniture depots and used car dealerships aside, ad music has mercifully evolved. I started to take note back in 2002, when one of my favourite bands, Ladytron, sold one of their little-noted instrumental tracks to a car commercial. Whether composed originally for the spot, or purchased from a musician, ad music just got better. I generally feel that the advent of the web gave way to a broader, more engaging musical landscape. It became easier for people to discover alternative bands and break away from the mainstream, especially with file sharing, iTunes, and eventually, Myspace. Right on cue, ad agencies picked up on the trend, and started to infuse their creative with what I can only assume were their own musical selections. The result is so effective that a query often found on Yahoo Answers is “what is that song in the new *** commercial?”

I think we really started to feel a shift with the iPod spots, like this one:

To me, it seems certain creatives had the sweetest job: scouring Myspace for the best background noise. It worked especially well when the music was incorporated into the concept.

Car commercials especially started to gain momentum. While people are still seeking power and performance, ads started to appeal to those of us who want a car to reflect style, dynamism, youth, and ourselves. In fact, a good friend of mine admitted that he bought his Volks as a result of this ad:

I think it’s especially effective when we’re taking about cars, of course, because that’s when we listen to music the most. You’ve got speed and mobility, set to the soundtrack of your life. And isn’t that what the idea of freedom really is? A selection of your preferences combined with movement.

I particularly like this recent spot. The build-up is executed flawlessly.

Right now, I’d like to give a shout-out to my buddy TS, who’s taken the time to read all of my blogs after noticing that he had 5 pages of catching up to do. TS admitted that he absolutely hates commercials. I think that’s a normal reaction to have. Truth be told, ad creatives also hate a lot of commercials. Thing is, agencies are often forced to comply with a client’s demands, which means that an entertaining concept quickly  turns into boring, indulgent guff. But every now and then, a client is willing to take a risk and allow creatives to have a bit of fun. The result is an ad you’ll likely remember for years and years. And yes, TS, even you have your favourites. Those entertaining ones have an impact on the choices we make, how we see ourselves, and how we perceive the world. Because it’s part of our daily routine, it’s actually quite inevitable.

And as much as we’d love to hate it, one company that allows agencies to take risks, a lot, is Coca-Cola. Based on this ad, the company is perfectly willing to sacrifice direct sales in favour of championing a particular lifestyle and demographic. Given its entertainment value, would you really switch to another channel, or would you wait until it was over? My guess is the latter.

Oh, and the song? Via the White Stripes.

***

On Selling Out

Shortly after seeing the Ladytron ad, I had the fortunate opportunity to interview Daniel Hunt, the band’s main songwriter. I asked him about selling “Mu-Tron” to the commercial, to which he aptly responded, “I think people would have be happier if we worked at Taco Bell and did music on the side. But the truth is, you’d have to be wealthy already to turn that down.”

There’s the rub. Ladytron, while they had a record contract, were still struggling. At the time, as now, they rely largely on shows as a source of revenue. To my understanding, they got a few thousand for the song, which they presumably shared between them, their manager, and whoever else. The investment was largely theirs, truth be told, and in its own way, the commercial became an ad for Ladytron.

Though we’d love to put artists in a category that’s holier than corporations, the fact is, they’ve got to eat too. Instruments are expensive, and with regular use, they require either replacement or maintenance. With file sharing and iTunes, a record contract just isn’t as viable as it once was. More than ever, musicians, even the really successful ones, go on tour and sell merchandise in the hopes of turning a profit, but mostly to generate an income. This is especially the case for alternative musicians, who, though they may be signed, aren’t benefitting from album sales in the same way as mainstream performers.

File sharing served a major blow to the music industry. While I’m certainly not expressing an opinion about file sharing specifically, I can support artists who agree to be part of an iPod ad. This is often the difference between insignificance and notoriety. And for an unsigned musician, that just makes business sense.

Although some of us got sick of hearing “1, 2, 3, 4” repeatedly during the 2007 holiday season, most of us are glad that Feist got the kudos she deserved.

The other nice outcome in all of this is that audiences seem aware of how much musicians have been struggling in recent years. So attendance at live performances is statistically higher, and people buy more merchandise in support of their favourite artist.

And isn’t that how it should work? Shouldn’t an artist’s success be measured by their audience, rather than the company that backs them?

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