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chords of commodity
the commercial business of music and product marketing
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

As a commercial producer, I know the intrinsic value of pairing good music with appropriate words and images. There have been more than a few times when co-workers slipped food under the production room door as the mad scientist in me sampled a mere hundred slips of music and promo zings or, in a fit of creative despair, cobbled together a Frankensteinian music bed from Georgian chants, jungle sounds and a ripe drumbeat from an old disco album.

All for a 30-second unfinished furniture store’s Labor Day sale ad.

It was awesome.

However, there’s no need to go to all that trouble anymore, since thousands of songs are readily available for purchase, pulsating with double meaning and splaying the net for a specific demographic capture. Why, if you’re Moby, you can just fulfill a production sampler order first, and then see if any of the tunes garner additional downloads or airplay.

My, that was snarky. Maybe it’s because I’m horribly jealous of his ability to wonk a spatula on a Fisher Price xylophone and pull the string of a clapper monkey while overdubbing the banal, nasal overtones of Gwen Stefani and rake in millions.

Nevertheless, he tapped into a business opportunity and forever shrugged off the shroud of starving musician. Forget fighting the radio Death Star for popularity: commercials are where it’s at, baby, and if you’re a newbie with two turntables and microphone, selling certain songs for commercial use makes sense.

As long as that’s the reason you created the music.

Rumblefish founder Paul Anthony is a prime example of this musical poetry in motion. He understands the power of advertising music and uses the talents of independent musicians to create ad songs specific to client campaigns. Some of these artists go on to create even more impressive work.

It’s quite a nah-nah-nah to the record companies: independent artists, having more creation and distribution opportunities available to them instead of pigeonholed categorization. A lot of musicians have written jingles during their musical career, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with it.

Okay. Maybe Randy Newman and Barry Manilow don’t constitute “a lot.” And the word “jingle” has been glossied up as “music branding.”

But a working musician is still better than one snoring on your couch all day.

It’s also cool to think a fresh hot talent can generate some Internet buzz and maybe break into a new market rather than languish because Joe Bob St. John, the Death Star’s National Radio Consultant, doesn’t like the sound of a song and, more importantly, doesn’t think the banal, nasal Rihanna wannabe will buy it.

Riding the commercial marketing wave certainly worked for Dirty Vegas, with their song “Days Go By” in the Mitsubishi commercial a few years back. A relative club favorite in Britain, Dirty Vegas roared into America with a pretty cool song set against a slick Mitsubishi backdrop. It struck such a chord (oh come ON, let me have that) that the band was able to do a video for the single and enjoy a little more success.

However, Dirty Vegas didn’t create that song for Mitsubishi -– the savvy ad folks discovered it. So the bigger question is: what did that song have to do with a car?

Now the music and product cross-marketing cords become tangled.

In the mid-80s, when the dulcet tones of Steve Winwood's “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do” serenaded Michelob Light fans, rock and roll, booze and cigarettes were at least natural bedfellows. However, it all imploded when Michael Jackson convinced Capitol Records to use the Beatles' “Revolution” in a Nike ad in the late 1980s and by 1995, “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones promoted Microsoft and Ford.

Funny. I always thought that song was about sex. Now, it's about cyber sex for truck lovers. I’m sure that in 2009, “Start Me Up” will be the theme for Keith Richard’s pacemaker manufacturer, too.

You scoff.

But I predict that the Rolling Stones will allow one of their songs to promote a geriatric product.

Major musicians who have fought for publishing rights and won a major battle in the late 1990s over the thematic use of their work now think nothing of letting their songs shill everything from cars (Led Zeppelin, Van Halen); gym clubs (INXS); cleaning supplies (Blondie, Devo); and chain stores (Pete Townshend, Van Morrison); to cell phones (Peter Gabriel, Foreigner); allergy medication (B-52s); restaurants (Stevie Wonder); and flowers (David Bowie).

Chrissie Hynde, lover of a Kink and a Simple Mind and the rocker chick Gina Gershon only dreams she could be but never, ever will become, supposedly receives $500,000 a year for the looped use of the incredible bass riff from “My City Was Gone” as the official Rush Limbaugh show bumper.

Hynde reportedly donates the money to PETA (which doesn’t necessarily make it all better) and says that she doesn’t agree with Limbaugh. Yet she takes his money.

Long live rebellious rock and roll.

Lynyrd Skynyrd, once so outraged that Neil Young would dare criticize their music and culture that they blasted him in a song over it, has a snippet of “Sweet Home Alabama” in a KFC ad and croon "Simple Man" in a Busch commercial. There are artists that refuse to give creations to fans through downloading, tabulation and even their own Web sites, but others who believe their song about a guy’s heroin addiction is the perfect accompaniment to a cruise line’s promotion of a lust for seafaring life.

Lest you think it’s only the old cronies filling empty coffers, step away from the high horse before it bucks back. With ad agencies willing to pay $10,000 up to $1 million for a short ad flight, performers everywhere evaluate playing in the hot sun for a bunch of mortgage brokers, tattoo artists and kids with their hats on sideways verses hitting the bar for a check pellet.

Check out:
  1. “Are You Going to Be My Girl” by the Jets: in an ad for Apple.
  2. “Know” by Nick Drake: promoting Nike.
  3. “Freak On A Leash” by KoRn: supporting Puma.
  4. “Happy Valentine’s Day” by Outkast: in a T-Mobile commercial.
  5. “Molly’s Chamber” by Kings of Leon: for Volkswagon.
  6. “One of the Three” by James: headache-reducing Tylenol.
  7. “Praise You” by Fatboy Slim: riding with Mercedes-Benz.
  8. “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand: pimping for Sony PSP.
  9. “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas: calling out for Verizon.
  10. “Yeh Yeh” by They Might Be Giants: for Chrysler.
  11. “Jerk it Out” by the Ceasars: as part of the USA Network bumper crop.
  12. “Awake” by Godsmack: the siren call of the U.S. Navy.

The ones that makes me particularly sad? “Extraordinary” by Better Than Ezra, promoting of all things, McDonald’s and the Gorillaz’ “19-2000” for Icebreakers.

How do these songs embody the product? And how does the product represent the song, much less the musician? It’s a weak connection in all directions, based on the Really Stupid Advertising Belief #324: well, if they love the song, they’ll love the product!

No, we won’t.

Better to have a Barry Manilow adhack stick “I’m stuck on Band-Aid ‘cause Band-Aid's stuck on me!” in our heads, because at least that’s original music branding.

The artists aren’t in this by themselves. Like any good commodity trader, music publishers and record companies are just doing what they can for the ball club. While we’re not talking about roasting babies over an open fire, one would think that the parties involved would at least be 1) selective with product alignment and 2) less greedy when it comes to farming out the product of their creative wombs to sell shoes, cars or, in the case of the Allman Brothers, menopause medication.

They should also heed the consumer sword, as she is a doubled-edged wench indeed. For if what these musicians create mean so little to them that they're willing to hawk it on the nearest doorstep, in time, it won’t matter to us either. We’ll take our downloading and CD-purchasing and ticket-buying dollars elsewhere.

Jingle, jingle.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

more about tracey l. kelley


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tracey kelley
7.31.06 @ 1:07a

Heh. Russ and I follow each other around like little puppies...

I Guess Technically, He Already Talked About This

...and he gently pointed this out to me offline. I totally forgot about his column and could have saved myself a lot of trouble had I looked for it.

But we've already discussed his column - now discuss mine!

ETA The other "new" use for old songs: Hallmark cards, such as the following:

CARD: "Life with you is like a road trip. We may not always know exactly where we're headed, but it's a sweet ride!" to the tune of Chuck Berry's "No Particular Place to Go."

Slogan for the merchandise?

"USe Music to Celebrate Your Journey."

I kinda do that already.


russ carr
7.31.06 @ 1:54a

I said it once before, but it bears repeating...

Interesting though, since I've migrated away from commercial radio now that I commute with my iPod, and my television habits are usually downloadable, that I can't put my finger on new songs used to sell stuff.

It probably helps that I'm not a brand-name consumer, too. Or if I am, it's because I'm a dedicated user, and don't need to be told to buy something before I'll buy it (a la Coke). But I don't see a lot of TV commercials pushing baby spinach or goat cheese.

Though, really, what band WOULDN'T want to have their music associated with goat cheese?

tracey kelley
7.31.06 @ 11:10a

I think marketers believe there's a certain cache' attached to securing "the big names" and associate them with a product.

I think it chaps me more from an independent artist standpoint, for the same reason why some client or ad agency thinks hiring Kathleen Turner - and I love Kathleen Turner - to do a v.o. for an investment company ad will sound better or have a greater impact than...

...well, than me.

I'm a voice actor, too. But I'm not "famous."

I've heard all sorts of actors: Gene Hackman, Jeff Bridges, Turner, Richard Thomas (and we won't even talk about animated features right now)in radio and television ads. Not that I'm glued to either one, but if I happen to be listening/watching X or Y, it's very noticable.

At least to me, from the marketing standpoint of things. Maybe the general public doesn't really have a clue.

So if the public really doesn't care, why bother paying the Stones a cool $1 million, when you can pay Walker or Miller $5,000 for something just as good?

russ carr
7.31.06 @ 2:11p

Ah, but you are 1) a v.o. professional and 2) a film buff, so you are attenuated to better pick out those celebrity voices, particularly those whose intonations are less distinct. Everyone (well, MORE people) can pick out James Earl Jones or Patrick Stewart shilling someone's wares. Bridges or Thomas? Not really. So that makes me wonder why they've paid the big coin. Do they think there's a subliminal "I know I've heard that voice before..." reaction that will leave the listener pondering the spot in an attempt to suss out the speaker's identity?

It all comes down to the sizzle, not the steak. Image is primarily subjective, which means that unless you're foolishly marketing your product as something that only overweight hermaphrodites on foodstamps would love, you're pushing a coolness factor that only has to resound with a certain percentage of people: your demographic. Marketing substance is trickier. Suddenly you have to produce proof that your beer tastes great and is less filling, or that your breakfast cereal has the maximum amount of fiber allowed by the FDA.

In the long run, it's simply cheaper and less headache to buy some whore of a rock star's song and push the image rather than selling a product on its merits.

mike julianelle
7.31.06 @ 2:45p

I hate Richard Thomas. But I pegged him immediately. And tons of peeps know JonBoy, at the very least he's associated with downhome goodness, right?

Also, I believe I read once that lots of celebrity-relatives get into the v.o. game, as they often sound quite similar to the real deal, who might not sink to the commercial level...

jael mchenry
7.31.06 @ 2:50p

Before I got TiVo and eliminated commercials from my life, I remember listening to David Duchovny pimping dog food over, and over, and over.

"We're for dogs."

Yes, David. Yes you are. Now... go act or something.

Certainly the celebrity voiceover is a great deal for celebrities -- they get the money without looking like shills. Julia Roberts would never show her face in support of AOL, I'm sure, but I doubt she had trouble taking their money for voicing commercials.

robert melos
8.1.06 @ 4:38a

I haven't watched commercials since I started fast forwarding and taping everything I watch. I actually have to go out of my way to see a commercial. On the other hand, I accidently listened to a commercial the other day and discovered a song, I Turn My Camera On by Spoon, and went to itunes to download it. In general I rarely listen when someone talks, so voice overs lose me. I didn't even know Richard Thomas was still around.

dan gonzalez
8.1.06 @ 1:51p

Hanks' brother did Woody's voice for one of the Toy Story cartoon movies. I ended up noticing it, but no one else seemed to.

But, as for Turner vs. Kelley, or the Stones vs. Walker/Miller, they're just trying to get you to watch or listen to the commercial, right? I think broad recognition and attention is the goal, not 'I like Katleen Turner, so I'll probably like the product she's shlepping' better than if some random golden-voiced chick from Iowa was shlepping it.

russ carr
8.1.06 @ 2:46p

Oh, truth on the soundalikes that aren't quite there. I realize that Sesame Street NEEDS Muppets, but Brian Henson just ain't his dad. I guess for kids that never heard Jim Henson's Kermit, Brian Henson's Kermit is fine... but the difference to me is dramatic.

mike julianelle
8.1.06 @ 3:38p

I ALWAYS say that, Russ. The new Kermit sounds like crap.

Everybody's coming around on Spoon now!

brian anderson
8.1.06 @ 3:46p

Brian isn't doing Kermit, is he?

(Research says no, he isn't.)

Brian strikes me as a good sort who doesn't have Jim's creativity but is trying his best. Honestly, selling off the Muppet franchise to Disney was probably a good business move to keep the Henson Company independent, and it lets them strike out in new directions. The Creature Shop does amazing work.

russ carr
8.1.06 @ 5:13p

Huh. I could've sworn that Brian did it for awhile in the interim, but there's nothing in that article to support it, so I'll trust your research.

Still doesn't mean the guy sounds like Kermit. Or Ernie. I don't care how much hair the guy has. (Is there a HensonCo hiring rule? The sign says long-haired hippie-lookin' people ONLY need apply?)


mike julianelle
8.1.06 @ 5:14p

What gives you the right?

sandra thompson
8.11.06 @ 7:54a

I'm late getting around to this one but I thought I'd announce to the world that I actually, really, honestly CRIED the first time I heard the Zep Cadillac commercial. Zep was sacred. Is sacred. Whatever.

jeff miller
8.11.06 @ 1:00p

Okay so I'm entering in REALLY late here, but here's a few comments:

"But a working musician is still better than one snoring on your couch all day."

My wife, and even my cats agree on that point.

"What did that song have to do with a car? "

In my view, it helped redefine the manufacturer's brand for a new audience, and created a sonic atmosphere for the context of the spot - so it's value was in the execution of the ad concept, not in it's direct connection to the brand. So in this case, we have an executional approach to re-branding. I think.

Finally, this column is so well written I can't say much other things like "exactly!" and "f---in' A."

Very insightful - as a music and ad pro, these questions appeal to me very much, while the answers remain slippery. Imagine my feelings when I saw my beloved KISS performing in a Pepsi commercial.

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