Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Art & Commerce

Here's a fascinating piece in Rolling Stone about how, in the face of a music economy that is clearly in flux, many artists have been turning to licensing to pick up the slack created by declining CD sales.

And here's the bit that is sticking with me: the piece (by Fred Goodman) cites a slew of bands who have successfully positioned their music for use in commercials (with the implication that there are many more that have gone uncited). Thus we get Spoon shilling for Jaguar, Allison Krauss / Robert Plant for JC Penny, Wilco for Volkswagen, They Might Be Giants for Dunkin' Donuts, The Shins for McDonald's, and so on.

What's surprising about this is not that it happens, but that the idea of getting up in arms about it, from an ethical perspective, seems, at this historical moment, almost passé. (This is perhaps especially remarkable in the context of a genre that can be as -- forgive me -- precious as indie rock sometimes is.)

Obviously, the absence of outrage here is in direct contrast to the kind of "music for music's sake" ethic articulated by Mr. Young in the above video -- for a tune that was, as I recall, a somewhat big deal when it came out in the late eighties. At that point, there was a sense of shame about rockers who "went commercial" (and it was probably related to what I would call the "Milli Vanilli backlash" -- the hand-wringing that accompanied the suspicion that any given musical performance was not entirely "authentic").

In contrast, here's the one fleeting moment of soul-searching in the Goodman piece:

Of Montreal have appeared in a commercial for T-Mobile, composed music for Subway and licensed their tunes for Outback Steakhouse and Nasdaq ads. "When I first started Of Montreal, I probably would have been hesitant to do a commercial for Outback," says the band's songwriter, Kevin Barnes. "In the indie world, there's a holdover from the punk movement that any commercial endeavor will taint your art. But if you care about the band, you won't begrudge us a living."

Of course not. It's a good point. I can no more begrudge a songwriter who makes a quick buck selling a tune to T-Mobile than I can get annoyed at one of my own players when he or she has to take a single gig with Christina Aguilera because it pays much more than a tour with the IJG. That's the nature of the beast.

So I'm not so naive as to throw my hands up in shock at this sort of thing. I know full well the economic pressures involved in day-to-day survival for anyone making a living from music. And I know that, as long as there has been an economically-driven power structure in western society, musicians have had to negotiate with and (often) kowtow to it, in weird and sometimes humiliating ways.

But I also think it's important (artistically and psychically) to nurture the impulse to fight back against these realities. I spent ten years of my life in Los Angeles, and while there I watched talented friends make their way into the commercial music scene, which, dare I say, can impose a few pressures of its own. Those who had the wrong sensibility (even the slightest insecurity, perhaps) found the experience withering. So I'll be curious to see, ten years from now, how many of the above bands come out the other side in one piece, with a consistent handle on their own artistic vision.

I guess what I'm saying is that, when it comes down to it, I'm not exactly sure this "turn your oeuvre into jingles" thing is my favorite aspect of the emerging post-big-label music industry.

(What's that, you ask? Have I ever considering licensing IJG stuff for commercials? You bet your sweet ass I have.)


mrG said...

"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway, where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side." (Hunter S. Thompson)

As I often say, "There is no pension in this business" which I first said in response to Norman Grantz's Pablo Records but on the other hand, when you represent a brand, you endorse it completely, so when an artist endorses a brand contrary to the message they present, I cross them off my list ;)

Which I did, btw, to Mr Young for many years, after he released his preview tracks with a vendor-implanted booby-trap that would implant illegal DRM into the unwary fan's computers, and I don't buy the "I didn't know" excuse that I got from other bands doing the same. I later reconsidered Neil when he corrected the problem and has been a fair-player ever since, tho I'd have preferred he'd apologized.

M.Farina said...

THANK YOU, Andrew. Nice post, though I'm somewhat baffled that more folks aren't brining this side of the argument up. There are many out there toting the "new way 2.0," very few seem at all troubled by the inherent corporate-ness of it all. What, now it's perfectly legit for alterna-indie bands to SELL OUT (that's what it was called, not too long ago)???
I may sound like an old curmudgeon but I'm literally choking on the irony of it all. And isn't irony like, so 5 yrs ago????

Kris Tiner said...

Man, this is why I got out of LA, just getting a taste of the commercial scene was enough to turn me away.

I don't think it's just about bucks though - a lot of indie bands who are not getting the kind of promotion they deserve from record labels turn to advertising as a way of getting the music out. With radio being such a closed medium at this point, especially for new artists, landing a tune on a 30-second TV ad can be the difference in getting the attention of a wider audience. So advertising becomes the quickest way to traverse that huge grey zone between "indie" and "pop".

But think about it - until the 1980s companies used to hire people to write advertising jingles to push their products. The line between what was art music and what was advertising music was clear. And like you say, crossing that line was a big, big deal, at least for the first several artists who did.

The crime here doesn't have to do entirely with musicians selling out in order to pay the bills - it has to do with the gradual lowering of the public's expectations when it comes to music, and indeed the cultural bankruptcy that's resulted.

Gawdamn, I saw a bit of the American Idol contest last night and the thought I had was that all these kids were missing was a product to pitch, they already have the whole look and the whole act down. Fox is not grooming these people to be musicians, they're grooming them to be spokesmen.

How far do you think a 21-year old Bob Dylan would have gotten on that show?

Andrew Durkin... said...

Great comments, guys, thanks much.

The point about American Idol is instructive, because I think part of the issue here is the question of how "artistically mature" a band/singer might be, and whether or not "crossing the line" to shill has even more of a deleterious effect on artists who are still developing and finding their "shtick."