Have ads become another form of airplay?

In the wake of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch’s posthumous refusal to allow use of his music for ads, JUSTIN HEAZLEWOOD (aka the Bedroom Philosopher) asks whether the concept of selling out should be left in the ‘90s? Illustrations by LEIGH RIGOZZI.

Comedian Bill Hicks once said any artist who participates in a commercial was “off the artistic roll call, forever”. Bill was the original Gen-X soldier, declaring a war on advertising when anti-corporate sentiment was at its peak. I wonder what he’d make of today’s climate, where “selling out” is something bands strive for rather than avoid. The internet has reinvented the game, the music industry has tumbled and we’re empathetic towards artists needing ad-sync revenue. I can see the punk-philosopher’s eyes narrow, his puckered lips dragging on a cigarette.

“Oh Bill,” he retorts in a winy voice, mocking me. “No one’s buying records anymore, it’s so hard to make money at our concerts. We have to pay venue hire.” He throws a hand up, “Okay squirt! Well here’s a thought. Maybe, and hey, I’m no expert, but maybe, the problem is the fact say, oh I don’t know – ( pause ) you’re not very fucking good!” He holds his glare for a moment before exploding into a chesty cackle. “Hey buckaroo – if you think the music industry is hard, maybe you should try working in a fucking SWEAT SHOP where nine-year-old girls make the shoes you’re endorsing with your ‘fashion rock’ and you’ll see that compared to making two dollars a day! I repeat TWO DOLLARS A FUCKING DAY – you kids ain’t getting such a bad deal – you sexless, godless, computer-generated wind-up clapping-monkey sell-outs!”

This catchcry continues to haunt musicians from the deep – bellowed from the ghettoes of the internet. The ‘90s hangover stands at the back of the gig with its arms crossed, threatening to bankrupt bands of their hard earned Indie-cred. Generational battlelines have been drawn as iGroovy Gen-Y tells dino-cynic Gen-X to get with the program. Did you not hear the news? Marketing won. They bought the internet, an interactive station that we live inside 24-7. We review ads like short films and romanticise about ‘50s ad-men. While bands have never sounded slicker, ads have never looked artier. With the world in recession and the user no longer paying, advertising in art has advanced from awkward compromise to base necessity. Hey, maybe it’s not all bad?

The notion that music should be commercially independent is relatively new. During the 1800s, artists, writers and composers relied on sponsorship from patrons and philanthropists. In the 1960s musicians were on a short leashes, micro-managed by big labels and sent on packaged tours. The revolt came in the late ‘70s with the punk underground and a notion that grassroots equalled purity, mainstream meant compromise and labels were corrupt. The ‘90s exploded the code, as alternative bands managed to be underground and mainstream at the same time. It was an irony so severe it eventually proved fatal (I am, of course, talking about Ratcat), triggering another backlash against the corporate world, this time aimed at advertising.

During the 2000s, the internet not only meant a closer connection between fan and artist, but a shrinking of the borders between the corporate and creative sectors. The News Corp-owned Myspace harked a new era of “independence” with a grassroots platform threatening to cut out the middle man/woman. Artists were given a record company kit and encouraged to pitch their lot in the marketing stream. It was the poster, the newspaper article and the radio rolled into one. This “band in a box” mentality altered the way we consumed music. Carrie Brownstein, writing for NPR says “as exciting, democratising and demystifying as a more global and decentralised music industry is, this bottomless sonic stew also means that we’ve largely divorced artists from place, history and physicality.”

In the old days, you would hold a CD in your hand, lie on your bed and pour over the details. It was a physical connection that carried with it a certain emotional and financial investment. By comparison, albums are now downloaded in bulk, fed into a normaliser and lost in the shuffle. Carrie argues that when music is stripped of context, it’s also stripped of artist intention. “We don’t care about album sequence (which is all about intention) or look at the band’s artwork or the label they’re on (again, all intentional decisions)… because as music fans – as consumers – there is nothing more appealing than something that is boundless. Therefore, we don’t really care what an artist’s intention is as long as his or her product is accessible to us.”

And so we relax our ideas of “artistic purity” as we relax our belts from the glut of free music and movies we’ll never have time to digest. It’s little wonder we’re unfazed to hear Broken Social Scene in a Cadbury Commercial. Ads are just another form of airplay, and we’re happy to engage with them – the effort of searching the lyrics is investment enough. In 2007 Feist leant her song to a campaign for iPod Nano. The ad featured the official music video playing on an iPod. For the first time the artist and product were promoted side by side. (Co-promotion is common in films.) Purists got that syncing feeling while screenagers had an Apple bobbing party. Sales of ‘1234’ went from 2000 to 73,000 in a week. In the media there was little protest, just praise for Australia’s Sally Seltmann who penned the track.

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