Advertising and music come hand in hand whether we like it or not; from jingles to licensed music it has been an integral part of selling anything and everything. Hearing one of your favourite bands in a commercial can often bring mixed feelings, mostly ones of displeasure. Let’s be honest, generally once a song has been used in an ad, it most certainly loses any cool appeal it once had.

It’s a relationship that’s always been full of friction. Artists want to maintain their integrity and rightly want to be compensated for the use of their work, which is not always the case. These quarrels bring into question the larger moral of advertising and music. In today’s music industry, if a band licenses their music for advertising are they sellouts? Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? And when is enough, enough?

Feuds over music royalties in advertising has become commonplace. In recent times we’ve seen the likes of The Black Keys suing Pizza Hut over their misappropriation of their track ‘Lonely Boy’; and The John Butler Trio agreed to an out of court settlement with a yoghurt company, that used a riff in their Superbowl ad that sounded a little too much like ‘Zebra’.

In another instance, Beach House was approached by Volkswagen for the use of one of their songs in an advert. The band politely declined their request, so Volkswagen went ahead and simply commissioned sound-alikes to make a song that sounded almost identical to Beach House anyway.

Sigur Rós took a slightly more passive approach, simply blogging that while they take a strict stance of not licensing their music for advertising, some adverts sound remarkably similar to their music regardless (a whole mess of them in fact). But why the proliferation of soaring Icelandic soundtrack mimicry?

It’s no accident that these corporations and brand names are chasing down these acts to license their music, or simply create carbon copies of them. Every advert has a particular purpose and affect, there’s a literal target (demographic) that they’re aiming to hit. It’s about branding, they want to associate themselves with what ‘the kids are listening to’, and open their brand or product up to that audience – or at least make them aware of it.

Interesting then that licensing music for the use of advertising and other mediums can – for some bands – be a difficult decision; while for others – it’s particularly easy. In today’s industry when it comes to advertising, the question over an artist’s integrity generally depends on their level of exposure.

If Prince licensed his music to sell cars, one can imagine that this may attract an array of criticism. Does Prince need the money from the ad? Probably not. Does Prince need the extra exposure that it might bring? Most certainly not. If an artist can announce a tour two months in advance and sell out an arena for three nights, you can comfortably assume they’re doing all right.

Take Bob Dylan for instace, a man who claims immense respect and probably doesn’t need advertising dollars, particularly with his ‘rockin’ against the man’ history. Well we don’t have to look back too far to see the great folk singer/songwriter featured in an ad for Cadillac in 2007, never mind the creepy connotations of his lurking presence in his Victoria’s Secret lingerie endorsement.

Another heinous example of rock royalty ‘selling out’ was The Rolling Stones licensing ‘Start Me Up’ in an advertisement for Microsoft’s Windows 95… shameful stuff.

But that’s the old vanguard, the music landscape has shifted considerably. Physical sales of music just don’t make the money they used to (just ask any record company bleeding profits) and bands are expected to offer some of their tunes for gratis if they expect to gain any sort of foothold. The rules have changed, and so then has the perception of what ‘selling out’ actually means.

For up and coming bands the situation is obviously different. The money and exposure from licensing music for advertising can mean raising the necessary funds to record that first EP, or bank that critical first tour. Just as advertisers can open themselves to a new audience by association with a band, it works both ways, bands can open themselves to otherwise untouchable audiences by association with a brand.

Sydney band Nantes did just that when they recently licensed their track ‘Fly’ for a new Renault ad, and they’ve just finished a tour and will soon be hitting the studio to record an album.

With Nantes being at the early stages of a hopefully long career, the opportunity to license their music for advertising not only helps pay for investment back into their music, but it also gives them an opportunity to reach an audience they wouldn’t necessarily be able to.

Melbourne band Strange Talk similarly licensed their track, ‘Climbing Walls’ to an online video for American laundry detergent, Cheers; again reaching an audience they could only otherwise dream of. Being an independent band and having their music heard in an American advert compounds their exposure with the usual methods of radio saturation and internet dissemination.

Perhaps the greatest example of a ‘sync’ working in a band’s favour is that of The Shins in Zach Braff’s 2004 film Garden State. Their track, ‘New Slang’ featuring in a scene where Natalie Portman’s character places her headphones on the ears of Zach Braff’s Andrew. It was not only an implication of the coolness of Portman’s quirky, likeable love interest – but marked the significant beginning of crossing over from the indie ghetto to reaching a larger audience and acclaim the Albuquerque outfit so deserved.

As in The Shins’ case, the opportunity to license music in advertising or having music synced for television means a chance stand out from everyone else. Triple J Unearthed, a source that nourishes emerging talent to suit a commercial music world, states “a good ‘sync’ at the right time and place can be an invaluable tool for getting your music to huge, untapped audiences in ways radio or your website never could.”

More pointedly, it’s hard cash in the bank at a time when the industry offers music that can be streamed or accessed for free, from a variety of different sources. There in lies the stigma though, that earning big dollars for uncharitable causes leads to the dreaded ‘sellout’ tag.

The Black Keys initially declined offers to have their music used in adverts, in 2003 they rebuffed an offer of £200,000 (approx $AU 305,000) to use one of their songs in an English mayonnaise commercial, because they were worried about ‘selling-out’.

However, in the next year they received another offer to use ‘Set You Free’ in a Nissan commercial – and agreed; opening the door for the first of 300-plus spots in ads, televisions shows, films and video games.

In a CBS interview, Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach stated, “we braced ourselves to get called out and made fun of… and it didn’t happen.” While they were understandably concerned with being labeled ‘sell outs’, the success of The Black Keys is underpinned by hard work and their decision to license music for advertising and television has opened them up for more mainstream success. The curious and perhaps pertinent question is whether their willingness to license music loses respect.

Conversely, Beach House vocalist Victoria Legrand thinks it may be a risk not worth taking. Stating in a recent interview with Pitchfork that, “you’re just diluting your artistic integrity by doing too many TV shows.”

Although they may hold this view for their own band, they certainly don’t believe it’s the hard and fast rule. Instrumentalist Alex Scally states, “It’s great when a huge amount of money goes from a dumb corporation into the hands of an awesome band with brilliant ideas who can use it to keep being a band for a year, as opposed to a band that’s already huge taking one of those things – that’s more pathetic.”

While licensing music can present opportunities for new and younger bands, there is a point where it does detract from the music. Of course in order to continue to produce music a band has to make money, however if their music is constantly used in advertising or synced in television there’s no question their integrity is lessened to some extent.

There’s a grey area to be sure, but there’s also a finite line that musicians should be careful not to cross. But how far is too far?  It’s hard to say for certain, but it’s probably somewhere between the healthy cross-over and boost that can give a band a  career leg-up – and a Sex Pistol like John Lydon flogging the dead horse of Punk by touting the benefits of Country Life Butter in the name of bitter irony and a bulging bank balance.

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