WHY POPULAR MUSIC REALLY DOES SUCKOk, the title is a little misleading but bear with me a second. I've got no idea where I was when Chumbawumba broke, have never made it through an issue of MRR, and solemnly promise to not beat up the Spice Girls (who I actually sorta like). A couple of months ago, I had an epiphany of sorts. On my way to work, while getting a bagel, I heard a radio playing "Everyday People," and, as if by reflex, thought of a car commercial, a FUCKING car commercial! I couldn't remember the brand of car so it wasn't a particularly effective car commercial, but whatever it was superseded recognition of Sly Stone or any personal feelings associated with the song ...it did, though, remind me of a similar realization in middle school. Way before discovering "the underground" zines, punk, major vs. indie labels, etc., I made myself stop watching MTV because associating visuals with songs took away from listening. When videos--as defined by MTV--provided visuals for song, I stopped providing my own. Music became somehow less involving.
I've written about the way all this works elsewhere; rather than let me repeat myself, it's here for those who care.
In Escandalo #5, marketing visionary Brain Farrish discussed his seemingly radical plan to promote and place "adsongs"--song-length commercials--on the radio. Companies would pay artists to make a song incorporating their product, and buy time on the radio to cover it. They'd also sell copies of adsong CD in-stores.
Readers at the time thought Farrish was some kind of freak; his plan, ridiculous. Just a couple of years later, he's a veritable prophet. Though musicians, like other entertainers and artists, have been in bed with advertisers throughout the century, what we're seeing now is not a matter of isolated incidents or individuals crossing over from music to advertising, but the convergence of the very institutions themselves.
In April, I talked to Rick Lyon--a composer of music for commercials, and creative director of Lyon Music--about the above and what it all means. -- Carrie McLaren
Carrie (Matador): So the jingle is dead. What happened?
Rick: Well, the real problem is that it's still alive. A 40-year-old style of jingle-writing, a style that incorporates the name of the product and all it can do to change your life, is still the routine in 1998. Audiences today are too intelligent and sophisticated for that.
Matador: Commercials do reflect that in a way: they're better-produced and more interesting looking than TV programming.
Rick: Yes, often they are, and directors from film and television are all over the place. Unfortunately, commercials are a lot further ahead visually than they are musically.
Matador: What do you attribute that to?
Rick: Well, after all, it's television. Creative teams are made up of art directors and copywriters and both have to think and communicate visually. The composer joins the project when all the other work is complete, so there are also built-in institutional reasons why certain components of a spot are more refined. Plus musical ideas are more difficult to communicate. It's very easy to tell your client that Rolling Stones song X would work in this spot. Everyone knows what it is, what it sounds like.
Matador: There's a 7Up commercial that I swear has a Liz Phair soundalike. How common is that? For someone to come to you and say, "make a commercial that sounds like this?"
Rick: Happens all the time, this week in fact. We were given a Sheryl Crow song and asked to do something like it. Soundalikes are a fact of life, and though it's not the favorite part of my job, it's helpful to have those well-known songs as indicators. Otherwise there's no way for a client to articulate what they're looking for. It's easy to communicate what they aren't looking for. They simply say, "We don't like that." But it's hard to communicate what they are looking for, especially since more than 80% of music made for commercials has no vocals.
Matador: I guess that's an innovation: music is now sometimes used to just set mood whereas it wasn't in the past. Jingles were all about the product.
Rick: Yes, but unfortunately relying on instrumental music has also fueled this notion that commercial songs with lyrics are a thing of the past. I did a radio spot for MCI a while back and was told that it couldn't have the words MCI in it. When it started out, you just thought it was a nice jazz piece or country piece (we did three versions for different radio formats) and gradually you'd realize it was actually a commercial. That was great! You can't do that with TV because you know it's a commercial as soon as the spot begins. Radio presents all sorts of opportunities to....
Matador: Blur the boundaries.
Rick: Exactly. And that's why radio is so exciting to write for--because music *is* the content. Ogilvy Chicago did and ad for Sears Auto Center with Shawn Colvin, Johnny Cash, and B.B. King, and those songs never mention "cars" or "Sears." As a result, I think they invite the audience to get more involved in the advertising. To me, the best rock and roll--and the best advertising, for that matter--works because of its ironies and its subtleties. If jingles were as ironic as advertising, I think they'd be a lot more popular.
Matador: Don't you think there's a good reason for songs in commercials to not be "cutting-edge"?
Rick: Why? Everything else about commercials--from the way they're cut to the way they're shot to the way they're written and directed--looks to the future.
Matador: Yeah, some commercials are incredibly well-crafted and amazing to look at . . .
Rick: But the music is way behind, so I'm pushing to get more of the people who write and produce hit records involved in music for commercials, too.
Matador: That's interesting because I see that happening from a record company point-of-view as well. Record companies are starting to work like ad agencies, focusing on getting music in movies and commercials. . . . I guess you could call what happened to techno an advancement of sorts-techno made it to commercials before it broke the Top Ten. Is there any concern about artists selling out?
Rick: No, in the age of Monica and instant celebrity and instant everything, that's not exactly a problem. People want to hear good music and people are receptive to good music when it's in a spot. Say there's music in a very moving scene in a movie. Now suppose there's a commercial with an identical scene... the music you compose doesn't necessarily change, the context changes. The craft isn't any different.
Matador: Well, the craft isn't different, but the music is because the context and meaning affect the music. You could take the same piece music that totally blew you away at a live show and put it in a commercial and it wouldn't be the same thing. The fact of it being in a commercial limits the imaginative possibilities.
Rick: I don't think it limits them so much as it simply creates different possibilities. Hey, obviously there is good music in commercials and not-so-good music. But everyone--everyone in the business and the audience--would like to be as entertained by music in spots as they are by music they'd buy in the store. Music is the icon of our generation; nothing else gets close to it.
Matador: But if all songs in record stores are commercialized to that extent, they're all tied to other products, don't you think that will effect people's relationship with music? People aren't buying music now as much as they used to. Whenever you hear "Da Da Da," you think about a Volkswagen commercial. And if all pop songs are like that . . .
Rick: I'm not sure you can ascribe any of this to the fact that brands are licensing some cool music. You could just as easily say that there are tens of thousands of people who've discovered vintage songs and artists because they heard them in first in commercials.
Matador: You could say that, but my experience was the opposite. Even though I liked commercials and thought of jingles as cute little songs, I never even considered music on commercials as something to just sit and listen to. I must've heard Louis Armstrong for years on commercials before I heard him in college outside of that context and realized that this was music worth looking into.
Rick: For everyone like you, there's probably someone else who heard "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" in a spot and went out and bought their first Armstrong CD.
Matador: I wonder if this process doesn't change people's relationship to music, though. Song are being used for commercials as soon as they break the charts, as if that's the whole point in the first place.
Rick: Right, there's no lead time anymore! It used to be, "Let's get 'Revolution'" or some other song from 30 years ago. But now you have songs playing in commercials and movies simultaneously. Look at "You've Got a Friend In Me," from Disney's Toy Story and McDonald's. If McDonald's and its ad agency had to choose between having a great songwriter like Randy Newman write something brand new or licensing something from Randy Newman that also was showing in thousands of theaters simultaneously, which are they going to prefer? Presumably, the more effective marketing tool is the song that's part of the culture. The song in the move.
Matador: See, to me, that's what scary about having all music you listen to be on commercials. It'll make it all this sort of amorphous cesspool of crap tied to other crap, none of which you care anything about.
Rick: I hear you. And I admit that I cringe when I see the great Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops singing to the tune of "I Can't Help Myself, "I want Velveeta and nothing else," or something like that.
Matador: And of course it doesn't just happen with music. That's in large part what makes people so cynical. They see songs and other parts of our culture that mean something to them just sorta thrown around.
Rick: It's especially troubling when it relates to music, it's a moral issue to many. But, really, what is the difference between using Candice Bergen's Murphy Brown "character" in a Sprint commercial and Sly Stone's "Everyday People" in a Camry spot? There is really no difference--because Murphy Brown and "Everyday People" are commodities with instant audience recognition.
Matador: Well, they both are recognized. And almost everything that registers on the cultural radar becomes a commodity. But things like community and family and rebellion are all used as commodities, too. We can't just throw them all out and say they're all the same.
Rick: It sounds like you have more qualms about the licensing of hit songs than creating new music for advertising, which is what I do. In fact, my hope is that the licensing rage will slow down pretty soon. But I think it's a stretch to support someone's right as an artist to score, say, a John Woo film, with blood and gore all over the place, but question my plying the same wares in a 30-second spot for the phone company. Look at those great Gap spots that gave Aerosmith and LL Cool J 30 seconds with which to do whatever they wanted. Is that selling out? What about appearing in a Kool cigarettes concert series? What's the difference between their writing a jingle and doing an interview with Kurt Loder? Is it selling-out to do an Unplugged? Where do you draw the line?
Matador: I'm not really sure where to draw the line, although it certainly wouldn't be between soundtracks and commercials, which are pretty much the same thing at this point. One question I keep coming back to is whether music is an end it itself or as a means to some other end (like selling a product). Why was this music created, and what does it express and mean?
Rick: Look, whether it's in on the radio or a 30-second spot, music is a powerful aesthetic tool, and it has a potent effect on the emotions.
Matador: Of course. But if you're talking about music as a powerful emotional tool, you get Muzak, proven to make you chew faster in a restaurant or spend more time in the grocery store, but that ain't art.
Rick: No, it's more like hypnosis, but that's not the business I'm in.
Matador: But if you're talking about music as a tool, well then great music is music which gets the job done, whatever that job be.... relaxing temp workers in an office or whatever. A few shots of JD could do the same thing, though.
Rick: The fact is that great music does relax and motivate, but that doesn't mean that all music that relaxes or motivates is anything close to art. I think we're comparing apples to oranges, and that's why I draw the distinction between licensed music and new and original music.
Matador: Yeah, apples and oranges, but that's not the distinction I'm talking about.
Rick: It seems to me that you're holding us to a higher standard because we use a medium that's sacred--namely, music--to help sell products. Why is it that the same questions aren't raised when Spike Lee or Coppola or Woody Allen makes a commercial? Is it any less of a sellout?
Matador: Of course not. But when I hear "Your Cheating Heart" in a Pepsi commercial, I don't think about "selling out," I think about how it really sucks hearing Hank Williams used to sell stuff.
Rick: Hank Williams probably was a Coke drinker, anyway. But seriously, isn't Hank Williams and a late-night convenience store and, yes, a Pepsi delivery man an exquisite creative marriage? I really think so. What I don't get is why the double standard? Why is it just fine to parody the Mona Lisa--an equally transcendent artwork--in scores of ads, but it's shockingly immoral to license "Start Me Up?"
Matador: Mona Lisa is ancient [and now kitsch]. And visual arts don't play the role in our culture that music does. Of course, if using music is immoral, using a particular visual art is, too...people just scream louder when it's a work that they really "get," that speaks to them . . . Do you think licensing will decline eventually? They're going to run out of songs!
Rick: Probably less than 1% of my favorite songs have shown up in spots, so whatever that sanctity is we're talking about, there's still lots of music that has it. And, fortunately, there always will be.