In February 2007, attendees of an of Montreal show at Emo’s in Austin, Texas held up a homemade Outback banner and chanted “SELL OUT” at the band. (According to one online report, Barnes had security throw the troublemakers out of the club; others claim he merely lectured them from the stage.) In November of the same year, of Montreal participated in another commercial, this time for T-Mobile, providing the occasion for a manifesto written by Barnes for the website Stereogum, with the Baudrillardian title “Selling Out Isn’t Possible.” “The pseudo-nihilistic punk rockers of the ’70s created an impossible code … which no one can actually live by,” Barnes wrote. “The idea that anyone who attempts to do anything commercial is a sell out is completely out of touch with reality. . . . I think it is important to face reality.” Facing reality, for Barnes, meant accepting that, “[a]s sad as it may seem, one of the few ways most indie bands can make any money whatsoever is by selling a song to a commercial. Very very few bands make enough money from album sales or tour revenue to enable themselves to quit their day job.”
In 2007, this line of reasoning still came off as slightly cagey and defensive, but it has rapidly become the party line for musicians, fans, and advertising executives alike, all of them looking for somewhere to stand in the rapidly shifting post-Internet economic landscape of the 21st-century music industry. Barnes’s screed can be read as a founding document of a new pop era, in which it’s the musicians who get righteously angry at the fans on the subject of commercialism. The old complaint, in which artists are scorned for abandoning the communities that nurtured them and ascending into the corporate empyrean, has been replaced by a new one, in which artists rage at those same communities for not lifting them up high enough to keep body and soul together.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Lou Reed hawked Honda scooters with “Walk on the Wild Side” and 26 since Nike used (and was summarily sued for using) the Beatles’ “Revolution” to sell sneakers, but the diminishing of this notion’s ability to outrage has sped up over the last decade. Volkswagen used Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” and a half-dozen Wilco songs, Apple placements are gold medals rather than albatrosses for relative newcomers like Feist androck royalty like U2 alike, and no less an anticommercialism scold than Pearl Jam got in bed with Target in 2009. Such moves are barely even press-cycle talking points by now.
Greynolds says what expedited this change wasn’t just the huge drop in record sales, but as layoffs swept through the record industry, contacts from labels and distributors went to marketing, advertising, and brands. “All of the sudden those were the people at music houses,” says Greynolds. “People from your world. They might be feeding you a line of shit, but there was trust. They were different.”
These new players within the advertising industry proved to be capable navigators of both the ad world as well and the music underground. They could help forge lucrative connections between brands and cash-strapped bands — and their fan bases. Decades of posturing and sanctimony were rendered moot once artists realized that corporate gigs were the only paying gigs in town, a (very) necessary evil.
In recent years, as bands and managers have seen that ads can be a proven method of discovery for new artists, it’s become much easier for Turcotte to get songs. “I’m seeing baby bands talk about advertising the way that baby bands used to talk about getting signed, which is very interesting to me,” he says. “It’s like the in-house music producers are the new A&R guys, and the bands want an ad, just the way they wanted a record deal. That’s what they aspire to have. And that’s something I could never expected because I never thought that it would have that much power.”
The evolution has also happened within the business itself. A song can put nuance to a brand identity; an artist’s identity — what their art has made us believe about them and why — can be just as easily loomed to a product. That has long been understood, but perhaps what has evolved since “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” went from soda-pop jingle to Billboard Top 10 pop single is just how much meaning a band, a song, and their fan base can impart in this co-signing.
Johnson admits that while syncs are how Matt & Kim make their living now, he is mindful of corporate credibility — the duo recently turned down a spot for a breakfast product (the spot ran with a song composed to sound nearly identical) as well as spots that a friends’ band later said yes to. What won’t they do? “Yogurt,” says Johnson. “Cheesy commercials with the mom — it’s not artistic. We’d have a hard time keeping our edge as a band.
“Are Brands The New Music Tastemakers?
“Building Brands in the New Heartland”
“Making the Transition From Artist to Suit”
“If TV is the New Radio, Brands are the New A&R…”
“Indie Food is the New Indie Rock”
As my mate Þór said on a FB thread about this, “Real change requires real action and real commitment to ideals. And that’s why this whole discussion about whether sync deals are “selling out” is moot — because for the most part none of the parties on either side, fans or artists, actually, sincerely subscribes to anti-consumerism. They all buy the products anyways. They all listen to the commercials anyways, no matter who makes the music. What this seems to be about is a self-gratifying/placating look-good, feel-good-about-yrself image. Whereas the only answer is mass defection. People need to stop scapegoating their cultural leaders and take responsibility for their own actions.”