Why selling your music to advertisers is no longer “Selling Out”

It’s an age-old narrative that’s probably existed almost as long as art itself has existed: an artist gets to a point in their career of such popularity or success that suddenly they’re in a position where they can ‘sell out’. When a band you probably already hate like U2 perform ‘Vertigo’ on an Apple ad or do a multi-million dollar deal with erm…. Apple, you can rest easy that your opinion of them hasn’t changed and that they’re still the tax-dodging, corporate slaves who are “in it for the money” you always hoped they’d be.

It can also happen to that virtually undiscovered alt rock band you love who, having previously only played their minimalist, no-wave sound to an audience of about seven in their auntie’s basement, suddenly release a tune with a catchy hook, leaving you with the only option of deleting any trace of them off your iPod and wonder how you could ever like a band who were always destined to abandon you (the uncontrollable sobbing is optional). There a variety of ways in which the musician can ‘sell themselves out’ (more radio-friendly sound, censoring of the more controversial side) but what is perhaps seen as the most egregious example is that of the allowing of their music for the use in advertisements. It was often seen as the quickest and most sure fire method of turning a group of indie darlings into shills who’d rather suckle the teet of corporate executives than make “art for art’s sake”.

So why does it feel like every second popular artist today has gone down this route at some point. From anthem rock, stadium fillers like Muse to cherished, festival mainstays like Future Islands to fervent newcomers it’s an increasingly legitimate practice that’s carried out by all kinds of artists at all kinds stages in their career.  And when even the music of the Pixies, a group who seemed to exist on the margins of late 80s popular culture by their own design, is showing up in an iPhone 5 ad, it says something about the ubiquity of all this, although why Apple thought a song about intercourse with a particularly well-endowed man was a good choice to advertise their flagship product, I’ll never know).

This is all without even mentioning the endless hordes of TV promos and movie trailers that feature tracks from artists, well-respected or otherwise. A couple of months ago I heard Courtney Barnett’s ‘Pedestrian at Best’ helping Comedy Central tell everyone about the new season of Impractical Jokers (I’m sure the affable Aussie is a big fan) and M83’s ‘Outro’ was whored around so much that the impact of the album closer’s crescendo had waned to the point of it being completely ineffectual. The point of all this is not to judge or condemn those who decide to let their music be used like this commercially (though you can still can if you want) but rather to understand just a little bit better when and why this became such a common practice. 



This, of course, is not a particularly new trend by any means and if you could pick a single event that contributed to its popularity the most, you’d have to go back a whole 16 years. In 1999, Moby released his now-landmark album Play to limited fanfare. It was a mild critical successes and even milder commercial one. The famously folic-ly challenged DJ then did something quite audacious; he licensed all the cuts from Play so that they could be used by pretty much anyone for pretty much anything. Over the next year or so, people were suddenly inundated with these songs as they featured on an array of ads, TV programmes and most notably the best scene in an otherwise lesser Danny Boyle film.   

Play went on to sell 10 million copies and become a certifiable hit. Moby [pictured above], who was hardly a Nomen Nescio prior to this, was afforded a mainstream presence as “the guy who did the music from The Beach”. It was a watershed moment that was instrumental in virtually eliminating the gap between advertising music and the music we play for ourselves. The transition from memorable jingles to contemporary songs had been slowly occurring in the years before but this was the final push.  More than just that though, Moby had shown how this could be an extremely viable method of both marketing and self-promotion.   

And that was the key to all this. It wasn’t necessarily just the money being offered by the advertisers to these artists that must have convinced them but also the extensive exposure that was all but guaranteed.  For the millennial musicians, up and comers especially, whose records weren’t exactly flying off the shelves, it was an increasingly attractive proposition. Having their music appear In a high profile advertisement on TV or online could mean it would reach an audience in the millions, something their songs would unlikely achieve otherwise. Thus we now live in a world where ad music can kick-start or rejuvenate careers or even come to define said musicians. Ads could now curate hit songs.  For most people who are aware of the name ‘The Dandy Warhols’, it’s probably due to the appearance of their eminently charming ‘Bohemian Like You’ in a now-iconic Vodafone ad.    

We can still find the odd musician, however, who is willing to stand up for their artistry in the face of such commercialism, even if the line between the two is blurring more and more.  In 2009 dream pop duo Beach House were approached on several occasions by Volkswagen for the use of ‘Take Care’ in a new ad campaign, but the two refused  every time. The car manufacturing giants eventual response was just to basically use the song anyway by making their own which sounded nothing like the gorgeous original, honest…

Unsurprisingly, a lawsuit followed. And since the death of Adam’ MCA’ Yauch, the remaining Beastie Boys have been forced to take legal action to prevent their own music being used for advertising (Yauch had always advocated for this). Although these two should be commended for sticking to their artistic guns, it’s hard to blame the acts with a less palpable presence for music licensing when the big firms will just go ahead and do it anyway.  This is all helped by a not so secret endemic problem that’s facing the music industry, that of the declining profit margins and decline of the record company’s influence. It’s probably no coincidence that Moby’s ground-breaking decision occurred in the same year as the birth of Napster. The now-infamous file-sharing site changed music distribution “for better and for always” as The Social Network’s cocky interpretation of Sean Parker debatably put it. The massive decline in CD sales has meant that there’s less money in the industry which of course means there’s less money for marketing and advertising.

Emerging artists just simply aren’t getting the support from the industry that would have been getting in the pre-digital era. As such, artists are forced to turn to other avenues in order to get themselves some airplay and this is just one of them. One could argue that there are more ‘respectable’ methods to achieve this, like the making of music video with the intent to go viral, etc. And, yes, bands like OK GO have had success with some ingeniously creative set ups, but at least you can say when someone likes a song in an ad they’re responding to what they hear and not what they see. The popularity of the Shazaam app is a testament to this. 

If the big ad firms were the predators then their prey would be soon to established indie bands, who are obviously cheaper and more amenable to the idea. Bands will be getting offers that their record companies simply can’t match (up to $10,000 for a 30-second ad). Songs like Of Monsters & Men’s ‘Little Talks’ and Peter, Bjorn and John’s ‘Young Folks’ owe a lot of their success to this process.  As the industry seems to be losing its grasp on things, this symbiotic relationship between ad firms and modern musicians just seems to get stronger and more entrenched. If nothing else, this is just another indication of the increasing irrelevance of the big record companies.