Wednesday, October 25, 2006



[This article originally ran in the 10.26.06 issue of Metroland Magazine]

The use of popular music in commercials may have hit a new low last weekend during the World Series. John Mellancamp’s performance before Game 2 of his new song “Our Country” was mind-numbing corporate bombardment at its worst.

Famous musicians have been shilling for corporations for as long as both existed together. I’ve got mid-60’s pitches by The Who, Cream, The Moody Blues, The Jefferson Airplane, and Marvin Gaye. This sort of thing all but disappeared, though, during the Vietnam-era polarization. Whether Madison Avenue didn’t want rock or visa- versa, anything that smelled even mildly of rebellion or danger wasn’t used to sell much of anything through the 1970’s.

In the 1980’s, the use of rock songs in commercials became a flash-point issue. Rock songs again began popping up in commercials as Madison Avenue realized that baby-boomers, raised on rock music, were the money demo. The ads were met by calls of “sell-out,” perhaps a vestige of hippie-dom, a cry against consorting with The Man. Neil Young, bless him, released “This Song’s For You,” complete with an over-the-top video, eviscerating the literal commercialization of rock songs and those artists that allowed it.

How things have changed since then. Today, the use of popular songs, rock, hip-hop, whatever, is standard protocol; for many musicians it’s the golden ring, the big score. With record deals rarely paying much, and touring an iffy proposition at best, the cash on the barrelhead that ads represent for musicians often pays the mortgage. Ad money can go easily into six-figures for a national campaign, is split 50-50 between the musician and the record company, and an equal amount is typically split between the publisher and the songwriter. Iggy Pop’s made a fortune off of “Lust for Life.” And anything that makes the Ig-ster rich is fine with me.

And now, with ever-tightening radio disappearing as relevant to promoting most music, ads are actually becoming a force in breaking new music. Sting’s 2000 album “Brand New Day” was dead in the water until his manager offered Jaguar a song for free for a television ad campaign, on the condition that Sting appear in the ads. The ads ran, and “Brand New Day” went multi-platinum. U2 launched “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” with TV ads for Ipods. Dylan just did the same thing with “Modern Times.”

But Mellencamp’s thing is different. The song has become ubiquitous as a jingle for General Motors television commercials, pitching the new Silverado, Chevy’s big-ass gas-guzzling pick-up, the sort of truck bought by tiny-weenus-compensating white guys who never haul anything that would scratch their bedliner, but think a big truck will make them appear virile and can’t afford a Hummer. These are guys who would never even consider buying a truck with a foreign label, even though the better-made Toyota / Nissan / Honda trucks are actually made in the US by better-cared-for American workers.

And so we have GM using John Mellencamp’s “Our Country,” from an album that won’t be released until next year (ITunes is selling several versions of the song, and it has, of course, been released to radio). The ads feature a sickeningly banal pastiche of faux-patriotism, alluding to small-town America, the 60’s, Chevy trucks, 9-11, Katrina, interstate highway signs, Nixon, Chevy trucks, amber waves of grain, Rosa Parks, John Mellencamp, a sad little boy in a cowboy hat, and Chevy trucks. It winds up with one of those ad-agency manly voices saying “This is our country. This is our truck,” as a shot of a shiny Silverado, shot at an angle to make it look as big and imposing as possible, hits the screen. The ad has been running all month, primarily during football and baseball games. It’s been running a lot.

If that’s not bad enough, Mellencamp shows up Sunday night at Comerica Stadium in Detroit, which features a Silverado propped up at a rakish angle over an outfield fence and has General Motors branding all over the place. I’d already seen the ad at least ten times while watching football Sunday afternoon. Mellencamp and a bunch of Nashville cats perform the song as part of the “pre-game festivities.” While he’s playing, video was inserted of a tractor in a field, the American flag, the Washington Monument, etc. Just like the commercial, except no Silverados, but that would have been crass, right?

The ad then ran throughout the game. Several times during the game, the camera would rest lovingly on the Silverado in the outfield. I pray, before the series is over, that Albert Pujois puts one through the windshield.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

10.12.06 The Future of Music

[This article originally ran in the 10.12.06 issue of Metroland Magazine]

Last week, I attended the Future of Music Coalition’s annual Policy Summit, which was held in Montreal. While it’ll be weeks before I completely absorb everything I heard, here’s my initial impressions.

The organization is dedicated to helping guide the reshaping of the music industry to insure the creation of a “musician middle class,” a framework where successful and resourceful musicians can make a comfortable living, instead of what we have now, where a minute few musicians get stinking rich, the rest of the musicians live hand to mouth, and the middle class is occupied largely by functionaries who run “the music business.”

Over three days, we heard theorists giving “big-picture” views about what was happening, would-be new economy players jockeying for position, industry shills and dinosaurs trying to rationalize their existence, and ponderous “visionaries” explaining their next big things.

It was largely accepted that we were in the midst of the biggest change in the music industry since the advent of recorded music. With digital technology, the business of music is no longer based on a production model, but rather a rights management model. The consumer, aided by computers and the internet, is now the distributor and manufacturer of music. All of the squirming we see going on is the result of a failing industry trying to maintain a 19th century business model in the face of 21st century technology, and that’s just not gonna work. As one panelist said, what needs to be constructed is a way for transactions between the creator and the consumer to be mutually satisfying, and meantime, anybody else in the middle of those transactions needs to justify their existence.

The current state of things, with all of these differing encoding formats, modes of ownership, and schemes to protect digital files from rampant copying was recognized as temporary and transitional. One industry lawyer stated that DRM (digital rights management, the stuff most download services add to downloadable files to limit consumer’s ability to copy and transfer music) was “pro-consumer”, an observation that would make George Orwell blush.

The consensus was that the market would eventually dispense of DRM, one way or another, as consumers would continue to reject restricted files, and as the always slow-to-learn industry figures out that the continued growth of the illegal P2P free networks is caused not only because the music there is free cost-wise, but also because the music on P2P networks comes free of DRM restrictions.

But how’s it going to work? The big choice appears to be between subscription models, where vast libraries of music are always available to subscribers, and a download model. Subscription advocates say that with the expansion of broadband and especially wireless and mobile technology, “ownership” of music becomes irrelevant, because everything is always available. Download model advocates have this mantra, that “people like to own things,” so that the downloading of digital files will continue to be the only viable model.

I used to lean on the “owning things” argument heavily, but that I’m starting to rethink it. For one thing, I noticed that the only people saying it were roughly my age, graying geezers still harboring a fetishistic jag for vinyl records, people who could be summed up as “music fags.” I don’t know if it makes sense any more. Is owning a digital file really owning a “thing?” It’s really nothing more than a title in a playlist, and when you push the button there’s no salient difference whether the sound you hear is coming from your hard drive or from cyberspace. Most people, most sane people, won’t care where the music comes from, as long as it’s there on demand.

David Byrne showed up and gave a charmingly frazzled talk about whether record companies were necessary. He really didn’t provide any information everybody didn’t already know, but it’s always nice to be in a room with David Byrne.

The saddest panel was a trio of old-school multi-platinum record producers, Bob Ezrin, Sandy Pearlman and Don DeVito. Talk about the people in the middle trying to justify their existence. We heard that too much music is available, that music has become devalued because it’s too ubiquitous, that artists’ newly acquired ability to create competitive recordings in their basement was mere “pretending”, etc., etc.

So there are too many people making music, and too much music being listened to? Are you kidding me? Sorry guys, you’ve made some of my favorite recordings, and I respect what you’ve done. But you’re gonna have to state your case a little better than this to justify your bloated production budgets, your overpriced studios, and your four-point positions out of artist’s royalties. The train’s leaving the station, and you’re either on or off. And right now you’re off.