Rock Music is a Popularity Contest

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Recently, I was having a discussion on a bulletin board about the merits (or lack thereof) of artists selling their songs to be used in commercials for cars, etc. It was stated by someone on the board that selling songs to a fortune 500 company for an ad diminishes that musician’s art because they are selling out.

I’ve been a musician for 20+ years. I’ve met and played with a lot of people who would kill for the opportunity to sell themselves out, believe me.

I get that if a band complains about popularity and commercialism and then turns around and sells themselves to the highest bidder it is hypocritical. Of course it is. Billy Joel said of what he called the anti-star pose, “If you didn’t want to be successful, why’d you make a record? Why’d you make a video?”

Artists who play pop music (they call it pop for a reason) understand that part of their art is commerce. We’re not talking about avante garde jazz or chamber music. This is rock and roll. The whole business is a popularity contest.

Nevermind the fact that commercials have become viable outlets for bands and musicians otherwised turned away from the mainstream music industry. Moby, Pedro the Lion, Guster, Zero 7 and many others have utilized the medium to promote themselves.

And, it isn’t like they are writing jingles here. They wrote legitimate songs for legitimate reasons that someone wanted to use in a commercial. If radio wasn’t so damn formulaic, maybe it wouldn’t be necessary to pipe interesting over a commercial selling a soft drink or a car for the country club set.

I think most would agree that the use of Revolution by the Beatles for a tennis shoe ad a number of years ago was the first real entry of a great song into the annals of commerce for commerce sake. We can thank Michael Jackson for that since he owns the rights to most of the Beatles catalog.

Since then, it has been a steady progression from Bachman Turner Overdrive selling songs to Office Depot to Aerosmith selling songs to, well, everybody.

Most recently, a lot of folks seemed really disturbed by the use of Rock and Roll by Led Zeppelin for those annoying Cadillac commercials. They were most annoying because they played them over and over and over. It also didn’t help that Zep is one of the greatest bands in the history of the genre.

Well, Rock and Roll just happens to be one of the most overplayed songs by the band next to Stairway to Heaven so, I had no problem with it.

And, why should any of us begrudge an artist from trying to make some money. God knows the industry practically rapes every decent musician on the planet. It is a near impossibility to get a record deal in the first place and, when you do, you are more likely to lose money and get dropped than you are to break even, let alone get a hit or become a legend.

Of every 12 records released, 10 lose money, 1 breaks even and 1 makes enough money to pay for all the others. Sad but true.

So, if a band or a songwriter or musician wants to make some money hocking Viagra or Toyotas or a tv series or light beer, let them at it. Most of the time, ad agencies pick more interesting songs than the radio does anyway. I mean, would any commercial radio station have ever played Nick Drake’s Pink Moon on the radio again? Volkswagen did.

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