Selling Records Or Selling Out?

When people list the great moral debates of our time, the chart toppers tend to be capital punishment, abortion, privacy. And the war with cult favorites, like stem cell research and animal rights, runs a little further down the survey.

But there is one moral debate that has been raging fiercely in certain quarters of this country for 40 years. Billions of dollars have been spent and many, many millions of dollars have been refused because of the seriousness with which those involved treat this issue.

The issue is: is it ethical for a rock musician to let his songs be used in TV commercials?

OK, I'll admit, it¹s not exactly on a par with emancipation vs. state's rights, but for many rock fans and musicians, this has been a hot topic for years, reports CBS Sunday Morning contributor Bill Flanagan.

Ever since the baby boomers grew up, rock 'n' roll has been the music of movie soundtracks and TV commercials. There's a generation of people for whom "Heard it Through the Grapevine" is about dancing raisins. Some artists are happy for the money and exposure. Some are appalled.

The Beatles don't control their music publishing, but they have sued to stop advertisers from licensing their songs. John was already dead by the time this became a big issue, but Paul, George and Ringo felt they had to preserve the group's legacy by not allowing the music to be cheapened by association with, say, running shoes.

A lot of boomer musicians feel the same way. Tom Petty, John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello have refused all kinds of huge offers to license their songs to commercials. Neil Young even wrote a song called "This Note¹s for You" that mocked musicians who sold out.

Tom Waits goes even further: he has successfully sued to stop ad agencies from hiring Tom Waits sound-alikes. He's made a lot of money in settlements and set some new case law by being so dogged. Waits takes his work very seriously.

Not everyone does. Two of the surviving Doors sued the third, drummer John Densmore, for blocking their attempts to sell Doors songs to commercials. Densmore said it was counter to everything the band had stood for, and added that if Jim Morrison were really dead he'd turn over in his grave. Well, actually I made up that last part but you get the idea. Densmore believes the Doors stood for something bigger than making the most bucks off the old songs, and they should preserve their dignity.

Other rock stars of the sixties and seventies used to feel that way, but now seem unsure. Led Zeppelin refused for years to license their songs not only to commercials, but to movies and TV shows. That changed a few years ago, when "Rock and Roll" became the theme of Cadillac. Led Zeppelin's explanation was that since radio had gotten so rotten and was no longer playing their songs, they wanted to keep their music in front of a big audience and TV commercials offered a way to do that and get paid for it.

And here a new wrinkle came into the debate.

As long as classic rock radio kept cranking out the hits of the sixties and seventies, a lot of older rock stars took the high ground against licensing their songs to advertisements. But in the last 10 years or so, radio has gotten more and more restricted. You no longer hear "Maggie May" and "Won¹t Get Fooled Again" every time you turn the dial, and so some musicians have begun to look at commercials as a substitute for the radio play they no longer get.

The turning point came in 2000 when Sting released a new song called "Desert Rose" and radio refused to play it. The radio programmers showed Sting research that supposedly proved that listeners did not want to hear this song. So Sting went over the radio experts' heads. He licensed "Desert Rose" to Jaguar for a TV commercial.

The ad ran everywhere and people started demanding the song. Radio had to give in and start playing it. "Desert Rose" became Sting's biggest hit in 10 years and he forced radio¹s hand by appealing to the public through a car commercial.

After that, a lot of artists; Sheryl Crow, Counting Crows and even Paul McCartney used commercials not to capitalize on old hits, but as a launch pad for new ones. The theory is that while it¹s suspect to sell out the emotional connection an old song has with its audience, a new song deserves any help it can get.

These are moral distinctions worthy of Aquinas.

Some rock stars have always sold their songs to commercials. Although nobody remembers it but me, I swear the Velvet Underground's "Who Loves the Sun" was a commercial for a teenage cosmetic called Love's Sun Spray in the late sixties. Right after they stopped using Donovan's "Wear Your Love Like Heaven."

This was around the same time Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter were in those ads for Tijuana Smalls, the little cigars.

The Who did an ad for the Air Force at the height of the Vietnam War when the counter culture was really counter and have since allowed their music to be used to sell beer and other products. I took my kids to a Who concert a couple of years ago and when they started playing "Underture" from "Tommy" the place went wild. I couldn't understand it. I said to my teenage daughter, "This wasn't a hit, how come everybody is so excited?" She looked at me like I was an idiot and said, "Dad, it's the Claritin commercial."

Pete Townshend, the leader of The Who, has been adamant and articulate about his feelings. He says, "These songs are my property. They came out of my head. I have every right to do whatever I want with them. You own your personal reactions to them and whatever memories they evoke for you, but the songs are entirely mine and I will use them any way I like."

Which, in a way is inarguable. When the Rolling Stones did a deal to stick the Sprint pin through the Stones' tongue logo, Bruce Springsteen's manager said to me: "You know, if Bruce or U2 did something like that, their fans would crucify them. But the Stones have always had that decadent, debauched lords of the castle image. No matter what they do, their fans laugh and say, 'Good for you, Mick!'
Springsteen and U2, by contrast, were about something different, something that could not be bought for money."

Which is why Springsteen was shocked when he turned on the TV and saw U2's famous iPod ad.

When Springsteen inducted U2 into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame last year he said how horrified he was when he turned on the TV and saw his boys selling iPods. But his manager told him that U2, to preserve their integrity, had refused to take any money for the commercial. Bruce really milked that for laughs. He said it was a true stroke of Irish genius: trick Madison Avenue by making a commercial and not taking any money. He said he told his manager to get on the phone and call back all the advertisers they had turned away over the years and see how much money he could not get.

Of course, U2 did get something for their iPod ad. They got a hit song with a young audience that had never listened to U2 before. They also got a royalty on U2 iPods. It does seem to the objective observer like a win/win proposition.

And the Springsteens, Pettys, Costellos and Youngs? Well, we love them all the more for standing against the tide, even if we don't expect the tide to turn back.

Does it matter if musicians sell their old hits to commercials? Maybe not. I suppose wishing it wouldn't happen is like wishing it was 1971 and we were all young and skinny and the radio was full of great music and gasoline cost $.50 a gallon.

That world is gone and it¹s never coming back. But it sure was a nice world, wasn't it?
  • Sean Alfano

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