The Artist's Dilemma
In which we discuss music and advertising
It’s a question that must come to every artist and musician who starts to get successful. Sell out, or not sell out? And what is “selling out” anyway? What about advertising? Do you license your music for use in advertising, knowing you’ll effectively lose control over how it’s presented?1 Maintain artistic integrity, or go for the money? There are some bands whose oeuvre will, forevermore, be thought of as “oh, it’s that song off that advert, you know, that one for thingy, that stuff.” – the Penguin Cafe Orchestra being a prime example.2
I was rather pleased when I was idly watching late-night telly the other month, and a bouncy Casiolike tune popped up in the ad-break. It was “Summer’s Gone”, an early track by a very good (and little-known) Scottish band, Aberfeldy. if you want to track it down, it’s on their first album, Young Forever, released by Rough Trade.3 Good to hear a little-known band on the telly; good to think they’ll be getting some money for it.
Less good, though, to see that it was being used to advertise an online gambling company. If I was Riley Briggs – the chap who formed the band and wrote the song – I’m not sure I’d be happy about that. I wouldn’t want my music to be used that way. I wouldn’t want to be associated with gambling; the only saving grace being, 99.3%4 of the people who see the advert will never have heard of the band.5 The song will seep into their memories without them really knowing it, until they hear it again by some offchance on the radio and think: hang on, don’t I know this from somewhere. It’s a hard call. Do you take the money and the airplay, or do you take the high moral stance? I’m glad it’s not a question I’ve had to face yet in life. What would you do?
1: Or, for that matter, for TV. Belle and Sebastian, another of my favourite bands, have been used many times over the years as TV and soundtrack filler material; most famously, the title track from their third album The Boy With The Arab Strap was used, without lyrics, as the theme music of the Bristol-set comedy-drama series Teachers. I’m sure I recall, when the band were asked, saying that they weren’t able to say yes or no to that or any other specific TV use of the music; they’d granted a blanket license and that was that. On the other hand, unsurprisingly for a band with a socialist and Presbyterian background, they don’t (I think) let their music be used in advertising.
2: PCO might have been helped slightly by the death of MFI, who used their well-known “Music For A Found Harmonium”; I doubt, though, that anyone now who hears their best-known track “Telephone And Rubber Band” thinks of the band first. The Jesus And Mary Chain might be heading this way – we’ve heard “Just Like Honey” an awful lot on TV lately, most strangely as incidental music on Hollyoaks.
3: and it must have come out a long, long time ago now, going by where I lived when I bought it. For that matter, their second album – released just before Rough Trade dropped them – must also be a few years old, because I picked it up in Avalanche Records on my last trip to Glasgow.
4: If there’s one thing I learned from the vegetarian food roadshow we went to, it’s to use invented and ridiculously precise statistics with panache and confidence.
5: According to that famous encyclopaedia, the same song has been used to advertise Diet Coke in the USA. So I’d bet that by far the vast majority of people worldwide who have heard an Aberfeldy song, have heard that song, on an advert.