Advertising Killed the Radio Star: How Pop Music and TV Ads Became Inseparable

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Pop singers and TV advertising seem to be a perfect match for each other. Clockwise, from top left, an Old Navy commercial featuring music by Ingrid Michaelson, OK Go and Chevy, Feist and Apple, and Sting and Jaguar

That started to change in the 1980s and ’90s, when now legendary jingle writers like Mary Wood started writing songs like “Everybody Needs a Little KFC” and “7 Up: It’s an Up Thing.” Those songs sounded like, well, songs. Peter Nashel, a composer at Duotone Audio Group in New York City, began writing music for commercials around that time.

“It wasn’t like the jingles from the ’60s and the ’70s,” says Nashel. “This was like the type of music you’d hear if you turned on the radio or MTV, which at the time was exploding.” Musicians like Nashel quickly realized the money that could be made in scoring original music for TV ads, while others saw potential legal problems in the way the industry was evolving.

At the time, Nashel wanted his music to sound like whatever band was hot, but doing so required him to make sure he wasn’t bumping up too close to existing songs. That’s why the company hired guys like Matthew Harris, who studied at the famed Juilliard School of Music. In the mid-’80s, Harris couldn’t find a job teaching, but a new career was opening up: musicology.

As advertising agencies began composing songs for commercials, they started getting sued on the grounds that those songs sounded too close to existing tunes. In the U.S., a country with strong intellectual property rights and copyright protections, it’s fine if you’re a musician and want to cover someone else’s song. But if you’re using a song to sell a product or service, that’s a separate issue.

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That’s where musicologists come in. Since 1987, Harris’ job has been to vet ad agencies’ music, a task that requires a vast mental library of songs and the judgment to determine when a musical resemblance creates a legal risk.

“Before I got involved, until just before the ’80s, a jingle was its own genre,” says Harris, who says he has evaluated more than 7,000 songs. “And jingles didn’t sound like pop songs. No one expected them to. They had too much information. They were telling you to take this, drink this, do that. They didn’t need musicologists in those days.”

But after about a decade and a half of sound-alikes — and some infamous and pricey lawsuits, including Bette Midler vs. Ford Motor Company and Tom Waits vs. Frito-Lay — ad agencies and companies had an epiphany: Instead of recording a knockoff, why not get the real thing?

Moby’s Play, Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” and Napster
In 1999 Moby released Play, an electronic-techno album layered with samples, gospel and house music. It was a mild success at first. Then he decided to license every track — all 18 of them. Suddenly, Play was on TV, it was in movies, it was in advertisements. Since then, it has sold 10 million copies worldwide and is widely thought to have obliterated, once and for all, the wall between popular music and advertising. At the time, Moby’s managers said they made a “conscious effort to create a marketing plan that had nothing to do with radio.”

“I think that by the time Moby did it, it was almost like the floodgates had opened,” says Ray Loewy, composer and sound designer at Tonefarmer, another New York City–based agency that pens music for ads. “I just think the wave was already moving, and he had a really cool album out that everybody loved.”

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The beginning of that wave included the Rolling Stones’ licensing “Start Me Up” for Microsoft’s Windows 95, Sting’s singing “Desert Rose” for a Jaguar commercial (while also appearing in the car in the ad) and the use of Drake’s “Pink Moon” in the Volkswagen ad.

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