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

An emerging indie artist can get $10,000 for a song for a 30-second ad, while bigger acts can earn up to $1 million. “You can’t do that with a major label,” he says.

Jason Wade views the changing landscape similarly. Better known for alt-rock songs like “Hanging by a Moment” with his band Lifehouse, Wade was approached by Allstate a few years ago to pen a song for one of its auto-insurance ads.

“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” says Wade, recalling when Allstate sent him a 30-second clip of the TV spot. “A friend of mine died in a car accident when he was 16, and when I saw the clip, I had this visceral reaction. I had my guitar, I picked it up, and it was almost like I was channeling something. The whole song took, like, 10, 15 minutes to write.”

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Wade didn’t feel guilty writing a song for a commercial. In fact, he says, it was just like writing for an album.

“Our band started out in the post-grunge movement, and doing anything commercial was kind of a sellout. But it’s evolved since then,” he says. “If it was just about hacking a song out, I wouldn’t be interested.”

While Wade says he feels bad for emerging bands because it’s so difficult for them make a living now, he thinks advertisers are interested in just those sorts of musicians because they’re new and exciting.

In fact, the movement toward emerging artists has cut into the business for composers like Loewy, who has been writing music for TV spots for years. “I think everybody in my business would say there is much less work for people like us,” Loewy says. “What we do isn’t necessarily cheap.”

Original music written by people like Loewy, Nashel and Rabinowitz can cost $30,000 for a 30-second spot. And Loewy says fewer advertisers seem to be asking him to make knockoffs of existing songs. There have been too many lawsuits.

But composers like Rabinowitz are adapting; he’s constantly bringing in new artists and musicians that advertisers might want to use. “There’s been a migration from the record world into my world,” he says.

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Has that migration gone too far? After all, indie-sounding songs have become almost commonplace in the ad world.

But maybe pop music and commercials are just a perfect match, and more similar than we thought. Michaelson’s commercial output certainly doesn’t appear to be slowing. Grossman says two more songs off her latest album will be licensed soon. And, she adds, “I expect a lot more to come.”

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