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

Chances are you’ve heard indie singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson. But not on the radio. Or in a music video. And probably not from buying her album, or even downloading her songs from iTunes.

Instead, you might’ve seen an Old Navy commercial featuring the 32-year-old’s lilting “The Way I Am,” a song that seems almost too perfect for selling sweaters. Or the Google Chrome ad with an instrumental version of her song “Sort Of.” Then there’s the Mott’s Apple Juice spot, the Ritz Crackers ad and the Stand Up to Cancer commercial, all with Michaelson’s catchy, sunny single “Be OK.”

Those ads might’ve been broadcast while you were watching Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill, Parenthood, Hellcats, Scrubs, Bones, The Big C, Brothers & Sisters, Army Wives, Pretty Little Liars or Body of Proof — all television shows, and all of them featuring Michaelson’s music. And we haven’t even gotten to the movies and DVDs that include her songs.

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The ways listeners are discovering Michaelson, a skilled multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who writes unequivocally upbeat songs, says nothing about her exceptional talent but everything about the music industry — or lack thereof — which has become a dwindling yet evolving business in which ads break emerging artists and TV spots are music videos.

Last year, worldwide licensing revenue from synchronization — a fancy term for pop music in ads — hit an all-time high at $2.5 billion, according to Heartbeats International, a music-branding agency. The tangled relationship between popular music and advertising has evolved over the past decade. Many in rock ’n’ roll long believed that any artist helping to sell something was “selling out.” Today, our consumerist culture has fallen in love and married our most popular art form — and the old arguments about using pop music to sell a product don’t seem to matter in an era when profits for musicians have fallen away. The idea that licensing music is somehow different from selling music through iTunes isn’t taken seriously anymore.

Michaelson, who released her new album, Human Again, on Jan. 24, doesn’t seem worried about any of this. It was far from her mind in 2007 when Old Navy contacted her through her Myspace page and later decided to use “The Way I Am” in an ad. And most of today’s musicians are of the same mind-set.

“The hope when licensing your music is that a few people will like what they hear,” Michaelson says. “Then those people will seek out the song and buy the song and/or record and become a fan.”

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In fact, she did exactly that — became a fan — when Volkswagen featured the late songwriter Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” in 1999, in an ad that many in the industry saw as a game changer — and that some say was work of art in its own right.

“There are so many emerging artists. Very few of them endorse the philosophy that it’s selling out in any way,” says Josh Rabinowitz, senior vice president and director for ad agency Grey Worldwide. “It’s not even a part of their culture anymore.”

So why isn’t licensing music for advertising selling out? How did we get from Neil Young singing that shilling for Pepsi would make him look like a joke to pop musicians writing songs specifically for TV spots? As Americans approach Super Bowl Sunday, we’ll see a number of popular bands featured in ads — OK Go and Mötley Crüe, to name two — and likely a few emerging artists who a decade ago would have never considered being in an ad. Somehow, the line between pop music and advertising became blurry and then disappeared altogether. How’d that happen?

The Jingle’s Jangled Morning
Almost a century ago, songs in commercials were recognizably distinct from popular music — even though tunes in both genres were often extremely catchy. The jingle was its own art form and had its own artists who realized, before science proved it years later, that melodies get lodged deep in our brains and don’t leave. What better way for consumers to remember your product?

While there’s some debate over the first jingle, many point to “Have You Tried Wheaties?,” a radio ad that aired on Christmas Eve in 1926. Sung by the aptly named Wheaties Quartet, a barbershop male group, the ad melodically asked, “Have you tried Wheaties?/ They’re whole wheat with all the bran/ Won’t you try Wheaties?/ For wheat is the best food of man.” The story goes that Wheaties executives had planned to discontinue the struggling cereal until they noticed that sales had spiked in areas where the jingle aired. After broadcasting the song nationally, Wheaties took off, and the first true commercial tune was a success.

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By the 1950s and ’60s, jingles began morphing into full-fledged songs. “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” “If I were an Oscar Mayer wiener” and “Plop plop/ fizz fizz/ oh what a relief it is!” all became part of the American lexicon. But they remained distinct from what most Americans heard on the radio.

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.

Also in 1999, a little-known online music-sharing service called Napster debuted, and the industry was about to be transformed. Over the course of the next decade, rock and pop music sales fell by half, and Napster and other sites like it complicated things by planting the idea that consumers didn’t have to pay for music. Then iTunes debuted in 2003, MP3 players like the iPod spiked in popularity, and physical-CD sales plummeted as people downloaded individual songs for less than a dollar instead of buying entire albums. And many just pirated what they wanted for free.

All that money artists had been making needed to be recouped. But it still seemed relatively uncool for musicians, especially newer bands, to hawk products — until Apple changed things. In addition to reinventing the personal computer, the mobile phone, the handheld music player and the tablet, Apple’s Steve Jobs transformed TV advertising and the music industry along with it.

First featuring well-known artists like U2 and Eminem in its iPod ads, the company started including emerging musicians: Jet in 2003, Feist in 2007, CSS in 2008. Apple ads were suddenly the vehicle to break new bands, even becoming Billboard magazine’s No. 1 place for “Maximum Exposure.”

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“It’s such an overused phrase, particularly in my industry: Advertising is the new radio,” says Loewy. “Well, it kind of is.”

Write Something Happy!
Lynn Grossman is the owner of Secret Road, an artist management and music service that represents unsigned musicians, including Ingrid Michaelson. She started with Secret Road about six years ago, when advertisers were discovering the magic of emerging artists.

Grossman represents two types of musicians: the ones who will allow their music to be in an ad if it’s a company they believe in or an ad they like, and the rest — which is most of them — who are actively trying to get their songs in any commercials. There’s a good way to do that, she says: Stay upbeat.

“We get approached by people usually looking for positive messages in songs,” she says. “Things like, ‘I feel good,’ ‘Life is great,’ ‘I’m the man,’ ‘I feel good about myself,’ or something about coming home or feeling at home. They’re all pretty similar.”

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After getting a request, Grossman will either find existing songs from her collection of artists or guide musicians to write songs that the company wants. When Michaelson’s “The Way I Am” got picked up by Old Navy, it was no accident that clothing was in the lyrics.

“I think Old Navy actually looked for sweater,” Grossman says. Michaelson’s song has since sold 1.5 million copies.

Singing for Expedia, Singing for Allstate
While Michaelson isn’t writing songs specifically for ads, some artists are. Matt Mahaffey is the lead singer of the Nashville-based pop-rock band Self. But you’ve probably heard “Expedia — dotcom!” rather than Gizmodgery, an inventive Self album recorded with all kids’ toys.

“They hired some nasally dude to do it now,” says Mahaffey of the jingle for Expedia, a travel website. “But I wrote that.”

Mahaffey writes compositions for movies, commercials and cartoons, and also composes pneumonics, which are essentially micro-jingles. Is it discouraging to him that he makes more money from three-second ad spots than from his Self work?

“Oh, it’s a bummer,” he says. “But I’ll get paid a lot more to do a 30-second commercial than for something with the band, and it will take less time to do it.”

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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