Opinions about song licensure singing a new tune

By From page B1 | September 07, 2012

decicco column sig

Not so long ago, an artist who allowed his songs to be used to sell soda, cellphones, cars or any other product was a sellout hack who couldn’t make it “the real way.”

However, in recent years, popular opinion with regard to licensing songs for commercials changed.

One of the most famous flaps came in ’87, when the surviving members of The Beatles famously fought against the use of “Revolution” in a Nike ad.

After the late Michael Jackson bought the rights to a number of Beatles songs in the 1980s — a business practice to which he was introduced by Paul McCartney, no less — the decision to use “Revolution” to hawk sneakers didn’t lie with Macca, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Yoko Ono, but, instead, Jackson and EMI-Capitol Records.

“If it’s allowed to happen, every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages,” the late Harrison said in 1987. “We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent.”

McCartney, Harrison and Starr would win an out-of-court settlement in 1989, the details of which were never disclosed.

McCartney was less absolute than Harrison about protecting The Beatles’ vision, but also kept an eye toward the future.

“(T)he most difficult question is whether you should use songs for commercials,” he said. “I haven’t made up my mind. Generally, I don’t like it, particularly with the Beatles stuff. When 20 years have passed, maybe we’ll move into the realm where it’s OK to do it.”

In terms of the timeline toward acceptance, McCartney’s guess was pretty close. As recently as five years ago, Chicago alt-rockers Wilco licensed a number of songs from its sixth LP, “Sky Blue Sky,” for use in a series of Volkswagen commercials.

The choice was met with a stern critical glare. Some accused the band of selling out or lacking artistic integrity, a curious argument given that the band felt so passionately about protecting its artistic vision that it was dropped from Reprise Records for refusing to kowtow to its label’s demands surrounding the recording and release of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”

“We see this as another way to get the music out there,” said the band in a message on its website at the time. “We feel OK about VWs. Several of us even drive them.”

In the past five years, it feels like the tide has turned. Increasingly, people have come to the realization that licensing songs for commercials is a necessary evil.

It played a role in popularizing Vampire Weekend, which had “Holiday” in simultaneous 2010 yuletide ads for Tommy Hilfiger and Honda.

It led to a humorous moment on “The Colbert Report” when Vampire Weekend confronted The Black Keys, who have had their songs in Zales and Victoria’s Secret commercials, in a “sellout-off.” Host Stephen Colbert ended the contest by declaring the groups had “both equally whored out (their) music.”

Just three years after the Wilco bashing, the Colbert scene shows the changing attitude toward song licensure.

Wilco’s story encapsulates why I and, I think, many others don’t really care if a band licenses songs for use in advertisements. The band was never asked to change its artistic vision by, say, writing a song named “Volkswagen” extolling the virtues of VW ownership. Instead, the German carmaker appropriated an existing piece of music.

To me, selling out is compromising one’s art for commercial gain. For example, the Black Eyed Peas were a socially conscious jazz rap group before Fergie came along. Now look at them.

Let’s not be deceived by the notion that while artistic integrity is to be coveted and guarded, there is a point when pragmatism takes over.

Artists who turn down opportunities at exposure in such a competitive industry are just cutting off potential revenue streams. It makes good business sense and, ultimately, these artists are businessmen and businesswomen in a capitalist society, not altruistic artists living in a vacuum where money is no object.

I think we’ve moved to a place where most people understand that and can see the gain to an artist by placing their ad in a commercial, so the cries of “sellout” are fewer.

To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.

Nick DeCicco

Nick DeCicco

Nick DeCicco is the editor of the Tailwind and writes the pop culture blog/column For Those About to Rock. Before joining the DR staff in July 2007, DeCicco (pronounced Deh-CEE-Coh) worked at The Union in Grass Valley, Calif., and the Greeley Tribune in Greeley, Colo. A 2004 graduate of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, DeCicco spends his free time attending concerts, listening to music, going to movies, traveling and hiking.

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