Pareles lays out all the reasons why today's musicians are resorting to licensing, and it seems that we, the consumers, who are not buying albums and are doing lots of free downloading, are in part, or largely, to blame.
But is there no limit? Are their corporations that are just beyond the pale? What about Mary J. Blige shilling for CitiBank? Why would she want to align herself with a corporation so up to its neck in the subprime mortgage scandal, and the recipient of largest government bailout in history?
Songs From the Heart of a Marketing Plan
In “Creator,” the rawest track on Santogold’s debut and self-titled album, the singer Santi White boasts, “Me I’m a creator/Thrill is to make it up/The rules I break got me a place up on the radar.” It’s a bohemian manifesto in a sound bite, brash and endearing, or at least it was for me until it showed up in a beer commercial. And a hair-gel commercial too.
It turns out that the insurgent, quirky rule breaker is just another shill. Billboard reported that three-quarters of Santogold’s excellent album has already been licensed for commercials, video games and soundtracks, and Ms. White herself appears in advertisements, singing for sneakers. She has clearly decided that linking her music to other, mostly mercenary agendas is her most direct avenue to that “place up on the radar.”
I know — time for me to get over it. After all, this is the reality of the 21st-century music business. Selling recordings to consumers as inexpensive artworks to be appreciated for their own sake is a much-diminished enterprise now that free copies multiply across the Web.
While people still love music enough to track it down, collect it, argue over it and judge their Facebook friends by it, many see no reason to pay for it. The emerging practical solution is to let music sell something else: a concert, a T-shirt, Web-site pop-up ads or a brand.
Musicians have to eat and want to be heard, and if that means accompanying someone else’s sales pitch or videogame, well, it’s a living. Why wait for album royalties to trickle in, if they ever do, when licensing fees arrive upfront as a lump sum? It’s one part of the system of copyright regulations that hasn’t been ravaged by digital distribution, and there’s little resistance from any quarters; Robert Plant and Alison Krauss croon for J. C. Penney and the avant-rockers Battles are heard accompanying an Australian vodka ad.
The question is: What happens to the music itself when the way to build a career shifts from recording songs that ordinary listeners want to buy to making music that marketers can use? That creates pressure, subtle but genuine, for music to recede: to embrace the element of vacancy that makes a good soundtrack so unobtrusive, to edit a lyric to be less specific or private, to leave blanks for the image or message the music now serves. Perhaps the song will still make that essential, head-turning first impression, but it won’t be as memorable or independent.
Music always had accessory roles: a soundtrack, a jingle, a branding statement, a mating call. But for performers with a public profile, as opposed to composers for hire, the point was to draw attention to the music itself. Once they were noticed, stars could provide their own story arcs of career and music, and songs got a chance to create their own spheres, as sanctuary or spook house or utopia. If enough people cared about the song, payoffs would come from record sales (to performer and songwriter) and radio play (to the songwriter).
When Moby licensed every song on his 1999 album, “Play,” for ads and soundtracks, the move was both startling and cheesy, but it did lead to CD sales; an album that set staticky samples of blues and gospel to dance-floor beats managed to become a million seller. Nearly a decade later, platinum albums are much scarcer.
For all but the biggest names — like AC/DC, which made Wal-Mart the exclusive vendor for CDs of its long-awaited “Black Ice” album, got its own “store within a store” and sold more than a million copies in two weeks — a marketing deal is more likely to be its own reward rather than spawn a career. With telling ambivalence, Brooklyn Vegan, the widely read, indie-loving music blog, recently started a column, “This Week in Music Licensing: It’s Not Selling Out Anymore,” but soon dropped the “selling out” half of the title. There’s no longer a clear dividing line for selling out, if there ever was.
And as music becomes a means to an end — pushing a separate product, whether it’s a concert ticket or a clothing line, a movie scene or a Web ad — a tectonic shift is under way. Record sales channeled the taste of the broad, volatile public into a performer’s paycheck. As music sales dwindle, licensers become a far more influential target audience. Unlike nonprofessional music fans who might immerse themselves in a song or album they love, music licensers want a track that’s attractive but not too distracting — just a tease, not a revelation.
It’s almost enough to make someone miss those former villains of philistinism, the recording companies. Labels had an interest in music that would hold listeners on its own terms; selling it was their meal ticket. Labels, and to some extent radio stations and music television, also had a stake in nurturing stars who would keep fans returning to find out what happened next, allowing their catalogs to be perennially rediscovered. By contrast, licensers have no interest beyond the immediate effect of a certain song, and can save money by dealing with unknowns.
As the influence of major labels erodes, licensers are seizing their chance to be talent scouts. They can be good at it, song by song, turning up little gems like Chairlift’s “Bruises,” heard in an iPod ad. For a band, getting such a break, and being played repeatedly for television viewers, is a windfall, and perhaps an alternate route to radio play or the beginning of a new audience. But how soon will it be before musicians, perhaps unconsciously, start conceiving songs as potential television spots, or energy jolts during video games, or ringtones? Which came first, Madonna’s “Hung Up” or the cell phone ad?
Not wanting to appear too crass, musicians insist that exposure from licensing does build the kind of interest that used to pay off in sales and/or loyalty. Hearing a song on the radio or in a commercial has a psychological component; someone else has already endorsed it. Musicians who don’t expect immediate mass-market radio play — maybe they’re too old, maybe they’re too eccentric — have gotten their music on the air by selling it to advertisers. That can rev up careers, as Apple ads have done for Feist and for this year’s big beneficiary, Yael Naim, whose “New Soul” introduced the MacBook Air. (Sites like findthatsong.net help listeners identify commercial soundtracks.)
The Sri Lankan art-pop-rapper M.I.A. already had all the hipster adoration she could ever want for her song “Paper Planes,” which compares international drug dealing to selling records, and it turns gunshots and a ringing cash register into hooks. But having the song used in the trailer for “Pineapple Express” was probably what propelled the song to a Grammy nomination for record of the year.
(Grammy voters often seize on music from everywhere but the albums they purport to judge; they seem particularly drawn to film soundtracks.) And if the song now conjures images of the movie trailer for many listeners, that’s the tradeoff for recognition.
The old, often legitimate accusation against labels was that they sold entire albums with only one good song or two. Now there’s an incentive for a song to have only 30 seconds of good stuff. It’s already happening: Chris Brown’s hit “Forever” is wrapped around a jingle for chewing gum.
Apparently there’s no going back, structurally, to paying musicians to record music for its own sake. Labels that used to make profits primarily from selling albums have been struggling since the Internet caused them to lose their chokehold on distribution and exposure. Now, in return for investing in recording and promotion, and for supplying their career-building expertise (such as it was), they want a piece of musicians’ whole careers.
Old-fashioned audio recording contracts are increasingly being replaced by so-called 360 deals that also tithe live shows, merchandising, licensing and every other conceivable revenue stream — conceding, in a way, that the labels’ old central role of selling discs for mere listening is obsolescent. Some musicians, like the former record company president Jay-Z, have concurred, but by signing 360 deals not with labels but with the concert-promotion monolith Live Nation.
Maybe such dire thoughts are extreme, since some people are still buying music. The iTunes Music Store has sold more than five billion songs since 2003. But it’s harder and harder to find a song without a tie-in. It took Guns N’ Roses 15 years between albums to complete “Chinese Democracy,” certainly long enough to receive worldwide notice when the album was released this year. But instead of letting the album arrive as an event in itself, the band licensed one of the album’s best songs, “Shackler’s Revenge,” to a video game that came out first. >Metallica fans have complained that the band’s new album, “Death Magnetic,” sounds better in the version made for the “Guitar Hero” video game than on the consumer CD, which is compressed to the point of distortion so it will sound louder on the radio. But they take for granted that the music will end up in the game in the first place. Consumers reinforce the licensers almost perversely: they pay for music as a ringtone, or tap along with it on the iPhone game Tap Tap Revenge, but not as a high-fidelity song.
Perhaps it’s too 20th century to hope that music could stay exempt from multitasking, or that the constant insinuation of marketing into every moment of consciousness would stop when a song begins. But for the moment I’d suggest individual resistance. Put on a song with no commercial attachments. Turn it up. Close your eyes. And listen.