Selling Out? When Musicians Get Together with Big Business

Posted: December 11, 2012 in Growing your Business

When bands or artists that are in any sense ‘alternative’ work with large multinational companies – whether by licensing their music for an advertisement, writing a song to sell a product, or even appearing in the advert itself – one thing is almost inevitable: controversy. The commentary surrounding such partnerships always tends to reflect the idea that the artist/band has somehow “sold out”, abandoning their principles for a paycheck. And yet, when mainstream musicians do the same thing, they largely escape this critical fury which, given both are enmeshed in the same modern music industry, seems a little hypocritical to say the least.

In previous decades, the idea of selling out as a legitimate concept was easier to fathom, as bands had actual principles to sell out and there was a genuine revolutionary spirit in the music industry. For example, Jim Morrison cemented his status as a countercultural icon with his furious reaction to the news that The Doors, in his absence, had licensed “Light My Fire” for use in a Buick advertisement, an action that Morrison responded to by threatening to smash up a Buick on live TV if the commercial was aired. His countercultural reputation was, however, earned through protests against the war in Vietnam and a genuine commitment to hippie culture. Can you really imagine any well-known band doing the same now? We simply live in a different world, one where revolutionary ideas have been thoroughly incorporated into today’s fluid capitalism.74776_10151338643213126_255872661_n

The hysterical reaction that greeted Jack White when he agreed to compose a song for a Coke advertisement also seemed out of all proportion, particularly as White had previously declined to appear in a GAP advertisement and seemingly primarily accepted the Coke contract due to an affinity with the product and a desire to make a new kind of music. While accepting such comments at face value is clearly naïve (White clearly made a lot of money from the deal), the idea that he had destroyed his entire reputation in one recording session  seems faintly ridiculous. Moreover, just a year later, what would turn out to be The White Stripes’ final album was released on Warner Brothers Records, part of one of the world’s largest companies – a decision that no fan or critic seemed particularly bothered about.

The issue of film soundtracks also blurs what could seem like a stark moral dividing line between pure, honourable music and music as a tool of companies and corporations. Essentially, recording a song for a film or recording a song for an advert is no different; they are both being used to sell a product. And yet, no one even raised a disapproving eyebrow at Adele for supplying the title track for Skyfall.

Music sponsorship is unlikely to go away; in fact, it increasingly seems like an inevitable, even necessary, part of the modern music industry. There are though signs that new campaigns are using social media to involve fans in what can often be an alienating process for the most ardent followers of a band or an artist. KFC’s ‘Good Times’ promotion is a perfect example of this, with the fast food chain having enlisted the Madden brothers(of Good Charlotte fame) to produce a song based on videos, stories and photos uploaded to KFC Australia’s Facebook page – submissions that express what it means to have a good time in Australia.

Perhaps then this is the future of music sponsorship, with fans playing an active role in large corporate campaigns and having a direct influence their idols. This is a key shift, and one that may even be able to shift the enduring myth of “selling out”.


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