Music and Image- Why Brands Want Bands
Should you sell your soul ...?
by Chris Loeffler
Films have been piggy-backing on the emotional resonance of music since before they had spoken words, letting the music set tone and manipulate audience moods to suite the director’s intention. Recently, there has been eyebrow-raising in certain circles over directors relying wholesale on a song (especially lyrics) to carry an emotional scene. This isn’t new, nor is it unique to films…everyone wants to get in on music.
Music exists to express and elicit emotion. It explores heartache, joy, anger, and love by melding words and melody to create something deeper and more expansive than our standard communication methods allow. Music is an inclusively participatory medium that requires neither training nor attention from the listener, and different instruments, musical passages, and lyrics will speak to listeners in uniquely personal ways.
Brands, from Levi to Apple, have been using popular music in advertisements for decades to create a default soundtrack to their brands that instantly assigns identity, attitude, and an emotional connection to their products. It’s easy and effective.
“Artists” tend to look down on commercializing their creative output as part of a self-serious artist attitude (although not nearly as harshly as some of their “dedicated" fans). While there are legitimate reasons to oppose having their work used to promote products and brands, such as political or philosophical opposition, many artists may be missing the point (and the paycheck).
When a song or album is released to the world, it's going to become many different things to many people. Sting’s homage to stalking became many newlyweds’ first dance; the irony and tension of Springsteen’s lament of the state of the working class somehow became a song of national pride. At least Brands are paying to misuse their work!
While it’s easy to make derisive comments about people using “your” music to brand their products, the moment you enter something into the commercial system you’re signing up for that possibility. If your music is too precious, don’t release the recordings, or only present your music in live performances. If you want to subvert the system you chose to be in, take “their” money and donate all of it to causes that combat the issues you have with the advertiser. Then again, you also might not want people to have certain unintended associations with your music- like when someone hears your song, and the first thought that comes to mind is "Tid-Eee-Bowl Toilet Cleaner."
In an interview with NPR, Patrick Carney of the Black Keys expressed his view of “selling out” as such-
“A lot of people see a Nissan ad and they see a finished product in a record store or on iTunes and that’s the face of the band. What they don’t see is that we made [‘Brothers’] in a cinderblock building in the middle of nowhere in Alabama, with five microphones and a guitar amp and a drum set. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I do know we didn’t spend a lot of money making this record, and it’s an honest way of approaching making music. And once the music is out there, when you’re selling a record and selling music and people are going to do whatever they want with it, it’s kind of hard to resist certain opportunities, especially in the record market now.”
In short, the honestly and purity of the artistry in music occurs in the creation of the song; how it's purposed after that doesn’t retroactively change that.
The other side of the coin is, of course, entirely new audiences discovering a band through commercials or movies. Many bands have seen significant bumps, or even complete rises from obscurity, because their music was featured in a movie trailer, soda commercial, or television show. While the context of the song within the platform may have some impact on how a first-time listener perceives the song, anyone who says “I want to hear more music by this band” is responding to the artistry behind it. This is not less “legitimate” than discovering music on commercial radio, or even a music store. It’s leveraging their paid reach to be exposed to a new audience.
There will likely always be a tinge of unease between musicians and Brands, and there will continue to be a risk of one exploiting the other, but a clear head can see the benefits by far outweigh the snags. Bands can sleep easy knowing their responsibility to their music comes to a close once the music is created, their self-identified “true” fans can celebrate the escalated profile of “their” favorite bands, and everyone can enjoy the expanded exposure Brands can give great bands.
Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.