Do you remember where you were the first time you heard the Beatles’ “Revolution” being employed in service of Nike sneakers on a television commercial? Did you get the sense that John Lennon was rolling over in his grave?
The shock of that campaign has long ago receded. We now accept that television ads – and tie-ins with sporting events, teen dramas, primetime network shows, video game soundtracks and even corporate chain stores in shopping malls – will routinely employ music as a means of wrapping a product in the allure associated with said music.
Using music and musicians for promotional purposes is the new normal. And we are about to get a major dose of it.
Saturday, inaugural “American Idol” winner and pop mega-star Kelly Clarkson will be in town taking part in a promotion for Microsoft, which will include a 7 p.m. performance in the Burt Flickinger Center. The deal is this: Fans who want to see Clarkson are encouraged to begin lining up at 10 p.m. today outside Walden Galleria, where the grand-opening ceremonies for a new Microsoft store will commence at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
Clarkson won’t be there, but if you hope to catch the concert Saturday evening, you will have to be: Tickets will be distributed at the store beginning at 11 a.m.
If this “music as marketing” sounds unusual, it isn’t.
• Alternative rock icons Pearl Jam recently struck a deal with Major League Baseball and Fox Sports to secure their own music as the sole soundtrack for the 2013 World Series. Throughout the Series, some 48 Pearl Jam songs – including the totality of the band’s then-just-released new album, “Lightning Bolt” – were heard during montage segments, opening “teases” and whenever the broadcast went to a commercial break.
• In June of this year, rapper and corporate mogul Jay-Z dropped a three-minute commercial into the NBA finals broadcast. The piece – clearly a big-budget affair – rather cryptically announced the impending arrival of Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” which was scheduled for a July 4 release.
• Superstar Celine Dion, she of the epic Vegas spectacles, showed up on home-shopping channel QVC earlier this month, where she was shown performing songs from her new album and, of course, took the time to hawk same.
The promotional campaigns cited above vary widely, covering a range of musical styles, fan bases and target audiences. But they share a common theme: cutting out the former middlemen of the music promotion industry in favor of going directly to the fans. Those former middlemen – radio stations, critics, booking agents – have been replaced by social media, television and smartphone apps.
Oh, yeah – and trips to the mall, as well.
Is this crossing some mythical line into the area of crass consumerism, or is that line a speck in the rear-view mirror now that concert tours have been sponsored by beer companies and songs sometimes debut in commercials? Music journalist and music industry watchdog Anil Prasad of Innerviews.org said it’s more the latter.
“Using malls to promote ultra-mainstream acts has been a tactic since the early ’80s,” said Prasad. “Typically, artists performing within a mall environment are making music as disposable as the soap, Pop-Tarts and gummie bears sold at the stores surrounding them.”
Still, some “music purists” find all of this a bit tawdry, if not downright gross. Others are likely happy to hear music in places they wouldn’t have in the past and welcome the opportunity to get turned on to new songs and artists.
But what about the artists?
“There was a period of time when we didn’t license much music,” Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis told Billboard magazine following the announcement of the MLB/Fox Sports deal. “But for the past many years, we consider licensing requests using the same criteria we do for everything else: Do we like it? Will the fans like it? Does it provide a different forum for fans to hear the music? Is it something we can get behind?”
At the core of all of this is the issue of branding. Whereas the old model suggested that artists would write, record and tour, targeting radio and the critical establishment in the quest for profitable record sales, today record sales no longer drive the industry, and everything an artist does is aimed at heightening awareness of the brand.
When Jay-Z agreed to a deal that would allow Samsung to purchase (and then give away as part of its own promotion) the first million copies of his “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” he did so out of a desire to boost his brand. Similarly, Eminem prefaced his new “Marshall Mathers LP 2” by inking a deal with Activision for its insanely popular shoot-em-up “war game,” “Call of Duty” – specifically, the latest installment in the series, “Ghosts.” All copies of the game purchased at Game Stop come with a code to download “LP 2” at a discounted price, as well as a bonus track not included on the album when purchased elsewhere. A commercial aired during the MTV Video Music Awards in August found Eminem’s “Berzerk” serving as the soundtrack for a commercial promoting the popular Dr. Dre Beats headphones. Finally, “Berzerk” was named the “official song” for ESPN’s “Saturday Night Football” broadcasts.
Such branding-based promotions cut across generational and stylistic lines, too. Hence Clarkson and Microsoft, which also is employing the talents of Tim McGraw (country); Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (hip-hop-infused rock); and Pitbull (rap). Meanwhile, Dion (adult contemporary) partnered with QVC, and Lady Gaga (dance pop) partnered with the H&M Stores to promote her freshly unleashed “Artpop” album.
Witnessing all of this promotional synergy, there is an almost palpable feeling of something formerly deemed precious being sacrificed for far less than it is actually worth.
“Traditional channels for promoting music are in a state of chaos and flux at the moment,” Prasad lamented.
“Conventional radio is dying, satellite and Internet radio are largely niche-oriented, records stores are now mostly for hardcore collectors. So, what’s left that hits a wide population on a consistent and measurable basis? Advertising. Artists and management of the highest integrity are now being forced to confront the reality of getting music in front of large audiences, and that often means compromising and pursuing commercial avenues.”
Coming soon to a mall near you.