It wasn’t so long ago that jumping into bed with an advertising agency was deemed the ultimate musical sacrilege by artists and fans alike. Indeed, one way to commit artistic suicide was through allowing a brand to appropriate your music for their own marketing ploys.
Today this isn’t the case, and for a generation that is brought up in an age where TV commercials are more like 30 second blockbusters, rather than corny attempts at manipulating the nation, it seems hard to believe that anyone ever made such a fuss. Since the turn of the century the relationship between brands and artists has undergone a revolution. Whether this has signalled an end to the glory days, or inaugurated a change for the better, depends on how you view the current state of the industry.
The struggle to earn a living from music is currently greater than ever. With current record sales at an all-time low, musicians are turning to other means, notably live shows, merchandise and advertising in order to get by. In fact, advertising has been something of a saviour for musicians in recent years: supplying a lifeline when other options are limited – yet this is a fact many find disturbing. For those who agree with the gradually ageing notion that those who comply with marketers are essentially ‘sell-outs,’ it seems like the shift in opinion has insidiously manifested itself in the wider social consciousness. The only option now, it appears, is to mourn the loss of a time when artists had a little dignity.
It is, however, inviable to expect celebrities and artists to be the paradigms of what we, as individuals, believe to constitute the ideal and authentic artist. It’s also unreasonable to point the finger at artists themselves, as for many, involvement with unrelated brands is not simply an act of choice, but of necessity.
Looking at the relationship between brands and artists now, it feels as though the two separate industries were always destined to make the perfect couple. So what exactly was the problem in the first place?
Advertising is the act of convincing another to buy a product or service, and relies on mass media to target a specific audience. For this reason the success of an advert rests heavily on widespread social meanings, instead of idiosyncratic motivations for purchasing. This is where popular music comes in handy. With regards to an ad, the psychological bonds we already have with music are exploited to sell a product. Music is something that can influence our response to an ad, and therefore alter our feelings towards a brand. Through appealing to our sense of identity, reinforcing a message, and increasing a consumer’s engagement and even emotional connection with a brand, music is the advertising industry’s most cherished secret weapon. Not in the least because the effect it has on us generally happens beyond our sense of awareness. It is not surprising then that companies are willing to pay hefty prices to secure the perfect songs for their ads. Yet despite the financial rewards and great exposure that comes with ad syncing, something still puts a bitter taste in ones mouth at the thought of a favourite band being used to flog a pair of trainers.
Although we’re now used to hearing our most beloved artists as the soundtracks for commercials, there is, however, a feeling of unease that resides within the part of us that’s uncomfortable with Iggy Pop convincing us to buy cheaper car insurance, or Johnny Rotten acting as a salesman for Country Life butter. But the true tragedy is not that artists are choosing to ad sync. What is most disturbing is that many simply have to.
Like any other industry, the music world cannot survive on the passion of artists alone, but relies on the revenue generated by consumers. Given that the way we consume music has radically evolved since the advent of online streaming, the increasing bonds between brands and artists has been the only inevitable outcome. It would be highly hypocritical of fans to label bands as ‘sell-outs’ today, due to the fact that an over-whelming amount of music lovers choose to stream their music for free, rather than giving musicians a decent wage. A change in the economic climate has certainly helped to shift the opinion of the masses. The fact that getting ad exposure is now considered an integral part of an artists rise to the top is proof that the stigma surrounding artist-brand ties is dissipating. One example is the annual John Lewis Christmas advert, which garners so much valuable attention that it has become somewhat of a lottery price for up-and-coming artists.
Perhaps the next generation of music fans may not even be aware of such a term as ‘selling-out.’ Nevertheless it is hard to accept that music, the most free-spirited of arts, hasn’t been able escape the grasp of commercialism that dominates modern society. There are those who may argue that the modern commercial has become something of an art itself. When compared to the cringe-worthy ads of the past this is certainly a sound argument. The clever concoction of visuals and sound that filter through our screens during ad breaks certainly are creative. Yet this doesn’t alter the inherent purpose of an ad. Rather like it’s wrong to deny a drowning man a life jacket, it’s wrong to label bands as ‘sell-outs’ whilst they struggle to keep their heads above the water. Though just because a problem has no solution, it doesn’t make it easy to stomach.