TV, Commercials and Films Are the New Radio

Indie bands are turning to new revenue streams to supplement their income. Is that so bad?

By Jeff Lewis

It was a middle-aged man and his Frisbee-throwing robot that tipped me off. The guy appeared one night during a TV commercial for the Washington State Lottery. My prime-time stupor was interrupted by this gray-haired man – who I was led to believe had just won the jackpot – working in his garage. He’s building something, but it’s not clear exactly what. It involves welding.

Then he loads his contraption into a pickup truck with his friendly dog. Moments later, he’s on a beach, unpacking – wait for it – a robot! Not just any robot, though. This one throws Frisbees via remote control. The dog loves it. The ad closes with the optimistic tagline, “Whose world could you change?”

My first thought was: really? Dogs and robots – that’s how this guy spends his windfall? My second thought concerned the music. The soundtrack to this tender bit of messaging was a song called “Seeds of Night” by the Cave Singers. It was from the Seattle trio’s 2007 album Invitation Songs.

Instead of convincing me that building canine-friendly robots was something I had been missing out on, the one-minute ad served as a window through which I discovered a new band. As it turns out, the experience was anything but unique. “I think advertising and television commercials are sort of like the new radio,” says Danielle Lindy, who licenses songs for a living. “If Apple does a huge campaign, you really start to wonder: who is that artist?”

That’s essentially the kind of serendipitous fortune that befell Leslie Feist following the release of her sophomore album, The Reminder. In September 2007, the Toronto songstress appeared in a TV campaign for one of Apple’s iPod devices. Record sales before the ad launched in the U.S. averaged about 6,000 units per week, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks industry sales figures.

In the week after Feist’s song “1234” appeared in the Apple spot, sales for The Reminder jumped to 14,000 units. The next week they were 19,000. Three weeks after the campaign initially aired, sales peaked at 28,000 copies of the disc. Feist’s catchy single landed her on the Billboard charts and, ultimately, paved the way for an appearance as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live. “If you can land a big spot, a big campaign, you can certainly launch your career,” says Lindy, whose company represents Sally Seltmann, an Australian songwriter who co-wrote “1234.”

There’s hardly anything new about advertising jingles. What’s changed is that companies are no longer satisfied by the United Furniture Warehouse approach to selling products. Trite little ditties no longer cut it. Increasingly, companies – through ad agencies – want to be seen as tastemakers, says Lindy. New and emerging artists are particularly appealing. At the same time, bands and record labels are coping with changing consumer habits. “Labels don’t have the same kind of money and their deals aren’t as big,” says Lindy, recalling days when the recording industry as a whole rivalled Big Oil in size and stature. “Selling is different. People are buying singles. They’re not buying full albums.”

The return of the single is important for another reason. When I was a teenager, discovering new music was much more of a contact sport. Hearing a band for the first time meant physically leaving the house and standing elbow-to-elbow with other stinky kids in suburban YMCAs, neighbourhood basements and – a rarity – dingy clubs with a roped-off section for underage fans. The opposite seems true today. “I think people now more than ever know they can go and find whatever they’re hearing pretty easily,” says Ian Stanger, co-founder of Mississauga, Ont.-based Black Box Music (BBM). “It used to be you’d have to go to a store. There were no resources to go and figure out what you just heard that you enjoyed so much. So from a consumer perspective, it’s made things a lot easier.”

Examples of bands turning to TV for added exposure and a better paycheque abound. Toronto’s Major Maker managed to spin a hit song out of a half-track the duo wrote for a Telus ad. Todor Kobakov, a classically trained pianist and one half of the twosome, has since composed scores for Vodafone and British fruit-juice giant Robinsons. (The latter was a tennis-themed spot that ran during Wimbledon 2010, Britain’s marquee tournament). Department store Zellers used a song by Juno award-winners Bedouin Soundclash in a national campaign. In the U.S., Washington DC-based ESL Music has licensed songs to TV shows Sex and the City and The West Wing. ESL artist Thievery Corporation has licensed tracks to shows like True Blood, Entourage and Six Feet Under, among others. The group’s electronic grooves have helped hock high-end products like Skyy Vodka, Jaguar and Lexus, too.

For upstart indie labels like Black Box, major licensing deals are perhaps harder to come by. Still, music from the label’s roster – which includes Polaris-prize finalist, wordsmith and all around nice guy Shad – has shown up on a surprising number of playlists. Among the more prominent outlets, Stanger counts an instalment of the Tony Hawk video game series, So You Think You Can Dance Canada and Rogers Sportsnet. Are marketers looking for one genre of music above another? “It’s tough to say,” says the former punk-rock frontman. “I think it varies from genre to genre. People are always on the lookout for hip hop, but specifically they’re looking for hip hop that doesn’t have samples and that doesn’t include any profanity, and sometimes that can be a difficult thing to find.”

Finding the right score to accompany an ad campaign is a job best left to musical matchmakers like Lindy. In her day job with Toronto-based Girth Music, she works to pair companies and music supervisors from TV shows and films with indie artists keen to earn something more than a per diem income. She recently licensed a Plants and Animals track from the band’s latest album, La La Land, to the MTV series The Hills.

As a part-time singer who has lent her voice to ad campaigns for Mattel products and the Sheraton Hotels chain, the licensing rep has no time for murky arguments about artists selling either themselves or their craft short. “These things aren’t linear anymore,” she says. For the countless indie acts getting set to crisscross Canada on sometimes-brutal winter tours especially, “It’s a great way to get exposure and there’s nothing wrong with doing it, as long as you’re comfortable with the brand or the campaign.”

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