Right now in a record store (probably in Seattle or maybe in Austin), two people are flipping through used vinyl and talking about music. Inevitably, one of them will turn to the other, pick up a record and accuse that musician or band of having “sold out” at one point.
Yes, even in the age of rampant downloading, there are still begrudged idealists who resent an artist making a paycheck, as if banking off a recording and inadvertently assisting in the cycle of commerce is almost as bad as commissioning will.i.am for a remix. This is 2011; the very notion of selling out is preposterous. Unless you’re Steve Albini or Ian MacKaye, I’m pretty sure you’re a sell-out too, Mr. Cubicle.
In the list below, I’ve picked my favorite 2011 song usages in a commercial and the format is like this:
Product: What is the musician or band hawking to the masses?
Song: Who is that band and what is that song?
Will It Sell The Product? How successful is that song in winning over the skeptical consumer?
“Sellout” Scale: Notice the quotes.
(Full disclosure: I am a freelance music journalist, but during the daytime, I am an ad man doing some selling out of my own.)
Song: Asteroid Galaxy Tour’s “The Golden Age”
Will It Sell The Product? This is how the Wieden & Kennedy creative team presumably pitched this commercial treatment to Heineken: “Imagine a Tarantino-meets-Wes Anderson-inspired United Nations delegate get-together, and they’re all drinking Heineken beer and having a blast and being entertained by Duffy.” But Duffy wasn’t available. So they got Denmark’s Asteroid Galaxy Tour and asked lead singer Mette Lingberg to wear a bob just like Duffy would. (I would love a beer right now.)
“Sellout” Scale: Selling out is what this band does best. In 2008, their single “Around the Bend” became a minor hit because of an Apple iPod Touch commercial. Ten years from now they should release a greatest-hits comp titled You May Have Heard This On a Commercial.
Product: Victoria’s Secret
Song: M83’s “Midnight City”
Will It Sell The Product? I’m sorry. What were we talking about? Was there a song in this commercial? I didn’t notice.
“Sellout” Scale: Bob freakin’ Dylan not only licensed his song “Love Sick” to Victoria’s Secret in 2004, he made a cameo in the commercial itself. Which, at the time, was beyond weird—even for Dylan. So, did Anthony Gonzalez of M83, who is maybe 1/16th of Bob Dylan, sell out by allowing his song to soundtrack the primal cavorting of supermodels? That’s a rhetorical question, dude.
Song: Justice’s “Civilization”
Will It Sell The Product? The adidas kinetic “all in” campaign smells a lot like Nike’s “Just Do It.” Which, by the way, is the smell of sweat and money. But this commercial directed by Romain Gavras, the auteur best known for M.I.A.’s redhead-killing “Born Free” video, works pretty well as far as semi-inspirational 60-second montage treatments go in motivating you into thinking about possibly getting off the couch.
“Sellout” Scale: Justice’s first single off of its second album Audio, Video, Disco premiered in this spot. It did not go to radio first, nor was it available on iTunes beforehand—yes, this commercial was “Civilization’s” world premiere video, and that means adidas paid a lot of money for that exclusive opportunity. Which is pretty impressive for a duo that makes watered-down Daft Punk.
Product: Sony 3D Television
Song: Leonard Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep” (spoken word)
Will It Sell The Product? When one thinks about Leonard Cohen’s spoken-word poetry, shopping for a new 3-D television isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But the commercial is moving and dramatic, making Cohen’s gravelly voiceover rather appropriate. (Incidentally, my neighbor has a 3-D television and he says they’re a waste of money.)
“Sellout” Scale: It’s hard to fault the notoriously bankrupt Cohen for agreeing to any licensing opportunity made available, but the Grey advertising agency didn’t sample existing Cohen audio. He recorded new voiceovers for this commercial, which makes it kind of sell-outy. I mean, Cohen had to spend a whole day with ad people. Ech.
Product: Apple iPod
Song: Grouplove’s “Tongue Tied”
Will It Sell The Product? Doesn’t everybody already have an iPod Touch? If not, then this commercial—titled “Share the Fun,” and actually a lot of fun—probably sold a few. It’s Apple’s strongest play at casting hipsters in its commercials—sideways ponytails, bangs galore, nerdy glasses. America loves hipsters. I read this in the New York Times!
“Sellout” Scale: There were big hopes for this Los Angeles band, but their debut album Never Trust A Happy Song never quite took off. This commercial will probably change that. “Tongue Tied” is jubilant, poppy, and somewhat irresistible. Weird, though, that Apple features another album Bibio’s Mind Bokeh on the screen of the iPod in the spot. Are they trying to throw us off the trail here?
Product: Bud Light Lime
Song: Peter Bjorn & John’s “Second Chance”
Will It Sell The Product? Have you tasted Bud Light Lime? The greatest song in the history of rock and roll couldn’t sell this product.
“Sellout” Scale: This track seemed almost as ubiquitous as a Kardashian. This single of off PB&J’s sixth album was also featured in the trailer for the indie teen drama Art of Getting By, the opening of 2 Broke Girls, and a SoBe water commercial. “Second Chance” could even soundtrack your wedding video if the price were right.
Song: Willie Nelson covering Coldplay’s “The Scientist”
Will It Sell The Product? Willie Nelson smokes a lot of weed. Chipotle is the perfect munchies food. Synergy!
“Sellout” Scale: Who cares if Nelson covers Coldplay? The animated commercial featuring his tender and road-worn cover is actually rather moving. Which as far as advertising goes is an absolute anomaly.
Song: The Non-Commissioned Officers’ “Ahead of the Wave”
Will It Sell The Product? Citibank doesn’t really need selling and besides, this commercial seems more intent on promoting weather balloons. But the virtually unknown Nashville band Non-Commissioned Officers scored a serious coup by getting a licensing opportunity with the backing of a huge financial institution despite being a self-releasing group.
“Sellout” Scale: You can’t sell out when you don’t have much yet to sell.
Song: Family of the Year’s “Chugjug”
Will It Sell The Product? I’ve never heard of them, either. But the thing is, this LA-based collective may soon change that with its jangly chillaxed vibe, which is similar to Edward Sharpe and Fleetwood Mac. But conceptually speaking, this commercial and song does not give me a headache which may not be a strong marketing tactic. Death metal or industrial techno may have been more appropriate for an Advil commercial.
“Sellout” Scale: See The Non-Commissioned Officers.
Product: T-Mobile, Amazon Kindle
Song: The New Pornographers’ “Moves,” “Sweet Talk Sweet Talk”
Will It Sell The Product? Well done, Carl Newman! Two major nationwide campaigns are paying you for your sweet pop honey and entrusting you to sell smartphones and glorified digital books. Too bad the T-Mobile girl’s uncanny and unsettling likeness to Liv Tyler is distracting us from truly appreciating the song.
“Sellout” Scale: The songwriter behind this rotating cast of power poppers has spent so many years in Indie Rock University, he could be the dean. He deserves as many licensing opportunities as possible.