Indie bands find their way to 'commercial' hits

October 24, 2012 

It was once true that when you wanted new music, you’d flip on MTV or the radio or ask your buddy’s cool older brother what he was listening to.

That is no longer the case.

While the power of word-of-mouth has endured, the role of radio and music videos to introduce you to songs you can’t live without has been greatly diminished, in large part by the arrival of an unlikely newcomer to the tastemaking arena — commercials.

Say what you want about Pitchfork and the pack of insufferable sockhead hipsters who comprise the rest of the indie blogosphere, ad agencies — yes, ad agencies — have been the true champions of independent music over the past decade.

Advertisers not only pay artists to license their music but also are effectively paying to promote the artists themselves.

And they do so without the irony and self-importance that seems to saturate music blogs, which do little more for a new artist or band than direct readers to free MP3s or streams of their work.

Given where music once was, it is remarkable to think that, for an artist, getting a song in a commercial can often be as critical to his or her success as getting a song on the radio once was.

But it’s true.

Few had heard of Leslie Feist, the Broken Social Scene band member and Zero 7 collaborator, before her delightfully twee “1234” was used by Apple in an iPod Nano ad in 2007.

The commercial rocketed the song and Feist into the Billboard Top 10 — the first and only time her work has appeared there.

Yet what remains truly fascinating about this unlikely love affair between Madison Avenue and Williamsburg is its symbiosis.

The bands, to some extent, rely on commercials for exposure but, just as importantly, if not more so, advertisers rely on the music to help make their ads memorable to consumers.

Great music gives an ad staying power.

Choosing the wrong song can make a commercial forgettable at best or intolerable at worst.

It’s an advertiser’s worst nightmare, their ad simply fading into the white noise with little to distinguish it from anything else in the bland commercial tableau that annoyingly stands between the viewer and whatever he’d like to resume watching.

But this marriage between indie music and advertisers hasn’t been all butterflies and puppy dog tails, such as a high-profile incident last year in which a London advertising firm was accused of ripping off Baltimore indie rock duo Beach House’s “Take Care” for a VW ad, a song the firm had sought and failed to license for the commercial.

The firm and VW denied the allegations, but it didn’t matter. The damage was done.

The controversy marked a seminal moment in this seemingly improbable new relationship between corporate advertising and indie rock.

It was the moment when the advertised-to demanded that ad firms treat their favorite artists fairly and with respect.

A failure to do, as VW learned the hard way, could have real and lasting consequences on their business or, at the very least, create a giant PR problem.

In honor of the role of commercials in indie music, this week’s playlist features eight songs used brilliantly in recent commercials.

I don’t know why ad execs get such a bad rap. I mean, it’s not like they marketed cigarettes to children. Oh, wait ...

• Willy Moon, “Yeah, Yeah” — Case and point. Heard this song in a new iPod commercial and immediately added it to my workout mix.

• Justice, “Civilization” — Shoe companies have long had success using pop music in commercials as Adidas did when they featured this song in a commercial featuring basketball star Derrick Rose, pop star Katy Perry and others last year.

• Jonsi, “Go Do” — Can’t think of a better use of a song by a car company than Ford’s use of this unintelligible but pretty Icelandic ditty in a recent commercial for its new Explorer.

• Ray LaMontagne, “Trouble” — Can’t hear this song now and not think of that adorable dog agonizing about how best to protect his precious bone. Score one for Travelers Insurance.

• Jose Gonzalez, “Heartbeats” — Paired beautifully with a great Sony Bravia ad.

• The Silver Seas, “Imaginary Girl” — My favorite song ever used in a commercial. Still remember the Kenmore Elite washing machine ad in which it was featured. Effective.

• The Asteroids Galaxy Tour, “The Golden Age” — Good luck hearing this song and not wanting a Heineken. A song so well-chosen that it feels as if it were made for that commercial.

• Yael Naim, “New Soul” — Another Apple classic from a 2008 MacBook Air campaign.

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