‘I’m with the brand’ say musicians in post-Prince industry
Artists who embrace advertisers are not treated with suspicion anymore
Prince: exerted an unusual level of control over his music publishing. Photograph: Jordan Strauss/WireImage for NPG Records
The unimaginative rush by some brands to colour their logos purple in the wake of Prince’s death was ironic given how much the singer avoided licensing his music to advertisers, or to anyone really.
The singer exerted an unusual level of control over his music publishing, and a question troubling those who respected this protectiveness is whether or not it can continue. Did Prince take legal steps to prevent his estate licensing his music to films, video games and advertisements?
If he didn’t, and if his estate takes a less circumspect view, then The Most Beautiful Girl in the World will soon be soundtracking moisturiser ads and Chevrolet will be following through on its “tribute” ad by nabbing the rights to Little Red Corvette to sell, er, Corvettes.
In 2016 there are very few Princes. Few artists can afford to be Prince – and perhaps they don’t need to be.
Once, it seemed listeners had very clear views on the relationships that sometimes formed between artists from the “cool” end of the spectrum and advertisers. They deplored them. Nothing would dent credibility faster than a spot of licensing.
As for accepting commissions to write songs for ads, that was a business for Pepsi and its circle of megastars, Britney, Beyoncé... Bowie.
Now there’s less of a financial choice, the practice barely raises a murmur of protest. New artists popularised, even produced and commissioned, by brands are not treated with anything like the same degree of suspicion and hostility. The advertisement is merely the means of distribution, a part of the back story.
Established artists who once would have been convicted of crass commercialism without trial are viewed sympathetically by fans just happy that someone they admire has managed to get a payday.
The timeline of this change isn’t quite as simple as described above. There are probably still irate music fans ready to groan whenever a cherished artist signs up to a brand “collaboration”. Equally, anomalies such as Bowie had no problem appearing in ads.
The bestowing of the Blur song The Universal to a British Gas ad not long after the song’s 1995 release was remarked upon unfavourably at the time, but was soon forgiven – and forgotten. By the time the company started to reuse The Universal’s strings on a loop in 2009, the alliance was reported as if it was new.
Moby’s decision to license every track from his 1999 album Play is seen by some in the industry as a turning point for a softening of attitudes. But technology has also changed the game. If consumers won’t pay for music, and royalties from streaming remain hopelessly skimpy, then musicians have to find another way to sell it, and everybody understands this.
Last week, SoundCloud declared its intention to broker “partnerships” between creators and brands, so that creators might get paid. Spotify, meanwhile, already makes it easy for companies to piggyback on musicians’ cool through branded playlists.
“If you’ve just hired an artist to be your new spokesperson, a playlist might be a great opportunity to show the world how much your brand loves the artist,” Spotify enthuses. (It also cautions that if brands have “reason to believe a specific artist may have a problem with your brand, it’s probably smart to stay away from that artist”.) Luckily for marketers, some musicians today can’t seem to get out of bed without forming a brand partnership.
Synth-pop singer-songwriter Charli XCX, for instance, has done musical and other link-ups with Red Bull, Impulse, Replay, Make Up for Ever, House of Holland, Levi’s, Boohoo, Samsung, Max Factor, Hennessy and Urban Outfitters – prolific activity that appears to have had no impact on the accolades won for her last experiment in avant-garde electropop.
It’s almost as if there are no purists left in music journalism. Alas, her new song is Explode, which features on the Angry Birds Movie soundtrack – some Angry Birds, if you remember the 2010 app, had a habit of being blown up – and it is indeed anger-inducing. Charli XCX is not just another pop singer, she’s the composer of Nuclear Seasons, a lament for the perceived decay of youth culture, no less. But it feels passé to care.
The old orthodoxy could, on occasion, be boiled down to snobbery. But there was a logic behind fans’ disappointment too. They didn’t want their youth infiltrated by sponsors. When a song is licensed, it changes the context in which it is heard. A piece of its value – the emotions and memories it represents – rubs off on the brand. The advertiser is happy, but the experience of the song is cheapened.