Music journalist and singer/songwriter Paul Myers expressed his dismay today on Twitter upon hearing Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” in a video game commercial. He tweeted the following: “Just saw a video game commercial with the voice of Johnny Cash (singing Trent Reznor’s ‘Hurt’). Not comfortable with this idea.” The tweet was met with the following comment by one of his followers: “You’ve had since the Nike ‘Revolution’ ad to come to terms with this.” Of course this kind of response is not surprising. In fact, it has become cool to embrace a song in a commercial context, and correspondingly uncool to buck against the trend. This is not surprising when the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is used as a theme song for a forensic crime drama, and BTO’s “Takin’ Care of Business” serenades as you half-consciously digest an Office Depot television commercial. The average couch surfer has learned to internalize these classics in this context, and anything that feels normal must seemingly be normal to people who do not bother to think any more deeply than “should I have salsa or ranch dip with my Ruffles?” as their pajamas ride up the crack of their arse.
In 1987 Nike licensed the Beatles song “Revolution” for one of its television ads. The cost to Nike was $500,000, to be split between the two companies who controlled the rights to the song, Capitol EMI and ATV Publishing. Yoko Ono, a shareholder in the Beatles’ record company Apple, had (unbeknownst to the Beatles) encouraged Capitol EMI to pursue the use of the song. Her bizarre reasoning was that it would introduce John Lennon to a whole new generation. The three surviving Beatles filed a lawsuit against the use of the song but later settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
The use of such an iconic piece of music in a commercial ad was seen as both a milestone in commercialism and a harbinger of things to come. Even though the Beatles fought tooth and nail to have this deal shut down, other artists nevertheless took the inclusion of a Beatles song in an ad as the okay signal for selling out. Up until this point, high-profile artists of integrity generally shied away from using their songs in high-profile ads for fear of artistic backlash from peers or fan revolt. It was the general consensus that music listeners did not want their prized personal anthems used to express commercially-driven themes that often had very little to do with the inception or inspiration of the song. However, as the ’90s rolled on and the new millennium unfolded, it became more and more acceptable all the time for established and respected artists to be involved in commercial advertising.
As of 2012, it is perfectly normal to see in print or on television a country artist standing next to a Ford pickup truck or a hip-hop artist positioned by a sports car while their latest hit asserts itself in the background between the announcer’s baritone declarations. And the tragic truth about this artist-commercial phenomenon is that somehow along the way both artists and fans have been coerced into believing that it is outmoded and foolish to rail against this tidal wave, and if you are against artists using their songs in ads you are living in the past and not accepting what it is genuinely a mutually-beneficial arrangement. This move to normalize the facilitation of artist-ad relations is problematic, and it is indicative of a larger problem of the masses becoming desensitized to both the value of art and the influence of big business on our lives.
What right, may you ask, have fans to dictate to artists what to do with their material? Obviously, fans legally have no right to contest their favourite artist’s decision to sell out. Buying an artist’s album does not give a fan any right over the material itself, besides of course the right to enjoy it. However, once an artist establishes a fan base that supports the act both on record and in concert, there exists an intangible bond – with the music being the glue that holds it in place. In this way, the artist is supported financially by those who enjoy what they create. In turn, the artist creates more music and the cycle continues. When fans bond with a particular song and tie inextricable meaning to its lyrics and melody, the decision of an artist to use this popularity as a pivotal selling point to a large corporation is in essence a betrayal of the fan base’s original embracing of the song’s redeeming qualities. Do you think “Revolution” would have been worth $500,000 to Nike in 1987 if no one had bought it in 1968 when it was first released as a single and it never had reached the top ten in multiple countries around the world? In essence the public facilitated this deal by creating its monetary value in the market place. The Beatles’ lawsuit against this licensing deal is proof that they saw something very wrong with this song being used in the context that Nike and Yoko Ono saw fit.
Not only is the use of a popular, well-loved song wrong to use in an ad for the sake of the fan, but what about the artist? Here’s a quote from George Harrison in response to the use of Revolution in the Nike ad:
“If it’s allowed to happen, every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages. We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent. Otherwise it’s going to be a free-for-all. It’s one thing when you’re dead, but we’re still around! They don’t have any respect for the fact that we wrote and recorded those songs, and it was our lives.” (November 1987)
Harrison touches on a lesser-known reality here: these songs are about the artists’ lives. They hold personal meaning to the writer as well as the fan. Many artists, after all, have no say in whether or not their music is used in ads. They do not own their publishing rights, having either signed them away in early years or lost them due to contractual problems and lawsuits. In the Beatles’ case, they only own a portion of songs but not the whole catalogue. In the early ‘80s Paul McCartney tried to convince Yoko Ono to go halves on a chunk of Beatles catalogue that was up for sale at $47.5 million. Ono refused, and Michael Jackson swooped in and bought the rights instead after learning from McCartney that they were up for grabs. (The two never spoke again). Therefore, when any Beatles song under the ATV publishing company is used for an ad, it is primarily Michael Jackson’s people who facilitate it – not the Beatles. I guess in this situation we are tempted to shrug our shoulders and place the blame back on the artist for not being more business savvy. That doesn’t make the enduring fuzz riff to “Revolution” any less nauseating in the context of selling sneakers, or Dylan’s chugging acoustic guitar any less heartbreaking when underscored in an ad selling a four-door sedan.
Many will argue that big business is too strong to fight, and also that the music business itself has corrupted the artists into selling out. And artists themselves have certainly enjoyed the riches that come with lucrative deals; being part of the elite often drives an individual to pursue more and more money, and many famous musicians have suffered a disconnect as a result. Meanwhile, we as the masses do not have any real sway in such things, do we? It sometimes feels easier to just accept the dismal reality that our beloved pop/rock classics from the ’60s and ‘70s (invariably from where these songs are harvested) will continue to be wasted on the schlepping of chocolate, airline tickets, and chesterfields. But do we really need to champion the cause? Do we really need to defend it? That’s where I believe we have gone wrong. It may be a lost cause to buck the trend, but it certainly will never be an unjust one.