WHEN INDIE GOES COMMERCIAL

by liz levine

At risk of appearing pretentious, it’s not difficult to admit that new music can be more fun to listen to when it’s obscure, when one discovers not a ubiquitous, studio-slick act, but rather has a more personal encounter: a sincere recommendation from a friend, a random band caught late night at a loud show, or an attention-grabbing track on a lovingly made mixtape. It’s far more satisfying to adore a great local group than it is to bliss out to the pop perfection of the latest Lady Gaga single. This simply represents a divide between the pre-packaged and the joy of self-discovery, and as such, it’s unsettling to consider the alarming number of “indie” acts that have been making their way into television commercials for popular products. Sure, it’s neat to be able to identify the source of the music being hawked, to have discovered a sound before its popular introduction and the resulting rush to itunes that will almost certainly follow. But it also feels sort of dirty.

Artist: Tom Vek
Song: Music Television

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Of course, another consideration is the prickly issue of selling out, a phenomenon that some believe cannot be helped while others hurl as the ultimate insult. The unfortunate reality is that bands do not always have a say in how their material is used, so that the appearance of a song does not mean the featured product was willingly endorsed. Contractual fine print often allows a label to license music for commercial use after the first year, once the band has had ample time to profitably tour their material. Hence arises the age-old conundrum: the second an act stands to make money, and is in the position to sign with a label, their artistic integrity comes under scrutiny. It takes a serious kind of artist to be entirely about the art, especially when the harsh hand of reality is eager to feed any morsels it can to struggling musicians.

While the debate on selling out could rage on endlessly, the most disturbing thing about recognizing a once obscure act tucked into a prime-time ad spot is the kind of market research it suggests the business folk are conducting. When the corporations of America have decided that the “indie” demographic is now profitable to appeal to, there comes that slimy feeling again. Are they now reading the same blogs and attending the same shows as a once discerning few? Behold some of the more disturbing commercial spots that highlight just how thoroughly advertisers scour “indie” culture for tidbits.

Matt and Kim for Bacardi

This is admittedly a well-made commercial, one that’s visually and stylistically pleasing, and who could oppose a celebration of drinking throughout the decades of American history? But it seems odd to have the duo known for raucous basement shows creep into a series of classy parties. As so many college campuses nationwide can attest, Bacardi is affordable mid-grade rum and nothing more. The fun-loving youths this ad appeals to may indeed enjoy drinking, but it remains unclear how frantic geek-vocals and thumping drums couple with that.

Dodos for Miller Chill

Again, the problem here isn’t that they’re purporting the consumption of beer. It’s the fact that Miller Chill is a stupid product, as it is asking people to swig factory-made lime flavor when a real lime can be purchased at any grocery establishment for mere pennies. But how did one of the country’s largest beer distributors come to be aware of last year’s indie darlings? It would appear that niche marketing has become so specific that analysts have time to scour music blogs and small distribution music magazines. It’s an odd case of worlds colliding.

Joanna Newsom for HSBC

It’s true that perhaps the music choices for these commercials are simply made in order to fill a sonic need. The below actually does go along nicely with the serious, calming Joanna Newsom tune. But what is this commercial even suggesting? That a bank is similar to a couple who seem to be deeply in love despite the fact that they oppose one another when it comes to one pretty significant issue: morality? Joanna Newsome is appealing because she crafts pleasing melody, but also because her unabashed quirkiness elevates her to a seeming sincerity. The package of the weight her music carries, and the presented “love conquers all” couple is intended to make HSBC personify caring and humanity, but that goal achieves little when it’s so see-through.

It feels odd to hear an underground act is a commercial not because of the pretentious desire to have obscure tastes, but due to the pressure to reckon the aesthetic of a band with the product it’s coupled with. Perhaps advertisements would do best to stick with instrumental pieces. Or better yet, the endlessly entertaining selling-power of a catchy jingle.

One Comment

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