On Monday Night’s Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert challenged both the Black Keys and Vampire Weekend to a “sell-out off”. Both bands are up for a Grammy for “Best Alternative Album” and both have been as Colbert says, “equally whored” their music to various television advertisements. Obviously, the segment is hilarious (and unfortunately I couldn’t get the entire clip just the fight at the end) but it also speaks a lot about the music industry at the moment.
The fact is it’s very hard for an artist to make money and their music to the public without using their songs in commercials. People aren’t buying records anymore. Each year, record sales slip. So why wouldn’t newer bands who are trying to get their music out to the public use commercials as a medium? The old concept of “selling out” seems to be a moot point. I don’t particularly have a problem with artists using their songs in commercials so long as their songs are written specifically for commercials.
There’s a slippery slope here. You begin to wonder who’s whoring out to whom. Are The Black Keys using Zale’s to sell their jewelry, or are Vampire Weekend using Honda to sell their songs? I’m not entirely sure a lot of customers for Honda would buy one of their cars based on Vampire Weekend being used in the commercial. But you’re more likely to buy the song by Vampire Weekend, based on seeing the commercial. In the case of U2’s “Vertigo” from 2004 it was much more clear-cut about who was benefitting because both parties were. Apple was using “Vertigo” in ads for the Ipod and Itunes, but you could also purchase “Vertigo” from Itunes. Of course, there was no pretense about what was going on and it was hard to view “Vertigo” as nothing more than a jingle for Itunes.
The turn-around on selling-out may also be caused by rock and roll’s transition into mainstream culture. In the beginning, rock music (and popular music in general) was rebellious. This outsider status might be a reason why so many fans and artists were quick to dismiss licensing songs – “Why would we want to give away our songs to the establishment?” As rock became the establishment itself, it’s harder to draw the lines.