Sunday, December 28, 2008
Songs From the Heart of a Marketing Plan
By JON PARELES
IN “Creator,” the rawest track on Santogold’s debut and self-titled album, the singer Santi White boasts, “Me I’m a creator/Thrill is to make it up/The rules I break got me a place up on the radar.” It’s a bohemian manifesto in a sound bite, brash and endearing, or at least it was for me until it showed up in a beer commercial. And a hair-gel commercial too.
It turns out that the insurgent, quirky rule breaker is just another shill. Billboard reported that three-quarters of Santogold’s excellent album has already been licensed for commercials, video games and soundtracks, and Ms. White herself appears in advertisements, singing for sneakers. She has clearly decided that linking her music to other, mostly mercenary agendas is her most direct avenue to that “place up on the radar.”
I know — time for me to get over it. After all, this is the reality of the 21st-century music business. Selling recordings to consumers as inexpensive artworks to be appreciated for their own sake is a much-diminished enterprise now that free copies multiply across the Web.
While people still love music enough to track it down, collect it, argue over it and judge their Facebook friends by it, many see no reason to pay for it. The emerging practical solution is to let music sell something else: a concert, a T-shirt, Web-site pop-up ads or a brand.
Musicians have to eat and want to be heard, and if that means accompanying someone else’s sales pitch or videogame, well, it’s a living. Why wait for album royalties to trickle in, if they ever do, when licensing fees arrive upfront as a lump sum? It’s one part of the system of copyright regulations that hasn’t been ravaged by digital distribution, and there’s little resistance from any quarters; Robert Plant and Alison Krauss croon for J. C. Penney and the avant-rockers Battles are heard accompanying an Australian vodka ad.
The question is: What happens to the music itself when the way to build a career shifts from recording songs that ordinary listeners want to buy to making music that marketers can use? That creates pressure, subtle but genuine, for music to recede: to embrace the element of vacancy that makes a good soundtrack so unobtrusive, to edit a lyric to be less specific or private, to leave blanks for the image or message the music now serves. Perhaps the song will still make that essential, head-turning first impression, but it won’t be as memorable or independent. READ