April 13, 2010

Take The Money--And Record!


By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

Look at the album cover above. It's probably not as familiar to you as, say, the silhouetted images of Bono and The Edge and other members of U2 swirling around in the award-winning Apple iPod commercials out of TBWA/Chiat/Day. Or the soft, inviting lyrics of The Cure's "Pictures of You" underscoring the "You + HP" campaign and the award-winning Apple IPod spot featuring U2 campaign from Goodby, Silverstein, also a 2004 AICP award winner. But back in 1967, "The Who Sell Out" was a trailblazer.

On the LP cover, that's skinny young Pete Townshend applying Odorono, which actually was one of the first underarm deodorants targeted to women. Its name on the shelf was Odo-ro-no. Next to Pete splashing around in the Heinz baked beans is, of course, Roger Daltry. Perhaps Teresa Heinz Kerry's husband would have snared more of the popular vote if he had used more of a popular image like this in his campaign. These cover photos (as well as two on the back cover of the late John Entwhistle and the late Keith Moon, shilling Medac acne remover and Charles Atlas musclebuilding courses) were taken by David Montgomery.


I remember the album well, as I was heading up advertising and sales promotion for all of RCA Records at Grey Advertising, just prior to setting up RCA's first in-house agency in Manhattan. "The Who Sell Out" was the first concept album by a rock group that was dedicated to both satirizing as well as promoting real products. Pete and The Who's manager, Chris Stamp, had the idea of doing various spots--spoken, sung and accompanied--for the above products plus Premier Drums, Rotosound strings, Coca-Cola, an auto showroom, and even an institutional pitch for worshipping more often. The album's concept was that these bundled ads and jingles were being broadcast from Radio London, a pirate radio stations, which also had its real-life counterpart.


While The Who drew some interest from the music-related businesses, the other marketers and that busted radio station either ignored the album or made unhappy legal noises. The one song that broke out of the album and showed real staying power was "I Can See For Miles." You'd expect that from a rock band and a singular album (it was only their third) so far out on the leading edges of commercial and commercial potentials.


The music world and modern marketers reacted to the delicious idea of The Who selling their rock and roll souls to Madison Avenue as a kind of "first signal." The Who were early adopters of commercialism. There's a wonderful moment in the autobiography, "Bill Graham presents" (cowritten with Robert Greenfield) in which Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones recalls being struck in 1981 by the early beginnings of corporate sponsorship. Keith toys with the idea of making their next record cover no cover at all--just This Space For Hire. Keith speculates on renting out the space on the cover so "I'll make some money for my old age." The Stones, like The Who, had this uncanny ability to think miles and miles ahead of their mates both in England and America.

Seen in retrospect, "The Who Sell Out" was an important early link in the chain of events that began to slowly fuse advertising and rock music. In the late 60s, most major record labels formed inhouse advertising units to introduce new acts and promote albums and singles on FM's early alternative radio stations and in "underground" publications like the Seed, the Boston Phoenix, the East Village Other, Crawdaddy, and Rolling Stone. Warner/Reprise and Columbia were the pioneers in positioning and branding rock singers and groups, often using long-copy ads that carried the multiple benefits and rich detail crafted by David Ogilvy in his Rolls-Royce ads.


The music copywriters were frequently freelance reviewers who” ghosted" ad copy to boost the chump change they were earning as reviewers. Scores of innovative radio commercials were produced by The Farm, a Woodstock-based commune of highly talented writers, actors and recording engineers. The Farm was Mad Ave's counterculture blending of Monte Python and Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters. Like The Who, The Farm had a knack for exuberant and goodhearted satire--particularly before, during and after the much mythologized Summer of Love in 1967.


Most singers and musicians were grateful for the carefully strategized and artfully executed campaigns being lavished on them. At RCA Records my first hire in setting up a 10-person staff to create1,000 ads and commercials a year for all the label's artists was Patricia Kennealy, who had been Editor-in-Chief of a well-remembered magazine, Jazz & Pop. Kennealy had an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary music and was the first woman I'd ever met who dressed entirely in black, almost every day. She was a knockout writer, as good as Lester Bangs and Griel Marcus, and she was also Jim Morrison's lover, which gave her instant credentials (not to mention all access) to the lives and backstage dressing rooms of the stars. (In Oliver Stone’s movie, “The Doors,” Patricia is played by Kathleen Quinlan, and Patricia herself appears in a wedding scene performing her own Celtic marriage to Morrison.)


Kennealy did the heavy lifting on RCA's launch of solo artists like David Bowie and Lou Reed, while I played around safer edges, like hiring a supergroupie (Jenny Dean) to be a talking head for the Lighthouse band and using teenage focus group comments (a first, I think) to introduce The Youngbloods' "Get Together." My job at the Woodstock festival in August 1969 was delivering a piece of album art to members of Jefferson Airplane. It took me 18 hours just to work my way backstage with the artwork, which naturally the band didn't like. When nobody offered me a helicopter ride out, I just stayed on in the peace, love, thunderstorms and mud. Oh, let me tell you, the 60's were a joy forever.


Between then and now, there have been what one might call milestones in artists wedding songs to products. At the opposite end of The Who's tweaking of the marketplace was Paul Simon's celebration of it, in his "Kodachrome" song from "There Goes Rhymin' Simon" (1973). "Kodachrome" cements those nice bright colors of summer with the Kodak brand, and throws in a bow to Nikon cameras in the bargain. While the Sunkist ad using "Good Vibrations" may have caused some discomfort to fans of the Beach Boys, and while Nike's usage of "Revolution" was viewed by some as a desecration of a Beatles anthem, what's the harm in linking "Haven't Got Time For The Pain" to a fast-working headache tablet or "Anticipation" to a slow-running catsup? Does it matter to the buyer of Led Zeppelin's catalog that their bombastic rock has helped restage the Cadillac positioning? Is the Manhattan shopgirl ducking into Victoria's Secret to try on some drop-dead lingerie even aware that the guitar poet singing to her in the commercials, Mr. Bob Dylan, is old enough to be her grandfather?


People who study the music scene will tell you that the commercial contract was signed-sealed-and-delivered one night in the early 80s after the hip-hop giants Run-DMC released "My Adidas," a song in its way as full of the glories of youth as Simon's "Kodachrome." The defining moment took place at a Run-DMC concert at which Def Jam label execs had invited Adidas execs to see the show. When the band played "My Adidas" and started working the crowd, nearly everyone took off their Adidas and held them up in the air as a salute to the music and the group. Adidas management looked at Def Jam management across the floor, and the music industry was never the same again.


It may be just as well. Bootlegs and illegal downloading have made it difficult for many artists and record labels to introduce and sell product in a timely manner. When product does arrive at most retail chains and big-box stores, SoundScan promptly totes up the number of CDs sold by the week, by the day, by the hour. The window of opportunity given a CD to succeed in retail bins today is almost as short as the window of time given to most movies that open and die after a lackluster weekend. And if a rock album or alternative band can't get airplay because there's so few stations anymore giving airtime to interesting new sounds and artists, what's left but Madison Avenue?


Even well-established artists feel the pressure. Ask Sting, who took his song "Desert Rose" and video in which he drives a Jaguar, which had stirred little interest on radio or tv, right to the car company. Jaguar’s million dollar media buy gave it the mass exposure that sold the song and helped break the album. Talk to Moby, who's licensed his music to many sources and sponsors nationwide, maybe earning him seven figures in royalties this year alone. While a small number of big-name performers have kept their distance from Madison Avenue--like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and
Coldplay--most independent as well as mainstream artists are open to licensing opportunities and to the licensing mini-industry that's developed to fit the music to the marketer.


To see how one indy singer/songwriter/musician feels about sharing his work with Mad Ave, I talked with my son, Chris Brokaw, a 40-year-old who's earned his living playing music since graduating from Oberlin (where he helped Liz Phair get her first demo circulating). Chris started as the drummer in Codeine, switched to lead guitar in Come with Thalia Zedek, and has put in nearly two decades recording and touring with those bands plus Consonant, The New Year, Pullman and Evan Dando. Chris has slowly built a solo career, too, with four CDs in current release including the soundtrack for a new documentary, "I Was Born...But" that closed the New York Underground Film Festival.


Chris submits work to Agoraphone, a licensing agency in Manhattan run by Beth Urdang and Dawn Madell, who both boast advertising and music backgrounds. Agoraphone has been placing music in commercials since 1999, working for major marketers like Nike, Mitsubishi, and Vodaphone. Chris recently had a song up for consideration by Saturn, though something "much more pop than my music" was chosen for the car.


Like most solo performers who work the road, Chris pays his own travel expenses, sets up his own equipment, gets a percentage of the night's take (which can be miniscule), and sells his CDs after shows out of a shoulderbag. It can be a hardscrabble life. "I would definitely consider using my music in ads, but my decision would hedge on a number of considerations of both the song in question and the product involved,” reflects Chris. “I have to give credit to the British rock band, Blur, who turned down a million dollar offer from the United States Air Force for the use of their hit, ‘Song 2’, because they didn’t want their song being used to promote the military. I imagine my decision-making process might take in considerations of this nature.” That said, Chris still affirms the process, noting that “when I hear an Iggy Pop song on tv, it makes me feel like we're winning."


The Who never sold out, though that's the title they gave their third album. Pop music today seems to be finding a place and a peace, however tentative and sometimes uneasy, with Madison Avenue. The networking and support systems are firmly in place, up and working. Product placement in songs, as in movies as in tv shows as in plays as in novels as in every nook and cranny of our cities and our very lives, is a growing reality. The rallying cry may not be "take the money and run," but it is certainly take the money--and record.

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