Cannes Rewind: Lou Reed, Once a Scooter Pitchman, Still Likes Ad People

Ads Help Pay the Bills in the Digital Era, Musician Tells Festival Goers

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And now for a famous musician at Cannes who actually likes advertising.

Lou Reed at Cannes
Lou Reed at Cannes

A day after hip-hop-mogul-turned-cable-TV-entrepreneur P. Diddy bashed commercials, art rocker Lou Reed sang the praises of a profession that's helping to pay the bills during tough times for musicians. Despite a recent liver transplant, the 71-year-old founder of the Velvet Underground, the house band of Andy Warhol, came to Cannes for a wide-ranging conversation with Tim Mellors, vice chairman and chief creative officer at Grey Group.

He very quickly put to rest any curiosity about what an artist not necessarily known for his mainstream accessibility might think of advertising.

"In a word of downloading, the only people who will pay you for what you do is you guys," Mr. Reed told the auditorium full of adfolk. "Ad people play fair with you. A is A, B is B, C is C."

That's in sharp contrast to how the tech world has treated musicians -- which might be news to some. "I understand that younger people were brought up downloading," he said. "Steve Jobs tried to make it into some kind of business, which benefits Apple. But as an artist, you get about a sixteenth of a penny."

Mr. Reed remembered that during the beginning of his career he got a royalty check for $2.60. "It's pretty much what I get from downloads now. I'm back to where I started."

While the famously grouchy Mr. Reed did grouse about the model for artists and the loss of sound quality that's accompanied the move from vinyl to MP3s, he wasn't a complete crank. Instead, he recognized the trade-off that's come from giving more people access to more and different kinds of music.

"It doesn't mean it's worse," he said. "You have the library of the world. Before you had to search it out. But now it sounds like shit."

Mr. Reed professed his admiration for Kanye West, the controversial rapper who just released his new album, "Yeezus," to wide acclaim. "The only guy really doing something interesting is Kanye West," Mr. Reed said. "He's really good whatever you might think of him on other levels."

Going sadly unmentioned was Mr. Reed's career as an ad pitchman: He starred in a 1985 campaign for Honda scooters by Wieden & Kennedy. One TV execution, shot in New York's Lower East Side during a far grittier time, used his classic "Walk on the Wild Side" to great creative, if not commercial, success. Mr. Reed, revealed at the end of the commercial sitting atop a scooter, delivers the line: "Hey, don't settle for walkin.'"

Is it a bit strange to see a songwriter whose material was drugs, prostitution and S&M selling scooters? Sure. But the ad is rescued by some tremendous direction and editing, especially the use of jump-cuts.