"It's the new MTV," says Joel Simon, founder/owner of music house JSM, which both licenses and composes music. "Labels now call me. MTV comes and presents their artists. A few years ago, I couldn't get past the secretaries. In advertising, we used to be the bottom of the scrotum pole, now we are pulled in early on - even on the underscore." Simon is not alone in saying, "Sting and Jaguar, in 2000, broke down all the barriers. The record [the 1999 album Brand New Day] wasn't moving and he had the car anyway. He's one of the most highly regarded and best-respected musicians of our time. Other musicians thought, 'Fuck, if he can do it . . .'."
The previous wisdom was that original tunes could be cheaper. The cost of an original track ranges from $10,000 to $50,000 or so, although factoring in residuals to singers and musicians can increase that price longer term. Meanwhile, licensing a hit song from an established act can cost from $250,000 to more than $1 million (and more for superstars). But for every $14 million Celine Dion Chrysler deal, for every $5 million "Start Me Up" for Microsoft, for every multimillion dollar long-running Chevy/Bob Seger or Cadillac/Led Zeppelin association, there are countless smaller acts now available for so much less. And the idea of breaking new music - like Levi's in Europe and Mitsubishi here - has become more attractive.
Julie Roehm, director of Dodge marketing communications (with an annual budget of $900 million, including dealers), famously used Aerosmith to signpost her dramatic strategic shift from "Dodge. Different" to "Grab life by the horns." She gets far more involved in the music than she used to, even on the underscores. Today, Dodge uses lesser-known music (Overseer, Timo Mas), and not just to avoid shelling out $4 million a year. "I like the idea of the underground, less well-known piece of music that goes to the emotion," Roehm says. "It's great when the music takes off and you ride that swell. Also, sometimes with the lesser-known bands the music's lyrics act as the message. So, it's retail and helps retail get attention. But it's not my job to manage the careers of artists."
One of the most enduring commercial/music links over the past 12 years has been Chevy's "Like a Rock" campaign, using the eponymous Bob Seger track. It has become the byword for the marriage of music and message, not least because of its longevity and consistent media spend. Famously, Seger did not originally wish to license his music for commercial purposes, and he took some grief from his artist friends for eventually relenting. But that was then. Today, "Like a Rock" represents the Chevy brand in every imaginable way, from the lyrics forming the script of the ads, to the title sharing the Chevy tagline. "Twelve years ago, we were simply looking to express dependability and durability in a new truck," says Bill Ludwig, CCO at Campbell-Ewald. " 'Like a rock' speaks to both the product and the buyer. With brands like Mitsubishi, the way they use music, the words don't matter. Every goddamn word of 'Like a rock' says something."
Ludwig has been able to edit down the song in different ways to represent various Chevy campaigns and products. Seger never altered his own music. In the early years, Chevy just used the lyrics to make a statement adding a fact at the end - like the price. It was, Ludwig says, a conscious decision to stay quiet and let the song speak for the brand. Today, Chevy uses music as judiciously as anyone. Look at how Prince, Elton John and others signed up for the "Inspirations" work, and the use of LL Cool J, Snoop Dogg and Nelly for Chevy's models. It is in marked contrast to the disconnect that is Pink for Toyota, "Start Me Up" for Ford dealers and, of course, Celine and Chrysler. Ludwig declines to comment on his rivals, but he does say, "I'm surprised that the music industry isn't more careful with which brands they align themselves."
Dodge's Roehm believes music is particularly important when it is used to underline speed and performance in a commercial. Clearly, on the one hand there are the clients who say, "Give me a 'Like a Rock,' " and then there are the more sophisticated, like Roehm, who get involved in the debate over what emotions they want music to express. Derek Robson, the worldwide account director on Levi's at BBH/London, takes up that theme when discussing the radical first-time use of classical music by Levi's for the highly regarded "Odyssey" spot, directed by Jonathan Glazer, who first suggested going the classical route. It was obviously a gamble for even as daring a client as Levi's. "We had Handel, Bartok and Vivaldi," Robson says. "And we chose the more resonant and profound Handel in the end over the uplifting and action-packed Vivaldi." Making that choice is the same with virtually every Levi's ad; a case of laying down tracks to an edit (only "Swimmer" had the music in advance, Dinah Washington's "Mad About the Boy"). Ultimately, it comes down to gut instinct, with BBH co-founder John Hegarty making the final decision. Robson adds he personally hated the "Flat Eric" soundtrack that became number one in eight markets, "but when you see it with the puppet . . ."
"You have to have guts to buy songs no one has ever heard before," says Eric Hirschberg, ECD at Deutsch, home of the Mitsubishi hit factory. "You have to trust your instincts." Roehm adds that she never researches music - "You have to trust your gut." Robson says Levi's music is never researched as a yes or no, but the three alternatives are researched to see what mood they induce. "The consumer is never asked to choose." Roehm acknowledges that "it's become easier for us as marketers to obtain this music at a much lower rate, because musicians themselves are more desperate for outlets." Robson recalls how averse record companies were to letting BBH use their talent in the mid-'80s, when Levi's first used licensed music. BBH was denied the real Marvin Gaye on "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," for "Launderette," for example. Until it was a success, that is. The Levi's campaign has spawned nine Number Ones and countless other hits, but Robson believes the record labels still don't entirely understand what BBH is trying to do. "Labels want to promote a certain artist," Robson says. "There is still a desire from them that they want to see beyond just the ad: 'Can I get the single to chart? The album? And then the tour?' We're just looking for the moment. We choose the one track that's right for the ad, not the artist. That is why we have one-hit wonders."
Like Roehm and Robson, Deutsch's Hirsch-berg is licensing ever more obscure artists. Like Roehm, he agrees there is greater "mindspace" for Mitsubishi's association with a relatively unknown artist. "I actually think it can be selling out when there is no deep connection between the music and what the ad agency is trying to get across," Hirschberg says. "Is Cad-illac making people love Led Zeppelin again? Mitsubishi is an alternative brand and there is method in our madness. The brand becomes a sort of cool DJ; not just the music but the people and the cars are all cool. A Mitsubishi track has to be the kind of song where people say, 'Whoa! What or who is that?' It needs a sonic distinction. There is maybe a nighttime, urban quality to the music we choose. More club than radio, though afterward it goes on the radio. It also needs an irresistible hook - would you come in from the other room to see it?"
Whether it be for reasons of economics or increased "mindspace," the drift to newer music seems irreversible - although there will always be a Microsoft "Start Me Up," when, as JSM's Simon says, "a big brand needs the equity of the artist, not just the equity of the music."
Clearly, the rise of available and affordable licensing has had a fundamental impact on the way the music side of the ad industry operates, but it also leads to opportunities for savvy music houses. Hirschberg dismisses the idea of a Deutsch Records Inc., but admits they discussed it. JSM is launching an internet label. There will always be a need for the existing labels, particularly in finding and developing talent, but so much marketing power now resides in Madison Avenue. The days of the tyranny of the big deal appear numbered. The ad industry cannot afford to make music videos on the backs of its brands. "For too long, advertisers have felt that they had to attach themselves to the popularity of something else - Mitsubishi proves that the culture can attach itself to the brand," says Hirschberg.
"The ad business is the new record business," concludes Simon. "I firmly believe this. Now the ad business has to utilize this power intelligently, rather than just spending money on licensing spontaneously. The labels now need advertising more than advertising needs the labels."