Ad as breakout song launchpad

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It's likely only a matter of time before Josh Rabinowitz produces a hit record. He's already come close with a couple of artists like Macy Gray and Los Lonely Boys. And a cover of "Carry On" he produced for Alana Davis a few years back actually charted as a single before fading away.

It's only gotten harder since then. Between falling CD sales, digital piracy, corporate radio groupthink, rampant label cost-cutting and the whims of a fractured audience, any act's chances of breaking through the clutter are already pretty small ... and they're still shrinking.

But the doom-and-gloom besetting the industry will ultimately work to Mr. Rabinowitz's advantage. He's no mere knob-twiddler; he's the senior VP-director for music of Grey Worldwide, and his goal is to break a hit record inside an ad before the artist and a label gladly give it a life of its own.

"More artists are going to be broken through corporations, with the agencies as talent scouts, and hopefully they'll let me produce their tracks," he says.

"The agencies are kind of like the A&R, and the client's blessing is the green light. My theory is that sooner or later, the record companies will be cut out of part of the process."

That he sounds perfectly reasonable saying this speaks to how the relationship between the music and advertising industries has changed-again -in just the past few years.

Just a decade ago, the agencies were the beggars, sometimes paying millions to license hits certain to give them good will among consumers. Five years after that, forward-thinking agencies like Arnold Worldwide and Deutsch were resurrecting vanished acts and breaking new ones with their shrewd (and economical) licensing choices on behalf of their respective clients Volkswagen of America and Mitsubishi Motors North America. (Deutsch has since parted ways with Mitsubishi, which named BBDO Worldwide in March to handle its creative advertising account.)

THE MUSIC APOCALYPSE

That was the win-win era-advertisers could easily jack up a brand's coolness quotient with just the right song, while the labels reaped sales from exposure they were actually paid for. Then Napster and the other horsemen of the music industry's apocalypse appeared, and the balance of power shifted again, this time decisively in advertisers' favor.

These days, Gwen Stefani is hawking HP digital cameras in TV commercials shot by the director of her music video. Former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald salvaged his last album and sold 2 million copies after he appeared in a KFC ad, and rappers Jay-Z and 50 Cent endorse some of Reebok's best-selling shoes.

Whether Mr. Rabinowitz and his peers are next-generation talent scouts is up for debate, but they do wield as much, if not more power to make an artist than their music industry counterparts. "It drastically changes the terms," says Eric Hirschberg, executive creative director of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch, Los Angeles. "The biggest change is the willingness. The sell-out stigma is gone."

But how do they want to use that power? In a synergistic age, should agencies or their holding companies start their own labels with the idea of harvesting homegrown talent for their clients (and making money both coming and going)? Should they at least get a cut of the sales their media buys create? Or should they just shake down the labels for free music in exchange for the free media exposure?

"I'm trying to sell cars. I think Nick Drake and Trio and Styx are entitled to their money," says Ron Lawner, chairman-chief creative officer of Arnold. All three acts had their profiles at least briefly raised ( Mr. Drake died in 1974) after being featured in Volkswagen spots created by the agency. "They re-released the Trio album, and it was great for us," he says. "It was a win-win. I want to do great music that helps the spot, and if the audience discovers something from it, then great. But I have no intention of going into the music business." (VW's "Street Mix" compilation CD is meant to reflect the automaker's brand rather than the agency's foray into entertainment.)

Arnold still prefers to tap hip artists out of the mainstream, like the southern-fried rockers Kings of Leon-whose song "Molly's Chambers" is part of a current Jetta commercial-because "finding things for the audience let's them know you know who they are," Mr. Lawner says, shorthand for saying, trust us, we're cool. That, of course, rubs off on the brand.

For their part, the Kings were a little ambivalent about their advertising debut. In the spot "Independence Day," a couple who likes to blast their rock music in their apartment solves the problem of disgruntled neighbors by jumping into their Jetta and driving to a new house where they can blast their music to their hearts' content, which they do.

"If they had the Kings of Leon actually appear in that commercial, we wouldn't have done it," says Ken Levitan, president of Vector Management, which manages the group. But the way the music was used showing a youthful product and "showing people enjoying the music, playing it louder and louder-was a good advertisement for the band."

But how good is too good? Perhaps the trick going forward for advertisers, especially as megaselling mainstream artists clamor to be paired with brands, is ensuring desperate artists don't hijack the ads.

"The big artists are trying to launch their next albums in the way that Sting pioneered with his Jaguar ad a few years back," Mr. Hirschberg says, citing the groundbreaking deal in which a video for Sting's 1999 single "Desert Rose" from the album "Brand New Day" was run as a Jaguar commercial. It ended up being a win-win situation for both, driving younger drivers into Jaguar dealerships and resulting in more than 4 million record sales for "Brand New Day."

But the obviousness of that win-win scenario also turned off marketers who worry correctly that viewers and listeners can see such deals for what they are-a lucrative example of mutual back scratching-and automatically tune out the message.

"I never feel like it works," Mr. Hirschberg says. "There are so clearly two products being sold with one breath that it never gels into one meaningful, kick-ass piece of communication. It's like when you can feel the product placement in a movie; I just never like seeing the money changing hands."

PICK UP THE PACE

And the pace of such handoffs is quickening. Pioneers like Messrs. Lawner and Hirschberg might just be left behind by more pro-active music brokers like Mr. Rabinowitz and Steve Stoute, a former Universal Records executive who now runs the boutique agency Translation and brokered Gwen Stefani's deal with HP.

They're only now beginning to catch up with even more daring counterparts overseas like Leap Music, a joint venture with London agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Leap owns the copyrights to the original music produced for BBH clients and receives royalties each time corresponding ads are broadcast, and several 30-second spots have already been expanded.

Music Close-up

Leap Music (a joint venture with London agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty) has a 50% share of "I See Girls (Crazy)" by Studio B.

This track peaked at No. 12 on the U.K. singles chart and has remained in the top 30 since release in late March 2005.

"Leap Unsigned" is a compilation CD featuring 12 unpublished acts.

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