The Consumer's Music License

Are We Struggling With Third-Wheel Marketers or a Third-Person Effect?

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As if this were not already the gloomiest December of my quarter century, Jon Pareles, The New York Times' chief music critic, was kind enough to spill the last dregs of egg nog from my moose mug on Christmas Eve. His piece, "Songs From the Heart of a Marketing Plan," should give everyone pause, particularly marketers who use music for brand campaigns.

While resigning himself to the undeniable reality that marketers have filled some of the vacuum left by retreating album sales, Pareles wonders aloud how this is affecting our consumption of the art in its most basic form. Have ads turned our attention away from 45-minute albums to TV-friendly, 30-second bites? Have songs become simply a means to unrelated ends? And, if so, do the economics of the industry leave us without an alternative?

Pareles is hardly the first to pose these questions -- although he goes about it more sensibly than few before him -- but for someone like myself who a.) spends an inordinate amount of time following music-brand deals and b.) feels that music has an important role to play when the world looks grim, I found Pareles' answers both plausible and deeply troubling.

Music always had accessory roles: a soundtrack, a jingle, a branding statement, a mating call. But for performers with a public profile, as opposed to composers for hire, the point was to draw attention to the music itself. Once they were noticed, stars provided their own story arcs of career and music, and songs got a chance to create their own spheres as sanctuary or spook house or utopia. If enough people cared about the song, payoffs would come from record sales (to performer and songwriter) and radio play (to the songwriter).

And as music becomes a means to an end -- pushing a separate product, whether it's a concert ticket or a clothing line, a movie scene or a web ad -- a tectonic shift is under way. Record sales once channeled the taste of the broad, volatile public into a performer's paycheck. But as music sales dwindle, licensers become a far more influential target audience. Unlike nonprofessional music fans who might immerse themselves in a song or album they love, music licensers want a track that's attractive but not too distracting -- just a tease, not a revelation.

Some may find it easy to refute Pareles' points by arguing that commerce has always been music's awkward bedfellow and that we are merely riding a very long arc. Others, with deserved sympathy, argue that musicians deserve to be paid for their work and earn decent livings; if consumers are no longer willing to support them, why can't marketers? Both points seem valid, but neither goes far enough to answer the question: Do we care as much about music as we used to?

This is, of course, an impossibly personal and abstract question, and the hard indicators out there are mixed -- people are listening to more music, but spending less money on it. It's also difficult to overcome the "third-person effect," the false perception that while advertising doesn't affect how we feel about songs, it probably affects the average person, who is more susceptible to its charms. Finally, while some artists' cachet is being diminished by the brands they've joined, what does that say about the strength of an artists' work that a dish soap gets top billing in our subconciousnesses?

It seems likely that we've transferred a lot of our attention to the musicians themselves, many of whom have become mega-celebrities in their own right, amicably separated from the content of shiny discs. (See: Puff Daddy, 50 Cent, et. al.) I hardly see any love lost here, although these music mega-celebrities don't seem to have an infinite shelf-life and marketers who pursue them are seeming increasingly desperate.

But how should we feel when we hear The Flaming Lips in a salad dressing ad? Pareles hints at the answer in his conclusion:

Perhaps it's too 20th century to hope that music could stay exempt from multitasking, or that the constant insinuation of marketing into every moment of consciousness would stop when a song begins. But for the moment I'd suggest individual resistance. Put on a song with no commercial attachments. Turn it up. Close your eyes. And listen.

For those like myself, the realization that personal connections with music can be regained by carving out time for purposeful listening is reassuring. And it also points to the critical limitation of music branding: that consumers prefer as few barriers between themselves and their favorite artists as possible. They may become comfortable for a time, but, as recent work by Oliver Sacks and last week's cover story in The Economist argue, human beings need direct relationships with music, and this is not likely to change any time soon. Perhaps that string still has some slack in it, but eventually it will be yanked back.

So, if marketers are still reading this far, does this make your campaigns irrelevant? No, but you should understand that consumers don't want you in the way. Be careful of inserting yourselves too forcefully into their experiences, which are the reason you've got their attention in the first place. The most effective campaigns in the future are going to be the ones where brands manage to step away while managing to leave a soft impression.

Unfortunately (for some), marketers will probably not be shying away from sync licenses any time soon. But consumers have even broader licenses: to negotiate their relationship between art and commerce, like they always have, until they find an arrangement that fulfills their needs. At that point, the question becomes less about the importance of music and more about the role, if any, a marketer has in meeting consumers' needs for it.

[New York Times] Also: Peter Kohan seems to have similar feelings.