The Times Are A-Changin' for Musicians and Marketers

Stars Are Getting More Screen Time and May Even Overshadow Products They're Shilling

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NEW YORK ( -- "They'll stone you when you're riding in your car," Bob Dylan once sang, but he seems to have gotten over that fear, as he was more than willing to take a drive in a Cadillac Escalade in a new commercial -- and steal the show from the snazzy General Motors vehicle.
Bob Dylan's appearance in an Escalade ad may distract viewers from the product.
Bob Dylan's appearance in an Escalade ad may distract viewers from the product.

Once considered a leading counterculture figure, the enigmatic Mr. Dylan has transformed himself into an advertiser's friend, and in doing so embodies the wholesale change that's gone in the music industry's relationship to the world of brands.

Mr. Dylan's music and visage sparked buzz for commercials from Victoria's Secret and Apple's iTunes. Now he is appearing in an ad from independent shop Modernista that touts both Cadillac as well as XM Satellite Radio, where he does a music show. He even lends his rough-hewn voice for narration. But the singer is so iconic and his presence in the commercial so striking that some ad executives feel Mr. Dylan, not the products, is what consumers will recall most.

Playing along
And he's not the only one upstaging marketers' products these days. John Legend, Diana Krall and Elvis Costello got more of the onscreen spotlight in a recent series of ads for Lexus than the cars did. Jay-Z won marketing experience by being named co-brand director of Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser Select, but the product has struggled. Sheryl Crow got on board a Dell ad in 2005 -- just as a new single, "Good Is Good," was about to be released.

Madison Avenue is suffering from an Attack of the Rock Stars.

It's no secret that narrower radio playlists and the rise of iTunes have pushed record labels and music publishers toward commercials as a means of getting bands and music out to the public. Usually, tunes and celebrities are welcome as a means to entice consumers who can eagerly zap past ads with a digital video recorder. But the goals of the music men often don't coincide with a marketer's specific mission.

"Listen, it's sensitive business," said Peter Greco, senior VP-executive music producer at WPP Group's Y&R Advertising. "They are using our media dollars to gain exposure."

Mr. Dylan's appearance "definitely dwarfs the product," said Josh Rabinowitz, senior VP-director of music at WPP Group's Grey Worldwide. Even Cadillac admits Mr. Dylan can be a distraction when paired with certain products, though executives felt the Escalade was its most popular model and could hold its own. Modernista took pains to keep Mr. Dylan from overwhelming the car, avoiding scenarios in which he talked about horsepower or the car's navigation system, said David Weist, a creative director at the agency. Mr. Dylan's management told the agency that the singer didn't want his songs used, as it might be seen as self-indulgent.

Paying for exposure
His restraint, however, stands out as an exception these days. Labels and publishers have begun to reduce the cost of using many songs in commercials as a way to gain more exposure. Performance and publishing rights for really popular songs can often run into six or seven figures. But in some cases, particularly when the tunes are new and the artists who sing them relatively unknown, costs can come down to the $40,000-$60,000 range, estimated Eric Korte, music director at the New York office of Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi.

Labels seem more willing to deal because many ads have an online component to them, where songs can be placed for download or streaming. "I have had offers from band management to record labels to, 'Here, take this band or this particular album, put it in an ad and you can have the song for free or we will pay you,'" said Y&R's Mr. Greco.

Dave Freeman wasn't trying to be overbearing earlier this year when he offered songs from Wilco's then about-to-debut album, "Sky Blue Sky," to Crispin Porter & Bogusky for use in Volkswagen commercials. But he definitely wanted exposure for his client. The idea was not to just get a song in one or two ads, but "when one spot is done running, let's get another spot on the air that's going to run concurrently. Let's get the most mileage out of it," said Mr. Freeman, manager-creative advertising and new media at music-publisher Bug Music/Windswept. Wilco's album essentially provides the soundtrack to the Volkswagen ad campaign.

Volkswagen ads were already being shot at Crispin, recalled Bill Meadows, the agency's executive integrated producer-music and talent relations, when a preview copy of the Wilco disc made it into his hands. Executives took lyrics from various songs and used them to explain or accent the action in the commercials. In one spot, a driver grows anxious when valets come to park his VW for him, and he goes into a fighting stance. "I have no idea how this happens," go the words to the accompanying Wilco tune.

As record companies pursue their own agendas, the sound of music may grow less melodious. Such entities are "definitely in it for the exposure," said Mike Boris, senior VP-executive music producer at Interpublic Group's McCann Erickson. Musicians "are thinking about their brand." Which means they don't necessarily care about yours.
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