Overexposed Ad Songs: Has Madison Avenue Found Its New 'Hey Soul Sister'?

'Home' by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros Lands in Ads for the NFL, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Microsoft Kin and 'Cyrus'

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At first glance, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros are well on their way to becoming this year's Train. The 10-piece Southern California folk-rock act has enjoyed more than a year's worth of exposure thanks to the widespread commercial use of its music.

The band's single "Home" has appeared in spots for everyone from the NFL, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas and Microsoft's already-deceased Kin phone to Fox Searchlight's trailer for "Cyrus" and a viral Levi's ad -- not to mention an adorable father-daughter YouTube clip that's already gotten more than 10 million views since January. Those placements and more make are enough to make "Home" the "Hey Soul Sister" of late 2010, early 2011.

Then there's a series of ads for the 2011 Ford Fiesta featuring the band's song "Janglin'" that have gained recent traction through multiple airings during this season's "American Idol," among other places.

Yet even with all the incremental exposure, the band's music hasn't quite catapulted it to major commercial success. Unlike Train, which was an established, major-label band for more than 10 years before it licensed its songs to everyone from Samsung to Coca-Cola to "Glee," Edward Sharpe & the Magentic Zeros was a relatively obscure, independent band (signed to Vagrant Records, published by Chrysalis Music) before its songs started popping up virtually everywhere. The band's debut album, "Up From Below," peaked at No. 76 on The Billboard 200 last summer, and neither "Home" nor "Janglin'" has yet to generate enough radio airplay or digital sales to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 (though "Home" did reach No. 25 on the Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart).

Jeremy Maciak, who heads new media for Vagrant Records, said "Up From Below" has sold more than 230,000 copies since its release in July 2009, while the NFL and Ford spots have each led to a 32% increase in album sales after their initial airings. The label also used paid search ads on Google and Facebook to help potential fans connect the dots.

"The audience commercial licensing affords you is invaluable," Mr. Maciak said. "Because music is such an emotional thing, it's really tough to qualify what is that turning point where a person recognizes the song and becomes a fan of the band who goes and purchases that song. We try to just coat them with as much exposure as possible because you never know when you will hook someone to get them to fall in love with the music."

Still, all the incremental revenue from commercial licensing has yet to bring much financial gain to the group. Bryan Ling, manager for the band and lead singer Alexander Ebert (a.k.a. "Edward Sharpe"), said he has yet to tabulate exactly how much revenue the band has generated from licensing, but said that the band typically collects mid-six figures for a larger commercial deal and closer to $15,000 to $30,000 for placement in a TV show or movie trailer. After each one, it's split 10 ways across the group's members. "It's a big band, so no one in the band is getting wealthy yet off of any of the stuff we've done since we've spread it around," Mr. Ling told Ad Age. "Everyone takes care of each other. We all split everything equally. Not one person is walking away with more than the other."

Instead of major revenue, the band has two missions behind its commercial strategy. "They want to license their music because they feel like A, it's a cool thing to be a part of or B, it'll broaden their fan base. They trust that the team is going to get them the fairest amount of money at end of the day." Corporate responsibility goes a long way, too. Mr. Ling said the band used to Google a company's history when it was considering its first music licensing deals, which proved to be a fruitless task. "Basically, you're going to find something wrong with every company out there, especially the big ones, if you do that," he said. Instead, the band has focused more about what the message of the commercial or product is to evaluate the song's potential use.

Virtually anything involving documentary film is a go for next to no money, as are sports ads. "Anything that has a positive message we usually say yes to," Mr. Ling said. (The band declined comment for this article.) But if a brand misinterprets a song's message for commercial gain, it's out.

"There was an AT&T ad that wanted to license 'Home,' and the ad was basically this guy sitting on a couch who gets picked up and brought on his couch into an AT&T store," Mr. Ling recalled. "So 'Home' was an AT&T store, which the band was adamant, 'We are not going to say yes to this.'"

Lead singer Mr. Ebert and fans
Lead singer Mr. Ebert and fans Credit: Bryan Ling

Lead singer Mr. Ebert, who recently released an eponymous solo album under the name "Alexander" for Vagrant, also turned down an ad for a major car brand that would have featured his single "A Million Years." Mr. Ling said the spot features a poem praising the many benefits of car companies and wanted to juxtapose the song's message with the poem. "That song's extremely special to Alex. It didn't feel right to be part of this campaign even though they pushed really hard," Mr. Ling said. "They threw a lot of money at us, and we were even looking for a second song. We thought, 'Maybe we should do it, and use this money to build our own studio.' But at the end of the day, he didn't feel like it was the right way to use his song."

The upcoming fourth season opener of AMC's "Breaking Bad," however, will feature Mr. Ebert's song "Truth." That wasn't an easy decision, either, for Mr. Ebert. "Kind of promoting meth use is something that he had a hard time with," Mr. Ling said. "We had to look at the scenes and see how it went down. He had to do some things to get OK with it."

Charity also plays a major part in the band's licensing strategy. Tom's Shoes, which famously donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every paid sold, is the sole sponsor of the Magnetic Zeros' Railroad Revival Tour, which kicked off its sold-out six-day stint last weekend. The band has also donated a portion of its proceeds to Charity: Water -- and has even used that commitment as a point of leverage with ambush marketers. After Levi's used "Home" for its "Guy Walks Across America" viral spot without the band's permission, the group asked if Levi's would donate the cash it would have otherwise spent on licensing the song to helping Charity: Water build a well in Ethiopia. Levi's obliged with a $5,000 donation, Mr. Ling said, enough to furnish the well.

Mr. Ling is aware and wary of the fine line too much commercial exposure can attribute to a band's career, but he's hopeful that the band will have its "1901" moment instead of its "Hey Soul Sister." Cadillac's use of the Phoenix song "1901" helped catapult the band and its album to top 40 status and its first gold record.

"There's certain ads that are really big, you can tell, for certain bands. Phoenix and the Cadillac ads, that was huge," Mr. Ling said. "Every once in awhile you notice a song being really good or really bad. We never license anything for longer than a year. It would suck to have a song be killed in an ad by overplaying it."

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