Jingle biz rocked by licensed pop in ads

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All those rock tunes popping up in commercials are making superstar bands ever richer and turning unknown acts into the next big thing.

With Bob Seger shilling for Chevy, who needs "The heartbeat of America"?

As recently as four years ago, advertising could provide a cushy living for musicians who had talent but never made the big time. Now, the trend of licensing songs for commercials has the people who compose and produce jingles singing the blues.

"Licensing-that's what's killing the business," said veteran jingle singer Dana Calitri, whose voice has been heard on jingles like Pillsbury Co.'s "My heart to yours" and "Come see the softer side of Sears." A few years ago, Ms. Calitri was easily booking five sessions a week. By last year, she was down to four a month. Her income plunged by 50% in 2002 alone.

For New York music houses, the estimated $150 million business was off by 25% last year, according to the Association of Music Producers. That's following a soft 2000 and 2001.

The drop in business was enough to ground 8-year-old Rocket Music, which closed its Manhattan doors in September. "It's the end of an era for me," said Kevin Joy, a former Rocket partner who recently founded one-man operation Joy Productions.

The traditional jingle, composed expressly to create an identity for a product, has been falling out of fashion for a decade as advertisers chasing the MTV generation look for edgier fare. Even General Electric Co. stopped "Bringing good things to life" this season, after a 25-year run.

"Jingles aren't considered cool and hip at the moment," said Mr. Joy, who has composed standards like, "Ask how. Ask now. Ask Sherwin-Williams."

What's considered cool is that garage band that had a hit last year. And those garage bands are suddenly willing to make deals. "Artists that never would have licensed a song even five years ago are much more open to it," said Rani Vaz, director-music and radio production at Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide.

cold three years

As the cost of promoting musical acts skyrockets, licensing songs for commercial use has become a good way to expose a new record to the public and make a buck.

The collapse of the original ad-music business began in 2000, when a Screen Actors Guild strike stalled ad production for six months, pummeling revenues. Agencies fled to Canada, Prague and South Africa, where they could use nonunion workers. With the effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and an economic downturn factored in, it's been a cold three years. "The business has never rebounded to pre-strike levels," said Jan Horowitz, VP-business manager for David Horowitz Music Associates.

Ms. Horowitz said cool songs provide instant recognition but don't necessarily do a good job of branding. When consumers hear "M'm! M'm! Good!" they think of Campbell's soup. But "Start Me Up" conjures a vision of Mick Jagger long before that of a Ford truck. And, licensed songs often do double duty: "Start Me Up" was used to launch Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 95.

It may take longer for a jingle to become part of the collective consciousness, but when it does, it's the gift that keeps on giving. McDonald's Corp., for example, recently revived "Two all-beef patties ..." for the 35th anniversary of the Big Mac.

That original tune can also be cheaper-the cost can range from $10,000 to $50,000, though paying residuals to singers and musicians can increase that over time. Licensing a hit from an established act can cost from $250,000 to more than $1 million.

"There is the thought that we might be missing the boat by having cool things on the air and not jingles," said Karl Westman, executive music producer for WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, New York.

Even so, the next trend may not give commercial composers a lift. Since so many pop stars, like Celine Dion, are willing to loan out their songs, they may soon be conscripted to write jingles.

Valerie Block is a reporter with Crain's New York Business.

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