Somewhere Over the Radar

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It used to be a virtual taboo for rock stars to allow their songs to be used in commercials. The stigma has faded, however, as many musicians have found that shilling for advertisers is an effective way to promote their tunes in an ever more cluttered music marketplace. As recording artists like Moby, Fat Boy Slim, and even the late Nick Drake have sprouted new followings after their songs have backed commercials, a number of music consultants have taken it upon themselves to hook up advertising agencies with the music industry.

"Music used to be the last thing on the list," says Dave Curtin, president of SubZero, a division of Santa Monica-based music/sound house Hum. "Now, people are realizing a trend - that it's become just as important as everything else." Curtin's company launched this February, with the purpose of linking agencies with under-the-radar bands or musicians (thus the name SubZero). The shop released a sampler CD entitled Superblend, which features alternative artists like Gypsy Soul and Zen Cowboys. It has also hammered out partnerships with labels like OM, Maverick and the London-based Ministry of Sound, which already provides plenty of talent for the European market but is looking to break its artists into U.S.

SubZero even broke into the mainstream after Curtin set up a deal between over-the-radar rapper LL Cool J and FCB/Chicago to do a spot for Gatorade. FCB creatives Jeff Edwards and Colin Costello had wanted to use a track from rapper DMX for the commercial, but were daunted by the lofty price. The creatives turned to Curtin, who got in touch with LL Cool J's agent at Mike Ovitz's Artist Management Group. Cool J himself still commands top dollar, but Curtin was able to negotiate the deal by plugging the commercial as a value-added opportunity for what amounted to extra airplay as he was about to release a new album.

SubZero is not alone in its matchmaking services. There's also the New York-based Agoraphone, run by Beth Urdang, a former Wieden & Kennedy music producer, and Dawn Sutter Madell, a former staffer at music magazine CMJ. The consultancy has advised on projects like the "Truth" anti-smoking spots for Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Arnold Worldwide, and Deutsch's "Wake Up and Drive" Mitsubishi campaign. It also provided Hill Holliday/New York with crooning ideas for William Shatner on the spots. Most recently, it's hooked up dance music artist Andrew W.K. with spot, and Tucson-based alt-rock outfit Giant Sand with a Diet Coke commercial.

Quakebasket, a musical offshoot of editing house Lost Planet in New York, has also made the connection. It introduced the New York band Apples in Stereo to Y&R for a Sony ad, and most recently set up Louisville Kentucky indie-rural singer Dave Pajo, also known as Papa M, with a commercial for The San Diego Tribune, and Japanese group Minamo with a spot for Fleet Bank.

For many artists, "The stigma's been completely erased," says Urdang. "It's something people see more as an opportunity. How many people get actually heard on the radio? On television, there's constant feeding of songs through advertising. People are always going into record shops asking, `Who's that band from that commercial?' " Quakebasket president Tim Barnes agrees. "The reason some bands aren't more popular is that there isn't a more widespread place for them to be heard," he says. "Often, if a band is independent they're obscure just because they don't have the manpower. There's no incentive for a major radio station to play the Apples in Stereo, whereas it does have incentive to play Britney Spears. On a commercial, more people are hearing your work than they would elsewhere. I think that's the great subversiveness of the process."

"I see the analogy this way," says SubZero's Curtin. "A director like McG has done music for Sugar Ray and Smashmouth - alt-rock music videos. Because of his great vision and creativity, he got hired to do commercials, and then ended up doing Charlie's Angels. [see Directors, p. 42] Musicians should be perceived in the same way. Why can't they be inspired to write for commercials?"

For advertisers, catchy, original music that fits a certain vibe has become a prerequisite to a good spot. "Today, a cool ad is cool across the board, and music is part of that," says Urdang. "It used to be that when agencies wanted a different sound they'd just use a punk track, but now there's all different kinds of music available - from avant-electronica to quieter, '60s-sound pop." Urdang's Agoraphone was one of several sources approached by the Los Angeles office of Deutsch when it sought catchy tunes for the latest round of hip Mitsubishi spots.

When asked if there's really any difference in quality between getting music from an actual touring band and going to a music house to create an original track, Urdang believes "it totally comes down to the authenticity. We're really going to the source."

As for the widely held concern about using bands that don't know anything about the rigors of writing for 30- or 60- second spots, "What we try to do is make it as easy as going to music houses, but we're getting the bands to do it," she adds. "And they can do it."

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