Mon, Jan 05, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Like music to the accountant’s ears

Peddling recordings as inexpensive artworks is a much-diminished enterprise. Musicians, who have to eat and be heard, are turning their hands to merchandising to make megabucks

By Jon Pareles  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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In Creator, the rawest track on Santogold’s debut and self-titled album, the singer Santi White boasts, “Me I’m a creator/Thrill is to make it up/The rules I break got me a place up on the radar.” It’s a bohemian manifesto in a sound bite, brash and endearing, or at least it was for me until it showed up in a beer commercial. And a hair-gel commercial too.

It turns out that the insurgent, quirky rule-breaker is just another shill. Billboard reported that three-quarters of Santogold’s excellent album has already been licensed for commercials, video games and sound tracks, and White herself appears in advertisements, singing for sneakers. She has clearly decided that linking her music to other, mostly mercenary agendas is her most direct avenue to that “place up on the radar.”

The question is: What happens to the music itself when the way to build a career shifts from recording songs that ordinary listeners want to buy to making music that marketers can use? That creates pressure, subtle but genuine, for music to recede: to embrace the element of vacancy that makes a good sound track so unobtrusive, to edit a lyric to be less specific or private, to leave blanks for the image or message the music now serves. Perhaps the song will still make that essential, head-turning first impression, but it won’t be as memorable or independent.

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 channeled the taste of the broad, volatile public into a performer’s paycheck. 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.

It’s almost enough to make someone miss those former villains of philistinism, the recording companies. Labels had an interest in music that would hold listeners on its own terms; selling it was their meal ticket. Labels, and to some extent radio stations and music television, also had a stake in nurturing stars who would keep fans returning to find out what happened next, allowing their catalogs to be perennially rediscovered. By contrast, licensers have no interest beyond the immediate effect of a certain song, and can save money by dealing with unknowns.

As the influence of major labels erodes, licensers are seizing their chance to be talent scouts. They can be good at it, song by song, turning up little gems like Chairlift’s Bruises, heard in an iPod ad. For a band, getting such a break, and being played repeatedly for television viewers, is a windfall, and perhaps an alternate route to radio play or the beginning of a new audience. But how soon will it be before musicians, perhaps unconsciously, start conceiving songs as potential television spots, or energy jolts during video games, or ringtones? Which came first, Madonna’s Hung Up or the cell phone ad?

Not wanting to appear too crass, musicians insist that exposure from licensing does build the kind of interest that used to pay off in sales and/or loyalty. Hearing a song on the radio or in a commercial has a psychological component; someone else has already endorsed it. Musicians who don’t expect immediate mass-market radio play — maybe they’re too old, maybe they’re too eccentric — have gotten their music on the air by selling it to advertisers. That can rev up careers, as Apple ads have done for Feist and for this year’s big beneficiary, Yael Naim, whose New Soul introduced the MacBook Air. (Sites like findthatsong.net help listeners identify commercial sound tracks.)

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