The Seger File

An unofficial web site about the music of Bob Seger Last updated April 13, 2001 Edited by Scott Sparling

Money for music:

Once, musical artists recoiled at the idea of 'selling out' to corporations. But the times they are a-changin'

by Joel Reese
Daily Herald Staff Writer
January 23, 2001

Remember the concept of "selling out"?

It was thrown around a lot in smoky coffeeshops in the beatnik '50s and shouted from megaphones in the hippie '60s. Denouncing someone as a sellout meant he was trading his integrity - or even worse, his soul - for the unholy dollar. The word "artist" carried credibility only if it was preceded by the adjective "starving."

But that was then, this is now.

Today, it seems the idea of selling out has gone the way of wearing berets and calling people "daddy-o." Turn on the TV or look at any billboard and you'll find artists cashing in their names and music for moolah.

Consider these examples:

  • Sting's "Desert Rose" - and Sting himself - appear in a commercial for Jaguar.
  • Former DJ Moby's songs from his multiplatinum "Play" album not only appear in several ads (notably American Express, Nissan, Nordstrom and Fox network teasers), but he himself also posed for Calvin Klein.
  • Blue-collar Bob Seger's "Like A Rock" has formed the backbone for an entire Chevrolet truck marketing campaign.
  • Liz Phair - once the posterchild for smart, strong-willed, independent women - splays seductively in a half-shirt for Calvin Klein jeans. The intelligent, subtly subversive members of Blue Man Group do their clever hijinks for Intel.
  • Jimi Hendrix music blares while a Hyundai SUV spins out in the mud.
  • David Bowie's "Changes" provides the background for a computer consulting company.
  • Punk rock anthem "Lust for Life" is the musical wallpaper for - of all things - cruise-ship commercials.

As capitalism runs amok, it seems the notion of artistic purity has become little more than a quaint memory, like eight-track tapes or pet rocks.

Is this such a bad thing? No, says former Chicago record producer Brad Wood, who has worked with artists like Liz Phair and Smashing Pumpkins.

"I don't know that anyone cares about selling out anymore - and I don't know that they should care," says Wood, who now lives in Los Angeles.

Agrees singer/songwriter Joe Henry: "The whole notion of artistic purity means nothing to me. I think it's really dangerous to think in such precious terms. There's nothing pure. It's all theater."

But there remain a few holdouts, such as Libertyville native and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello: "The reason it's become so easy for artists to spend the artistic currency of their life's works selling crummy products is because it's so widespread," he says.

"That doesn't make it right. I think the whole process is very, very oily."

Stairway to Best Buy

Oily or not, it's impossible to ignore the influence of corporate money in rock music today. Huge companies sponsor the tours of major artists - like Eric Clapton, who played under massive Lexus banners; or Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who cranked out "Whole Lotta Love" on a stage paid for by Best Buy.

Other massive corporations, such as Microsoft and IBM, fill the coffers of artists such as Beck, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow and Ray Charles when they play private gigs for these companies.

So to rail against "corporate rock" is futile. The money is everywhere. Which is why the concept of selling out is now irrelevant, says Bob Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University and president of the Popular Culture Association.

"There was always this paradox about being a starving artist: If you're an artist and committed to the message, you want as many people to see your work as you can get," Thompson says. "That means you have to be distributed through the mass media."

And so, Thompson says, "The myth of the purist musician who is true to his art - that's dead."

Wood concurs, saying this supposed conflict between art and commerce is just hypocritical grandstanding.

"Isn't it about getting successful and well-known? Isn't that what it's all about?" Wood asks. "The bigger question is, what is your intent when you're creating your art? Are you compelled because you want to share your experiences with other people? If you are, and someone wants to use your music for a commercial, I say go for it. I think it's awesome."

Poor man, poor man

Wood's argument doesn't work for Pat MacDonald, a singer/songwriter best known as the leader of the band Timbuk 3, which had a hit in 1986 with the single "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades."

Since that release, MacDonald has fallen on hard times: He divorced his wife (the other member of Timbuk 3), began a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful solo career and now lives in Spain.

When he's in the United States, MacDonald lives above his parents' bar in Fish Creek, Wis., and conducts his business from a Pizza Hut pay phone in nearby Sturgeon Bay.

"I think Pat's the world's greatest lyricist - I really do," says Miles Copeland, the CEO of Ark 21 records, which released one of MacDonald's solo albums. "But he doesn't have two nickels to rub together."

It doesn't have to be that way. MacDonald has been offered millions of dollars for the rights to several of his songs. He's received overtures from McDonald's for "Future's So Bright ..." and Clairol for "Hairstyles and Attitudes," among others. He has refused every proposal.

"I just vowed a long time ago that I'd never do that," MacDonald says from his parents' bar, the Bayside Tavern. "You give up a piece of yourself. It's hard to explain to people the feelings involved. It would make me feel dirty."

MacDonald traces his disdain for advertising money back to a mid-1980s Honda scooter ad featuring Lou Reed.

"I never had the same respect for him after that," MacDonald says. "To me, rock music was always about being contrary to the system. It didn't fit in - that's what I liked about it."

Copeland respects MacDonald for his firm convictions, but says that devotion to integrity has a price.

"I'm now the receiving end of this integrity," explains Copeland, who says he's lent MacDonald more than $200,000 over the last several years. "I love Pat, but he calls me and he's literally, literally begging for money - to save his integrity.

"Now I'm thinking, what kind of integrity is that?" Copeland continues. "When you see a beggar on the street with a sign saying 'Give me five cents,' do you look at this guy and say, 'Now there's a man of integrity'? No, you say, 'There's a beggar.' "

And, the argument is made to MacDonald, advertising is a way for people to discover your music. If "Future's So Bright ..." were put to an ad, maybe people would say, "Hey, I remember that song. I'm going to buy that old Timbuk 3 album." And maybe they would pursue your solo work (MacDonald's last album wasn't even released in the United States).

After all, look at how the late Nick Drake's popularity skyrocketed after his song "Pink Moon" appeared in that Volkswagen commercial with the four scrubbed faced teens driving at night along the coast.

Or look at Moby, whose release "Play" didn't garner any attention until the songs starting appearing in commercials and films. Now, his music is everywhere, and the album has sold several million copies. (Indeed, Moby recently received a "cheer" on the VH-1 show "Cheers and Jeers": "Cheers to Moby for selling out," the announcer cheekily says. "Usually we'd be the first to jeer musicians selling their souls to the highest bidder. But the album 'Play' by Moby received next to no play until the DJ turned-rock- star began selling his music for commercials, TV shows and movie soundtracks.")

MacDonald, however, remains unconvinced.

"That's not the kind of exposure I want," he insists. "I'd rather have anonymity than that kind of exposure. At least you can still maintain a certain dignity in anonymity."

Copeland counters, "Here's the point I can't get through to Pat: Nobody cares. God gave you the gift of creativity. Everyone else is benefiting from their creativity, why can't you? When he's 65, he's going to end up in some poor house, and we're all going to be very sad about it."

MacDonald has an ally in Libertyville's Morello, who says trading music for money degrades everyone involved.

"To exploit your audience for your own short-term monetary gain is not a particularly admirable thing," he says. "You should consider what it means to use your life's work to hawk shoehorns. It really, really cheapens the music."

Who's blue now?

But Morello and MacDonald are definitely in the minority these days. Most artists share the view of Joe Henry, who says, "If Jeep called me right now and asked me if they could use some of my music in a commercial, I'd say, 'Can you get me one in blue?' "

Speaking of blue, let's look at Blue Man Group, which formed in New York in the late 1980s.

The group's original intent was to present a subversive alternative to the cultural stagnancy of a decade that gave us fluff like Duran Duran and the Go-Go's.

Since then, Blue Man Group has spread to Chicago, Boston and Las Vegas. Yet, they've maintained their dissident undercurrent, ending their shows with pounding percussion backing the tumultuous refrain, "Feed your head."

Which is why the group's Intel commercials come as such a surprise. Isn't doing a commercial a sellout, considering the group's message of enlightenment and self improvement?

"That's an appropriate question to ask," says Chris Wink, one of the group's founders. "It's the same question we asked ourselves. Personally, I was brought up in the 'If you do a commercial it's bad' school."

For that reason, Wink says he's turned down countless mundane commercial offers over the years.

"They used to come to us and say, 'You're blue and we have a blue product and we want to do this blue thing.' It was really stupid," he says.

Then Intel came to him with an offer of complete creative control - and a lot of money. Suddenly, doing an ad didn't seem like such a big deal.

"This just felt different in my gut,' he explains. "Our ads are little skits. We had a good time doing it."

Plus, "from our point of view, if we can get people to get to know the characters, we can use the media ourselves. We feel we're using them."

Indeed, it's a whole different ballgame now, Wink says. Before, Madison Avenue meant slick corporate raiders in power suits. Now, "You can't rebel against The Man, because now The Man is some 20- something guy with a goatee," Wink says. "He's some guy you went to college with."

So Wink assented, and the Blue Man Group ads hit the air. The result?

"It's been positive beyond anything I could have imagined," he says. "The feedback we've gotten from the ads is, people dig them."

The difference is making good ads, Wink says. And that might be where the next line is drawn - it's not whether an artist does a commercial; rather, it's whether the commercial is good.

"If we did ads that stunk, that would stink," Wink says. "But I'm very proud of our commercial."

Indeed, in a recent interview on VH-1, Moby said he retains control over where his music goes.

"My contract stipulates where things can be licensed and can't be licensed," he says. "So, like, music I've made can never be used in cigarette commercials or weapons manufacturing commercials."

A fan's notes

What about the fans? How do they feel about seeing their idols go from poet to pitchman, from singer to salesman?

Well, it depends.

"It kind of disappoints me, to be honest," says Jackie Armstead of Schaumburg, a lifelong fan of Sting and The Police, about the Jaguar commercial. "I mean, how much more money does one guy need? I'm sure he's not about to go bankrupt, so why would he want to do a commercial for a car most of his fans can't afford? It felt like he was just cashing in his name for some money."

Another Sting fan is also a little disappointed, but seems more pragmatic.

"It was definitely a sellout," says Heather Dietz, a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago who has followed Sting across the country. "But it's where our society is going. So it's something he had to do, and the music is beautiful, so it's something you just have to accept."

Scott Sparling, a die-hard Bob Seger fan and the creator of the Web site, says his favorite musician can do whatever he wants.

"I'm not willing to be very judgmental to say it's wrong for someone to do ads," says Sparling, who lives in Portland, Ore. "We as fans didn't have the genius to write this song. The lyrics and inspiration didn't come from us. I don't think we should anoint ourselves and say we have the right to say whether it's right or wrong."


Return to News and Updates.