Rockers Still Fretting Over Being Called “Sellouts,” Even As They Have Advertisers Nervous

Oct 29th, 2007 // 1 Comment


So long as rockers old and new are worried about the public’s perception, no one’s going to go broke writing trend pieces about “selling out.” This New York Times article looking at the marketing moves of former GNR bassist (and “business school graduate”…who knew?) Duff McKagan is another case in point, as musicians and biz folks alike are trotted out to defend their shilling and make their aging audience comfortable when “rockers are eagerly plastering their names everywhere.” In fact, rockers are now so comfy with “plastering their names everywhere” that advertisers are starting to get nervous that audiences are ignoring the stuff those names being used to sell.

“The barriers are changing and we as artists are making less and less money, and we have to get creative,” notes Mr. McKagan, whose new band has licensed its music to a Victoria’s Secret commercial and movie soundtracks, formed partnerships with entities like the music video simulation game Guitar Hero, and appeared in ads for the clothing designer John Varvatos. “Fifteen years ago, it would have been totally not cool. You would have been selling out.”

But isn’t it still the fans who were buying the band’s records 15 years ago, the all-important touring audience, that are the only ones still hung up on the idea of “selling out,” especially since these stories are often at pains to point out that the kids don’t really think much of a younger band mass-merchandising itself into oblivion in 2007? The small irony for musicians like McKagan and especially contemporaries like Motley Crue, suvivors from a genre that flaunted fusty ideas of “legitimacy,” is that they’ve been forced to do the tricky anti-sellout dance. You’d think Nikki Sixx would be downright impossible to embarrass, but it seems classic rock status makes everyone self-conscious.

The branding wave makes some rockers wince. Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe recalls feeling let down as a teenager when he saw Kiss on a lunchbox. “I was devastated because all of a sudden they were like Shaun Cassidy and the Partridge Family,” he says. Even though it might be hard to distinguish branded lunchboxes from Mötley Brüe, Nikki Sixx rolls his eyes when he sees some of the products that musicians are endorsing. He says he drew the line at baby bottles, even after his advisers pointed out that his fans were becoming parents.
“I think you can go too far,” he says.

Which is called “having it both ways,” and a smart way to assure longtime fans while staying paid. But whatever the feelings of musicians about advertising diluting the power of music, there’s now a worry among ad people that music, or at least celebrity, may still be more powerful than ads. (I know, right?) An Advertising Age report has agency types fretting that since marquee names, like Bob Dylan, are now beating down their doors, the trend for high-profile pop ads may no longer be mutually beneficial.

Mr. Dylan’s appearance “definitely dwarfs the product,” said Josh Rabinowitz, senior VP-director of music at WPP Group’s Grey Worldwide. Even Cadillac admits Mr. Dylan can be a distraction when paired with certain products, though executives felt the Escalade was its most popular model and could hold its own. Modernista took pains to keep Mr. Dylan from overwhelming the car, avoiding scenarios in which he talked about horsepower or the car’s navigation system, said David Weist, a creative director at the agency. Mr. Dylan’s management told the agency that the singer didn’t want his songs used, as it might be seen as self-indulgent.

Of course, that’s Bob Dylan, who’s a special case even compared to Behind The Music stars like McKagan and Sixx. But the article does conclude on this depressing note:

As record companies pursue their own agendas, the sound of music may grow less melodious. Such entities are “definitely in it for the exposure,” said Mike Boris, senior VP-executive music producer at Interpublic Group’s McCann Erickson. Musicians “are thinking about their brand.” Which means they don’t necessarily care about yours.

‘Course that really doesn’t take into account where listeners fit in. But we’re barely a secondary market these days.

If It’s Retail, Is It Still Rock? [New York Times]
The Times Are A-Changin’ For Musicians And Marketers [Advertising Age]

  1. Chris Molanphy

    ‘Course that really doesn’t take into account where listeners fit in. But we’re barely a secondary market these days.

    Because you’re all thieves! Why, you’re on the internets right now! Why should we trust you infernal kids?!

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