How Selling Out Saved Indie Rock

Not long ago, the idea of selling a song for a commercial would have been seen as career suicide. Now, thanks to the music industry’s implosion and the rise of a new generation of artist-friendly ad execs, bands can barely survive without doing so. But has the bubble already burst?


It’s 2 p.m., the Friday before Christmas 2012, on the 21st floor of the Leo Burnett building in downtown Chicago. Young executives, creatives, admins, and interns are all packed into a large meeting room, giddy and restless; today is special. Canadian sister folk-pop duo Tegan and Sara step onto a foot-high stage and play three songs — including the first two singles from their seventh album, Heartthrob, which they will release the following month. The fluorescent lights stay on, the city’s skyline splayed out behind them. Afterward, nearly all of the 200-odd employees in attendance will stand in line, phone at the ready, to pose for pictures with the band, just like fans after any concert.

And Tegan and Sara, who eventually cracked the Top 20 with Heartthrob’s “Closer,” need to win over this audience just as they would at any concert. A track in the right commercial could bring about the kind of attention that magazine covers and radio play alone can no longer garner. Commercial placement, or a sync, has evidenced itself as the last unimpeded pathway to our ears — what was once considered to be the lowest form of selling out, of betraying fans and compromising principles, is now regarded as a crucial cornerstone of success. And as ads have become a lifeline for bands in recent years, the stigma of doing them has all but eroded. But with desperate bands flooding the market, the money at stake has dropped precipitously. Even the life raft has a hole in it.

“A tiny sliver of bands are doing well,” says the duo’s Sara Quin. “The rest of us are just middle class, looking for a way to break through that glass ceiling. The second ‘Closer’ got Top 40 radio play, we were involved in meetings with radio and marketing people who said, ‘The next step is getting a commercial.’ I can see why some bands might find that grotesque, but it’s part of the business now.”

Fifteen years ago, the music industry was still a high-functioning behemoth pulling in $38 billion a year at its peak, able to ignore the digital revolution that was about to denude it entirely. Starting in 1999, sales of recorded music fell an average of 8% a year; 2012 was the first time since then that sales went up — 0.3%. Last year, it reported $16.5 billion in global revenue. America accounted for $4.43 billion of that — approximately the same amount spent by AT&T, Chevy, McDonald’s, and Geico on ad buys in the U.S. alone.

Back in the early ’90s, when the music industry was thriving, commercials weren’t a way indie bands got ahead — the punitive value outweighed the relatively small financial gains bands made for licensing a song to a commercial campaign. Band manager Howard Greynolds, who looks after the careers of Iron and Wine and Swell Season, was an employee at indie label Thrill Jockey when two of its flagship bands, Tortoise and Freakwater, licensed a song for a 1995 CK One campaign.

“I remember people calling us saying, ‘I can’t fucking believe they did that, I can’t support this band anymore!’” says Greynolds. “We were overly transparent then, we told people, ‘Listen, this $5,000 bought them a van — fuck off.’” A few years later, another Thrill Jockey band, Trans Am, were outspoken about turning down a rumored $100,000 deal to license a song for a Hummer commercial. A generation ago, refusing these kinds of offers was a way for bands to telegraph where they stood, the sort of thing that showed their allegiance to the underground and their community.

It’s been nearly 30 years since Lou Reed hawked Honda scooters with “Walk on the Wild Side” and 26 since Nike used (and was summarily sued for using) the Beatles’ “Revolution” to sell sneakers, but the diminishing of this notion’s ability to outrage has sped up over the last decade. Volkswagen used Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” and a half-dozen Wilco songs, Apple placements are gold medals rather than albatrosses for relative newcomers like Feist and rock royalty like U2 alike, and no less an anticommercialism scold than Pearl Jam got in bed with Target in 2009. Such moves are barely even press-cycle talking points by now.

Greynolds says what expedited this change wasn’t just the huge drop in record sales, but as layoffs swept through the record industry, contacts from labels and distributors went to marketing, advertising, and brands. “All of the sudden those were the people at music houses,” says Greynolds. “People from your world. They might be feeding you a line of shit, but there was trust. They were different.”

These new players within the advertising industry proved to be capable navigators of both the ad world as well and the music underground. They could help forge lucrative connections between brands and cash-strapped bands — and their fan bases. Decades of posturing and sanctimony were rendered moot once artists realized that corporate gigs were the only paying gigs in town, a (very) necessary evil.

Mike Coppola / Getty Images

Sitting in his not-quite corner office two floors below where Tegan and Sara played their lunchtime set is the one of the most important gatekeepers of these coveted career-making opportunities, 38-year-old Gabe McDonough, Leo Burnett’s vice president of music. Within the music industry, some believe McDonough and execs like him now play the role once occupied by major-label A&R guys — the talent seekers and overseers whose attention can mean the difference between music being your living or being your basement hobby. He handles everything from music supervision for commercials to pitching artists’ tours for corporate sponsorships. His reputation was made early in his career for “breaking” Santigold with a Bud Light Lime spot and placing Brazilian pop oddities Os Mutantes in a McDonald’s commercial — a spot that AdWeek named one of the five best uses of music in a commercial ever.

That was five years ago. McDonough’s pre-agency cred originated as bassist in Chicago indie-rock band Boas (most of the band went on to form Disappears), and he’s seen as a savvy translator between the creative and corporate sides. His most recent coup was getting Lorde’s “Royals” — her first sync — for a Samsung campaign.

Gabe McDonough, VP of music at Leo Burnett Timothy Hiatt / WireImage for NARAS

McDonough is effusive and modest, reluctant to claim credit for even the things he is often credited for. Tacked on the wall above his desk is a small slip of paper with a Warren Buffett quote: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Dressed in an anorak and expensive jeans, he looks as if he’s in a successful Britpop band. On his desk are a stack of cassette tapes from a producer at a Los Angeles music house and a spray-painted vintage Walkman — a promotional item from another.

“Selling records was how [artists] made money,” says McDonough. “With that gone it’s just never going to be the same. It’s certainly not something that licensing music is going to remedy.” But artists, labels, and managers may beg to disagree: A one-year license for an existing song by a smaller band runs from $10,000-25,000, an original composition can run $25,000-30,000. A marquee-name band, for a yearlong national campaign, could get $150,000 for existing work, or up to $300,000 for an original composition for a multi-year campaign. While licensing an album cut has the potential to break an album and make a career, 30 seconds of original music pays the same as months of intensive touring — and often anonymously.

“Five years ago, more bands said no, but even five years ago, no was the exception,” says McDonough. “A band that turned me down five years ago just came in and played in our office last week.” There are few bands that are no longer gettable; many are eager to take whatever money is on the table. Now when McDonough goes to a band with offers of whatever the client is interested in spending, “it’s almost always yes.”

McDonough insists that getting that perfect song into that right spot is a loose science at best. For a band that is teed up for such an opportunity — like Phoenix breaking through a Cadillac commercial, or fun.’s “We Are Young” in a Chevy Super Bowl spot — it can mean significant sales and radio play, as well as fast-tracking them to the mainstream. It shows they are an even more viable partner for brands. McDonough explains that the synthesis, when a song gets people talking about a commercial, cannot be manufactured. “You can’t talk someone into, ‘Strategically, this is the right piece of music for this spot.’ The first thing people want is something that makes their commercial look great.”

Though licensing a song to an ad is lucrative for an artist, McDonough says that the benefits of this relationship are even more valuable for a client. “Eight out of ten of the most-followed people on Twitter are musicians. Nine out of ten of the most-viewed things on YouTube are music videos. What’s the value of having [a musician tweet] about something to 20 million followers? That’s more than a primetime ad buy on NBC you could spend gazillions on. And musicians are finally starting to realize that this is worth more than any song [they] could write. That’s money.”

Rob Barbato performing with Darker My Love Timothy Norris / Getty Images

For bands and artists seeking commercial dough, the point of entry into the ad-world fray can come through music houses like Black Iris, which are commissioned by ad agencies to compose songs for their clients’ campaigns. While the vast majority of music houses are standard-issue “jingle houses” that may draw upon prerecorded libraries of music, there are approximately a dozen that posit themselves against the old stereotype. Comprising musicians who’ve come from bands in the independent music scene, they hire and/or license music from musicians who are from that same underground. Their stock is in being “music people” and their close associations — which cool scenes, producers, and artists they have a connection to.

Daron Hollowell started Black Iris with two friends from Richmond, Va., after the demise of his band 400 Years. Hallowell, 40, spent the early ’90s sweating it out in basement shows on the hardcore circuit. For him, the revelation of doing commercial work was what it offered artistically. “There’s the idea of writing something beautiful that somebody may never hear or [that may never] see the light of day — I don’t know if that’s any better than the other side of the scenario.” Hollowell says he still has personal music projects on the side, but, “I’m not sure I’d want to be in a band, put a record out every year and a half, and go on tour. I have freedom from that.”

Daron Hollowell, partner at Black Iris music house Jenny Hollowell

Black Iris — as well as enterprises such as Heavy Duty, which boasts HAIM and Vampire Weekend producer Ariel Reichstaid as a partner and staff writers with songwriting credits on nine songs on Sky Ferreira’s just-released debut album — has a cool cachet with ad agencies because of its ties to certain artists with which it works closely. It can offer entry to certain scenes and sounds companies want to transact with; many of the music houses also have other creative sidelines, for other advertising work is the sideline. Black Iris has a singles label, White Iris; Hallowell admits to using this like a business card when meeting with ad creatives.

In a dark production suite in the Black Iris office, composer Rob Barbato is recording two demos for a commercial for a major national financial institution. An agency has commissioned original demos from Black Iris (and several other houses) for the spot. Barbato works quickly, switching between finessing a twee, acoustic pop track and a terse, synthetic one with a loop that mimics a boys’ choir. After a few takes of whistling, his boss, Hallowell pops his head in and interrupts — the singer they’ve hired for the spot is on her way over.

Prior to this, Barbato worked as a musician — first as a member of Darker My Love, later as Cass McCombs’ sideman, and even doing a stint in The Fall. He went to Berklee College of Music, but instead of Barbato pursuing studio work like his classmates, Darker My Love got both a recording and a publishing deal. He quickly became uncomfortable, however, with the artistic compromises that were expected in exchange for advances the band was given. At 23, living on the road was his dream; by the time 30 rolled around, he wanted stability that touring couldn’t provide and began working as a freelancer for music supervisors Beta Petrol, before coming in-house at Black Iris last year.

“Everyone is constantly asking me about it,” says Barbato of his musician friends, who are eager to commodify their songcraft at higher rate than indie rock pays. He tries to help the ones who are genuinely interested whenever he can, but composing for commercials means being an engineer, dexterous composer, and multi-instrumentalist — it’s not for everyone. Barbato, and every producer and music supervisor interviewed for this story, says the common misconception is that writing music for commercials is easy because it’s only 15 or 30 seconds of music, and musicians regard it as lesser art.

Other underground musicians are just happy to dabble — playing or singing on a demo for a spot can bring $100–200 — though some older musicians and those with a particular DIY credibility still insist on keeping their names off of it. Barbato has done spots with members of bands whose names would be familiar to anyone who’s read Pitchfork in the last five years, who take pains to keep their corporate toil anonymous. Barbato understands that, but he’s emphatic that to differentiate between commercial music and indie rock is to draw a line that does not exist; it’s simply a matter of degrees.

“If someone in the independent-rock world thinks that this is bullshit, they should take a look at themselves. They’re doing the same thing; they’re writing albums that people stream 30 seconds of on fucking Pitchfork and then people are like, ‘Oh, I like your album.’”

The real difference between a preening indie-rock band and a commercial composer is that Barbato is pulling down a low six-figure paycheck annually, and he still has the freedom to entertain purely creative pursuits like producing albums. Aside from his salary, Barbato gets royalties if his original composition makes it into a client’s spot. When he was a freelance composer, if a spot made it into a national ad, he’d net a few thousand bucks — more than he ever made playing in successful bands. Some of Black Iris’ core staff originated in the Richmond hardcore scene; almost all of its employees and freelancers — including members of Fool’s Gold, Eric Pulido of Midlake, and Andy McFarlane of the Twilight Sad — still play and tour in bands.

Barbato is setting up the studio to track vocals with a female singer, a known-name solo artist in indie rock. She’s done demo work for Black Iris periodically and is looking to get back into it; she’s broke until her album comes out this fall. (She asked not to be identified.) Though she is signed to a prestigious indie label with worldwide distribution, she’s barely scraping by and has been saying yes to whatever opportunities arise. Today, it’s harmonizing on a bank commercial for $100 while in Los Angeles to play Coachella.

She curls up on the black leather sofa in the control room and Barbato plays her the track a few times so she can pick up the melody. “So, kind of a Shins-y thing?” she asks. He nods. The song is sweet, pretty, California folk pop, with a little ukulele. If stretched to song length, it’d be getting raves from music sites for being so instantly memorable.

Barbato sets her up with a mic in the neighboring tracking room and the singer runs through her clarion aahs a few times until she nails it. Barbato gets a few takes and gives her the thumbs-up. They got it.

Lunch arrives, and Barbato, Hollowell, and the singer catch up over their salads. She’s put her stuff in storage, she’s trying to figure out what she’s doing with her life and her career. She’s tried her hand doing freelance composition for spots — the money for that work is better — but she admits she doesn’t fully have the knack for it; composing often involves quickly revising a piece of music several times to meet a client’s specifications. She is eager for session work like this, which is easier for her to fit into her schedule.

On her way out the door, the singer asks, “So, should I just invoice you then?”

“Yeah,” says Hallowell.

She flashes a big smile and reminds them of her availability for next week before she waves good-bye. Neither track would ultimately wind up being awarded the spot; the client ended up licensing a preexisting track from another artist.

Karl Walter / Getty Images for Coachella

Beta Petrol’s founding partner Bryan Ray Turcotte is perhaps the ultimate poster child for outré artists seeking credit in the straight world. The small firm specializes in music supervision for film, TV, and commercials, and Turcotte is known to be one of the foremost punk collectors in the world, having amassed a stunning amount of memorabilia, art, and ephemera. On display in his office is a Cannes Lion he won for a Nike spot, as well as the original mold for Devo’s flowerpot hats.

Turcotte is author of best-selling punk art tome Fucked Up and Photocopied, and the Beta Petrol office houses two employee-run labels — one issues vinyl only, the other cassettes. Turcotte’s meeting prior to his interview for this piece was with Gee Vaucher of British anarchist-punk heroes Crass about a series of exhibitions Turcotte is curating with Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Beta Petrol’s ad-world business is tangled in its creative endeavors, serving as the money hose for artistic pursuits. But Turcotte knows commercial work is the only lifeline some bands have and sees it as a way to help keep artists going for another album, another tour.

When Turcotte started out 12 years ago, many artists considered commercial work to be gauche, but a big part of the problem, says Turcotte, was the (corporate) messenger. “They don’t know how to talk to DIY artists about what it means,” he says. “It was just, ‘We want your song in perpetuity.’” It was a natural place for Turcotte, a former musician, to serve as a go-between.

“It was an uphill battle. Some bands were not going to do it at all.” Over time, Turcotte found bands that would. Then it was a matter of working the corporate side to finesse the licensing rights, whittling terms down to what was actually needed rather than blanket licenses. The next steps were unconventional work-arounds; Turcotte would often circumvent managers, publishers, and labels — people who had a piece of the artists’ pie — in order to appeal directly to an artist about why the spot was right for them. (Turcotte once called Lou Reed at home about use of two Velvet Underground songs; the ploy worked.) And all of this was fueled by a Robin Hood philosophy that is, in its own way, punk rock.

“I got into the business to put the money where it should be — in artists’ hands,” says Turcotte.

Bryan Ray Turcotte of Beta Petrol Courtesy of Beta Petrol / Via Facebook: BetaPetrol

“It was more money than we made in a year,” says Matt Johnson of Matt and Kim, a band born of Brooklyn house shows, explaining that their advertising windfall also gave them a mainstream career along the way.

Before that, the duo, who are a couple, were touring constantly and hovering around the federal poverty line. Though they had trepidation about what doing a commercial would mean, it was limited to fear of backlash from within the DIY scene of which they were a part. In 2008, they’d licensed “Yea Yeah” for a Virgin Mobile campaign — negative reaction was limited to a few Myspace comments. The following year, when Beta Petrol wanted their single “Daylight” for a Bacardi spot, the duo’s initial impulse was to take the money and run.

“We thought, maybe no one would ever see the ad, or even recognize the song,” says Johnson. The money would buy them a van, though it was enough to have bought them a house. They said yes, and quickly began to regard it as much as a Matt and Kim commercial as a Bacardi one. “I have a gold record for that song, and it wouldn’t be here if it had never aired.”

For some artists, taking a check from Bacardi, Pepsi, or Red Bull is an easier transaction than dealing with labels in that it’s cut-and-dry — everyone knows what they’re getting.

“What artists need are resources to make music, go on tour, make videos, grow their networks, and expand their audience,” explains Adam Shore, who manages Best Coast, who have soundtracked commercials for Windows, Payless, and J.C. Penney (and recorded their debut album at Black Iris’ studio). While bands need the same things they always have, record labels are at a loss for how to create revenue and provide reach. Larger deals (and larger advances) come at the expense of selling off an artist’s rights to everything — publishing, merchandising, tour revenue.

Meanwhile, a commercial sync has more reach, nominal terms, and bigger paydays. If ad execs are the new A&R, then it only serves that brands are the new record labels, yet “brands can provide these better than labels ever could, at minimal cost and effort to them,” says Shore. “Plus, they don’t want to own your albums.”

Bryan Ray Turcotte explains it this way: “You can be very successful being a small band that has control of its destiny versus a bigger band that has to answer to a [record label].” Compared with record deals, which have become insidious and vast as labels seek greater dominion in order to profit, licensing a song for a beer commercial is practically free money. It’s a choice at a time where options are rare. “When we started, you could control where your music was or wasn’t,” says Quin, “but now that feels impossible.”

In recent years, as bands and managers have seen that ads can be a proven method of discovery for new artists, it’s become much easier for Turcotte to get songs. “I’m seeing baby bands talk about advertising the way that baby bands used to talk about getting signed, which is very interesting to me,” he says. “It’s like the in-house music producers are the new A&R guys, and the bands want an ad, just the way they wanted a record deal. That’s what they aspire to have. And that’s something I could never expected because I never thought that it would have that much power.”

The evolution has also happened within the business itself. A song can put nuance to a brand identity; an artist’s identity — what their art has made us believe about them and why — can be just as easily loomed to a product. That has long been understood, but perhaps what has evolved since “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” went from soda-pop jingle to Billboard Top 10 pop single is just how much meaning a band, a song, and their fan base can impart in this co-signing.

Johnson admits that while syncs are how Matt & Kim make their living now, he is mindful of corporate credibility — the duo recently turned down a spot for a breakfast product (the spot ran with a song composed to sound nearly identical) as well as spots that a friends’ band later said yes to. What won’t they do? “Yogurt,” says Johnson. “Cheesy commercials with the mom — it’s not artistic. We’d have a hard time keeping our edge as a band.”

Michael Buckner / Getty Images for vitaminwater

Almost a year after Tegan and Sara played their Leo Burnett lunchroom gig, they’ve finally landed their first national spot — stemming from a different agency gig they did this past summer, placing “Shock to Your System” in a JBL campaign that begins in November. Some within their promotions team are worried that after all this effort, a commercial spot that introduces an album track won’t be the thing that seals the deal. Says Quin, “If people can’t connect that song to you — your name, your face — then it’s all for naught.”

Still, McDonough is emphatic that even a saturated market is better than nearly any option an artist could have: “Ads are not the answer; it’s just a piece of the puzzle.” Now that so many bands are trying to get their piece of it, the value on sync licenses have come down. (“Way down,” he clarifies.) The trend is away from original compositions and toward existing tracks, which are always cheaper. “Two decades ago, there was crazy money,” McDonough says. “The money now is not life-changing for anyone.”

For all the freedom and choices an infusion of ad money can provide or the signal boost a well-placed spot can provide, it comes at a cost. Success can change things, just as sure as a platinum record once did, and access to lump sums can affect which direction a band is facing as a corporate client becomes the only paying audience they have.

While advertising cannot save or replace the music industry, there is one undeniable fact, says McDonough: “These big companies are the last people paying musicians what they are worth.”














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