When Indie Music Meets Advertising

I was really pleased to see this long-form article, “How Selling Out Saved Indie Rock,” on Buzzfeed the other day. It explores the intersection of my two favorite industries — advertising and music — and although it’s admittedly pretty biased and I wouldn’t go so far as to say that selling out saved indie rock (as the article’s sensationalized title suggests), I agree with it for the most part. Basically, the piece is about how indie artists, struggling to make a living amid plummeting record sales, are increasingly turning their songs over to be used in commercials. The indie music community has traditionally balked at the thought of selling out to the corporate world of consumerism, but nowadays, it’s a little more complicated. As in, it’s become more accepted that ‘you gotta do what you gotta do,’ and getting a song in a commercial can be a big break for a lot of these artists. Signing a licensing deal with an ad agency is no longer considered an artistic compromise to the extent it used to be.

Much like many of the industry people quoted in the article, I’m of the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with indie artists taking a paycheck from advertisers. Even though I understand where the opposing argument comes from, I think the concept of “selling out” is ridiculous. I mean, how can making good music and making money be mutually exclusive? That just makes no sense at all. Jeff Tweedy, frontman of Wilco, definitely said it best:

“The idea of selling out is only understandable to people of privilege.”

—Jeff Tweedy


*Side note: I highly recommend reading this article about how Tweedy built up the Wilco enterprise. Wilco is a rare example of an indie band that’s been able to successfully tread the line between business and art. Jeff Tweedy is one really smart dude, and I think a lot can be learned from his business model.

Anyway, when I heard Tame Impala’s “Elephant” in a Blackberry commercial earlier this year, I was definitely surprised. Mostly, though, I thought it was so cool that Tame Impala — an insanely talented band that I think more people should know about — was being featured in an ad campaign for such a huge brand. The commercial put Tame Impala out there for more people to discover, and to me, that’s great. Think about it this way: Why wouldn’t you be in support of musicians making the money they need in order to make more of their art? I want my favorite bands to get noticed. I want them to be successful. I want them to make a comfortable living and keep touring and put out more records. If all of this means putting their music in a 30-second spot (given that it’s done tactfully), so be it!

The issues raised here bear a lot of similarity to what I witnessed at a New Hampshire indie film festival I went to last month (for my Media & Society class). At the festival, we sat in on a panel about indie film acquisition, distribution, and marketing. During the Q&A session at the end, it quickly became apparent that many of the audience members were disgruntled indie filmmakers who hadn’t seen much success on the money-making front. They drilled the panelists about how it’s possible for an indie film to be profitable.  

This was somewhat unexpected and really interesting to observe. Yes, the indie film community prides itself on the artistic value of its work, but at the same time, we have to remember that indie filmmaking is a business. The same goes for indie music. It’s just not practical to look at these underground communities as untainted by financial interests. These artists have to, and do, find ways of making ends meet — no matter how much they might prioritize the art itself. Check out this interview I did with the director of the indie film Goodbye World (2013), Denis Hennelly, who said that although it’s not the primary factor, obviously doing well and making money is on their minds:

So, this makes me curious as to what other profitable models — besides ads and the like — exist for indie musicians during a time when online streaming platforms like Spotify, Pandora, and Soundcloud are taking over the game. It’s clear that with music available for free online, surviving solely on record sales is a thing of the past. We’ve just started to see bands adjust to this reality. I honestly think it’s going to take a complete restructuring of record labels in the long run, but I have no doubt that, for the time being, bands will come up with other innovative ways of sustaining themselves.