The year was 1968, the city was Los Angeles, and Jim Morrison, the frontman for the rock band the Doors, was screaming inside a recording studio--but not as part of a song.
Morrison had just learned his bandmates were going to let Buick use the Doors' hit "Light My Fire" in a television commercial for its new car, the Opel.
"It's corporate! You guys just made a pact with the devil!" Morrison ranted, Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek recounts in his biography of the group. If the deal went through, Morrison warned, he'd "smash a Buick to dust" on stage. Buick, not surprisingly, backed out.
What a difference a few decades make. These days, stars ranging from Lenny Kravitz and Liz Phair to Sting and KISS are plugging anything from jeans and lipstick to computers and Pepsi. Electronica guru Moby models for Calvin Klein, the Backstreet Boys were brought to you by Sears, and Got Milk? presents Britney Spears.
Once oil and water, popular musicians and corporate advertisers are collaborating at an unprecedented rate, particularly in the past couple of years. It's a trend that underscores rock's waning role as a counterculture force, while raising questions about the extent to which the performing arts are becoming just another marketing opportunity.
In rock's infancy, "you couldn't have had two more diverse entities than the corporate world and rock music," says Jay Coleman, CEO and founder of Entertainment Marketing Communications International, a firm that pioneered ties between pop music and advertising in the '70s. "The corporate world was scared of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, and the last thing the rock world wanted to do was 'sell out and commercialize.' "
Now, Coleman says, "For the most part it's a mutual admiration society. Most rock and pop and hip-hop acts see that if they do it right, it's a win-win deal."
The many rockers who agree with that assessment include ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, whose latest tour is sponsored by Century 21 Real Estate Corp. In return for the sponsorship, Starr appears in one of the mega-firm's television commercials and chats on its Web site.
"When we were all 20, we were really anti-establishment," says Starr, who also is doing ads for Charles Schwab. "Now," he says of corporate tie-ins, "it's part of the business."
Miles Copeland--the manager for Sting, who has become a frequent figure on television ads through a cross-endorsement deal with Compaq--put it more bluntly. "Nowadays, everybody's into making money," he says.
Though no firm figures exist, entertainment industry analysts say the money poured into promotional deals with pop stars easily reaches hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Mainstreaming of 'Rebel Music'
With rock pushing 50, it's not surprising that the genre has evolved from a voice of protest during the turbulent '60s to an integral part of corporate culture in the money-hungry present, says Howard Kramer, associate curator of the Cleveland-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
And while hip-hop has replaced rock as the voice of youthful rebellion, its fiercely materialistic streak, which finds many rappers rhyming about Rolexes, diamonds and Mercedes-Benzes, makes it a natural for corporate tie-ins.
"The mainstreaming of 'rebel music' is so omnipresent you can't pull it back," Kramer says. "And when something becomes mainstream, all elements of the mainstream will try to absorb it."
While it's questionable how badly Sting and Starr need the dough, many rockers may well use the money to pay the bills.
Copeland argues that most performers sign only deals that don't conflict with their style or conscience.
Eclectic songwriter Tom Waits, who in the '80s successfully sued Frito-Lay for hiring an impersonator to sing a tortilla-chip radio jingle modeled on his song "Step Right Up," was unimpressed. The affiliations between products and pop stars are "all carefully engineered and tested," says Waits, who with Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young is among the few prominent rockers who just say no to ads. For example, he notes, "Nobody is coming out for caskets."
If caskets are out, tours sponsored by alcohol companies are still in, and so, in rare cases, are those sponsored by cigarette companies.
Paying bills and increasing exposure aren't the only rewards from going corporate. In Sting's case, Compaq's sponsorship cushioned his touring costs and allowed him to keep down ticket prices, Copeland says. For baby boomer performers, television and radio ads also are an invaluable way to reach mature fans who are so preoccupied with families and jobs that they often aren't aware their favorite group has a new tour or album.