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Unknowns' commercial tune

Bands that can't get radio play are licensing music to marketers to gain some exposure.

July 16, 2007|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

Before the people from 1-800-OK-CABLE called, the prospects for the band Future 86 weren't too rosy.

One of the band's only releases was a track on a KISS tribute CD, their tour dates were largely limited to pubs in New Jersey and Connecticut, and drummer Armand Minassian was in the midst of writing a book, "Diary of a Rock and Roll Nothing."

But Minassian figured he might have a shot at becoming a rock-and-roll something after a production company called and asked the band to rewrite the lyrics to one of their songs to shill for a cable company.

The ad, which featured the band jamming while singing about low, low cable prices, aired on local and cable TV in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, as well as on JetBlue flights, beginning in April. The reaction was immediate.

Hundreds of people checked out the band on its MySpace page, while detractors accused members of selling out. (One comment read, "I initially started to throw up a bit in my mouth when I heard this.")

Licensing music for use in commercials isn't just for big name bands like U2 and Led Zeppelin anymore. As lesser-known artists struggle to reach mass audiences in a fractured music industry undercut by rampant piracy, they're finding that TV commercials can give them the exposure that radio play once did.

Some bands are even rewriting their lyrics to sell products, prompting some observers to wonder whether the term "sellout" is any longer an insult.

"This is post-P. Diddy -- selling out is a good thing," said Aram Sinnreich, a partner at media consulting firm Radar Research.

Advertisers are becoming less interested in jingles and music written by Madison Avenue, Sinnreich said, and are tapping into edgier sources.

This began with TV shows such as the WB's "Dawson's Creek," which premiered in 1998 with a theme song by singer/songwriter Paula Cole, rather than a theme song written specifically for the show. Advertisers and other TV programs followed suit.

Advertisers say there's a certain cachet to playing music from an unknown band rather than a canned jingle.

"Everyone has a cool friend that exposes them to new things -- the idea is that a brand can become that kind of channel," said Eric Hirshberg, the president of advertising firm Deutsch LA, who helped pioneer the idea of using unknown bands by playing a song from the house-music group Dirty Vegas in a Mitsubishi ad in 1998. The song became a hit, and the group even put stickers on its CDs linking itself to the commercial.

Indie bands making deals with advertisers might once have been accused of "selling out" by fans, but a younger generation of artists used to music videos and MTV don't see any downside, said Tricia Halloran, director of music supervision at HUM, a Santa Monica-based company that places or creates music for commercials and TV shows. Music fans who have grown up with MTV are accustomed to seeing songs paired with visual images, she said.

Halloran cites another factor: Commercials have become more artsy and less traditional.

That's what persuaded Future 86 to appear in a commercial for Time Warner Cable.

"It's a one-minute music video," Minassian said about the commercial. "We're musicians struggling to make a living -- who would say no to that?"

The commercial might not have been so great for their image, however. On the well-read advertising blog AdRants, a clip of the commercial aired with the headline, "Time Warner Cable Kills Band's Career With Horrible Commercial."

A band's brand might suffer if they do the wrong kind of commercials, or if their fans think they're more focused on advertising than on making music, said Hirshberg, the Deutsch executive. If viewers come away from the ad wondering how much money changed hands, the ad probably didn't work, he said. Rewriting a song's lyrics to sell a brand is especially risky.

But changing words for commercials is the next step in the continuing trend of bands licensing their music to advertisers, as the Future 86 commercial shows, said George Howard, senior editor at ArtistsHouseMusic.org, a website that provides resources for independent artists.

"I don't think that's advisable for a band to do," he said. "You're selling your soul at that point."

For artists, there's another fine line: the choice of being able to make music or not. Tracy Spuehler, a Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter, has been writing songs for about 10 years, but says she was able to finance her second album after her song was placed in a Nissan commercial in 2003.

The 35-year old artist said sales increased significantly, although she doesn't have exact figures, and said it spawned more deals.

"I don't have the ability to get on commercial radio," she said. "This is one of the few ways to be able to reach a wider audience."

She's now had songs placed in a few TV shows and independent films. Spuehler says she doesn't write songs with any brands or TV shows in mind, but wouldn't rule it out.

"If I had an assignment, that might be fun," she said. "Advertising is a different world, and I'd love to tap into it."

alana.semuels@latimes.com

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