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A Miller-McCune interview with Bethany Klein of the University of Leeds, who's researching the increasingly close relationship between pop music and Madison Avenue.

This summer, Kohl’s department stores launched a massive back-to-school advertising and clothing campaign, unveiling several brand-new apparel lines inspired — and pitched — by famous musicians, including Lenny Kravitz, Avril Lavigne and Vanessa Carlton. Grammy-winning superstar Kravitz, in particular, seemed inspired by his partnership with Levi’s to design a denim and T-shirt collection for Kohl’s; his new song “Love Revolution,” from his aptly titled recent album It Is Time for a Love Revolution, is a centerpiece of the ad campaign.

Related: Watch the Top 10 Songs in Ads

A decade or two ago, rock stars teaming up with a nationwide department store chain to hawk back-to-school clothing would have raised more than a few critical eyebrows and accusations of “selling out.” But in an era when artists release new singles to accompany iPod commercials and once-sacred classic rock anthems have become all but synonymous with beer and car ads, the Kohl’s campaign simply offers proof that the relationship between advertising and pop music is more intimate than ever. “As transformations in the U.S. radio and music industries have resulted in narrower opportunities for a narrowing range of artists, the advertising industry gladly stepped in to offer musicians and labels large amounts of money and potential widespread exposure,” writes Bethany Klein, Ph.D., in her recent paper “The New Radio: Music Licensing as a Response to Industry Woe,” in Media, Culture & Society. “The sum of all of these shifts and changes created a distinct environment for the production of music culture and cast relationships between popular music and advertising in a new light, with advertisers playing hero to the damsel-in-distress of the struggling artist.”


Klein, a lecturer in media industries at the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds in England, hails from Philadelphia and has carved out a niche in pop-culture academia by taking a deep look at the music industry’s increasingly cozy marriage with Madison Avenue. Her forthcoming book, As Heard on TV: Popular Music in Advertising, will be published in April in the Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series. The result of a year and a half of research on her doctoral thesis, the book is based in large part on original interviews with musicians, licensing managers at music labels, music supervisors for film and television and advertising “creatives,” among others. It looks at the industrial and cultural changes that produced the tighter relationship between music and advertising and examines the questions it raises about artistic expression, commercialism and what it means for music when advertising becomes a primary outlet for creativity and exposure. Miller-McCune interviewed Klein by phone; she was at her home in Birmingham, England. She has since taken a new post and moved to Leeds.

Miller-McCune: In your writings, you trace this back to the electronic artist Moby and the release of his album Play in 1999, which was the first album to have all of its songs, 18 in total, licensed for use in commercials, movies or television. You call it a “licensing orgy.” How did that album change people’s attitudes toward this issue?

Klein: The issue of music being used in advertising had come up many times before. The watershed event that a lot of people will talk about is the use of The Beatles’ “Revolution” by Nike (in 1987). Which brought up a lot of the more moral aspects, since people became aware that The Beatles didn’t have the right to license it and therefore couldn’t deny the licensing either. This really brought the practice into the public eye. Then there were a number of years where you really didn’t hear much, partly because the music being featured (in commercials) was not very controversial and not often new — sort of R&B and Motown. For me, another tipping point was (in 2000) when (Nick Drake’s) “Pink Moon” was used by Volkswagen. Only this time it was really about the practice of redeeming someone’s career who had been sort of a cult artist, but essentially ignored for many years, and doing so in a really beautiful fashion — it was a beautiful commercial to watch. So that was maybe the most obvious predecessor to Moby because that album sold so much more after that commercial than it had sold previously. People started to see it as another venue through which you could make money, sell records, get exposure. Now, the difference is that Nick Drake couldn’t personally experience the benefits because he was no longer alive. For me, Moby, and the year Play showed up everywhere, was really the extreme case of a modern artist who has some control over his rights making use of this avenue to his own advantage, knowing he’s not going to be played on radio, knowing his record label has a relatively limited scope. I think everybody saw it as a real success story.

M-M: In your paper, you also quote a journalist who identified the “pragmatic reason that electronic music is making an instantaneous leap to commercials and soundtracks: No one else will play it.”

Klein: Yeah, that’s true. Historically, if you look at the terms of constructed authenticity in popular music, you’ll find that Moby gets out of certain aspects of it because it is electronic music; it’s not rock ’n’ roll. It doesn’t have the same stakes in the art-vs.-commerce debate that rock ’n’ roll might — although he did get some reaction from some of the commercials based on the products he licensed to. Fans were upset about his licensing to car commercials; he also turned down a number of commercials that he thought might prompt a negative response. So it’s not like it was absolutely easy sailing.

M-M: As you point out in your paper, there’s been a real shift in the music used in advertising since then, away from older music and toward newer, relatively unheralded artists. Do you think that’s part of the Play legacy?

Klein: Yes, and I’m sure it’s one that advertisers themselves have noticed — that they can get music that’s cutting-edge for cheaper, and it doesn’t provoke the same reaction that The Rolling Stones might. The Rolling Stones at this point can do whatever they want; there’s no real rationalization or defense for why they’d license their songs. They don’t need the money. Moby was in a really good position to say, “Look, here are my options, and this is what I need to do to make my music.”

M-M: What are some of the cultural factors you’ve identified that help explain why music in advertising has become so much more accepted and widespread?

Klein: It’s odd, because in a way it seems like a sort of general submission to specific industrial and cultural changes, and yet, when you get down to the specifics, it seems like most people don’t know what those changes are. But they sort of generally know that it’s very difficult to get played on the radio; they sort of generally know that it’s hard to make a living as a musician, that people are illegally downloading music, and maybe that’s making it harder to make a living as an artist. Those aspects have forced fans and critics to soften their views about affiliating with advertising and making money a different way.

M-M: So it’s almost like having sympathy for a dying industry?

Klein: Yeah, I think so. Another aspect of that, too, is that people’s knowledge about copyright is very limited; there is this weird cultural memory around that Beatles case. Sometimes when songs get used, when fans are upset about it, they’ll say, “But I think it probably wasn’t the band’s decision; they must not have had control over it.” Whereas in most cases, the band probably did. But people seem to think that there’s not as much choice for artists; and in a way there’s not, whether it’s about specifically being able to license something or larger choices about how you can make a living off of music.

M-M: For bands who are trying to find outlets for their music, this is obviously a much different situation than the 1960s, or during the era when MTV music videos were new. Among the musicians you interviewed, did you get a sense of how they’re trying to deal with this issue?

Klein: There are very few musicians who would say they won’t license a song to a commercial, no matter what. There are many musicians who draw a lot of distinctions for themselves — about what kinds of products/what kinds of commercials they’d want to be involved in. I don’t think musicians are embracing this as a brave new world; nor do I think there’s the same defensiveness or concern about selling out. People understand now the music industry is much more complicated; the difference between one corporation in the music industry and another corporation in the cola industry is perhaps not as large as we once thought it was. It’s nuanced.

M-M: You interviewed Joe Pernice, the frontman for the Pernice Brothers, who has licensed songs to Sears, and I was struck by his quote: “I like to build things, so I’ve bought a lot of Sears wrenches. I could honestly say I didn’t have a problem with it.” It seems telling that musicians still seem to feel an innate need to justify this practice somehow.

Klein: It’s true, because you get people flippantly saying, “Sure, what’s the big deal? This is what people do now.” But when you further investigate, you find that everybody has some kind of internal checklist: “What kind of product is it? What’s my relationship to the product? What type of commercial is it going to be? Who’s directing the commercial?” If it truly was just submission to hyper-commercialism and an embrace of advertising, would it really matter? The other interesting tension I noticed in the interviews was that all these musicians were, of course, huge music fans. Many of them saw their own work as not very precious, that it couldn’t possibly be a big deal if they licensed a song, but then if you talked to them about instances in which their favorite musicians had licensed to advertising, they couldn’t help but feel that sadness of a fan about it. There was a difficulty in reconciling these two positions, thinking nobody could possibly care that much about your own work but knowing how much you care about other people’s. In my book, I devote a chapter to The Shins. They licensed “New Slang” to McDonald’s, relatively briefly, maybe just during the Olympics a few years ago. And that case was an amazing example of “Oh, people do still care.” You could see in all the interviews that James Mercer, their singer, did about this — and it got brought up in every interview — he was really struggling with the idea: “What’s the big deal? This is just a commercial — it happens all the time.” And, on the other hand, he could recognize how painful it would be if, say, The Smiths got used in a commercial and how terrible that would make him feel as a fan.

M-M: And “New Slang” is an interesting case because the song really exploded after its use in a movie …

Klein: Right, Garden State, which happened after. And that’s maybe another rationale for licensing to advertising because it can be a springboard to less-fraught licensing opportunities.

M-M: Do you think we’re seeing a departure from the old model of songs becoming popular on the radio first, then being used in wider contexts like ads or movies?

Klein: I would hesitate to make broad generalizations there. When you think about how many hundreds or thousands of songs are used every year in commercials, it’s really a small number that are picked up by radio afterwards and can claim this as some sort of salvation. And then in terms of television advertising’s relationship to film, it’s a really delicate balance to strike. Because while in some cases a song might get recognized and then used by a music supervisor in a film, every time you license to advertisement, you’re also risking that particular track losing a certain amount of value in other placements because it’s going to be so attached to the advertisement. So I would think of something like Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” Obviously, this was used in a film soundtrack (notably Trainspotting) before it was used in an advertisement. But it’s become so ubiquitous as the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines theme song I just can’t see a filmmaker wanting to incorporate it.

M-M: So how can radio cope with the idea that advertising is swooping in on some of its turf?

Klein: I’m not sure we should be worried about radio coping in the face of that as much as the whole music industry. And I would hesitate to blindly panic about this because what we’ve known is that, for years, most artists signed to major labels have not been making money from record sales. They’re making money from touring; they’re making money from T-shirt sales. So who this is really affecting the most, it seems to me, is the major players: the labels and the executives, not necessarily the musicians. I think, if this should make us step back and question anything, it’s to question the system that has already been in place and been exploiting artists for decades.

M-M: So what do we do about the labels?

Klein: (A long, heavy sigh.) What do we do about the labels? I’m not sure that I have specific answers for that, but my broader answer about the industry is to encourage more transparency in terms of media policy, media production and media regulation for the public to think about and deliberate on these issues. It’s kind of astounding when you think about how infrequently any regulatory issues are in the public eye; and when they are, they tend to be deeply moralistic issues, like the Parents Music Resource Center Senate hearings (in 1985, which resulted in the Recording Industry Association of America’s “explicit content” warning labels on CDs). You get a debate like that, which is really about protecting you from a certain kind of culture, but you almost never get issues in the public eye about allowing you to be exposed to as many different types of culture (as possible). This is what the debate about media deregulation would extend to, but the public knows almost nothing about it. I say that I don’t have specific solutions because I think it’s up to the public, the citizens, to make those decisions — which they can’t do without any knowledge about how things work.

M-M: But these major labels employ several thousands of people worldwide; they’re such a huge part of the music industry. What do you think is the best way forward for them in this changing landscape?

Klein: (Another sigh.) It’s a really difficult question because I guess I just don’t really care. I mean you’re right to say they employ thousands of people, but I think the music industry as it’s structured might be better off to raze it and start all over again and think about completely different systems of production and distribution, in which those thousands of people can still participate but in a slightly different way. It’s hard for me to think about how to fix an industry that, long before piracy, long before the digital revolution, was already failing in a lot of ways, in terms of cultural explorations.

M-M: How, exactly, were labels falling short?

Klein: Major labels function with the assumption that 90 percent of artists they sign are going to fail — that should have been a red flag for everybody. I mean that’s a bizarre business model in any arena. But particularly in the cultural arena, the idea that the system through which culture is transmitted is dictated entirely by profit should concern us, because that’s going to narrow the types of culture that are transmitted. And then, on top of that, the alternative venues of distribution are stuck in the shadows of these major labels. So it’s not like there’s a viable alternative, necessarily, for artists who don’t fit into this very narrow range that can become the 10 percent that are profitable and popular.

M-M: It also seems like there’s something missing: some kind of entity or service, either on the Internet or through another vehicle, to make up some of the ground that major labels have lost in bringing new music to consumers. Do you get that sense?

Klein: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. One of the advertising creatives that I spoke to talked about doing away with the middlemen of record labels, that ultimately music could be released straight through advertisers. And I just thought, “God, that’s so curious that he would see that as doing away with the middleman when it’s clearly replacing the middleman.” And I can’t say for sure whether advertising executives are worse than record executives, but I don’t think they’re better. So, yeah, I think there is a gap here. And what the Internet offers is some possibility of — if not completely removing a middleman — creating a more transparent middleman and one that doesn’t take away so much of the money. We’ll have to see if cases like Radiohead releasing their music the way they are now (their 2007 album, In Rainbows, was released as a digital download that customers could order for whatever price they chose), whether that starts to change the paths for other artists. I’m still not sure.

M-M: And, really, Radiohead is one of a handful of bands popular enough to take that kind of risk. How much meaning does that have for bands that aren’t at that level?

Klein: I feel the same way about MySpace. For the couple of examples of bands that have been discovered through MySpace and, not incidentally, then signed to major labels, there are millions that are just languishing on MySpace, and most deservedly so. But it’s difficult to assess the situation right now as we’re in it. I’m not sure everything is doom and gloom. And I will say that, as much as I’m opposed to the way that major labels do business, I do — and I will confess this — believe there needs to be a filter of some kind. MySpace is basically music being distributed filter-free; well, what that means is that you get a million bands that are kind of awful and a few gems in there. But it’s a lot of work for consumers, and I’m not sure it’s more productive, or even more liberating, than other models like independent labels that clearly have a type of music they’re going to promote or a fanzine culture that also starts to filter things for you. Do people write fanzines anymore? I don’t know; I guess they blog. Maybe that’s the problem with the many-to-many communication style of the Internet — it becomes more difficult to find gatekeepers or filters you find trustworthy.

M-M: One of the new gatekeepers that has emerged, of course, is iTunes, which this spring passed Wal-Mart as America’s No. 1 music store. The band Coldplay essentially released its new single, “Viva la Vida,” as an iPod commercial earlier this year. What do you make of Apple’s attempt, through iTunes and the iPod, to shape this new music landscape?

Klein: It’s worth remembering that most people in the world don’t have the Internet. I wouldn’t assume that iTunes is going to save everything. Certainly, we’ve seen that albums have decreased in importance for everybody; it has renewed interest in the single in a way we’ve never seen before. That’s an example of how technology can really transform our cultural practices, our cultural behaviors. To that end, iTunes is interesting; and for record labels, it’s really their last hope in terms of making money from music, if they believe that piracy is doing the damage they say it’s doing. But it doesn’t solve some other critical problems that are related to this practice we’re talking about, which is that the commercial radio industry, particularly in the U.S., is not doing what it could be doing for its citizens, which is providing as wide a variety of music as possible, across all markets, in all different ways. iTunes might be fixing some problems in the music industry, but it’s left a gaping hole in the radio industry. It’s impossible to disentangle the two.

M-M: How would you compare the attitude in the United Kingdom versus the United States towards these issues?

Klein: I think there is the same drift in terms of industrial changes and panic around certain industries that you get in the U.S. But there’s a general sense of the public that’s anti-commercialism; you still get articles in papers decrying the use of particular songs in advertisements, and they’re always much stronger in tone than the American press on the same subject. Generally, you have a population that even if they don’t consume public service broadcasting, they will defend its right to exist. My students, who are in their late teens and early 20s, most of them don’t listen to BBC radio or watch the BBC, but they still think it’s an incredibly important part of their culture. And that presents itself in all these discussions. In terms of music in advertising, when it’s brought up in the States, the discussion very quickly moves into “Oh, there’s no such thing as selling out; there’s no art vs. culture; it’s all the same.”  You do get a more complex perspective in the U.K. because of this public broadcasting legacy.

M-M: So what lies in store for the next generation of music listeners? How do you think your students will receive and transmit this culture?

Klein: Like anybody who’s a record collector, something about it makes me a little bit sad, that for them music is something that’s fleeting, ephemeral; it’s downloaded then deleted; it’s not something they hold in their hands. But at the same time, getting back to this idea of an informed public being able to better make decisions about how they want to see their industry structured, the fact that these debates are occurring now probably puts young people in a position to think more clearly about changes to industrial structures, about channels of distribution and forms of production. Maybe that is something they will be more actively involved in as opposed to previous generations who really knew very little about it.

M-M: So advertising won’t kill pop music?

Klein: Yeah, pop music is dead, long live pop music. Interviewing all the people for this project was a good reminder that even these faceless people behind a practice I sometimes deem detrimental to music are incredibly smart and passionate and thoughtful music lovers. So it’s a good reminder that, no, pop music is not dead; we’ve not killed pop music; it’s always going to be there in varied forms. But I think the practice of music in advertising, and others like it, should help us think about how we can improve the channels through which music can be heard and improve the possibilities for consumers. But it’s something that’s part of our souls; we’re not talking about the physical CD or record; we’re talking about music being an incredibly important part of our social lives. That can’t be killed, even by stupid legislation or poor regulation. I was happy to find out people in the music industry are thinking about it, too.

M-M: I suppose that if advertising executives are the new tastemakers, we could be in a worse boat.

Klein: Yeah. Just barely.

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