Bill Hicks famously said: You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever.
When I was a young lad, green and pretentious, I seconded that notion. I thought: How dare Pete Townsend sell his songs for use in commercials?
Now that I’m older, I see that it is not so simple. Making money from music is a very rare thing (and getting rarer by the hour). Ever notice how few musicians DON’T have stories of embarrassment and disgrace? Ever wonder why so few bands are able to wear that stamp of so-called “integrity?”
When you’re one of those precious few like Springsteen who crashed the 1% party by selling albums and going on tour, you can pick your spots and “keep it real.” You can say no to commercials, no to scene-ruining cameos in movies, no to inhumane duets with younger, hipper acts. But remember, the Springsteen elite is a very tiny elite. Even lots of popular acts don’t get rich from their music due to unprofitable deals with their managers and labels.
Those acts that aren’t part of that precious elite have to find other ways to make money. The fact that you’ve chosen to be “an artist” doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay your bills. Your landlord doesn’t care about your legacy.
This leaves you with two choices:
1) Try to make a living by touring long after your voice and body has given out, leaving your fans with the memory of the rickety, expired version of you trying to make some coin by flailing through the hits.
2) License your song for a Land Rover commercial.
At least when you let your songs become jingles, you’re not disappointing your fans in a direct, visceral way by subjecting them to a live show that could be mistaken for an open casket wake. Selling your songs for commercials is a much more passive (and dignified) way to disappoint.
Some might say: why don’t they just get a job like the rest of us? C’mon, you know better than that. What kind of job do you suddenly get when you stop being a full-time punk bassist at 38? What special skills do you list on your resume? Faking a British accent? Drilling Frankenstein Monster knobs into your neck? People with real resumes can’t even get jobs these days. I doubt prospective employers are going to be excited about your second stage blowout at Lollapalooza ‘97.
Next time you’re ready to mount your high horse about bands embarrassing themselves with commercials, THINK OF ALL THE EMBARRASSING THINGS YOU DO FOR MONEY IN YOUR JOB. Is selling a song to Suburu any worse than watching an HR sensitivity video and taking a multiple choice test about it afterwards? Is it worse than fetching coffee for a guy who misquotes Office Space without realizing it is about him?
You’re telling me you wouldn’t appear as a chipper chirping chicken in a KFC ad if it meant never having to see your boss again? Of course you would. Pete Townsend doesn’t even have to play a chicken. All he has to do to rake in the cash is let “Happy Jack” play while some thespian bites on a burger in a Jack in the Box ad. If you can’t understand why he might say yes to that…I CAN’T EXPLAIN it you…(yuck, yuck, yuck).
P.S. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the black and white, NO COMMERCIALS MAN! rant usually comes from young people. Young people usually don’t have grown-up bills. They usually don’t have kids. They usually don’t have mortgages (or even rent payments). They usually don’t have a body that cries out for pricey medical attention. When you’re 23, your only medical bill is that once every three years dentist appointment you make to get your girlfriend to shut up. It is easy to be pretentious about the tug-of-war between art and money when your problems fit in an Altoids box.