Can bands sell out anymore?

The curious case of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and Microsoft's Kin.

With music, there's no bright line between art and commerce. Ever since the dawn of mass media, when big-band radio shows were commercially sponsored, musicians have explicitly endorsed products or allowed their songs to be used in advertisements.

Fuel for that bus isn't cheap. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, MySpace

At the same time, there's a notion among some musicians and fans that rock 'n' roll is sacred, and that artists who sell their music to commercial sponsors are less talented or less deserving of fame and fortune. This notion ebbs and flows as the music industry changes and has been particularly strong in certain subcultures--particularly the original punks and what was called "college radio music" (think indie rock or alternative) in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Flash forward to 2010. As CD sales have collapsed and record companies are less able to afford the big up-front payments that used to help bands get established, sponsorships have become culturally acceptable as a way to get exposure and money. Sonicbids, a company that was founded to help beginning artists book live gigs, even has a branch of its business devoted getting marketing deals with big brands. This trend hasn't been greeted warmly by everybody--Sleater Kinney's Carrie Brownstein wrote a particularly good column on the subject back in November, and music industry gadfly Bob Lefsetz rails against commercialization pretty frequently.

This week I had an experience that threw the whole debate into sharp relief. A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to the music video for a song called "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. It's incredibly catchy. It reminded me of a spaghetti-western version of Midnight Oil. (That's good in my book.) For once, I felt like I had a little bit of an inside scoop on something exciting. I was looking forward to catching them at Coachella this weekend.

Then, on Monday morning, I was waiting in a conference room for Microsoft to announce its forthcoming Kin phones when the song began playing softly through the speakers. I mentioned the band to the presenter, and he was surprised I knew who they were. I thought we were sharing a moment of musical synchronicity--until he mentioned that Microsoft had licensed the song for the launch. Now, "Home" is featured prominently on the Kin home page--it starts playing when you view the video for the Kin social-networking feature known as The Spot. While writing about Kin this week, I've heard the first few seconds of the song dozens of times. Oh, and apparently there will be a Kin tent at Coachella.

My interest in the song and the band has suddenly diminished. I know it's not rational. I have nothing against Microsoft or the Kin team, and I can't blame their marketers for having good taste. I can't blame the band--it's almost impossible to make a living in rock 'n' roll, and for all I know the members of the band had nothing to do with this placement. But fair or not, my opinion of the song and the artist have been irrevocably altered. And I would have felt the same if this song had been used in a commercial for Apple or Volkswagen or any other company.

Does this make me a dinosaur? Do you respect artists who license their music for commercial purposes? Does it make a difference what product the song is advertising? Is "selling out" an antique notion? Let me know in comments.

 

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