Sell Out With Me, Oh Yeah

Musicians selling out isn’t really that big a deal anymore—except when it’s done really poorly, as in the case of Beck’s odd NFL ad that made Neil Young mad.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: The idea of selling out has kind of lost all meaning in our modern culture, but there are still moments where the cringe comes on a little strong. One of those moments hit this week when it was revealed Beck had covered Neil Young’s “Old Man” to promote an NFL game that Tom Brady is playing in. Now, Young is very famously not a fan of selling out, but then again, he kind of sold his right to not sell out earlier this year. (He wasn’t alone.) But Beck, a man who I’ve never seen play football, seems like an unusual choice to have anything to do with the NFL or Tom Brady, and I’m sure he was the one that came up with the idea of adding additional meaning to “24 and there’s so much more” that the NFL is claiming. In honor of this new, more esoteric attempt at selling out, today’s Tedium talks about the nature of sellouts. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s GIF is from Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You,” because honestly, what else could it be?

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“The pseudo-nihilistic punk rockers of the 70′s created an impossible code in which no one can actually live by. It’s such garbage. The idea that anyone who attempts to do anything commercial is a sell out is completely out of touch with reality.”

— Kevin Barnes, the lead singer of the indie rock band of Montreal, in a 2007 essay published in Stereogum that effectively shot down the idea that artists were required to live by a specific code to maintain their integrity. At the time, Barnes had faced withering criticism for letting his band’s song be used in an Outback Steakhouse ad, and was attempting to get ahead of an ad the band shot with T-Mobile. In the essay, Barnes added this defense of commercialism in the name of art: “Why commercialize yourself? In the art industry, it’s extremely difficult to be successful without turning yourself into a cartoon. Even Hunter S. Thompson knew this. God knows Duchamp and Warhol knew it. Some artists are turned into cartoons and others do it themselves. I prefer to do it myself.” (He had a profane kicker on that passage, but if you want to read it, you’ll have to check out the piece yourself.)

Beck NFL

What about this man’s career screams “football fan”?

Argument: Selling out is actually a reflection on selling done poorly, or why the Beck cover doesn’t work

I think the reason why the Beck cover doesn’t work comes down to the context, what was being sold, and who was selling it.

Beck is a groundbreaking singer-songwriter who, up to this point in his life, has had nothing whatsoever to do with sports. He is an elder statesman at this point, having produced at least three arguably legendary albums along with a number of commercial successes.

Now, there is no reason that someone has to have experience with a field to perform a good song, but it needs to say something useful and important.

A great example of this is how this commercial for the original Gears of War utilized Gary Jules’ cover of the Tears for Fears song “Mad World,” first popularized in the movie Donnie Darko, to contrast the action-packed reputation that the game series itself had. (Epic Games later recreated this vibe for a later sequel with Sun Kil Moon’s “Heron Blue,” though bandleader Mark Kozelek’s reputation hasn’t exactly aged well.)

In many ways, this is the play that the NFL was hoping for when it hired Beck to cover Neil Young. “Old Man” can be a reflective song; it can open up the story of Tom Brady’s career to new audiences.

The problem is, Beck didn’t do that much interesting with the song. He didn’t add his own color to the tune so much as borrow Neil Young’s, without the benefit of Young’s nasally tones. (Presumably, because the NFL couldn’t get Neil Young himself, Mr. This Note’s for You, after all.) In many ways, had Beck put more of his own imprint on the recording, it might have worked. But he instead simply gave Young something to complain about.

Which is to say, I don’t think Neil Young would be complaining if the cover was done in a way that highlighted the artistic integrity of the original song, and if it was used in a context that actually made sense to both the advertisement and the artist covering it.

Who would that artist be? If I had to put my money on anyone who might have been able to pull it off, and who doesn’t have any sort of personal controversies that might disqualify him, my best bet would probably either be someone with an alternative rock background but a more mainstream profile, like Ben Folds or Dave Matthews, or a country star like Darius Rucker. Folds, for example, has already appeared on television as a celebrity judge, but still has enough artistic integrity to be the artistic advisor of the Kennedy Center. Just his use of a piano alone would be enough to change the nature of the song to make it interesting. Plus these stars have the flexibility to move into advertising; Beck, who won an album of the year Grammy less than a decade ago, has basically never done anything like this before.

But then again, the nature of the ask in and of itself is flawed—cover a song by an artist who famously hates his music being used in advertising, for an NFL game that’s being played so early in the regular season? Like, why go through such hoops to make a cover for such a nothingburger of an event? This football game is going to be forgotten about in two weeks, but Beck is going to have to live down this cover forever.

The best advertising makes you feel things; it inspires you; it tells a story that effectively combines all of the parts. Beck, while not the first artist to cover a popular song for an ad, feels like an awkward fit here because his output feels slapped on. He doesn’t feel like the kind of guy who watches football. And that means the authenticity that would make the advertisement work, given the lack of surprise in the ad, is lost.

And that authenticity element is why Beck performing a Neil Young song in honor of an NFL game feels like a sell-out when, for another artist, it might make more sense.

“I know my feelings toward other musicians that do it has softened.”

— Mike Mills, the longtime bassist for R.E.M., discussing the nature of selling out in a 1997 interview with MTV News. The piece highlights a wide variety of bands that have done it, many of whom have lived to tell the tale, as well as the evolving point of view on what selling out looks like. (Also, this written piece is a fun time capsule from a time in which MTV did interviews with apparently 100 artists at a single music festival.)

Five examples of artists “selling out” that didn’t really feel like selling out

  1. John Mayer helping to promote GarageBand with Steve Jobs. At the time GarageBand first came out in 2004, Mayer was just two albums into a long, varied career that would eventually see him become both a watch influencer and a member of Dead & Company, the modern continuation of The Grateful Dead. Mayer was a hot commodity at the time, and perhaps for that reason, Apple brought him out to demo the music creation tool that is perhaps the most famous default app ever created that isn’t Notepad or Paint. Mayer was sincere on his feelings on GarageBand, so much so that he honored the event on its 15th anniversary in 2019, calling the free app “a kind of altruism on Steve’s part.” Mayer should just be happy Apple didn’t put one of his albums on an iPhone.
  2. Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” being used in Chevy ads. Seger, who lost out on a chance to turn “Downtown Train” into a megahit in the early ’90s, nonetheless found ways to make an imprint on American culture, none better than his decision to offer up “Like a Rock” to Chevrolet starting in 1991; the campaign ran 13 years, and while it was a bit aggressive, Seger liked the message it sent regarding his hometown. “[W]hen Chevy asked for it, for a long time I turned it down, because I just didn’t want it to be in an ad,” Seger said in a 2019 podcast interview. “I’m really glad I did it now, because it sold a lot of trucks to save a lot of jobs, and, you know, this is my home state. So it’s a good thing. And people keep hearing it, so that’s great!”
  3. Moby’s Play. The whole album. I think it can be argued that artists who make selling out their entire brand became in vogue in the late ’90s. (Think about the groundbreaking work Diddy did on this front.) One of the best examples of this is likely Moby, who realized that if he made an album of moody electronic tunes with elements of vintage blues sampled in, the result would be appealing to advertisers. By syncing every song on the album, he transcended the sell-out to simply look like a clever businessman. Plus, it helped the album itself succeed—although some still bristle at Moby’s clever play, the average listener does not.
  4. Red Bull Music Academy. Launched in 1998 and shuttered in 2019, this musical workshop and lecture series found a way to thread the needle between promoting energy drinks and actually helping to build culture around numerous types of music. When the academy shuttered, it led to a wide outcry among those in the know—a clear sign that the company had completely transcended the “selling out” concept entirely.
  5. Sarah McLachlan big-upping the ASPCA. If you’re offering your music’s advertising services to a charitable nonprofit, you are by default not selling out, though it may certainly change how people think of your music, which is definitely one takeaway from the ASPCA’s use of McLachlan’s “Angel” to highlight the plight of neglected animals. The ad was an absolutely massive boon for the nonprofit, raising $30 million in its first two years in action, though McLachlan says she can’t even watch the ads now. “I can’t watch them! It kills me,” she said in 2016.

$300k+

The amount that artists can make from an advertising sync deal, depending on their prominence and the scale of the company buying the deal, according to the firm ReelCrafter. By comparison, TV, video games, and films pay significantly less for syncs, according to the company, meaning that depending on the deal and the artist, it can be the difference between struggling and living comfortably for many musicians—and because of the way the music industry has changed in the past 20 years, such sync deals are usually not verboten like they once were.

I think the key point here is that supporting advertising is not by default bad for music. Sure, it raises questions about the artist’s integrity, but as of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes pointed out long ago, it’s not like most of the artists who inspired modern musicians were afraid of commercial influence, anyway.

If it is presented in a clever way and more introductory or fitting with the artist’s vibe, it can make a lot of sense.

My favorite example of this is the 2005 ad for Sony’s Bravia TV sets, which prominently feature the music of folk artist José González. The advertisers came up with a clever idea—250,000 colorful bouncing balls, bouncing through the streets of San Francisco, a concept that gave the commercial a visual power, especially because it was synced up with an absolutely perfect song.

González covered “Heartbeats,” a song by The Knife that had blown up in indie circles, but not to the point where most people had heard it. So the song felt new and the presentation felt new. The result is that the profile of both González and The Knife rose significantly in the year after the commercial saw release.

A lot of modern ad music is honestly like this, and people don’t bat an eye, because advertisers are often cognizant of the fact that the use has to benefit the artist or they won’t do it.

The problem is, sometimes an ad that clearly does not make sense occasionally gets out. I don’t know how much money the NFL or NBC paid Beck to make an elaborate comment on how old Tom Brady is. (Mind you, Beck himself is significantly older than Brady.) But it most assuredly was not enough.

It feels like an artist who does not do this much was teamed with an advertiser who does not do this much, and together, they created something really questionable and artistically suspect to make a strangely specific message that will be irrelevant in two weeks.

That is not the formula to success in marketing.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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