Selling or Selling Out – Tomāto, Tomăto

On the radio last night I listened to a show about rock history. The topic was the use of mainstream songs in commercial advertisements.

The concept was birthed by an ad agency contracted by Levi’s Jeans in an attempt to associate a product with a target demographic by means of nostalgia. The astronomical popularity of the concept was bilateral – it sold jeans and it sold singles. Some of the first artists to license songs to advertisements include Elastica, Madonna, and even anti-establishment The Clash.

The most-used album, and the first album to license every song for use in commercials, is Moby’s 1999 “best-selling album” (in so many ways) Play.

The most famous event in commercial licensing is attributed to Bill Gates’ $12M purchase of The Rolling Stone’s “Start Me Up” to laud his upcoming Windows 95 operating system. The song was Gates’ second choice though – R.E.M. denied a $10M offer for “It’s The End of the World As We Know It”.

Like R.E.M., other artists felt commercial association would dilute their relevance and alienate their fanbase, so they choose to opt out of representing the corporate machine.

Or do they?

A quick search on Canada’s struggling Puretracks digital music store yields about $200 worth of R.E.M. fare. Another search on shows plastic media for sale, published by a little company called Warner Brothers. Pristine as their words may appear, the band expects fans to applaud with their wallets. I presume the chaps at WB take some small stake somewhere along the line.

So what’s the difference between hearing a song on your Ipod or in a Gap ad? It’s all about who’s paying your favourite artist’s salary, I suppose. Ad-happy artists are paid by corporations. Artists “with more scruples” are paid by you. Maybe The Clash did uphold their revolutionary persona after all – by selling pants.

You may ask, “But where do I get my music if not from greasy bearded suits in L.A.?” Well, I’m glad you asked by proxy!

Thanks to the underlying openness of the Internet, and the purveyors of freely distributable and modifiable content such as Creative Commons and other proponents of copyleft, music untethered from commercial shackles is abundant in a variety of formats.

Some free music sites:
Creative Commons Audio
The Hornet Archive
Nullsoft Shoutcast
The Internet Archive: Live Music
Brian’s Distraction (plug!)

Even free music repositories are not immune to the call of the almighty dollar. One of the first and most populated free music portals,, used to be a primary means of distribution for thousands of independent artists, offering streaming and downloadable songs and albums, message boards, concert listings, bios, and much more. The site was eventually purchased by Internet media conglomerate CNet, who subsequently took ownership of all the site’s assets. Though the company claimed to have destroyed all hosted files, the site’s illegitimate offspring,, seems to have given the old site’s entire catalogue a new home.

So, if you’re a self-proclaimed music purist who insists on supporting artists who are “for the scene”, you might want to double-check your records. If you’ve bought one of their albums you’ve perpetuated the very commercialism you’ve attempted to quash.

By brian

About Brian Damage:

Who is Brian really?
I live in Toronto, Canada, and work for an IT firm. That's about as much real-world info I'm comfortable divulging here. What you read on my blog is the real Brian, but, for the sake of freedom of speech, I feel most comfortable leaving a gulf between my cyberspace and meatspace personae.

Who is Brian at work?
My ridiculous job title is "Marketing Specialist" since I wear so many hats at work. I'm a technical writer, a specialist in enterprise search technologies, an electronic forms designer, a newsletter author, system administrator... but I'm in the Marketing department so for the time being I'm stuck with this inauspicious title.

Who is Brian at play?

Who is Brian