Jul 09, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Sellout Watch: U2

Five years ago, U2 was promoting the iPod; now Bono is shilling for Apple’s most sophisticated iPhone competitor, the Blackberry, which is sponsoring the band’s latest tour.


The Moby Quotient on this will be low; no one cares about the song and the product isn’t that bad. But Bono has more money than god right now; note how the band went the extra mile for its tour sponsor by actually appearing in a TV ad for the product. And the worst thing is not only is the ad pretty derivative of that Coldplay iPod spot, as Maura Johnston points out—it’s not even as good.

Jun 08, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Sonic Youth, whining

Via Twentyfourbit.com and the Daily Swarm—a rant in the Guardian from Kim Gordon against Radiohead’s In Rainbows pay-what-you-want model:

“[Radiohead] did a marketing ploy by themselves and then got someone else to put it out,” Gordon told The Guardian’s David Peschek. “It seemed really community-oriented, but it wasn’t catered towards their musician brothers and sisters, who don’t sell as many records as them. It makes everyone else look bad for not offering their music for whatever. It was a good marketing ploy and I wish I’d thought of it! But we’re not in that position either. We might not have been able to put out a record for another couple of years if we’d done it ourselves: it’s a lot of work. And it takes away from the actual making music.”

Gordon, like other artists, obviously hasn’t really thought about what it was exactly that Radiohead did. Community had nothing to do with it.

The idea was that, since the music was going to be available online anyway, why not try to get in front of the issue and make it as easy to pay for as get for free?

Did it work for Radiohead? It looks like it. In the end, the band’s publisher claimed three million “sales” for the album, which I guess is reasonable when you take into account foreign tallies, its own offering, and iTunes, which the group finally broke down and joined.

Since Radiohead released the thing on its own, taking far more from each transaction than the $2 or $3 it might have gotten from EMI, the financial take should have been correspondingly breathtaking, notwithstanding the fact that some fans paid less than they would have otherwise. (The group is also said to have unloaded 100,000 $80 special editions of In Rainbow on fans, representing another chunk of change.)

What does that total? $25 million?

Anyway, back to SY. Leaving aide Gordon’s double-reverse ironic/not-ironic patois, which I bold-faced above, Radiohead wasn’t devaluing its music. It was just dealing with reality, which, unfortunately or unfortunately, has devalued music period.

The question is whether the same opportunities are available to Sonic Youth. The answer is, mutantis mutandis, yes and no. Sure they can do it, but no, they’re not going to make as much money out of it.

Why? Because they’re Sonic Youth.

The real irony here is that the group is one of those bands who probably did better than they should have with its major-label deal, in this case with Geffen; it’s hard to imagine they ever made money for the label. The band seems to have left it amicably—i.e., without any money owing, though its hard to see how it could have recouped its advances from the heady Nevermind era. On the other hand, there’s been this or that re-release of things like Goo, which would presumably bring the band a little bit of money.

Then as now, one of Sonic Youth’s selling points has paradoxically always been its uncommerciality.

Today, on Matador, they would probably benefit from higher royalties, but get much smaller advances and of course benefit from less marketing, the corresponding fewer sales and, inevitably, much less interest from fans. That why it’s gotten on the “We’re gonna play one of our old albums in its entirety” bandwagon—and why it made that ludicrous deal with Starbucks.

Here’s Lee Renaldo, incidentally, explaining that little deal to the Guardian, which deserves credit for bringing it up:

“It didn’t take a lot of blood and sweat from us. We thought we’d try it and see what happens. There’s a certain side to this group that likes perversity, and that’s a pretty perverse concept. At that time, Starbucks were selling records when no one else was. The majors were throwing up their hands. The irony is, for all the spewing it caused on the blogs, it is our most rare record. I have never seen a copy in a store, and I’ve never met anyone who’s seen a copy in a store.”

Funny how Renaldo pats himself on the back for the creepy association, trying to spin it as being radical. (“I threw a drink in this woman’s face. I wasn’t being an asshole; I was being perverse.”) He’s just rationalizing doing a promo deal with a coffee shop trying to look hip. The fact that it wasn’t successful after the band pocketed its fee underscores again the fact that Sonic Youth has done pretty well in its career from the kindness of strangers.

The idea of the old-fashioned major keeping major artistes on board even when they didn’t make any money was always overstated; in the end, its difficult to separate out them from those to whom the labels just paid too much for, given their sales records.

But in the world we live in today cozy homes for the likes of Sonic Youth will be very rare; all it really has, in the end, is that cool factor, which will decline with each Starbucks deal. Gordon’s snipe at Radiohead, which after all is just doing its best to make its own place in that new world, is perhaps a sign of the pressure getting to them.

Jun 05, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Sellout Watch: Jimmie Fallon

Jimmie Fallon is comedically spineless, and has the moral ethos of a timid paramecium. So the news that he’ll be shilling on his new show for Bing, Microsoft’s umpteenth attempt to get into the search game, won’t besmirch his persona.

From the NYT:

[T]he segments on “Late Show” will present Mr. Fallon as a quiz master, asking contestants to use bing.com to search for answers to questions in categories like travel, health and shopping.

“ ‘Bing’ sounds like a Jimmy Fallon word,” Mr. Silverman said, laughing. “The alignment is great.”

In this way, Bing is the new Garden Weasel.

What will be interesting to watch from here on in is how NBC (and Fallon’s creator and puppetmaster, Lorne Michaels) will handle a name host whom they have essentially formed out of clay, and who will obviously do whatever he is told.

These days, 10 or 20 years in the life of a modern media franchise is unimaginable. But in theory, when Conan O’Brien* finishes his time on the Tonight Show there will be an even more pliable shell waiting in the wings—one who makes the pliable Jay Leno** seem difficult.

Since Bing is owned by Microsoft, Fallon probably won’t suffer the same fate as Whoopi Goldberg, a star with similarly high standards in her commercial affiliations, who jumped into bed a while back with another one of those newfangled internets companies and brought home a little problem. (If you’ll recall, she was suddenly the ubitquitous spokesperson for a misbegotten outfit called Flooz.com, which ended up screwing a lot of its customers out of their money when it shut down abruptly.)

As for Bing—Microsoft’s last search gambit, you will recall, involved paying people to use it. (This was the euphoniously named, oddly unsuccessful “Live Search Cashback.”)

The only problem with that was that M’soft couldn’t get advertisers on the thing. After chatting with Steve Ballmer on the subject, one reporter in all seriousness speculated that he was considering paying advertisers to support the idea as well.

At the time, Hitsville contended that the only way to improve on this innovative business model would be if Microsoft also just bought the companies’ products and gave them to consumers, thereby guaranteeing the ads’ success.


* Has O’Brien been funny yet in his new show? After presidential-transition-level coverge in the Times, it was hard not to be at least curious. But I’ve seen only tepid laughs, flop sweat, and O’Brien’s inability to stop hitting the desk top, the thumps from which echo uncomfortably into his mike.

Sample line: Joan Rivers is trying to sell her NYC apartment for $25 million. “It sounds high, but knowing Joan Rivers, it’s probably had a lot of work done.” The audience laughed tepidly, but O’Brien didn’t blink: He followed that up with a Larry King joke.

** Speaking of hacks, Neil Strauss does a blowjob interview with Jay Leno in the newest Rolling Stone. (There’s a short excerpt here; RS doesn’t generally put whole features online.) The departure of Leno from late night would be a nice moment to reflect on a guy who after 17 years on the job will leave no footprints—a colorless gladhander, a host simulacrum. Carson held him in contempt, as does, patently, David Letterman. But Strauss, no doubt looking for a new ghostwriting gig, doesn’t ask Leno anything remotely challenging.

May 05, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Sellout Watch: Todd and “Hello It’s Me”?!?

The spot isn’t online right now, but Todd Rundgren has sold his classic hit “Hello It’s Me” to an antacid tablet commercial.

The song is one of the ineffable glories of its era, a mournful throwaway rag-picked from an early Nazz release and reimagined (for Something/Anything, Rundgren’s best album) as a jazz-pop classic, the glorious offspring of Carole King and Steely Dan.

It’s also about the little things, from the arresting bass triplet that starts the song to the insistent, keyboard-driven beat; from Rundgren’s gentle, unaffected vocals to a sax solo (which as I recall was done by one of the Brecker Bros.) as groovy as anything from the era.

Todd, you might say, is in the details.

Anyway, it’s now a commercial for Tums, and it’s going to be hard to hear it from now on without figuring it’s your acid reflux saying “Hello It’s Me.”

You gotta admit it makes a certain amount of sense, and I suppose Rundgren can make more money off the song by selling it to other treatments for digestive ailments (“When your diarrhea says ‘Hello it’s me,’ try Pepto Bismol!”).

Not to mention cold sores, acne or even herpes outbreaks.

I’ve been thinking about sellouts lately; a few weeks ago, a friend of mine, exasperated by my to-his-lights-doltish insistence on mocking such deals, wrote:

When a recording artist “sells out,” what has he sold? Can what he sold be resold? Is the sale permanent? Is it a bad metaphor? If the cliche didn’t exist, what would we call a recording artist who signed some sort of exclusive/promotional deal? Did Les Paul sell out to Gibson? etc. Is giving a label exclusive rights to sell your recordings “selling out”? Is endorsing a line of musical instruments or amps “selling out”?

To me, “selling out” is as good a metaphor as any, but it doesn’t have to be seen in that way. The issue comes up when artists embrace rock’s attitudinal posturings early in their career, and then turn around and sell the songs they made their reputation with to some TV ad.

Now, some stipulations: There’s a lot of crappy rock songs out there. And there’s rock that is as dishonest and cheesy as any commercial. But those posturings are real, and they put rock’s philosophical center of gravity some distance away from doing jingles to assist the branding objectives of a particular product of a large corporation.

(I don’t have a problem with a rock song about nausea, or diarrhea, or one that advises taking medication to take care of any problem; the issue is shilling for a product you don’t necessarily use—and that just as well might be bad for you or others.)

I’m not saying it’s fair: Rock and roll is a cruel mistress, and sometimes great artists end up financially out of luck. (The Moby Quotient, you will note, takes this into account.)

But: You don’t have to play the game if you don’t want to. So if you do, you deserve to get called on it when you sell your songs for an ad.

(There’s a tangential media issue, incidentally; there seems often to be a tacit agreement between journalists and sellouts not to ask about the commercials.)
So that’s the main point: If you buy into rock’s authenticity construct, you have to live by it.

What I don’t understand is what all of a suden we’re not allowed to even talk about this. Idolator, for example, mocked Hitsville when the Moby Quotient made its majestic first appearance in the pages of the Washington Post.

I attributed the phenomenon then, and still do, to the myrmidons of popism, who get fretful anytime you say anything that might make rock stars or their publicists unhappy.

But you could also put it this way: The extent you care about this in directly  related to whether, as a matter of first principles, you believe that rock and roll holds a special place in the pop-cultural firmament or that it doesn’t.

If you don’t, in a way you’ve excluded yourself in the discussion, because you don’t have anything at stake in it.

That said, you might consider whether there’s any line you will draw. Should Saul Bellow have done commercials? Should he have stuck in some paid product placement in his novels? (“Saul: Manischewitz wants in; can you have someone making matzoh?”)

Should David Foster Wallace have done Absolute ads, maybe, or done commercials for a hip new web site? (“When I’m looking up obscure information to pack into one of my signature orotund footnotes, I surf over to About.com!”)

Symphony orchestras are facing financial cutbacks; should Daniel Barenboim stop a Chicago Symphony concert (as I once saw Gary U.S. Bonds stop one of his shows) …  ask the audience what time it is … answer “Miller Time!,” pop open a bottle and take a swig … before continuing with the show?

In other words, you either believe in art as an activity separate from the crassly commercial or you don’t.

Again, there is no clear line: Rock isn’t a sound; it’s a state of mind, a big tent, a continuum. (“Rock is what you vote for,” Robert Christgau used to write on Pazz & Jop ballots.)

There was always pop music; rock came around about half-way through the last century and after a decade or so of experimentation coalesced around some core values.

One of those values was an understanding (I didn’t say rejection) of the idea of a line between art and commerce. Early on, in fact, the Rolling Stones did a Rice Krispies commercial; the Jefferson Airplane did a Levi’s ad. But there weren’t too many others.

There are many reasons most didn’t, but the main one was that rock traffics to some extent on authenticity; that the emotion and art conveyed through the music is genuine. Again, there’s a continuum: From Phil Ochs to David Bowie, from Patti Smith to Beck, artists have ranged between jut-jawed sincerity and disguised (even mocked) emotions.

Still, they haven’t shilled for crappy products. If the stigma to selling out didn’t exist, why has it been followed so closely by the vast majority of artists?