Are they selling their kudos for a song?
Don't be surprised if you hear your rock hero in the ad break – collaborating with the Man isn't what it used to be, says Chris Mugan
Wednesday 10 November 2010
What price your credibility as an artist? Not a lot, it seems, when you are nearer drawing your pension than drawing breath after some post-gig debauchery. Musical legends we admired for their left-field kudos or rock'n'roll wildman antics are mellowing with age and finding it a lot easier to get into bed with brands eager for secondhand cool rather than groupies seeking another notch on their proverbial bedposts.
New Order and Motörhead may be musically very different, but members of each band have inked deals to work with major corporations on creative projects. The former's ex-frontman, Bernard Sumner, has written a number for sportswear manufacturers Converse in collaboration with one of the UK's most acclaimed current outfits, Hot Chip, and production duo Hot City.
Motörhead, meanwhile, have re-recorded their classic "Ace of Spades" as a shuffling, harmonica-led blues track for a beer advertisement. And Lemmy never seen without a Jack Daniel's in his hand – is he going soft in his old age? The veteran rockers have now gone further and pimped out their forthcoming album. Ahead of its official January release, The Wörld Is Yours will be available on newsstands as a one-off magazine brought out by music monthly Classic Rock.
What is particularly galling is the newfound craftiness evinced by these old stagers, especially New Order. In the past, these Mancunian stalwarts have been lambasted for their clumsy schemes to make money from the dancefloor classic "Blue Monday". Most toe-curling is Sumner singing a jingle to the tune of the 12" best-seller on a TV ad in the US to promote Sunkist fizzy pop. In the late Eighties, admittedly, the band were suffering financially from Factory Records' mismanagement and ploughing funds into the bottomless pit of the Hacienda.
Since then, the single that originally lost money for the band thanks to its artful record sleeve has become something of a cash cow thanks to all the remixes and reissues that followed, so there is less excuse for their decision a couple of years back to let Mars use the tune to sell chocolate bars.
Rather than sell off their 1980 hit to the highest bidder, Motörhead returned to the studio to strip down "Ace of Spades" to its bare essentials and this phlegmatic version succeeds in its own wry, knowing fashion, as Lemmy drawls "I don't want to live forever" before blowing into a harmonica. For Sumner, "I Didn't Know What Love Was" provides a glowing reminder of New Order's Balearic period that helped turn on a generation of indie kids to dance music.
What is frustrating about such moves is that it is younger artists who should be cashing in on these grey areas between artistic integrity and corporate sell-out. Back in the day, performers could adopt counter-cultural personas based on cool aloofness or grizzled decadence and still watch the record and ticket sales rack up. With major labels struggling to support any but their mega-selling acts, the onus is on musicians themselves to connect socially with fans and open up different revenue streams.
This is not necessarily as grotty a process as it used to be, thanks in part to the corporates themselves deciding to operate more subtly – we have come a long way from McDonald's offering to splash the cash every time a rapper namechecked Big Macs. By paying for studio time, the likes of Converse are offering themselves as tasteful patrons rather than bean-counters who see songwriters as mere assets. While this suggests that the marketers are seeking to deepen relationships with artists beyond merely buying tracks from them, the rewards are hard to resist, as the hip-hop community could point out.
For now, though, brands with budgets prefer established names to give them kudos. At least younger acts inspired by Lemmy or Sumner might look at their actions and realise that the world has moved on – but they may have to wait to reap the rewards of these fluid times.
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