September 13, 2007


What would Nick do?One of my favourite groups just now is Wilco. They make jangly, thoughtful music with a unique sound and style. Not that I’m necessarily one of those people, but they’re a favourite of those who especially like “alt-country-rock” (whatever that is), and those folks are often extremely liberal and anti-commercial. Hippies.

The other day I was surprised to hear “Either Way,” a song from the band’s recently released CD, Sky Blue Sky, as background music for a Volkswagen commercial. I figured the online backlash from their zealous fans would be substantial, and I was right. Lots of hue and cry, with the band blaming online file-sharing for its decision to allow a car-manufacturer to use its music to sell the latest smog-maker. Meanwhile, the group preaches environmentalism on its site.

Volkswagen has done this often. They used “Pink Moon,” a song by the somnambulant English hippie-singer, Nick Drake, a few years ago, and in a few weeks more Drake albums had been sold than in his entire career, which ended when he offed himself in 1974 at age 26.

The Volkswagen Beetle became a symbol of the 1960s, so connecting VW with hippie-music makes branding sense. The commercialization creates consternation, but I’m sure that’s welcomed by Volkswagen, too, since it generates buzz and attracts attention.

Licensing music to corporations so that they can in turn sell product is nothing new. The Rolling Stones seemingly have been selling everything they’ve written since Bill Gates gave them millions for “Start Me Up” for the launch of Windows 95. Once the Stones started playing hackneyed stadium shows, commercialization fit their brand.

When John Entwistle died in 2002, The Who’s catalogue suddenly seemed to be all over TV shows and commercials, which was ironic since the band made an album in the 1960s called The Who Sell Out that took the piss out of commercialization.

U2 famously allowed Apple to use “Vertigo” for free to launch a new iPod. The band understood the incalculable value of the exposure and brand co-opting. It was obvious genius: you can’t be accused of selling out without actually selling something. Very crafty.

There are many who argue that pipe music should be heard by as many people as possible, so getting worked up over legalities of copyright and performers’ rights many say isn’t worth the bother.

But what would Field Marshal Montgomery – to pick a completely random well known example – say if Volkswagen took a recording of theirs and used it without permission in a commercial? Would the piping and drumming world be up in arms about the blatant rip-off, or would it welcome the positive exposure for pipe music? Hard to say.

Music continues to be a funny thing. It’s fleeting and powerful, and it can move people emotionally so that they do things like want to buy a new car or operating system. Pipe music is especially emotionally charged, and that’s why it’s used to mark occasions, like weddings, parties and funerals.

But when music meets commerce it seems that, in any domain, ethical turmoil brews.




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