My Japan Times column for January used the media kerfuffle about Southern All Stars and their dangerous left-wing opinions that war is bad and peace is good and other such related Communism to make a point that was really about music in advertising. Here it is: read it now.
First, to go back to Southern All Stars, we have to understand the context a bit. They were performing a hometown show for fans, so could perhaps have expected their anti-war, anti-government declarations to reach a sympathetic audience, or at least one that has generally bought into their thing enough that they aren’t shocked and outraged by it. However, the performance was broadcast on NHK’s year-end Kohaku Uta Gassen music extravaganza, so it actually reached a far wider audience: the dreaded “general public” and all the horrors that entails. One of those horrors is the potential loss of revenue from advertising endorsements and selling their music for commercial purposes.
My column talks about the need to make a separation between what you do for yourself (and of course the fans who have bought into your thing) and what you do for broader consumption. The musicians I spoke to both to some degree have to separate their personal music from their commercial commissions. Annie The Clumsy can’t sing about her uterus in a commercial for Pocky, and Seb Roberts won’t get very far making anarchist post-hardcore for production libraries – obviously.
In Southern All Stars’ case, that separation is more difficult because they themselves, not just their music, are the vehicle for advertisers. As Roberts pointed out when I was milking him for quotes prior to the article:
“It would do musicians well to remember Ellen Willis’ truism that an artist’s fundamental creation is their own persona. Southern All Stars screwed up by expressing an opinion which fell outside the purview of that persona they’d crafted for themselves.”
The song Southern All Stars performed was a song called Peace & Hi-lite, which on the surface of it is a reference to cigarettes, but which is generally understood as having a left-leaning, anti-war message. Now I do a fair amount of work in the advertising industry myself, and a Japanese colleague of mine remarked to me that he’d been completely unaware of the subtext of that song until people in the media started talking about it recently. The video makes it more explicit, but it’s presented in a lighthearted enough way, with no specific criticisms of the Japanese government. The point here is that there is a line somewhere and Southern All Stars needed to soften the meaning to some degree in order for the song to function in the mainstream; and then when performing to their core fanbase they can make their point more specifically and vocally – unless there are NHK cameras there.
For the average, non-celebrity, working musician, maintaining that separation is easier for now, and can even be useful in some ways. Another musician I spoke to described the process of writing music for commercials as being “like a puzzle” and quite interesting work, while Annie The Clumsy can find the discipline helpful in overcoming writer’s block in her own work. These are both views that resonate with me in the way I balance my personal and commercial writing (and stuff like journalism, which falls awkwardly between the two). A key issue is the degree to which it bothers you to be pouring your creative energies into something that is at best frivolous and at worst outright evil. As my wife (another advertising professional) once put it, “Am I making the world a better place, even slightly, with what I’m doing?” Or as Roberts put it when I spoke to him:
“It’s easy to pull off on a technical level, but it’s genuinely corrosive spiritually. I question the integrity of any musician who would say otherwise,” although as he later added, “It’s only a problem for avant-gardiste contrarians like myself.”
But for how much longer can even this separation be maintained? Advertising is rapidly becoming the only way anyone can make a living from music, and more importantly the primary way music is delivered to people. How long before this advertising-led idea of what music is becomes the unquestioned standard? Or are we already there and left-wing relics like me just haven’t noticed.
The late 90s is an interesting time to look at here. In the UK it was around the time of Britpop, but in America I think a parallel shift was going on over roughly the same period – it’s tempting to take the death of Kurt Cobain as the turning point, but that’s really just a convenient marker for a tectonic shift being driven by far more powerful forces. The Soviet Union was gone and capitalism was the only game in town, and the idea of “selling out” seemed to just die out as a concept. “Why do you hate success?” “Hey, if it works for him, who are we to knock it?”
Meanwhile, music journalism increasingly took its cues from the nonsensical but hypnotically detailed analyses of banal, mainstream pop in American Psycho, delighting in applying the same level of profundity to the latest Britney Spears album that ten years previously it had reserved for the self-consciously serious likes of Echo & The Bunnymen. The growing importance of page views (advertising again) as the Web took over from paper led to the music press’ unlikeable but at least principled form of snobbery giving way to simply “what’s popular = what’s valuable”, all the while wrapping its surrender to consumerism in the self-righteous flag of anti-elitism.
That question of “what’s valuable” is the core question we have to answer. I think if you ask most people now, they’ll say it’s simple: “Does it make me feel good?” or words to that effect. I’m not sure that’s really enough though. Context is not a myth, as the comedian Stewart Lee is fond of saying, and while we might debate the relevance of the context of a song’s creation (once it leaves the artist’s hands, I tend to think they lose control of its meaning to a large degree), the context of its delivery has a very big impact. When Stewart Lee talks about his experience of hearing Steve Earle singing Galway Girl at a music festival, late at night, and then having that experience shattered by hearing the same song in an advert, he’s not just being a snob: he hits on a crucial point. When John Lennon’s Revolution was licensed to a sneaker commercial in the early 80s, people were outraged for a reason, and the remaining Beatles carefully guard the rights to commercial exploitation of their music for good reason. Flying Saucer Attack sabotaged their own career in the early 90s by refusing to allow their music to appear on CD because they felt the context was wrong. Were they idiots? Maybe, but they knew something about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways our understanding of music changes depending on the circumstances under which we hear it and they felt this particular difference was an important one.
“If more people get to hear it, that can only be a good thing, right?”
I don’t know. Can it? Value again: does a greater quantity of listeners in a particular context have greater value than a smaller number in a different qualitative context? Can value be transferred between the two contexts? What is music’s value under these circumstances?
I don’t have a definitive answer to these questions. In my own case, I often get emails from people in advertising agencies or companies that license music, looking to get hookups with the Japanese music scene, and I’m generally willing to help them if I can – I don’t want to impose my own abstract qualms about the “corrosive” effect of advertising on music on musicians without giving them the choice of making their own judgments in the matter. At the same time, I know that what these advertising people in New York, Hong Kong, London and wherever aren’t interested in the kind of music I know and love anyway. As I say, I do a lot of work in advertising and I know what kind of music advertisers are looking for most of the time; they’re interested in hooking into and promoting – and promoting their clients through – stuff that I most likely think is awful and have no particular interest in. If they spent any time listening to the music I write about on here, they’d probably realize that themselves too.
Again though, I don’t have a definitive answer, even to my own satisfaction. Annie The Clumsy is a musician I like a lot and she seems to get on fine making music for herself and for commercial clients, while at the other end of the spectrum, the fact so many musicians I like simply can’t make any money from their work is probably a big reason why they have the freedom to throw caution to the wind and make the kind of stuff I like to begin with.
The truth is that this is just one part of a broader set of issues relating to the concept of value in music and the question of power in art. It’s something I’ll likely keep coming back to as other topics I write about touch on different facets of this discussion. There is no simple answer because there’s no simple question to begin with, but you may rely on me to continue hammering away at it futilely with the limited tools at my disposal.