'How Did This Song Get In That Commercial?' Some Answers From SXSW In an age when you're more likely to hear a cool new song in an ad before you hear it on the radio, a panel at SXSW addressed the question of how to match mayonnaise with banjos or sneakers with EDM.
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'How Did This Song Get In That Commercial?' Some Answers From SXSW

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'How Did This Song Get In That Commercial?' Some Answers From SXSW

'How Did This Song Get In That Commercial?' Some Answers From SXSW

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Over the last few years, pop songs have come to play so consistently in advertising there are smartphone apps designed to listen and help you name that tune. And among artists, sellout is no longer a dirty word. Think back to 2007 when Apple essentially launched Canadian indie star Feist into the pop stratosphere.


FEIST: (Singing) Oh, change in your heart- oh, you know who you are.

CORNISH: Last year, it was hard to know if online TV service Hulu or the singer BORNS got a bigger lift from the single "Electric Love."


BORNS: (Singing) By your electric love...

CORNISH: So it was no surprise that this year's South by Southwest Music Conference panel called "How Did This Song Get In That Commercial?" was pretty well attended. John Hansa is creative director at the advertising agency Leo Burnett. He says that cultural shift in the music industry is no small thing.

JOHN HANSA: It was the perception of jingles.

CORNISH: Hansa sat down with us just south of downtown Austin, away from the crowds. He was joined by the other speakers from that panel, Michael Paoletta and Bonny Dolan of Comma Music.

MICHAEL PAOLETTA: I think there are still those acts that will license their music to film and TV, for example. But they'll still kind of raise their hand and say no thanks to advertising. But even those artists are less and less today.

BONNY DOLAN: So - I think we were pariah, and then we were much less pariahs.

CORNISH: Think of these two as music brokers. Advertisers come to them and say we need a song for a commercial. Paoletta and Dolan will either commission their in-house composers to write one, or they will pair that advertiser with a singer or band looking to license the use of their songs for cash. And at South by Southwest, people had a lot of questions about that.

PAOLETTA: This is Michael. I would say number one is - how can we get our music into a commercial? That's a question I've been hearing every day here.

DOLAN: Seventeen times a day - and that's what a lot of the panels are about. How do I license my music, and how do I get it in commercials, trailers, movies, on the radio?


CORNISH: And John, in an age when brands try and create, I guess, a lifestyle feel, right - that you're not just someone who is purchasing a product, but somehow, you're aligned with (laughter) whatever ideas or ideals are behind that brand. Does that invite more of this - more, you know, we're past the age of the jingle?

HANSA: Yeah. I think what music does is gives you a shorthand for emotion. And if you don't want to talk or have a commercial where it's just words, words, words, what a song can do is get you from Point A to Point B and connect with an audience quicker.

CORNISH: If the music's right, you don't need any words over it. Michael Paoletta used to write for Billboard Magazine before coming to Comma Music. He looks back to a song that broke through in this way back in 2002. It was used in a Mitsubishi ad. The song was "Days Go By" by Dirty Vegas.


DIRTY VEGAS: (Singing) Days go by and still I think of you. Days when I could live my life without you.

CORNISH: So what's it like for the artist? What are the decisions they have to make when they decide - OK, I want to go this route? I don't know who wants to take this.

DOLAN: There's a band - a big, well-known band, and they will do anything for any amount of money. A lot of them - their decision is really about the money. Sometimes, it's the product. I've had a person say yes, I want to do that beer commercial. And then the manager called and said he can't. He's in AA. So it depends on their beliefs. Some people don't want to do pharmaceuticals. So it's money. It's exposure. And it's the product.

CORNISH: Let's talk more about the money. There are a thousand different ways the music can be used, and this has made it a buyer's market for the advertisers. So how much money can artists make from an ad?

PAOLETTA: I think you're looking at low five figures to mid-five figures.

CORNISH: And that's just to be placed in one ad or...

PAOLETTA: Yeah. But that can be for 12 months TV.

DOLAN: The terms of these licenses - is it going to be in North America? Is it going to be global? Is it going to be on Internet? Are you going to play it in cinema? All this...

PAOLETTA: Weighs in.

DOLAN: ...Weighs into what they're going to get paid. Now if - I'm telling you, if you want to go back to they just want exposure...


DOLAN: ...They could give it to you for $5,000 - take it.

CORNISH: But then what about the bigger artists you talk about, maybe, who are legendary artists who just want to stay relevant?

DOLAN: There's been $2 million licenses.

PAOLETTA: Oh, she did a 2 million...

DOLAN: I did a $2 million license.

PAOLETTA: We nearly did one recently for just over a $1 million.

CORNISH: I guess that you can't tell me who that person is (laughter).

DOLAN: It's somebody that we've all heard of.

CORNISH: OK (laughter).

DOLAN: And it's a song we all know.

CORNISH: Seriously, I tried to get it out of her. Anyway, what happens if a company does not have the $2 million, but wants to have the sound of a famous song or artist? The brand might ask for something that sounds like that. So is it possible?

DOLAN: Not really.

PAOLETTA: Not really. You're walking a very fine line if you...

CORNISH: I remember the band Beach House, I think, sued...

DOLAN: Beach House.

CORNISH: ...Over music that sounded very similar to a popular song.

PAOLETTA: Beach House and Black Keys.


PAOLETTA: Tom Waits. There have been several who have taken folks to court over this.

DOLAN: Years ago, there was this suit where they asked Bette Midler to sing a spot in a commercial, and she said no. And they found a singer that sounded exactly like Bette Midler. And Bette Midler sued, and Bette Midler won.

CORNISH: It was for a 1986 Mercury car commercial.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Hold my hand.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now there's a car that just asks to be driven.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Tell me you're my lover man.

CORNISH: And this lawsuit still hangs over the industry.

DOLAN: And I think that that's what people kind of go back to. You just can't do - you can license a song, and they'll say OK. You can use a song, but when you rerecord you can't sound anything - you can use the melody. But you can't sound anything like the original master. We do that pretty often.

But here's where it really gets - you can get in trouble. Let's say you're the client, and you want to license "Let It Be," and you can't get "Let It Be." And you come to me and say - can you make it sound like "Let It Be"? Well, hello, you already asked for it. They're going to be looking for this. Get a lawyer.

CORNISH: What are the consequences of how far we've gone in this direction, right? Like, if this is the new radio, what are the consequences of that? And, I guess, for what kind of artists?

DOLAN: I think what we were just saying is some artists don't want to - you can use my song. Don't tell anybody I did it. Or they wrote this jingle - don't tell anybody I did it. Some of them still feel like they're selling out.

It used to be nobody would do it, and I'm selling out. But that's when radio was big and there were albums and there were CDs. Now you get one song. The whole music world is different. We have to change with the times, and these are the times.

CORNISH: Bonny Dolan is managing director of Comma Music. Thank you.

DOLAN: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: Michael Paoletta is executive producer at Comma Music. Thanks so much for talking with us.

PAOLETTA: Thank you. My pleasure.

CORNISH: John Hansa - he's executive creative director at Leo Burnett, the advertising agency. Thanks so much.

HANSA: Thanks. It's been fun.

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