Sing A Song Of Selling

Musicians used to think commercials were uncool. No more

When singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright released his first album last year, almost no one noticed. Sales of his eponymous collection of languid pop tunes barely registered, adding up to just a couple hundred CDs per week. And radio wouldn't play him.

Then the 25-year-old appeared in a holiday commercial for Gap Inc., sitting at a grand piano crooning What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? Suddenly, Wainwright rocketed to prominence, landing on Late Night With David Letterman and winning Rolling Stone's New Artist of the Year award. His record label began promoting him as "the guy in the Gap ads," and sales of his album soared to nearly 4,000 a week, according to SoundScan data. "The exposure was just enormous," says Nick Terzo, Wainwright's manager. "It definitely worked for us."

It worked for Gap, too. Wainwright helped Gap build on its reputation for groundbreaking ads, which often feature offbeat musicians to help sell an eclectic image. "The music contributes to defining the brand's personality," says Gap's Rebecca Weill. Wainwright, along with tunes such as Louis Prima's swing hit Jump, Jive 'n' Wail, helped propel Gap's sales up by double digits last winter.

Once viewed as the ultimate sellout, TV commercials have suddenly become a magnet for musicians. Savvy marketers, including Nike, Volkswagen, and Best Buy, are scrambling to find up-and-coming or obscure artists a way to project a hip image. The result: a distinctly '90s version of the great ad jingle that also allows new musicians ignored by radio and MTV to find an audience.

It's a whole new mind-set for advertiser and consumer alike. Plenty of older rock stars, such as Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, still consider it a point of honor to keep their music out of ads. And many of their baby-boomer fans applaud that integrity. Boomers' kids, however, have a different view: They don't mind finding their favorite musicians in ads. In fact, they expect advertising to be another well-executed form of entertainment. "This generation grew up being baby-sat by the TV," says David Watkins, president of New York-based Icon Lifestyle Marketing, which pairs hip-hop artists with advertisers. "To them, TV is not a bad thing."

Even better for advertisers, these unheralded artists come cheap. They're willing to license their music for $100,000 to $500,000--a bargain compared with the $3 million the Rolling Stones charged Microsoft Corp. to use Start Me Up for the Windows 95 launch. "New artists will do a commercial for a nominal fee just for the exposure," says Jay Coleman, CEO of Entertainment Marketing Communications International, a pioneer in pairing advertisers with rock 'n' rollers.

SHOTGUN STRATEGY. Recognizing that scoring a national TV-ad campaign might just be the fastest route to the top of the charts, record labels now shop new CDs to Madison Avenue before they are released to the public. "We have to be everywhere--on the sides of buses, on TV commercials, on billboards," says Atlantic Records Executive Vice-President Ron Shapiro. Hip-hop newcomer Lil' Kim appears in ads for Candies shoes, and young pop diva Brandy is a spokesmodel for Cover Girl. In the past, using a new musical talent to pitch a product might have been taboo, says Shapiro. But today, "we can't afford to be too precious with our marketing."

Why? The old channels for musical breakthroughs are breaking down. Fragmentation of media has hit radio as well as television, making a mass audience harder to find. That means that record promoters must be more open-minded in their choice of platforms. Ad time is just as appealing as radio or TV--maybe more so. "Radio and MTV are less willing to take chances," says Leah Reid, a marketing executive for DreamWorks Records.

Just ask the musicians. Tex-Mex rock singer David Garza spent 10 years promoting his offbeat brand of music but remained unknown outside his native Austin, Tex. Since he began appearing in a commercial for electronics retailer Best Buy this spring, Garza's album sales have doubled--and he has landed a spot on an MTV tour. Singing in ads, says 27-year-old Garza, is "just another way to trap somebody and get them to pay attention to you for 25 seconds." Best Buy gets a chance to show consumers that it sells cool music as well as gadgets. "Absolutely, this is driving sales," says Gary L. Arnold, head of merchandising at Best Buy. "The music buyer is also an entertainment-software buyer. So this has spillover effect."

TRICKY TIMING. As with any marketing fad, there's a risk of burnout. If new music becomes too common in advertising, it could become a cacophonous din that does little to make a brand distinctive. And advertisers that have not already jumped on the new-music bandwagon risk arriving too late. "If you embrace new artists from the beginning, young consumers will believe in you," says Watkins. "But companies that jump in at the last minute will fail."

So what's the difference between a shill and a hardworking musician looking for a break? About 30 years. Wainwright's parents, '70s folk artists Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, came of age at a time when using your music to sell clothes or cars was unthinkable, though Wainwright's manager insists mom and dad are "supportive." The sell-out stigma could return, but for now, TV ads have become today's top 40 radio. And if the Hit Parade leads listeners to a sponsor's door, so much the better for Madison Ave.

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