Only Music's Graybeards Can Afford Not to Sell Out to Advertisers

Tom Waits at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif., on Oct. 27 Photograph by John Davisson/Invision/AP

Over the years Bob Dylan has shilled for Victoria’s Secret, Pepsi, and Apple, and during last night’s Super Bowl game he added Chobani yogurt and Chrysler cars to the list. This shouldn’t be surprising—by now we’re used to seeing the Rolling Stones push TVs and Iggy Pop compel us to go on a cruise—but Dylan’s elevated stature makes it feel somehow different. Every time he appears in a marketing campaign, I feel like I’ve been had.

Chrysler’s ad was especially conflicting because it used footage of Dylan as a young man, effectively turning this anti-establishment folk figure into just another pitchman urging people to buy a certain type of yogurt and drive a certain type of car. Which makes me wonder, is there anyone left who won’t sell their soul—or at least their music—to Madison Avenue?
Yes, actually. Quite a few.

In 2005, Tom Waits told NPR that he’d “rather have a hot lead enema” than have one of his songs used in a commercial. He’s so adamantly against the idea that in he’s sued Frito-Lay, Audi, and GM’s Opel division for hiring sound-alike singers to imitate his style. Usually Waits wins these cases.

Then there’s Neil Young, who once recorded an entire song criticizing rock’s commercialization. This Note’s for You was a jab at Budweiser’s This Bud’s for You campaign. And in 1986, Bruce Springsteen turned down a $12 million offer from Chrysler, which wanted to license Born in the U.S.A. In today’s dollars, that would be about $25.5 million, which should give you some idea of how much Bob Dylan might’ve made from Chrysler by saying yes.

But despite these high-profile detractors, there aren’t many ideological holdouts left in the music industry. As album sales decline, commercials have become a way for artists to make easy money. Yes, Lorde’s anti-consumerist hit Royals is already being used to sell Samsung phones.

These days the only people who can afford to say no to advertisers are those who don’t need the money. Like Springsteen, Young, and Waits, they’re older and have benefited from careers that peaked back when people still bought music. Coming up behind them, a new generation of musicians doesn’t always have the luxury of saying no.

One of the biggest fights against commercialism happened last year when the Beastie Boys asked GoldieBlox, a small company that makes engineering toys for girls, to stop parodying their song Girls in an online ad campaign. “We strongly support empowering young girls, breaking down gender stereotypes, and igniting a passion for technology and engineering,” Beastie Boy Mike D wrote in an open letter to the company, “[but] your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads.”

GoldieBlox then sued the Beastie Boys, claiming their parody fell under “fair use,” and the Beastie Boys sued back. The legal dispute is ongoing. That’s probably why, when GoldieBlox aired its first television commercial to 110 million people during last night’s Super Bowl, it went with the song Cum Feel the Noize instead.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.