Friday, October 07, 2005

It's Only Rock and Roll...

A friend who subscribes to ”Rock & Rap Confidential" forwarded me an article about Doors drummer John Densmore’s quiet battle against exploitation of pop music.

To the chagrin of former bandmates Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek and the puzzlement of the marketing industry, Densmore refuses to accede to requests that Doors’ music be used to promote products. And it’s not just chump change he’s casting aside. Cadillac alone reportedly offered $15 million dollars for use of “Break on Through (to the Other Side)” to sell Escalades.

While noting that he doesn’t need the money (still, $15 million!), Densmore offers as his reason, "People lost their virginity to this music, got high for the first time to this music. I've had people say kids died in Vietnam listening to this music, other people say they know someone who didn't commit suicide because of this music…. On stage, when we played these songs, they felt mysterious and magic. That's not for rent."

Although that strikes me as a pretty good reason right there, needless to say, the common reaction to that is that he’s some kind of eccentric flower child, living in a summer of love fantasy world. I found Manzarek’s reaction peculiar. "Cadillac said we could all fly out to Detroit and give input as they start putting together their hybrid models and the way they would be presented to the public…. Artists and corporations working together, that's the 21st century. That's the true Age of Aquarius. But John's ego wouldn't let him see it was a good thing to do." That’s a nice utopian vision, but I think it ascribes to corporations sympathies they don’t hold, at least not that they’ve been demonstrated to support.

Amy Cavenaugh, a marketing executive, claims “Using your music in the modern landscape is not selling out; if it's done right, it's giving it new life." Pete Howard, editor in chief of “Ice” magazine, says "They get a gold star for integrity, but they are missing a train that is leaving the station. Advertising is no longer a dirty word to the Woodstock generation, and in fact, in this landscape, the band will find that if it relies on people who hear the music in films, on radio in prerecorded formats, that with each decade their niche among music fans will narrow. It's advertising — with its broad audience and ubiquity — that gets new ears." All artists want people to hear the music they record; that's why they record it. They also want to make some money out of it. It's nice to make a living at what you love to do (or so I've heard). For some, though, their music is created within a certain context and to the extent that they can, they want to control the context of how it is presented. That's part of the performance. You can't have that if the music is used to sell HP printers. Whatever you had in mind when you wrote the song, for most people, particularly those who never heard the song before, it's now the HP printer song.

How is it that he has veto power over the use of Doors’ music for advertising? In 1970, the then four band members agreed in writing that any licensing agreement would require a unanimous vote. This followed an earlier incident in which Densmore, Krieger, and Manzarek, in singer Jim Morrison’s absence, had agreed to the use of “Light my Fire” for a Buick Opel commercial. When Morrison found out he was furious and threatened to destroy an Opel on stage at every concert if the commercial ever aired. That ad campaign was stillborn.

Once more, in the seventies, Densmore gave in, agreeing to use of “Riders on the Storm” to sell Pirelli tires in Great Britain. Once he saw the ad, though, he felt sick and gave all the proceeds to charity. His opposition to licensing is not just personal; he feels he is standing up for the spirit of Jim Morrison, as well.

Other musicians mentioned in the article who also refuse to license their songs for commercial use include Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles and Bay Area musicians Carlos Santana, Tom Waits, and Neil Young. Santana and Waits, at least, have not only resisted the use of their music but sued to prevent “sound alike” music in ads by companies whose overtures they had resisted.

It’s hard to fault artists who succumb to the allure of the big pay day to allow their tunes to be used to sell soap. I can’t respect that, though. I’m with Densmore on this. Music takes on meaning separate from what is written into it by what people experience when they hear it. It degrades that aspect of the music to cut it into 30 second bites to sell Cadillacs.
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