Do Musicians Have Any Business Starring in Ads?

Bob Dylan shoots pool for Chrysler -- does that make him a sellout?
It's a real testament to our consumerist culture that one of the biggest events of the year for many people is seeing a series of high-budget adverts in the midst of a sports game. A significant amount of people tune in to the Super Bowl every year not because they care about football or even the halftime show, but to see the clever ways businesses came up with to sell something to them.

That in itself is about the least counterculture, anti-establishment thing in the world, so it's no surprise that people are upset that a counterculture, anti-establishment icon like Bob Dylan starred in this year's Chrysler commercial. It's not the first time controversy like this has erupted either. Remember when John Lydon started shilling Country Life butter? So much for punk, right?

But let's take a serious look at this for a moment. This isn't about Bob Dylan, this is a larger issue. Is it really so wrong for musicians, regardless of their reputation, to appear in ads? Is it so wrong for them to use their image to sell us products?

It's a tough issue, especially if your perspective is rooted in the sort of DIY, underground, counterculture ethical philosophy that surrounds so many movements in music, whether the '60s protest folk scene from which Dylan exploded or the early punk and hip-hop movements. On the one hand, yes, this kind of marketing is totally averse to what these genres purport to stand for.

True, Dylan has personally scorned fans who would try to put him in a box and deprive him of doing whatever the fuck he feels like doing, be it going electric, releasing a Christian rock record or Christmas album, or even appearing a Chrysler commercial. But many others have staked their claim on artistic integrity, so that they would "sell out" is toxic to their ethos and their fans' adoration.

Tom Waits is one of those. He's stood his ground against companies trying to use his music for years, preferring not to be associated with the sale of a product. He's even fought it out in court over soundalikes and covers. That's all fine and dandy, and that's his prerogative. I'm sure his fans appreciate it.

But then you have a guy like John Lydon, who used to stand up for all things "punk" in his earliest days, then went and made a butter commercial. To his fans, it was a betrayal of everything they believed about him. The same could be said for Iggy Pop allowing his songs to be used to advertise cruises, even though the irony of a song as dark as "Lust for Life" promoting vacations is hilarious.

Who are we to criticize these guys for making money however they wish though? When Henry Rollins, a notable icon of the punk scene and one guy whose principles you probably cannot question, had his own show on IFC, he spoke on this issue.

What the former Black Flag singer says on the issue really rings true. So many who are now being used in commercials have struggled for years and years to support themselves based solely on the merits of their music. Does anyone believe that Mark E. Smith from the Fall is living in a mansion?

Fuck it. He deserves the paycheck of a commercial for all the years he's made uncompromising music, as well as decisions that have no doubt left him deeper in a financial hole than anything else.

Story continues on the next page.

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Brent Tisdale
Brent Tisdale

As a musician, I'd have to say a resounding YES, people still care about selling out. However, it's not as simple a concept as it used to be. If a revenue stream presents itself, you have to carefully weigh the options. On the one hand, you have no choice but to make at least a certain amount of money, otherwise you can't continue being a band, or put food on the table. On the other hand, you don't want to compromise the integrity of the band in the process. Would I do a commercial? Depends on the product, and if my acting is any good.


Music, and all art, is fundamentally a commodity. We like to pretend that it's not, but it is. Nobody disputes Michaelangelo's greatness, even if he sold his talent to the Medicis. Where it gets hairy, for me, is when your art becomes associated with a product. I admit being disappointed in Iggy Pop for letting a cruise line use "Lust for Life"--on the other hand, the song is itself an indictment of the consumer culture, so maybe the joke is on Carnival Cruise Lines or who ever it is that uses the song. 

When I shop for groceries, do I really want to hear the Beatles playing in the store? It's one of the things I love about Fiesta. They play old-school music. And yet "Hey Jude" is a classic, very touching song that sort of loses its impact if you're listening to it while looking for deodorant. 

I think a more appropriate definition for selling out is that moment in which a musician is no longer in control of his or her work and is now in the service of others. Some of these bands get so big, they develop a small industry around what they do. If they don't go on tour, not only do they not make any money, but their roadies don't make any money, their manager doesn't make money, maybe their label doesn't enjoy the sales that come with the exposure that a tour brings. The sound guys, the promoters, all of these people are depending on you to get off your rear and go to work. At that point, it's less about your art and more about doing a job because you've got to do it.

Or, maybe we inflate the importance of pop music as an A-R-T. Or maybe all art. Or something. I reckon if you have the ego it takes to charge people money to see you go on stage and play music, you've already sold out in some way. Maybe the only way to avoid it is to go all Daniel Johnston and wreck every opportunity you have to make a decent living.


@Anse  Anse. thank you for this response.  i appreciate your being direct. you really took the time  to explain this.

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