In Mad Men, advertising folk are portrayed as slick-haired supermen – Olympian shaggers with an unerring sixth sense for locating people’s unconscious desires.
It’s a beautiful fantasy, but it doesn’t square with real life. In reality, the industry is populated by unprincipled shysters who steal other people’s ideas without a moment’s hesitation.
Pitchfork followed up the story, pointing out ad soundtracks that bore uncanny resemblance to tracks by Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes (both have since been removed from YouTube).
This sort of thing has been going on for years, but the industry seem to have got even more shameless of late. Check out this Magnum commercial, which “references” The White Stripes’ ‘Doorbell’.
Or have a look at this:
Remind you of anything?
It is possible to challenge this legally, if you’ve got the funds to do so: Tom Waits won a big payout after successfully suing Audi, who’d run an ad featuring a Waits soundalike.
Trouble is, it’s difficult for bands to complain, since commercials have a habit of disappearing from the airwaves. Recently, The White Stripes accused the American military of stealing ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’ for use in a recruitment ad – but it’s impossible to judge their claim, since the promo was abruptly yanked, and is not online.
This is a grey area within the already murky world of copyright. You can’t patent a chord sequence or guitar sound. If you could, Pachelbel would get a credit every time a songwriter did this, and The Edge would get paid whenever a guitarist stamped on a delay pedal.
Meanwhile, companies such as Stockmusicsite flog incidental music that’s explicitly similar to, say, Coldplay’s ‘Clocks’, but just different enough to avoid a lawsuit (average price of one of their royalty-free tracks: £150).
Does any of this matter? Absolutely. The moment a song is used in an ad, it is corrupted. Trent Reznor touched on this in an interview with Drowned In Sound:
“Every time I turn on the TV there’s a commercial for GPS navigation or something that sucks, with Modest Mouse on the soundtrack. I’ll find myself humming Modest Mouse and thinking assholes in cars, and you think, I wish you hadn’t tainted your song.”
Of course, licensing songs is highly lucrative. If bands want to make that bargain, fine. But it should be their decision. Too few bands say no. And they’re hardly likely to, if they know that of they do turn a request down, that company will just run a soundalike anyway.
As Sigur Ros point out, it is notoriously difficult to prove plagiarism in court. So adland needs to be self-policing. You want a band’s song? Then pay for it. They won’t let you use it? Find another band, one who might be desperate for the exposure and cash.
Basically: have some respect for the creativity of others, even if you possess none yourself.