Sunday, October 14, 2007

How to Calculate Musical Sellouts

How to Calculate Musical Sellouts
As Rockers Cash In, The Moby Quotient Helps to Determine The Shilling Effect

By Bill Wyman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 14, 2007; M01

A commercial during "The Colbert Report" recently featured a happy family shopping in Circuit City for back-to-school technology for their comely daughter. She's a big fan of the bubblegum punk group Fall Out Boy, and while the band's fabulous song "Thnks fr th Mmrs" plays, she imagines all the exciting Fall Out Boy-related things she could do with many different amazing Circuit City products.

As the happy family leaves the store, Dad hands her a new cellphone and says, smiling, "You can take a study break with Fall Out Boy!"

The kid is tickled pink.

Right after that came a Nissan commercial, which wanted consumers to understand that, if you owned an SUV, you could drive places. To underline the point, the commercial broke into the Ramones, who sang, "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" That's the famous break from the punk rockers' "Blitzkrieg Bop," a heartfelt ode to pogoing to the beat of a Nazi military assault.

Well, at least it wasn't a Volkswagen ad.

It seems as if every commercial these days has a rock band in it. What was once the mark of utter uncoolness, a veritable byword of selling out, has become the norm. More than a decade ago we became inured to the most unlikely parings. Led Zeppelin in a Cadillac ad. The Clash shilling for Jaguar. Bob Dylan warbling for an accounting firm, or Victoria's Secret. An Iggy Pop song about a heroin-soaked demimonde accompanying scenes of blissful vacationers on a Caribbean cruise ship.

There is no longer even a debate, let alone a stigma. "If you did an advert, you were a sellout," notes Billboard Executive Editor Tamara Conniff. "The Rolling Stones broke that when they allowed the use of 'Start Me Up' for the Windows campaign. Though there was an initial backlash, it suddenly made it okay for bands of integrity to do commercials. Now, it's almost as if as an artist you don't have a corporate partner [or] commercial, you've not really arrived."

Indeed, in the late 1990s, the techno artist Moby, as hip as they come, openly boasted of having sold every track of his breakthrough album "Play" to an advertiser, or to a film or TV soundtrack. The album should perhaps have been called "Pay."

So we submit: The battle has been lost. But that doesn't make it right. There are even some who disagree.

"People say making money is making money, but there's a difference," says Bill Brown, a onetime rock critic who now works in the New York publishing world. He examines the implications of this new age in rock commercialism at great length and no little erudition on his Web site, "If you're in a band, you want to be paid, definitely, but the music is for people to use and enjoy. The problem with branding yourself and selling your songs to commercials is the music is no longer for the listener.

"Instead, the ad is signaling that, 'This company is cool, and we've gotten this band to sell us some of their music.' It's the difference between selling to me, and something else: Pete Townshend sold a song to Hummer!"

Clearly, what we need is an objective formula for determining just how offensive a particular rock-based advertisement is. I am proud to announce that this lack has been righted.

I recently enlisted the aid of Jim Anderson, a senior lecturer in mathematics at England's University of Southampton. An expert on hyperbolic geometry, he embarked on this task with tongue firmly in cheek, and developed a formula that can be used to process the ethical and aesthetic implications of any one instance of the pervasive blurring of the lines between rock and advertising.

The formula kicks out a number that could be used to determine just how much of a sellout is a particular artist.

We are pleased to call this number the Moby Quotient and to assign the Greek letter "mu," to designate it.

The equation is designed to put things in perspective. If Kelly Clarkson sings for Ford, where, in the end, is the harm? Negligible artists singing on subjects that can be of less-than-pressing social import advertising silly products. One does not look to Disney pop culture puppets or artists given an imprimatur by the viewers of a Fox TV show for artistic integrity. Ms. Clarkson can sing for her supper anywhere she wants, and the world sits solidly on its foundations.

However. If you are an artist who traffics in -- or has trafficked in -- your outsider status; if you were a punk or a rebel or a beast whose rude yawp emerged from the underground and you are now hawking your anthems of defiance as ear candy to further the sales of a crummy telecom company, a new line of SUVs or the marvelous things General Electric is doing, well then, sir or madam artiste, expect your Moby Quotient to be somewhat higher.

The formula sits proudly on this very page, along with a few examples of the sorts of Moby Quotients certain artists earn. We have to be realistic: This tide of greed will never slide back out. Indeed, it can only get worse, since new generations of rock fans have grown up with the practice and apparently see nothing wrong with it.

Our one hope is that what greed created, greed may eventually eliminate -- in other words, that younger artists will view Moby's career as a cautionary tale. The jut-jawed vegan still makes a good living touring and doing film soundtracks and the like. But it's also true that commercially and artistically, his recorded work since "Play" has been on a downward spiral. Let the sellouts beware.

Bill Wyman, the former arts editor of National Public Radio, writes the blog "Hitsville" at

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