As Heard on TV: Popular Music in Advertising

By Eschrich, Joey | Music, Sound and the Moving Image, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

As Heard on TV: Popular Music in Advertising


Eschrich, Joey, Music, Sound and the Moving Image


Bethany Klein As Heard on TV: Popular Music in Advertising Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009, 168pp.

review by Joey Eschrich

Of all the academic books I have read this year, Bethany Klein's As Heard on TV, more than any other, has insinuated itself into my everyday conversations and overall consciousness: I have repeatedly found myself quoting information from the book as if I had known it for years, rather than discovering it a week ago. For all she has contributed to my knowledge about advertising, popular music and the media industry in general, however, I have to thank Klein most for forever inoculating me against the habit of simply and unproblematically claiming that a group has 'sold out' by licensing their music to advertisers.

If one was forced to identify a central argument in this rather measured exploration of the issue of licensing popular songs for television commercials, it is that to say a band has simply 'sold out' in this situation is to completely elide the power dynamics inherent in most licensing transactions. 'Selling out' assigns all of the ethical responsibility to the relatively disempowered musicians while allowing the comparatively powerful corporation involved in the transaction to abdicate any ethical responsibility. Thus, the 'selling out' trope reinstates corporate hegemony while assuming that aside from licensing songs for commercials, musicians are operating in a freewheeling, artistically liberated environment where their work manages to exist in a state of purity entirely outside of consumer culture. As such, this trope is the unseen, lurking presence behind Klein's argument, the position she wants to rhetorically disarm.

Klein reorients our perception of music licensing by depicting it as a phenomenon that occurs within a changing field of power, instead of a simply understood business deal made between two basically equal parties. Putting music licensing in the context of a music industry put into crisis by radio deregulation, Internet file-sharing, the decrease in the visibility of music videos and the consolidation of major media corporations allows her to show how music licensing has become one of the most viable options for artists to draw profit from their work and to gain public exposure in an increasingly restricted music landscape. She also argues that discourses around artistic integrity, ownership of cultural texts and the notion of 'cool' create a field of symbolic meanings that have to be navigated by the artist (and to a lesser extent, their corporate counterparts) when participating in licensing. A practice that seems relatively simple, therefore, is made complex, revealed as imbued with unequal power relations and having wider cultural-political implications.

The picture of music licensing that emerges is one fraught with tensions between economic interests, notions of controlling the potential meanings and uses of creative work, estimations of the emotional force of popular music, and evaluations of the degree of autonomy musicians and other artists really have from corporate interests in late capitalist society. Artists that are vociferously attacked by fans for licensing songs are often already working, without protest from fans, within the corporate structure of a music label: depending on corporations for distribution, utilising corporate sponsorship to fund concerts and tours, performing in corporate-owned live-music venues, and so forth. And yet we can all recognise that there is some further bridge crossed in directly tethering a specific song to a specific product. So each licensing transaction is a strategic move and a calculated risk, especially for the artists, and involves several parties - musicians, ad agencies, record labels, lawyers, the corporations who license the music and even the journalists who report on these activities - who have conflicting interests and differing levels of influence and leverage, both economic and symbolic.

Starting with the twin assumptions that (1) readers are familiar with prominent examples of music licensing but have not interrogated these in terms of power relations, and (2) these same examples have shaped the public discourse about and institutional practice of music licensing in significant ways, Klein builds her book around a series of case studies. …

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