Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Buying into selling out, starring Chris Knox and Know One

(Originally published at

You may not know
Chris Knox’s name, but you’re probably familiar with his work. He’s the man behind “It’s Love”, an insanely catchy tune from his 1999 album Beat that was the foundation for last year’s big Heineken ad campaign. You know, the one where all the peoples of the world bond over a new light beer? With that endlessly singable “I always needed this but I never knew how much I wanted it” chorus? Yeah, that’s the one. Skillful direction by indie filmmaking god Todd Haynes would be enough to make the spot stand out, but it’s Knox’s song that keeps popping into our heads at all hours.

Obviously, using popular music in commercials is nothing new. Car companies and chain restaurants having been mining the classic rock vaults for decades, to the point that a whole generation probably believes Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” was written as an ad for Chevy trucks (Editor's note: True for me!). Recently, though, certain innovative advertisers have taken a new tack, using songs by lesser known artists to lend themselves instant hipster cred.

It’s a mutually beneficial situation for advertisers and artists. When Cadillac employs Led Zeppelin’s “Rock & Roll”, they risk alienating a large swath of children of the ‘70s who already associate the song with cherished moments of their youth. Many baby boomers trace the death of the ‘60s spirit to a 1987 Nike ad that employed The Beatles’ “Revolution” as a sneaker-selling tool. But when an advertiser builds a campaign around a more obscure track, they provide their target audience with a new discovery and the artists with an instant fan base.

The classic example is VW’s use of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” in a 2000 TV spot. The largely forgotten British folkie posthumously became an overnight sensation, with his Pink Moon album reportedly selling more copies in the month following the commercial’s debut than in the previous 30 years combined. When tunes by Apples in Stereo and Modest Mouse turned up in Sony and Nissan commercials that same year, a small contingency of indie rockers declared the bands dead to them, but thousands more hit the record shops in search of “that song from the commercial.” Nowadays, the lines between creativity and commerce are even further blurred. When an oddball art rocker like Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes is re-writing his own songs for use in Outback Steakhouse ads, you know the cultural climate has shifted.

Chris Knox’s song falls somewhere between the Nick Drake and Modest Mouse models. An alt-music legend in his native New Zealand, Knox has maintained a small cult following in the U.S. since his days with the seminal low-fi rock group Tall Dwarves in the early 1980s. Since the Heineken spot, he’s seen an explosion of stateside interest in his work. Online searches and iTunes sales for “It’s Love” boomed since the ad debuted during last year’s NBA playoffs.

“They seem to've gone mildly ballistic in that forum,” says Knox. “YouTube views of the ad – a slideshow of the full song, a kid dancing to it, someone’s dog running round to it, et cetera – currently total about 250,000, and there's been a largely positive reaction. Also, my German-curated MySpace site is getting hit way more frequently, with 13,000 punters having listened to ‘It’s Love’ therein. It’s utterly fascinating reading YouTube comments and the like. I think it's widely assumed that I'm reasonably young and new on the scene,” the 56-year-old rock veteran laughs. “Someone even thought it was The Beatles.”.

As happens just about any time an independent artist is faced with the prospect of actually making money, performers who allow songs to be used in commercials face accusations of selling out. That doesn’t much bother Knox. “I have little problem with having a song used in such a way if I like and respect the product that is being hawked.” He notes that he has turned down commercial offers in New Zealand from companies that don’t jibe with his vegetarian and environmentalist viewpoints. “Admittedly I wasn't as thorough with Heineken but, hey, I like beer. I didn't actually click that it was for their Premium Light brand until after I’d accepted their filthy lucre. We don't have that over here, so I'm hoping it ain’t too undrinkable.”

It also helped that the advertisers took an artist-friendly approach. Portland-based ad agency Wieden and Kennedy – the folks behind such memorable campaigns as Nike’s “Just Do It” and Old Spice’s Bruce Campbell ad, as well as that infamous “Revolution” spot – contacted Knox’s publisher and label and offered the singer a deal that he calls “modest by their standards, but quite sweet by mine.” The agency’s e-mail even took preemptive action to allay any fears that the song might be misused. “They had embedded a Quicktime of their rough cut with my song accompanying, so I had a very clear idea of how it would sit.”

Knox isn’t sure what long term impact the Heineken ad will have on his American popularity, but for the time being he’s enjoying the ride. “I've got Thirsty Ear, who released Beat in the States, onto it,” he explains. “Dunno how they plan to take advantage of the notoriety, but they have access to iTunes sales figures.” While the commercial didn’t air in New Zealand, it generated a bit of publicity for Knox on the home front as well. “It's not often that Kiwi songs get used in overseas ads so, amazingly, it's considered just a little newsworthy.”

Knox at least came into the commercial world with an established cultural cache, however small. Indie rapper Know One is another case entirely. The New Orleans-based MC has enjoyed local acclaim for much of the past decade, but his audience has never extended too far beyond the Crescent City. That is likely to change in the near future, as “My Back in the Day Song,” an anthemic cut off of his 2007 album Know One’s Home has recently been tapped as the theme for a new McDonald’s TV spot.

Know One’s initial hook-up with McDonald’s came through his licensing company Audiosocket, who pitched the track after learning that the burger barons were searching for “a nostalgic type song with a hip-hop vibe” to spread awareness of their new sweet tea. “The slogan is something like ‘McDonald's sweet tea: It takes you back,’” Know One explains. “The idea for the commercial is this guy takes a sip of sweet tea and is transported back to his childhood, with his mother pouring him a glass of sweet tea. I guess the hook on my tune fits that back in the day vibe.”

After McDonald’s confirmed their interest in “My Back in the Day Song,” the track was put through an elaborate vetting process. “McDonald's ad agency hired a musicologist to make sure there were no samples in the tune,” Know One says. “The musicologist decided that while the song contains no samples, it did resemble The Verve's ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ in chord structure, so they wanted to re-record the tune in order to distance themselves from the resemblance as much as possible.” That entailed sending Know One into the recording studio with New Orleans horn maestro Mark Mullins and a Grammy-winning engineer to crank out a slightly modified take.

Know One agrees that the cultural landscape has gone through major changes of late, eliminating reservations he might have had not so long ago. “Six or seven years ago, I would have said there's no sellout greater than to sell your tunes for commercial use. Now, with the death of CDs and record contracts – not to mention the fact that radio only plays 20 or so artists – licensing music to film and television seems to be one of the only ways for indie artists to go beyond the internet and have their music played for a wide and diverse group of potential listeners.”

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