Sold On Selling Out

Or: How I learned to stop bitching and love a TV commercial

I do not like hearing Clash songs being used as the soundtrack for luxury-car commercials. I do not like Iggy Pop's glorious snarl being in the employ of cruise-ship companies to hawk their expensive vacation packages. I do not like Bob Dylan licensing his songs out to women's-underwear corporations. I generally do not like it when bands of even the smallest stature align themselves with products—alcohol, skate/ surfwear, Internet companies, whatever —that have nothing to do with their music or the creation of it. To me, whenever musicians do this, it not only smacks of being money hungry and desperate for exposure, but it also takes the soul-conceived art they forged (presumably through sweaty writing-and-recording sessions) and shoves it into the background. Are these musicians or pitchpeople?

But now, to some degree, I'm sold on selling out—only because I've gone and done exactly what a small, struggling indie band would want me to do if I heard one of their tunes used in a commercial: I bought their CD. Used, sure, but I also had to hunt the song and the band down, which wasn't easy. I ultimately had to post a note on a music website to find the info I needed, almost as if the band was embarrassed by what they did or something.

The commercial is for the Wisconsin-based Kohl's department-store chain, which has 492 outlets in 34 states. They entered the LA/OC-area market in March with the opening of 28 more. The ads started airing then—a shiny, bubbly pop song, ridiculously catchy, with hints of the Beach Boys; Jonathan Richman; the Osmonds; the Archies; Saturday-morning cartoons; and some of the stickiest, sweetest, '70s-AM-radio hits you can remember, if you were alive back then.

You've seen and heard it: the guitar notes hum along happily; handclaps and aaah-aaah vocals are omnipresent. The singer—nasal, but not in that annoying emo way—croons:

"Let's go outside; we'll go for a ride for a day or two/Let's go outside; the air is open wide, and the weather's bright for you/Something I would do/Is shine a light on you/And the light would shine/Baby, all the time."

The visuals are of giddy kids and adults playing and working outdoors—skating, biking, hanging laundry, jumping around. Yellow smiley faces do not leap from the TV screen, but they might as well.

Turns out the song, "Shine a Light," is by the Apples In Stereo, a Denver band who I've liked ever since their 1999 album, Her Wallpaper Reverie, so right away, I can't hate the band just because their song is in a commercial. My digging found it on 1997's Tone Soul Evolution, and ever since I brought the CD home, the three minutes and 20 seconds of "Shine a Light" has taken over the AUTO REPEAT key of my boombox. It's my goddamn song of the year—six years late.

So how do I rationalize this? Would I feel more irritated if the band appeared in the ad? Maybe, but they don't. Would I hate it if the band sold the song to endorse something filthy and grotesque, like the Bush re-election campaign? Probably—but it doesn't. Or a car I'll never be able to afford no matter how many pre-approved credit card offers I get in my mail? Well . . . I don't know.

I phone the Apples In Stereo's label, SpinART, a tiny New York indie, to get a few questions answered and, hopefully, to help me grapple with my conscience. Brendan Gilmartin, the band's publicist, tells me that the band's married principals, guitarist/singer Robert Schneider and drummer Hilarie Sidney, hardly make a living playing music. The four albums they've recorded for SpinART have each sold about 20,000 copies—respectable on the indie level, but a crashing failure if they were signed to a major. In 1999, they licensed their song "Strawberryfire" to Sony for an ad, and Sony paid them $18,000—more change than they could ever hope to pick up in a year of touring and CD/ T-shirt sales. Kohl's has likely been as generous to the band as Sony for the use of "Shine a Light" and another song that Schneider wrote and recorded exclusively for the commercials.

"They'll never license their songs to sell tobacco or beer," says Gilmartin. "Plus, they have kids now, and at this point, it's all about buying diapers."

Hard to argue with that. In a 2001 New York Times Magazine piece, Schneider said, "The fans must think we're making hundreds of thousands of dollars," when the fact was that at the time, he and Sidney were working temp jobs and taking the occasional telemarketing gig between tours to help pay their rent. The Times story said Schneider also went through a bout of questioning whether selling his songs for commercials was the right thing to do and ultimately arrived at this epiphany: "Radio is controlled by this huge industry. Ads are controlled by a few creative people. They probably did art in college. Maybe they were college-radio programmers."

Ultimately, I figure maybe not all musicians who sell their songs are so awful after all. It just depends on who's doing it (Dylan doesn't need either the money or the exposure: ergo, BAD) and what the product is that's being hawked (in the Apples In Stereo's case, Kohl's sells lots of functional things that a poor, struggling band with young children could use: ergo, GOOD). Of course, if Kohl's turns out to be notoriously anti-union, if they sell clothes stitched up by 11-year-old girls who are chained to their sewing machines, if Kohl's suddenly closes a bunch of their stores and lays off 20 percent of their workforce just so their executives can pocket a cool couple of mil, then the Apples In Stereo risk having their name and music permanently tied in with other people's miseries. I just hope nothing like that happens.

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