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It's hard to not notice: Indie bands seemingly make up the soundtrack for just about every sitcom, film and television commercial today. They slide casually into the cracks of sappy, dialogue-free moments and slow-motion montages to add emotion and cachet to just about any scene producers can cook up.
Influential music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas swears it's not just about cheap labor. "It's far more of a creative decision than a monetary one," she says. "We're picking out the kind of music the characters in the show might listen to."
Patsavas, a Chicago native, worked on the music for The O.C., known for breaking indie bands, as well as Grey's Anatomy, Roswell and The Twilight Saga. Altogether, she has worked in the music department of more than 60 films and television series. Since 1998, she has run her own Pasadena-based music company, Chop Shop Supervision, which started its own record label five years ago. Her work mainly consists of approaching bands and artists about recording covers and requesting licensing permission to include songs on shows and in mixes.
It wasn't always this way. In 1984, Miami Vice was the first series to eschew the old-school, made-for-television soundtracks in favor of pop music. But in the 20th century, Top 40 hits rarely made it into commercials. Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" was a game changer when it was used in a Volkswagen ad in 1999, but Moby's licensing of almost every track on his album that year, Play, may have been the tipping point.
Steve Jobs certainly took notice. Throughout the next decade, iPod media campaigns launched one indie rocker after another to fame; Jet, Feist and Yael Naim all gained careers as they helped Apple to stand apart. This trend became a new business model, as advertising—previously closed to alternative musicians—became a new conduit to the Billboard Hot 100.
The days when peddling one's music got you labeled a sell-out are long gone. Bruce Springsteen famously declined millions to keep his "Born In the USA" out of a Chrysler ad, but Bob Seger took Chevrolet money for "Like a Rock" while Led Zeppelin peddled "Rock and Roll" to Cadillac. Those Victoria's Secret ads, meanwhile, did little to tarnish the Black Keys' credibility.
What kind of money are we talking? According to Billboard.biz, the payment range for national campaigns can start from four to five figures per track for an unsigned artist to the high six figures and beyond for a name act. In some cases, this has opened doors to recording contracts, so much so that CNNMoney wondered if advertisers had become the new labels. In that case, wouldn't music supervisors be the new A&R staff?
Patsavas doesn't agree entirely. "I think supervisors really have a different goal: to find the very best song that will enhance the story," she says. "The job's not necessarily going to go to the best-looking band or to a musician in a certain age group. Often, when a song hits, it hits because it was tied to a scene that fans liked."
She adds that she hears about new music by scanning music blogs, as well as getting some 300 promotional CDs per week. She may be modest about it, but many groups' hopes and dreams undoubtedly live in that pile.