James Taylor — you, sir, are a douchebag.
This statement will kill my mother; she loves the guy. I listened to his songs thousands of times growing up, enough so that no matter how many times I make my way through an album like The Lonesome Crowded West I will never have listened to those tracks as many times as something like “Carolina in My Mind” or “Copperline.” They’re songs tinged with memories of road trips to Glacier National Park, or my father swearing about a moose in the middle of the road that will not fucking move.
It’s hard to love someone after being force-fed their songs for the first 12 years of life, but I certainly respect the man’s skills as a talented songwriter, and he’s got a damn good voice.
But James Taylor’s dead to me, and it’s mainly because of QVC — the network of infomercials featuring Christmas in July and probably something called the “Ugliest-Fucking-Sweaters-Known-to-Man Weekend Sell-Off.” Taylor was performing a live show with a full backing band; not all that uncommon had something like VH1 been the network the ones showcasing the performance. But this was QVC, the network that showcased the “Jacqueline Kennedy Jewelry Collection” following the “concert,” with a fake, bubbly woman proclaiming, “Do not change the channel!” when her hour to showcase overpriced necklaces began.
Taylor was marketing his new album, aptly titled Covers. I can’t say I was all that surprised to find James Taylor showcasing something like this during primetime on a Friday night, but it was the delivery that irked me. Is this what James Taylor actually has to do to make a buck these days?
James Taylor is a sellout. I hate the term, and I think it’s broadly used and attached to many inappropriate situations. Plus, I wouldn’t even label it selling out if it weren’t for the damn “$19.97 (plus $3.97 for shipping)” that was lounging in the bottom on the screen — that was the real clincher.
But the idea behind “selling out” are changing. It’s becoming more and more common for bands to sell their songs for use in commercials, but in ways that have changed quite a bit since Modest Mouse attached their song “Gravity Rides Everything” to a new minivan.
I get the “selling out” thing. Making music just isn’t as profitable as it used to be. Artists never made a ton of money on albums to begin with, but now they really don’t make much money at all, especially if they’re a niche indie band bloggers rave about. Because of this, they offer an album’s worth of MP3s linked on their website. It’s easy cash when a company comes up to you as an artist, asks to use your song from a past album and, just like that, you have $25,000. We all need to pay the rent, but you don’t have to shoot the neighbor’s dog or destroy a career’s worth of classics to do it.
So for God’s sake, please pick your method of promotion carefully.
In respecting the art, yes, I concede that maybe it’s not the noblest way to stay true to the craft and that yes, selling a song to Ford to hook trendy twenty-somethings, thus building a bigger and stronger conglomerate, sounds awful, but give the artists a break. If you’re an indie band that hardly makes money outside of touring and t-shirt sales, is there a better idea than promoting your music in a new, multidimensional, artful way?
Apple’s iPod commercials are a perfect example. Sure, Apple isn’t exactly strapped for cash anymore, and they’re clearly using indie music to hook indie kids (something they’ve succeeded at doing). But come on, their commercials are always well done. From the initial silhouette spots to the new runny paint ads, they’re all visually appealing and dammit, really cool. And the music does nothing to hurt this. Is Feist really selling out by letting her song be used in such a trendy, hip way, a way that almost single-handedly landed her a spot on “SNL” and catapulted her album to a top spot on many year-end lists? iPods aren’t exactly the worst product to be associated with, and their advertising team does a fantastic job of complimenting the music with appealing visuals.
Animal Collective is another example. Is Crayola really a bad company to sell a song to? We all loved Crayola as kids, and why not give back to the company with a track that will undoubtedly fit their quirky color schemes?
But then there are the true idiots. A band like Of Montreal — who sold just the melody of their song “Wraith Pinned to a Mast (And Other Fun Games)” to Outback Steakhouse — committed an atrocious crime. Marketing their image with a tacky, national chain is just laughable, especially when the ad agency replaces a key line of, “Let’s pretend we don’t exist” to “Let’s go Outback tonight,” plastered over images of the Bloomin’-frickin’-Onion.
Or take Ratatat, who sold “Seventeen Years” to Hummer, a company often seen as the symbol of America’s dependence on foreign oil — America! Big cars! Guzzle that gas! — for one of their commercials. It makes iPod commercials look like a cuddly puppy next to a shaved, three-legged feral cat. Or just take any number of hip-hoppers who rap for gum or Coca-Cola. It’s just pathetic.
These are the people who really should be ashamed of themselves. And what about James Taylor? Probably the worst of all. No art; no effort; just a shitty gig to promote his “album” on an extended infomercial. I may cringe when I hear one of my favorite bands backing an online college, but I won’t want to kill a legend.
Artists: Choose wisely.