Hey, Kanye, that Notorious B.I.G. track being used to hype Taco Bell: Selling out or buying in?
This past weekend at London's Hammersmith Apollo, Kanye West went on a rant about selling out. Apparently, he now hates the Grammys, corporations and possibly the new Justin Timberlake song. Ironically, the self proclaimed "Louis Vuitton Don" saw absolutely no conflict of interest in calling out artists who court corporate sponsorship -- timely, considering that his tunes have been licensed this year to sell beer, movies and affordable mid size sedans.
It's a wonder Mr. West didn't direct his rage at Taco Bell's ragtag use of the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa." I mean, it seems prime for the picking. When you first see "Grande Papi," the shameless ad touting the new Cantina Steak Burrito, you might just throw up in your mouth a little -- and not just because it's Taco Bell. If you haven't seen it yet, the ad prominently features a "Spanish translation" -- reportedly created with Google Translate (?) -- of "Big Poppa." Have a look:
"Bullshit" is the first word that probably comes to mind when you see this gem, followed by, oh, I don't know, "sell out." Surely besmirching the legacy of arguably the greatest rapper of all time with a burrito commercial has crossed the line! Except that there is no line. Not anymore. These days there's no such thing as selling out, only buying in.
Face it: The idea of a highly principled, socially conscious artist is an outmoded concept in 2013. Today, you're either smart about your intellectual property and pursuing sustainable 360-type deals with cats who have major bank rolls, or you're thinking you're "mackin' when they know they actin'," as Big once put it. Wake up. This is the Music Industry 2.0, where selling your own ass is the business, and business is good.
In case you've been asleep for the last twenty years, the digital age hasn't been kind to media companies. The pressure to drive profits is what's driving the belly aching from the big four music companies. Each is wholly owned by a larger parent corporation that is looking at that division to increase their bottom line to please their shareholders.
No excuses. You get it done, or you get on.
Kanye knows this and has thrived in this system because he's worked just as hard on his brand as he has his music. Clearly he understands the intersection of art and commerce, like P. Diddy, who can't stop, won't stop. When it comes to profits, Diddy has wisely led the charge in diversifying revenue streams for artists.
This adds a new level of irony to his famous scene from Get Him to the Greek because, with major sales of Ciroc Vodka and a lucrative garment and fragrance business, Sergio is in fact "gon' be fine." It's the unwashed masses that need to worry because we are fucked.
We're fucked, though, mostly because the gatekeepers really don't care about art, especially if there's a recession. Higher profits mean just that, and that translates into a fire sale on your favorite artists' legacy. Somewhere along the way, we started to believe that just because our favorite musicians believe in themselves that they also hold actual beliefs -- and, no, defending a Beyoncé video at an awards show does not count.
Instead, look at rare examples like the late MCA and the Beastie Boys, who, to this day, forbid their music to be licensed for any commercial purpose. Ironically, their estates and heirs may go broke trying to preserve what is, in MCA's case, a dying wish. They could end up spending all their money on legal fees.
Only old school artists who are lucky enough to have accrued profits for twenty years or more can afford to take the hard line on this. Granted, Kanye is almost there, but he had some help. Remember the Pepsi ad? And yet he's gonna scream about other cats selling soda? For lesser known acts like the Heavy, meanwhile, you can imagine they were probably super grateful when the folks at Kia came knocking, as well the folks from Entourage -- hell they'd probably welcome any other outlet that will give their songs such enviable and prominent exposure.
The best historical precedent for this new rush toward commercial licensing would have to be the use of Sting's "Desert Rose," which appeared in a Jaguar ad in the 2000. This is important because the ad sets the precedent of an artist approaching an advertiser to be a pitch man for the product. According to PopHistoryDig.com, Sting's manager, Miles Copeland III, approached Ogilvy & Mather after a music video was already completed prominently featuring their client Jaguar's new S-Type sedan.
Ogilvy came up with the ad copy: "Everyone dreams of being a rock star. What then do rock stars dream of?" The answer, in Sting's case, apparently, would be piles of money generated from passive income. If that means that you lend your likeness, song and video to Jaguar, then so be it. The spots were reasonably successful, and the new S-Type was well received. What was truly astonishing, though, was that in America, Sting's album sales went through the roof, and he ended up winning several Grammys. We imagine a lot of managers and record execs said, "Holy Shit" at exactly the same time.
When you think about it, it's actually shocking that it took this long to get to Biggie's catalog, frankly, considering how successful a great ad campaign can be for an artist, especially posthumously. And let's face it, when it's done well -- or even when it's done sort of well -- people cannot get enough of this stuff. For the established or deceased artist, it offers a re-entry into the pop culture conversation, and for the unknown act, it can literally be a lifeline to a lucrative career.
Artists clearly recognize this, and many simply can't resist the pull. Take Macklemore, for instance. The Seattle MC is currently riding high on the charts with "Thrift Shop," but he still couldn't resist the chance to broaden his brand. I mean, how else can explain why he allowed the NBA to appropriate his anti-consumerist anthem "Wings" for its recent All-Star Weekend promos?
This is a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. He takes a hard line stance on things like marriage equality, white privilege and, of course, how our spending habits implicitly endorse those same human rights atrocities that MCA fought against. Surely it must have given him some pause before he consented to omitting the lines, "This dream that they sold to you/For a hundred dollars and some change/Consumption is in the veins/And now I see it's just another pair of shoes."
Contrast that with the Beastie Boys, who in the mid '90s, leveraged their fame to bring light to their cause: TIbetan independence. Since the Chinese owns a piece of just about everything, and they are the "villain" in the story of Tibetan independence, it would have been impossible for the Beasties to license a song to, say, Wal-Mart a corporation that by doing so much business in China implies an endorsement of the human rights violations that the Chinese commit against Tibet.
Granted, in 1993, the Beastie Boys' label, Capitol Records, was not a wholly owned subsidary of giant multinational conglomerate Vivendi in 1993. Their label head didn't answer to the CEO of Universal, who had to answer to the CEO of Vivendi. The concert venues that they would play weren't sponsored by corporations who might block their ability to play their music live and generate more fans.
Macklemore, on the other hand, may be mostly independent, but he does have a distribution deal with ADA Distribution, which is 51 percent owned by Warner Bros. If he wants to expand his audience and sustain his career, he has to pick his battles carefully. If he gets branded as difficult for refusing to do the NBA promotion, will he lose that sweet licensing deal on the new Vince Vaughn trailer? It's possible. Hell, it's likely. It is a small miracle that given his anti establishment views that Macklemore has gotten this far, but then again, if we learned anything from the Matrix films, the only way to sustain oppression is to offer the illusion of a choice.
If there were a perfect example of the convergence of blending brand with band, it would have to be Sprite's complete co-opting of rap music with its series of spots in the mid 1990s. Not only did Sprite solidify itself as the soft drink of urban youth, but the ads are now considered a part of the lore of hip hop culture. And why shouldn't they be? At the very least they captured the zeitgeist of the times.
So where is the downside we all this corporate co-opting then? Turns out, there really isn't one, outside of purists notions. While your favorite act probably has a cause or charity that they support, but they also support a team of PR people crafting viable excuses as to why the act's licensing deals are not conflicts of interest. Thing is, they probably don't even have to, because, well, we love this shit! Consider that Sting, a staunch environmentalist, fully endorsed a gas-guzzling luxury vehicle, and no one -- literally no one -- gave a single fuck.
In the end, this is all about generating more revenue from nothing, doing more with less. The business models of the music industry have been slow to adapt to the rapid changes of our global economy and ever shifting habits. With that in mind, you can't really fault Macklemore, or even Puff Daddy for seizing any profits while they still can. For what it's worth: If this commercial from 1995 is any indication, it's almost 100 percent certain that if Biggie were still alive today, he would most likely be in favor of the latest commercial licensing of his work.
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