When you read the words, “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” it’s likely that a melody instantly plays on your mind’s stereo alongside them, probably followed by, “in perfect harmony”. In 1971 that track reached the top of the charts in the UK, Japan, New Zealand and Ireland, as well as finding success in many other countries, becoming a global hit.
Advertising was responsible for that. For Coca-Cola’s international ‘Hilltop’ campaign of 1971, together with its agency of the time McCann Erickson, the brand commissioned and wrote a song called ‘I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke’. It was so popular that it was subsequently re-recorded by The New Seekers and released as ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)’.
Although it’s rare that a song written from scratch for an ad makes it into the charts like this, history is littered with times when advertising has launched musical careers, but it’s come in waves, fits and starts. It’s never been a constant, reliable process in culture. In an ideal world, what role should the advertising industry play in music careers?
Matt Drenik, creative director and partner at SOUTH Music, notes that musical acts like The New Seekers of the early ‘70s were in a minority in embracing the grubby commercial realm of marketing as part of their artistic journey. “There was a time in the not-so-distant past when recording artists wouldn’t dare touch an advertising campaign,” he says. “The mere thought of the words ‘sell-out’ gracing an artist’s career would inevitably tank their credibility, instantly forcing them to make decisions against their artistic integrity. Who can forget the Jägermeister bands touring around the world with logos plastered all over their buses?”
This anti-commercial sentiment reached a peak in the ‘90s, when as Gabe McDonough, partner/executive producer/music supervisor at MAS says, “advertising was anathema to bands. Typically if you heard a real song in an ad, it was a classic tune that everyone knew, purchased for the established recognisability.”
Thanks to the terrifying disruptions that artists have faced due to the rise of piracy and later the streaming age, ‘selling out’ seems like a harsh criticism to level at musical acts whose options to make money from their art are limited. In fact, this change brought about something of a golden era of creative music sync, says Matt. “At the turn of the century, things shifted with the rise of Napster, a free-for-all platform that brought the recording industry to its knees, and power back to the people,” he says. “And while such a move did right a badly wronged ship, it left an unintentional consequence – if everything’s free, how do the artists get paid? Enter, once again, advertising!”
Gabe points to the work BBH had been doing for Levi’s in the UK in ‘97 and ‘98, cracking the door open to the possibilities to come. “When two songs by relative unknowns (‘Spaceman’ by Babylon Zoo and ‘A Nanny In Manhattan’ by the Lilys) were featured in their ads, and both charted on the top 40 singles charts the music industry took notice,” he says. “Still, breaking bands through ads really didn’t become a big thing until Apple’s iconic iPod ads in 2007. Inclusion in the ads rocketed bands like Jet and Chairlift to almost overnight success, and set the tone for brand behaviour and music industry best practices that continue to this day.”
It was in these years that the advertising world was going through a seismic shift with the rise of tech brands. “Cinematic, narrative work was becoming more of the guiding light (Apple, Nike), and offering recording artists an outlet to use their music not as throwaway jingles, but as inspiring soundtracks,” says Matt, “forcing a healthy conversation between artistic integrity and financial survival. Artists now could potentially launch a career alongside a brand as big as Apple, instead of depending on mainstream radio to come to the rescue.
“And chances are, if a campaign soared, commercial radio would follow. Who can forget how in 2009, Cadillac practically launched the French band Phoenix into every American home, while also reigniting the forgotten ‘90s band, Hum, into relevance again. Kudos to that creative!”
These days syncing a great track isn’t the silver bullet it was. Artists and brands work together in nuanced ways, and sometimes that balance between artistic integrity and financial survival is knocked off kilter.
“Today we live in a much different media landscape than we did in 2007,” says Gabe. “The ‘put it in an ad and the band will be famous’ formula no longer applies. Audience attention is fragmented. Monoculture doesn’t exist. People simply don’t have the same ad with the same music drilled into their heads like they once did.”
The scent of the sell-out also still lingers around certain kinds of exchange. “Advertising is such a broad term,” says Annie Ayres, head of music at Untold Studios. “It encompasses so many different things from paid media, to syncs, OOH, digital, ancillary content, starring in ads, events and partnerships. For many artists ‘advertising’ is a bit of a dirty term. Most up and coming artists are seeking authentic ways to reach people and want to stay true to themselves so giving power over to brands or other external forces can be scary. On the flip side, advertising can be a huge catalyst for artists, growing their audiences exponentially.”
Mark Levin, senior director of sync – creative and commercial at BMG, thinks it’s becoming increasingly rare to see new artists launched by advertising, or establish artists brought to new audiences. “There seems to be a growing trend of music use in advertising which is sitting somewhere between commercial music and production music,” he says. “Often songs such as Sophie Tucker’s ‘Drinkee’ [used in an AA campaign] or Jain’s ‘Makeba’ [used in a Levi's campaign] start a trend and commercial writers and artists draw influence and begin creating music in this style to fill the growing demand. What results is the TV ad space becoming saturated with this ‘sound’, meaning the tracks don’t connect with an audience as often as they once did.”
Going back to the balance of integrity versus survival, Mark notes that this trend does however mean there is opportunity for self-sufficient artists and producers to sustain a living creating music in this space. “It can give them the freedom to fund the music that they want to make. On the other hand, artists who want to stay true to their sound may struggle to land opportunities in the world of sync without a drastic change in sonic direction. Sync kind of becomes its own increasingly separated world from what is working on radio or streaming services.”
New artists can gain audiences in so many ways now, but there’s no denying that social media can throw some of the most swerving curveballs at culture. As Chloe Heatlie, music producer at MassiveMusic says, “looking at the present, there’s no denying that, in general, TikTok is a game-changer in terms of launching or boosting music artists careers. During the coronavirus pandemic, people across the UK created TikTok dances to a Dutch track called ‘Drank & Drugs’ by Lil Kleine & Ronnie Flex
. Did most British people know what they were singing about? No! But dancing to the track was fun, it was ‘current’ and to date the track has gained 93 million streams on Spotify. Mindblowing.”
TikTok songs have become almost their own genre of cultural phenomenon, with certain tracks suddenly blowing up or resurfacing after years when they go viral, sometimes taking on new meanings, but exposure to tracks via more traditional cultural routes can still be powerful, as we all witnessed this summer with the expert deployment of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up that Hill’ on Stranger Things leading to a whole new generation falling in love with the British singer’s 1985 synth dream.
“It has become clear that repeated exposure to a song is what ultimately makes it stick with the audience,” asserts Gabe in response to this occurrence. “The song was not simply in an episode, it was part of an integral plot point that required playing it on repeat. THAT kind of use makes a difference.”
Two AM executive creative director and partner Oliver Stutz suggests that these sudden explosive success stories are a sign of the times. “If you step back and look at the ebb and flow of music popularity, it’s evidently clear that the world’s focus is brutally influenced by trends on social platforms and popular films and TV. We’ve seen this time and time again with shows like ‘Stranger Things’ boosting Kate Bush streams through the roof, or beabadoobee’s ‘Coffee for your Head’ launching almost instantly from an indie setting to the radio charts.”
Chloe sees the lesson in these events as proof that “fusing moving image and music does help musical artists.”
Psychologically and emotionally, this seems clear. “It’s completely natural for the human brain to gravitate towards music that has been presented to them in an organic way,” says Oliver. “Why? Simply because music is not a product, it’s largely a personal experience that paints a uniquely different narrative for each listener, connecting them to a personal set of feelings, which are largely dependent on the scenario in which the music is experienced.
“Even more so, if you look at this from a more psychological angle you’ll notice that a certain degree of the infamous ‘bandwagon’ effect is also at play here. It’s simple: people find excitement and fulfilment in following what others are doing. This ultimately gives these trends self-sustaining momentum that just keeps growing organically.”
James Matthes, co-founder and CEO of Pressure Cooker extolls the virtues of well-chosen music alongside a brand's message. "A multi-sensory piece of advertising will more effectively evoke a response than something purely visual," he says. "Music (and sound) create emotion that can be associated strongly to a brand. Brands will also benefit from being associated with a particular artist/genre, as this influences how they are perceived. So, with music still being so important to advertising, and with the variety of mediums on which we can advertise increasing, advertising can definitely be a successful platform to launch new musical artists – if used correctly."
Music’s role as a companion to moving image isn’t going away any time soon. And so while brands are putting out more video content than ever before, there’s more pressure on musical decisions to be made cleverly. Beto Azout, SoStereo co-founder, stresses this opportunity. "It’s definitely changed over the years,” he says. “The way we connect and socialise is completely different. With many people across the world relying on new social media platforms to create community and connection, the opportunity just keeps getting bigger for brands, agencies and artists. There is more traffic on all of these platforms but also the attention spans are shorter. That’s where music and real artists can play a very big role. It’s been proven that when someone likes a piece of music, they are twice as likely to continue watching the video and remembering it later. That’s where the concept of brand recall starts to become a real factor.
“When you pair a great song to a product or brand, while also connecting an up-and-coming artist to the work, then you create a win-win opportunity across the board. All of a sudden your consumers will see and remember your brand while discovering new music and say ‘wow, that’s awesome.’ Now, thanks to you, someone might add that artist’s song to a Spotify playlist, go to their website and buy some merch or attend their next gig. As a brand the opportunity is huge. You are not just making your brand more memorable, but you are directly contributing to an artist's career and in a way directly contributing to culture."
But a brand alone is unlikely to launch a musical career. Matt from SOUTH Music highlights the tidal shift in advertising away from traditional broadcast media towards digital, social and streaming. Levi’s are less likely to run a global film in TV ad breaks around the world and more likely to use different music on hundreds of pieces of content across a broad media landscape – meaning a lot of opportunities for artists. “More content means more chances, but also more competition,” he says, “making it difficult to stand out and strike gold. But make no mistake, it’s not advertising’s role to launch an artist. They should be seen as a collaborative partner where if the creative is right, everyone will benefit. And as long as advertising keeps pushing creative ways to tell a compelling story, artists will continue to be alongside to back it up. And if the stars align, a career will be sent into the stratosphere.”
Does this mean that more traditional advertising for new music artists is no longer important? “Well it’s not really that simple,” says Oliver. “Many of these trends are unplanned and unforeseen, not all, but many. When it comes to advertising, strategy is vital, and removing the ability to control these trends makes them, well, unpredictable. They may be highly effective when they land, but they’re tricky to control.”
Chloe at MassiveMusic would still advise brands to consider the power of using music to orchestrate a TikTok sensation though. “Brands that are culturally savvy should be jumping at the chance to advertise and start new trends on TikTok,” she says. “With it being the only sound-on entertainment platform out there, it’s an incredible opportunity to use music to boost brand awareness whilst boosting artists’ careers.”
Nuance and consideration is the key to navigating all these delicately balanced relationships. At Untold, Annie says the team has been lucky enough to be part of that early journey with artists, helping to craft their brand (the likes of Kojey Radical, who’s just been nominated for a Mercury award, to Pa Salieu, Mahalia, Little Simz and ArrDee). “We see the most successful forms of ‘advertising’ fall within the brand partnerships space,” she says. “This is where brands give artists a platform to express themselves in an honest way, in this sense I think brands could be doing more. Brands that get it right such as Dr Martens, Nike and Mercedes-Benz show how valuable and mutually beneficial these relationships can be.
“It’s ultimately about the cross pollination of culture. Music is key to understanding culture and brands need to stay culturally relevant but it all goes back to authenticity, which means giving artists licence. As soon as something feels too contrived it fails. For example we worked with Beats to create ‘Agenda’, bringing together UK artists and other names in culture to discuss the issues taking place in the world right now. This made sense; it elevates the Beats brand by facilitating important conversations that artists feel passionate about and which resonate with their target audience.
“There’s also so many alternative means for artists to advertise on their own accord and maintain control over their brand through platforms such as TikTok. This has drastically changed the landscape for emerging artists who can garner overnight success from short videos on the platform. This can, however, be short lived so I will end this by saying that I still think there is more brands can be doing to support artists and create long-lasting, meaningful relationships but it has to be done authentically and be made to feel ‘organic’, which is truly an artform.”
In an ideal world, advertising can provide a platform for artists who naturally align with the brand’s goals and both sides benefit. Gabe points to MAS’ recent Pride Month work with the band MUNA for bubly as a perfect example. “The artist [MUNA member Naomi McPherson] is on camera in the spot and shared their about-to-be-released single with our team early, knowing that the timing of the release would line up with the launch of the song. It was a no brainer, and that’s how the best interactions between artists and brands should feel.”
That said, good old-fashioned sync on an ad can be effective. And almost every TVC still needs music. “The role of advertising has not drastically changed over the years and it’s still extremely important for launching musical artists,” says Chloe. “Even if the exposure an artist receives from being synced on an ad isn’t rocketing them to stardom, it’s helping them build their fanbase and promote their talent.
“Although the channels where people interact with adverts has changed a bit over the years, the power of music in adverts has not changed. No matter where we’re interacting with people, advertisers can use the right music to boost the success of their campaigns. My advice? Lean on the music experts. We often have access to music before it’s even released and we spend a lot of time finding new talent and music. So, trust in your music partners and be brave with it!”
Gabe notes that if brands want to be a part of introducing the world to the most exciting new music, the fundamentals haven’t changed that much. And TikTok or Netflix style success is still possible through an ad. “Like everything else in the music business, a song in an ad is not a silver bullet, but instead a valuable slice of the pie that hopefully combines with everything else the artist has going on to lead to overall success. Ads make the most impact for artists when there is a huge media buy and the ad and song plays like crazy. It’s that simple.”
If brands do want to make an impact and jointly share in the success of a track and have their ‘Kate Bush moment’, Mark at BMG has some advice for them: “They need to take risks, stay away from the trends and find their own tone of voice. When a brand achieves this they start to find those ‘Stranger Things x Kate Bush’ moments in advertising.”
James from Pressure Cooker still believes in the potential for brands to push music culture forward. "Advertising is still one of the biggest creative industries on the globe, with incredibly talented people working in agencies and brands who have an eye (and ear) for new trends and talent," he says. "It has and will continue to curate pop culture through the use of sponsorships and branding. This relationship between artists and brands is mutually beneficial.
"Social media, YouTube and music listening apps such as Spotify have allowed both up-and-coming and well-established musical artists to broaden their audiences in a huge way. But this also means that the music industry has become more over-populated than ever and, as an artist (especially a new one), it can be harder to stand out. Advertising budgets and partnerships could help artists stand out, and this is what I feel separates advertising from social media. When paired with the correct brand, advertising could propel unknown musical artists into the mainstream even further.
"It only takes one iconic advert paired with the right hit to make a name, and therefore I believe advertising still has a lot of weight to contribute to launching music artists in the world."