There was a time when singer/guitarist Bob Mould was concerned about the notion of “selling out,” of being perceived as artistically impure if he allowed his music to be used in TV advertisements. But a couple of years ago, his song “See a Little Light” appeared in a campaign for financial-services providers TIAA-CREF — hardly a place you’d expect to hear the former Hüsker Dü and Sugar frontman.
Mould, who played a sold-out show at the Hotel Café two weeks ago and has an autobiography coming out next year, says that 15 years ago he’d have been accused of co-opting his art for profit, but no more. “My fans are getting older, too,” he explains. “A lot of them wrote to me and said, ‘Wow! That’s where my retirement fund is — that’s really cool!’” Mould’s standpoint has softened as well. “I thought the music was pure and should stand on its own. The reality of the business decades later is the music seems to be free. And unfortunately my mortgage isn’t free, so you have to make concessions.”
For the past couple of decades, Mould has employed L.A.-based Bug Music to shop his songs to music supervisors and ad people. Music publishers like Bug are an oft-overlooked tool in a musician’s arsenal, but can earn them steady money in an era when sales royalties have plummeted. Indeed, with the arrival of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the demand for video-game soundtracks, and an evolution in the styles of music being used as beds in TV shows and commercials, more options exist than ever for the licensing of tunes. Record deals and concert crowds will come and go, but — providing they retain ownership of their copyrights — artists with a decent publisher can continue to fill their piggy banks. And the fans don’t seem to care.
“There was a lot of talk during the ’90s about who was or wasn’t a sellout, but at this point it’s become pretty much irrelevant,” says Mara Schwartz, a creative director at Bug. “It’s just a completely different mindset now. Many of the [music] supervisors take pride in being the first to discover the latest, hippest new acts, so any stigma of ‘uncool’ that had been part of film and TV music is gone.”
“One would have thought in 1977 there wasn’t going to be much of a shelf life for the Dead Kennedys,” adds David Hirshland, Bug’s president, once the West Coast distributor of Punk magazine. “The fact is that their catalog is doing fantastically well.”
Now that most TV shows have music supervisors, and with creative directors at advertising agencies getting younger, there are more outlets for original songs and less aesthetic compromises in the way these songs are used. Schwartz cites one specific campaign that changed the game. “When those VW spots came out that used the Orb and Spiritualized [in the late 1990s], that was one of the first major usages of licensed hip music in a television commercial, and it really broke open the floodgates after that. Now it’s very rare to have an actual jingle in a commercial, like a ‘Give us a break of that Kit Kat bar.’”
Having your song in a high-profile commercial — aside from paying well in itself — can also offer an artist more exposure than traditional airplay, especially in these days of ever-shrinking radio playlists. “The Wilco/VW spots were a perfect example of getting several songs from their latest album in front of a national audience, and the band got tons of press out of doing the spots as well,” Schwartz explains, referring to the roots-rock band’s decision to license several tracks from its ’06 Sky Blue Sky opus to the German auto giant. “Recently we’ve had music from a brand-new artist, Ryan Lindsey, featured in national TV spots for Payless, and at this point it would be nearly impossible to get a developing artist of his level on the radio at such a large scale.”
A who’s who of contemporary indie darlings have gotten in on the act too: Grandaddy (Honda Civic), Flaming Lips (Dell Inspiron) and Bloc Party (Saturn) have all licensed their work. Some even allow their lyrics to be butchered for commercials. “Of Montreal did a commercial for Outback Steakhouse,” says Schwartz. “They took one of their songs from their album Sunlandic Twins and the agency changed the lyrics to ‘Let’s go Outback tonight.’” (Though more commonplace today, such lyrical bastardizations are nothing new: As early as 1982, Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” had its hook reworked into “7UP, the difference is clear,”)
And it’s not just established artists enjoying the emerging markets for music. The evolution has, in essence, created a whole new career niche: club-level acts that sell relatively few CDs but are quietly banking from other avenues of exposure. Take local pop-punk trio the Dollyrots:
“We’ve had them for five years and we’ve done amazing things film- and TV-wise,” enthuses Brad Rains, another creative director at Bug Music. “How many records have they sold? Ten thousand if we’re lucky. How much money have they made from their publishing? More than they ever expected.”
Bug Music sits on a palm-shaded corner of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, an unremarkable 1950s office building distinguished chiefly by the giant plastic fly clinging to its facade. Started by brothers Dan and Fred Bourgoise in L.A. in 1975, with Del Shannon as their sole client, Bug (a name derived from Dan’s childhood moniker) has ballooned into one of the world’s largest independent publishing companies, with 75 employees in three countries.
Last year Bug acquired fellow music publishers Windswept Music and Trio/Quartet, expanding its catalog to some 250,000 copyrighted compositions, including sing-in-the-shower standards like “What a Wonderful World,” “Under the Boardwalk” and “Fever,” and contemporary hits including “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child, and Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady.” Bug’s vast client list includes Johnny Cash and Willie Dixon, and bands ranging from Animal Collective, Sonic Youth and Suicidal Tendencies to the Go-Gos, Los Lobos and the entire musical oeuvre of classicists Beavis and Butt-Head.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, big winners at last month’s Grammy Awards (Album of the Year for Raising Sand), and Kings of Leon (Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals for “Sex On Fire”) are both Bug clients. Kara DioGuardi — American Idol’s newest judge and hit-writer for the likes of Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion and the Jonas Brothers — also just signed up. Less established songwriters such as Laura Veirs and Joe Pernice would be lost at a bigger publisher. Recent Bug placements include Michelle Shocked’s “When I Grow Up” in Kaiser Permanente ads; “Baby Please Don’t Go,” written by Muddy Waters, in a T.G.I. Fridays campaign; and Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch,” used in the movie Tropic Thunder.
Though it might seem confusing, the music-publishing world relies on a fairly simple principle: A song can be bought, sold, licensed — and stolen — as intellectual property. The function of a company like Bug is to manage that property on behalf of songwriters in return for a cut of the revenue their tunes generate.
“The publisher fulfills two functions,” Hirshland explains. “One is the management function, which is to register copyrights . as well as licensing the songs to record labels, film and TV users, advertising agencies, Internet companies — any and all third-party users of songs. The secondary function is to exploit copyrights — to find uses for them.”
Some of the blues greats, including Dixon and Waters, were famously ripped off in past deals, and Bug’s fair treatment of these artists contributed to the company’s unusually decent reputation in an industry not known for ethics.
“A lot of bands that are legendary for just not signing anything with anybody — a lot of our ’70s and ’80s punk bands, but also more modern bands like Sleater-Kinney and the Faint — came over to Bug because they knew that they would own their own rights,” says Schwartz.
So in this cold digital age of downloads and ring tones, the organic seed of the music industry, the song — a crafted expression of the head and heart — is perhaps more pivotal than ever. Yet, for all the fresh opportunities presented to songwriters by shifting trends and technologies, most musicians make just enough to get by from their art. It’s telling that, while Bug president Hirshland encourages his teenage sons’ hobby bands, he’s quick to stress, “They’re not going to be in the business.”