Symphony for the Devil: Music and Advertising by Ben Birchall

Singer/songwriter/ad man, Ben Birchall

Singer/songwriter/ad man, Ben Birchall

Okay, I’ll admit it. I dance with the devil. He’s good looking, he pays for the drinks and he’s got the best record collection.

I’m a musician and I work in advertising.

But I’m on a dancefloor that’s fast filling as a new generation of musicians struggle to cope with a changing media landscape.

Advertising has always used music to sell. Waltzing Matilda was co-opted by Billy Tea in 1903. In the US, old-timey country radio shows were created by the sponsors, with popular musicians happily shilling the products. Like Hank Williams Snr on Mother’s Best Flour Show in 1951.

The idea of ‘selling out’ is largely a Baby Boomer construct. It would have been unheard of for Dylan to sell lingerie. Or the Beatles to sell sportswear. So they didn’t, at the time. But the boomers had the luxury of mass media culture and un-copyable records on their side. You could actually make money out of music.

Fast forward to 2010. Last week, the number one album on the ARIA charts sold 3600 copies. Music has become something we expect to own for nothing or stream for free. Add to that splintering audiences with the onset of digital TV and radio and it’s harder than ever to reach people. There’s no more Beatles on Ed Sullivan moments. Hell, there’s barely any Custard on Hey Hey It’s Saturday moments.

So our generation reaches the audience however it can. Little Red cash in on ANZ, Super Wild Horses get us into Bonds undies and Tame Impala check us into Crown.

Can we blame them? Impresarios with huge advances don’t knock on garage doors any more. But someone’s gotta pay for the studio. In my guise as an adman, I helped a friend place a song in a yoghurt ad I’d written. The money helped to pay for a home studio that he’s created three beautiful, homespun albums in. They might not exist without it.

The question is becoming not if, but how. You can do it well, as Radiohead showed us or you can do it horribly, as Jack White proved for Coke. It’s a matter of selecting what we endorse the same way we choose what we buy. But if musicians make music that’s true to them, however it’s consumed, they can make sure they’re leading and the devil’s following.

Ben Birchall is a musician and 3RRR Breakfaster who works in advertising. He is chairing Ethically Speaking: Advertising.

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