Rock Stars And The Ad Game There's A Split In The Ranks Between Those Who Do Commercials And Those Who Don't.

Posted: August 28, 1988

Steve Winwood sold out the Mann Music Center two nights last week, but the rocker wasn't the only one getting the exposure. Winwood's shows, for which reserved tickets cost $21.50, were sponsored by Michelob, and banners proclaiming this association flanked the stage. The song Winwood sold to Michelob for its advertising, "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do?," which just hit No. 51 on the singles chart - after one week - was met by shrieks of approval.

Neil Young also packed the Mann last week, but the singer did it on his own terms. Young has made it clear that he's not interested in underwriting of any kind. The words "Sponsored by Nobody" were featured prominently in the ads for the show, which carried a reserved-seat admission price of $17.50. "This Note's for You," Young's anti-sponsorship song, has been a sing-along favorite.

Like Pepsi squaring off against Coke, the two artists illustrate a growing philosophical split in the rock-and-roll ranks: Those who take the money and those who don't.

The money, of course, comes from high-rolling advertisers, business people eager to cash in on the integrity and popular appeal of rock and roll. More than ever, high-profile music celebrities are bombarded with requests for product endorsements. The classic songs of rock and roll change magically into the tunes of the pitchman. Artists are signing on with major corporations for tour sponsorship, offering their songs for use in advertising, doing things that in an earlier era would have been considered "selling out."

Last year, the Beatles' "Revolution" became an anthem for sneakers, seemingly overnight, after Michael Jackson, who owns the song rights, made a deal with Nike. The Byrds hawked Time magazine subscriptions with "Turn, Turn, Turn." Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," once a source of comfort to jilted lovers everywhere, was transformed into the sound of the California Raisins - whose popularity as a result of that campaign has generated 60 merchandising deals with a gross of more than $250 million, $50 million more than the total yearly profits from the raisins themselves.

This year, the boomlet has tapped into contemporary songs. Winwood's ''Don't You Know" follows in the footsteps of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," Genesis' "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" and Eric Clapton's re- recording of "After Midnight," all in the campaign called The Night Belongs To Michelob.

Anheuser-Busch spokeswoman Mary Dempster says that audience identification of Michelob "shot up" after the songs were introduced in advertising. ''We've experienced good association with all of the different artists. After a while, the audience starts to associate the song with the brand," she says.

Think of it as a clever, if unorthodox, cross-marketing scheme: Most of these songs were used by the beer outfit at the same time they were getting attention as singles.

Nobody's actually said that the Winwood song's dramatic climb is a result of the multimedia boost it has received - the rapid rise could be the extra momentum of following up his No. 1 "Roll With It" - but the Michelob association clearly isn't hurting. Robert Plant's "Tall Cool One" has enjoyed similar prolonged attention on rock radio, thanks in part to its use in Classic Coke commercials. And the synergy between Michael Jackson and Pepsi, which held up an entire campaign waiting for the Bad album, is legendary.

Are these songs or full-length jingles? When written, were they moments of musical inspiration, or creative opportunism? Is it possible to tell the difference, anyway?

Ron Weisner, Winwood's manager, says the artist did not write his new single for Michelob; rather, Weisner says in the Aug. 27 Billboard, the reason Winwood agreed to do the Michelob spots was to obtain tour sponsorship. "You don't see stand-ups of Steve in beer stores across the country," he says. ''He doesn't drink Michelob - he's not a big drinker. You can be involved with a company without endorsing a product."

But clearly Winwood is involved on a higher level than simple tour sponsorship. He appeared in commercials. He granted Michelob use of the song. He has agreed to a print ad campaign. As many point out, Winwood is an artist who doesn't exactly need the money, either. And his tour, while extensive in the lighting department, doesn't require the dollars of a sponsor the same way that the coming Amnesty International Human Rights Now! tour does. Jack Healey, the human-rights organization's American director, says the tour could not travel to all five continents without the $10 million participation of footware manufacturer Reebok.

Some see the rapid expansion of all-pervasive rock-and-roll marketing as the inevitable stomp of progress, confirmation that the music has indeed become a force in the culture at large. They argue that sponsorship makes for better tours at lower prices (though you can't prove that one by Winwood), and provides funding for artists who would not be able to tour otherwise.

In his song, Young registered opposition to this sell-the-farm commercialism: "Ain't singing for Pepsi/ Ain't singing for Coke/I don't sing for nobody/Makes me look like a joke."

As if on cue, MTV's reaction to Young's "This Note's for You" video spoke volumes about corporate control of the arts. In the clip, there are pranky, practical-joke-like references to a number of heavily advertised products and their celebrity endorsers. Citing a longstanding network policy that bans direct product references, MTV refused to air the clip, ignoring the fact that a number of other current videos - DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "Parents Just Don't Understand," and Pebbles' "Mercedes Boy" among them - prominently mention and display brand-name products.

Young called MTV "spineless twerps" and added that the music channel was afraid of offending its advertisers. "What does the M in MTV stand for, music or money?" Young wondered in an open letter to officials at the channel. After weeks of refusal, MTV began airing the clip in its "news" programming segments last week.

"Sarcasm is the sincerest form of flattery," says David Rheins, editor of the newsletter Marketing Through Music, which is published monthly by Rolling Stone magazine. He believes that the Young clip signals public acceptance of rockers in advertising roles. "He (Young) can make an oblique reference and everyone knows what he's talking about," Rheins says. "The music and its makers are so prevalent, it's now a part of the culture. And it's finally possible to do spoofs about it."

Rheins and others maintain that the tide in advertising is too strong for a reversal. The statistics support this: In a recent poll, 60 percent of advertisers surveyed had a favorable response to rock musicians plugging their wares. Many large agencies have creative teams specializing in advertising that uses popular music. In the last two years, Marketing Through Music has reported more than 500 associations between artists and their songs and advertisers.

"Two years ago it was a rare thing," recalls Rheins. "Now we're seeing not only youth-oriented products, but more mainstream products - automobiles, footware. Advertisers are finding that music does cut through the media clutter." In addition, he says, the sponsorship is taking different forms: Where once tour sponsorship was the primary transaction, now artists are moving toward more integrated, Winwood-style agreements involving print and broadcast advertising, tours, even publicity and promotion.

But tour sponsorship - which, for many artists means a combination of cash, promotion and production assistance - remains the standard, a result of the record companies' refusal to reinstitute the in-house tour support that was a standard part of artist contracts until the music-industry bust of '78. That money, the labels say, has since been directed to music video.

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Young is one of a growing number of artists - including Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Fogerty, John Mellencamp and Chrissie Hynde - who believe that corporate sponsorship of a song or an aritist diminishes the entire form. In addition to Young's "This Note's for You," other songs written to protest corporate sponsorship include Fogerty's "Soda Pop" and Hynde's bitterly cutting "How Much Did You Get For Your Soul?"

"I'm not a jingle writer," Petty said in an interview last year. "That's not what I'm doing this for. How is someone supposed to take your next work seriously when your last one was a beer commercial? This might be a record, or this might be a beer commercial - without changing any words or anything."

Though there isn't an accurate measurement of the impact of advertising on rock, many feel that some essential audience-performer trust is broken when the artist sells himself to the corporations. Lee Ballinger, associate editor of the monthly newsletter Rock and Roll Confidential, notes that Winwood has ''eliminated himself from comment" on such issues as drunk driving. "If Winwood was to say anything about that," Ballinger says, "it would be a joke. He has absolutely no credibility."

Ballinger identifies the "please the sponsor" syndrome as another primary danger: He mentions that one of the ways that bands qualify for the Miller Brewing Co.'s Rock Network - a tour-support system that sponsors emerging bands - is to submit original interpretations of the Miller theme.

"It's to the point where these sponsors have to look at everybody's shoes before the bands go on stage," he says. "It's insane . . ."

He and others have suggested a way to avoid the problem entirely, by establishing a National Endowment system not unlike one in Canada that helps bands through a fund maintained by the government and the recording industry.

Until something like that comes along, rock and roll will persist - and even grow - as a sales tool of considerable influence. That doesn't mean the rockers whose integrity remains intact will sit idly by. "If you're going to affiliate with something," says Hynde, "it seems like you'd want to endorse higher learning or social change or the truth. To start doing sponsorships and endorsements, that mystifies me."

And Petty: "There were ideals in this music from the '60s and '50s, and I want to see those ideals remain intact."

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