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Of Monsters and Midsize Sedans

| Monday, February 3, 2020

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

You know your favorite indie band has made it when you hear them in a car commercial. Maybe it is a spot for the practical-yet-fun Nissan Quest. Or the classic-yet-fresh Cadillac SRX. Or the sustainable-yet-hip Toyota Prius. For whichever car it may be, a commercial spot not only confirms a band’s marketability, but it also provides a career-launching publicity boost.

This tradition began with the 1990s Volkswagen advertising campaign “Drivers Wanted,” run by the advertisement agency Arnold Worldwide.

“The people who drove Volkswagens, they thought of themselves as being more underground—a little bit cooler and younger—and they were,” Lance Jensen, who worked for Arnold during the campaign, told the Boston Globe. “You needed to show, that we know what your CD collection looks like.”

“Milky Way,” a 1999 spot for the Volkswagen Cabrio convertible, features four twenty-somethings on a moonlit drive through the countryside. They pull up to a house party, then, on second thought, put the car in reverse and keep driving. In the background plays “Pink Moon,” the fragile, acoustic title track to Nick Drake’s 1972 album.

The spot was a massive success. The One Club, which honors excellent advertisements, in 2012 deemed “Milky Way” one of the 10 best commercials in the past 25 years. And Drake, who passed away in 1974, sold more records in the month following the advertisement than in the previous 30 years.

The ad became a gold standard. In “As Heard on TV: Popular Music In Advertising,” Bethany Klein writes, “it is because the [Volkswagen] ad is so well executed and so aesthetically successful that the industry and the public reassessed the use of music in advertising around this example.” Indie music gives car commercials the cool factor needed to draw younger consumers.

There is a second factor at play in the “indie-fication” of car commercials: the decline of the music industry, especially for indie artists. CD sales once provided adequate financial support for indie artists, but in the past two decades, the internet has drained that market. (“Milky Way” was actually the first Volkswagen ad to appear online, with viewers prompted to purchase a digital download of “Pink Moon.”) Unlike CD sales, online streaming royalties do not provide a livable income for indie artists. And for that reason, indie artists are under financial pressure to license their music to advertisers. Today, the indie music and car commercial industries are inextricably linked. 

A sample of indie bands and the car brands to which they have licensed music: Band of Horses, Ford; Fleet Foxes, Toyota; Grizzly Bear, Volkswagen; Matt and Kim, Buick; Modest Mouse, Nissan; M83, Pontiac; Noah and the Whale, Saturn; Phoenix, Cadillac; Sea Wolf, Chevrolet; Vampire Weekend, Honda.

Harmless, this link is not. Not only has the car commercial industry built itself around indie music, but indie music has also increasingly built itself around the car commercial industry. If an indie song sounds perfect for a car commercial, it might be because it was made to be.

Father John Misty captures this phenomenon well in his satirical 2016 single “PRIUS COMMERCIAL DEMO 1.” “Oh my brother,” Misty sings tongue-in-cheek over a cheesy acoustic guitar riff, “I think that the moon is high / I rode that train car / where the mountains meet the sky.” Background singers chime in “Ho!” and “Hey!” On my first listen, I’ll admit I found myself nodding along—the song felt familiar.

For the most part, the relationship between indie artists and advertisers is mutually beneficial. Advertising royalties provide artists financial compensation where streaming royalties fall short, and indie music gives car commercials youth appeal. However, the sanitization of a boundary-pushing genre for the purpose of selling cars should be the subject of concern. Indie music loses independence when it caters to a commercial interest.

As an indie fan, the next time I hear an artist I love sing about hitting the open road, I want to be thinking about the road, not the car.

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