Monday, June 04, 2007

The Sound of Selling Out?

I must confess I get just a wee bit giddy when I hear Christian music on secular radio--particularly if the Christian music I'm hearing on secular radio is not the kind that sucks. I remember a DJ on a Chicago station shouting to his audience something along the lines of "This is Jars of Clay. They're a Christian band and they rock!" I remember hearing Tommy Lee (of Motley Crue and more recently Rock Star: Supernova) saying "Oh yeah, I love Switchfoot." I remember looking up when the aptly named online Radio Paradise started playing the latest track from Sara Groves. I remember thinking in each instance that these folks had earned their place in the mainstream, that they were practicing their faith without sacrificing their art, that they were practicing their art without sacrificing their faith.

My unbridled enthusiasm hit a bumpy patch recently, however, when I heard Sara Groves on TV. Normally that would be great; when Relient K played on the Tonight Show and when POD played on the Late Show I celebrated the open-mindedness of the booking agents and the validation of the performers' craft. But I didn't hear Sara Groves on the late night talk shows; I heard her on a commercial. For furniture.

"All Right Here" is a thoroughly human, relational song--Sara Groves at her best. It's a guitar-driven pop song that affirms the complexity of the human soul and the sacredness of soul-to-soul relationships. In the Chicago market at least, the song has been adapted by a furniture dealer to declare "Find it all right here!" References to "every loss and every love, . . . what I know and what I'm guessing, half truths and full confessions" are redirected to ottomans and armoirs, futons and fitted sheets. To quote the unfurnished Sara Groves, "It makes me wince."

I count Sara Groves among the top ten Christian recording artists ever--which may not sound like much of an accomplishment if you're as skeptical about the quality of music coming out of the gospel music association, but she ranks so highly because her lyrics and music fit comfortably alongside some of the great songwriters of her era. She's consistently clever and constantly evolving as a songwriter. And now she's joined some of her fellow songwriters in another exclusive club: she's sold out.

Groves is not at all the first great songwriter to allow her songs to be sublicensed for commercial purposes. The Beatles (via the interloping rights-owner Michael Jackson) did it famously with "Revolution" for Nike. Sting did it for Jaguar, and fellow chanteuse Shawn Colvin did it many times over. I'm fans of all of them, and I swallowed hard each time I heard of each betrayal.

But I'm still a fan, so I have to give them the benefit of the doubt. Shawn Colvin was explicit in her own discomfort about sublicensing songs, but pointed to the reality of the shrinking music industry. It's a hard industry to maintain a career in, with even Grammy winners like Sting and Colvin regularly overlooked by broadcast outlets as the most recent flavors of mediocrity on the music scene are mass-marketed like some Phil Spector-esque wall of sound and fury.

So Sara Groves sold out. Her music is being used to great effect to hawk end tables and recliners in the Chicago area. As long as it keeps her recording and touring, I guess I'm OK with it. I repent of my pettiness and affirm Sara Groves by quoting another great songwriter, Tom Petty: "You're all right, for now."

10 comments:

Web said...

You can thank the Rolling Stones for starting the trend of selling their tunes to completely unrelated products. I believe it happened back in 1995 when Microsoft paid millions of dollars for the right to use the Stones' "Start Me Up" for the release of Windows '95.

Another tidbit of info that you may/may not care about (please correct me if I'm wrong): Microsoft originally approached REM for the rights to use "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" and REM told them to get lost...

David A. Zimmerman said...

REM has worn their ethical dilemmas on their sleeves over the years too. They jumped from an indie label to a major label my freshman year in college; they swore they'd never play arenas till they started playing arenas; they made a pact with each to play their last gig on New Year's Eve 1999, and at last report they're still together; their drummer retired to become a farmer, and now he's back in the band. But they feel awkward about the whole thing.

Christianne said...

Loved this post, as always. Getting an education from you, as always.

Some thoughts that rumbled in my head as I read:

* I thought it was great that Jars of Clay played "Flood" on mainstream . . . until about the 2,976th time it played.

* You forgot to add Celine Dion to your list of car commercial sell-outs . . . because I'm just SURE you rank her on par with Sting and Shawn Colvin and the Beatles. :)

* I jumped up and down on the couch when I heard Jennifer Knapp strumming her guitar and crooning as a backdrop sound to a Felicity episode years ago . . . back when she was still making albums and I wanted everyone in the world to know her.

* I hung in the theatre until the end song ran out when I heard Plumb's "Late Great Planet Earth" playing the end credits song to . . . some movie.

Pda said...

Hey Dave,

Yeah we do the Alpha course in a pretty simple format since it;s out first go. We run it on Sunday mornings during the normal hour set aside for youth. We're doing the lite stream of the youth alpha leaders manual, and out of the four or five core team I have we try to rotate who speaks each week (the default speaker falls to me).

We've seen a fairly successful run so far (we just passed week six). We don't use videos, we just use the baic stuff from the manual and then add in personal stories. It's worked really well in a low key environment like we have. We may move to another day after this round. My goal is to raise up young student leaders who could sort of take the helm in the next round. Let me know if you have any more questions. God bless!
Paul

Pete Juvinall said...

Bono said it best as to why they don't like to hawk things (maybe they have the station and money to make a stand like that), but he said that they recognized that their music elicits certain emotions and reminds people of a place. To fire up 'Where the streets have no name' in an arena is sort of magical thing in that the crowd has shared memory of what that songs means to them. To do that, he said, is basically a tool and it would compromise it if the crowd instantly thought of a car commercial.

On the other hand, there's Moby with his 'Play' release and Celldweller with his latest who's really capitalized on their music and sold rights to it to, in effect, get it out there and popular. They make money, they get ears and seemingly no compromise was made in their art.

David A. Zimmerman said...

Pete Juvinall is a genius. Thanks for bringing U2's perspective into the mix, and Moby too, for that matter; Moby made his name by commercializing his music, and he's like the prince of authenticity.

Dave M said...

As an artist I understand both sides to this one. Ultimately the artist wants to be heard or seen. The more ways to do that.....well you may take advantage of.

Commercialism has its down-sides: Over-exposure, cheapening of meaning and desiring fame or money over what matters.

Up-side: Greater exposure, increase in resources and freedom do from success.

There are many who will hear S. Groves song for furniture who will wonder who wrote that song and seek her out and buy her CD/Mpg. And who knows maybe open their heart to Christ.

Remember the Listerine "Hooked on a feel'n" or the theme to Friends, both bands had a huge rebirth of sales. Some also said Johnny Cash sold-out doing MTV. Look at the rebirth and respect he gained. Once shunned by Country Music.

Though it maybe selling-out, it also means people are listening.

Kate Stewart said...

There has been a lot of rumblings in the music media and around the web about the new Wilco album (which I do not care for) and their decision to license songs from it to Volkswagen, for a new campaign. I thought this article from the Tribune was pretty spot on.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/chi-0610_pop1jun10,1,6751583.story?coll=chi-ent_music-hed

gmadness said...

Since you mentioned them, Jars of Clay sang a song about Coca-Cola in Coke commercials a few years ago. It was a very catchy tune. I guess you can taste and see that the Coke is good, and all that...

Jeff said...

I THOUGHT this was Sara Groves! I couldn't understand why the commercial's jingle sounded so familiar. I really wonder what thought processes and conversations jump-started the process: I'm guessing that some marketing executive was driving around with a Sara Groves CD in her car and just made a mental connection.

Weird!