In the past 50 years, pop songs have gotten longer, louder and increasingly similar. But music is changing in a deeper way that most people likely haven't realized. Brands and advertising are creeping in at all levels of the creative process: Your favorite songs and music videos are becoming advertisements.
Research out of the University of Colorado, Denver confirms the trend. Analyzing the top 30 songs on the Billboard charts every year from 1960 to 2013, researcher Storm Gloor found that more than half of the 1,544 brand mentions he identified in popular lyrics occurred between 2000 and 2010. As the general length of songs and number of words in them have increased, so too has the percentage of brand-associated words. In 2010, 1.8% of the words in lyrics could be considered branding. That might seem small, but it's nearly double the percentage 25 years earlier. And in 2006, 2 out of every 3 songs in the study included at least one branding reference.
Behind closed doors, there's a lot of money changing hands to get these mentions into our music. Every time you listen to a song that mentions a brand, there's quite possibly a deal — or a hope for a future deal — engineering that appearance.
The shape of music to come. "Artists will not — nor will their management — disclose any type of arrangement being made," Storm Gloor told Mic. "That's just the way the industry works. They could. But you'll rarely, if ever, find an artist standing with executives from Brand X for a photo op. There's a caution to seem overt about this in the industry."
However, some executives have offered insight into the process, mainly in cases where the brand's presence in an artist's lyrics are so blatant it's hard to ignore.
Chris Brown's 2007 hit "Forever" is one such song. The original song prominently nods to the slogan of Wrigley's Double Mint gum in its chorus: "Double your pleasure / Double your fun and dance." Almost a year later, Wrigley's revealed that the song was actually part of a cleverly orchestrated branding move, conceived by a former senior executive at Interscope Records, Steve Stoute. According to the Wall Street Journal, the idea was to familiarize consumers with the brand via the song in advance of releasing a commercial jingle, also performed by Brown, which carries the same tune.
Executives at Wrigley's declined to reveal to the Wall Street Journal reveal how much they paid for the song. But it's clear that the industry is willing compromise an artist's creative process to satisfy a potential branding partner.
Brown's single is an extreme case, but it is by no means an isolated incident.
"It's a touchy topic, because product placement usually involves an exchange of money — or something," an ad agency exec told Billboard in 2006. A 2002 Fortune article shared details from a Sony Music memo in which the company "blatantly offers to include product plugs in the lyrics of an upcoming album by boy band B2K," and that the same offer would be extended on behalf of "most of our pop acts." Gloor's study discusses a similar leaked email from 2008 from the Kluger Agency that reveals how a "certain brand of jeans could, for the right price, 'find its way into the lyrics of an upcoming Pussycat Dolls song.'"
This same product placement is also happening in music videos. Beats is one of the most flagrant offenders in this realm, filling hip-hop and R&B videos especially with Beats products. Furthermore, Universal Music Group has begun rolling out a program to retroactively insert advertisements into older music videos, whose artists didn't think to monetize every inch of their art.
Why artists play this game. This isn't about artistic inspiration. "It's just a way to make more money," Sam Howard-Spink, clinical assistant professor of music business at New York University told Mic. "Advertising a product or sponsorships used to be something that went straight to the artists. But now with 360 deals," in which a label controls more of an artist's career, such as marketing, promotion and touring in exchange for a bigger cut of the revenue, "it's shared between artists and labels." As other forms of profit dwindle, it's important that artists participate. Brands couldn't be happier.
"The argument made by marketers ... is that it's adding realism. Young people need their media to feel real and relevant to them," Howard-Spink explained. "So if they see brands in their media that they also see in their daily lives, then the media becomes more authentic to them. But that's the sort of excuse that people who make money from selling sponsorship deals to record companies would say."
It goes both ways, though. Sometimes artists drop brand names unsolicited as a way to attract brand attention and hopefully earn free products or sponsorships down the line. Busta Rhymes did that with his successful single "Pass the Courvoisier."
According to MTV, Busta Rhymes' management claims the choice of liquor was simply an artistic choice. But after the song gave Courvoisier "a double-digit uptick in U.S. sales," the company reached out and penned a sponsorship deal between the artist and the brand.
However, it becomes a slippery slope. When Lady Gaga made her "Telephone" music video, she packed it with sponsorships. Some of the brands, such as the Diet Coke cans Gaga sports in her hair in one scene, have personal, artistic significance, according to an Advertising Age interview with Gaga's manager. But that significance is lost in the blur of other product placement: Miracle Whip, Polaroid, Virgin Mobile, the dating site Plenty of Fish and Hewlett Packard's "Beats" line of laptops. It's an amazing video, but some of its power is lost in the competing influences on Gaga's vision.
"If Michael Jackson was making 'Thriller,' he would do this too," Troy Carter, Gaga's manager, told Advertising Age. "These million-dollar music videos have to have partners to be produced."
We can't let this continue. The need to look to income streams outside music is understandable, but we compromise something of our art when we let brands have such influence over our music. There's a way for artists to work with advertisers, but the insertion of products into lyrics and videos isn't it.
Some brands — notably Red Bull, Squarespace and Converse — have found ways to partner with musicians without infiltrating their works. Indie act White Mystery recently told Fader, "Working with brands like Levi's and Red Bull allows White Mystery to play shows for bigger audiences and take on creative projects like releasing a double album while remaining a 100% independent band."
So to a degree, 'selling out' can be creatively liberating. But there's a difference between selling a partnership and selling part of your song's message — the part that a listener trusts and needs to connect with. Consumers need to look at branding in lyrics with extreme skepticism. They should look to support acts that only use brands to establish an artistic identity, not solely a financial one. If we don't stop it, this trend may continue until, one day, music may be all jingle and no substance.