Apple, Nike, Gap…so many commercials have helped launch musical careers. While most emerging songwriters would kill to be featured in an ad, bigger bands like Sigur Ros can afford to take a higher moral stance and more often than not just say “No”. The band has licensed their music to just a handful of brands, including Sky Sports, Disney, and Oxfam. Jonsi may end up taking a different stance; his solo song “Go Do” has already been used in a Dulux advert:
The cold hard truth is that most ad agencies will still be turned down by Jonsi and Sigur Ros. So what do ad agencies do when they’re rejected by an artist who’s tough to license? More often than you’d think, they commission soundalikes - similar songs that just manage to skirt copyright infringement. Sigur Ros have been victims of this growing trend. A post from their fan blog points out a number of commercials with Sigur Ros soundalikes.
As similar as these might sound to the original song, none of them are close enough for Sigur Rós to pursue legal action:
“You can get all the musicologists’ reports you like and all they will tell you is that the chord sequence is “commonly used” or the structure is a “style-a-like” and not a “pass off” …in other words change a note here, swap things around a bit there and, hey presto, it’s an original composition.”
A more creative and honest alternative to a soundalike is a reinterpretation (a cover version of the song). Even if an artist or label won’t allow their song on adverts, often they’ll allow a reinterpretation. It can save ad agencies quite a bit of money compared to using the original recording. Generally, about half of the cost of licensing a track goes to the publisher (for the lyrics/chords/melody) and half goes to the record label (for the original recording). But when you commission a reinterpretation, you only have to pay the publisher, plus the relatively minimal recording costs for the new cover version. Not only can you save a considerable amount of money with a reinterpretation, but you also get the opportunity to refresh an old hit, which gives your brand ownership by association.
Reinterpretations can also attract plenty of publicity. One brand that has been reaping the rewards of “owning” a reinterpretation of a classic song is John Lewis, who asked the band Taken By Trees to record a new version of “Sweet Child Of Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. Their reinterpretation is the complete antithesis of the original, and it caused huge amounts of press, radio airtime, and YouTube hits galore. Great for John Lewis, who now have created a reputation to uphold and have started a trend other adverts are keen to adopt. Take Kronenbourg’s most recent reinterpretation of “Baggy Trousers” featuring the Madness boys in the ad itself:
So…Our advice to those brands considering a soundalike or a reinterpretation? Go for the reinterpretation. Loyal fans will easily spot and denounce a soundalike, whereas a new cover version of their favorite tune is almost always welcome. Put the effort in to create something that stands out as a great track in its own right, and it may just snowball into the next big advert/music hit!