Hey, Kanye, that Notorious B.I.G. track being used to hype Taco Bell: Selling out or buying in?
This past weekend at London's Hammersmith Apollo, Kanye West went on a rant about selling out. Apparently, he now hates the Grammys, corporations and possibly the new Justin Timberlake song. Ironically, the self proclaimed "Louis Vuitton Don" saw absolutely no conflict of interest in calling out artists who court corporate sponsorship -- timely, considering that his tunes have been licensed this year to sell beer, movies and affordable mid size sedans.
It's a wonder Mr. West didn't direct his rage at Taco Bell's ragtag use of the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa." I mean, it seems prime for the picking. When you first see "Grande Papi," the shameless ad touting the new Cantina Steak Burrito, you might just throw up in your mouth a little -- and not just because it's Taco Bell. If you haven't seen it yet, the ad prominently features a "Spanish translation" -- reportedly created with Google Translate (?) -- of "Big Poppa." Have a look:
"Bullshit" is the first word that probably comes to mind when you see this gem, followed by, oh, I don't know, "sell out." Surely besmirching the legacy of arguably the greatest rapper of all time with a burrito commercial has crossed the line! Except that there is no line. Not anymore. These days there's no such thing as selling out, only buying in.
Face it: The idea of a highly principled, socially conscious artist is an outmoded concept in 2013. Today, you're either smart about your intellectual property and pursuing sustainable 360-type deals with cats who have major bank rolls, or you're thinking you're "mackin' when they know they actin'," as Big once put it. Wake up. This is the Music Industry 2.0, where selling your own ass is the business, and business is good.
In case you've been asleep for the last twenty years, the digital age hasn't been kind to media companies. The pressure to drive profits is what's driving the belly aching from the big four music companies. Each is wholly owned by a larger parent corporation that is looking at that division to increase their bottom line to please their shareholders.
No excuses. You get it done, or you get on.
Kanye knows this and has thrived in this system because he's worked just as hard on his brand as he has his music. Clearly he understands the intersection of art and commerce, like P. Diddy, who can't stop, won't stop. When it comes to profits, Diddy has wisely led the charge in diversifying revenue streams for artists.
This adds a new level of irony to his famous scene from Get Him to the Greek because, with major sales of Ciroc Vodka and a lucrative garment and fragrance business, Sergio is in fact "gon' be fine." It's the unwashed masses that need to worry because we are fucked.
We're fucked, though, mostly because the gatekeepers really don't care about art, especially if there's a recession. Higher profits mean just that, and that translates into a fire sale on your favorite artists' legacy. Somewhere along the way, we started to believe that just because our favorite musicians believe in themselves that they also hold actual beliefs -- and, no, defending a Beyoncé video at an awards show does not count.
Instead, look at rare examples like the late MCA and the Beastie Boys, who, to this day, forbid their music to be licensed for any commercial purpose. Ironically, their estates and heirs may go broke trying to preserve what is, in MCA's case, a dying wish. They could end up spending all their money on legal fees.
Only old school artists who are lucky enough to have accrued profits for twenty years or more can afford to take the hard line on this. Granted, Kanye is almost there, but he had some help. Remember the Pepsi ad? And yet he's gonna scream about other cats selling soda? For lesser known acts like the Heavy, meanwhile, you can imagine they were probably super grateful when the folks at Kia came knocking, as well the folks from Entourage -- hell they'd probably welcome any other outlet that will give their songs such enviable and prominent exposure.
The best historical precedent for this new rush toward commercial licensing would have to be the use of Sting's "Desert Rose," which appeared in a Jaguar ad in the 2000. This is important because the ad sets the precedent of an artist approaching an advertiser to be a pitch man for the product. According to PopHistoryDig.com, Sting's manager, Miles Copeland III, approached Ogilvy & Mather after a music video was already completed prominently featuring their client Jaguar's new S-Type sedan.
Ogilvy came up with the ad copy: "Everyone dreams of being a rock star. What then do rock stars dream of?" The answer, in Sting's case, apparently, would be piles of money generated from passive income. If that means that you lend your likeness, song and video to Jaguar, then so be it. The spots were reasonably successful, and the new S-Type was well received. What was truly astonishing, though, was that in America, Sting's album sales went through the roof, and he ended up winning several Grammys. We imagine a lot of managers and record execs said, "Holy Shit" at exactly the same time.