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Not Fade Away
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Why Does Old Rock Music Get Used In Current Marketing?

The downtown celebration for my beloved Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks last week included a big screen video montage of their playoff successes. The soundtrack was the Who's 1972 hit Join Together. Why use a song that’s almost 40 years old?

It happens in advertising all the time. David Bowie's Space Oddity (1969) was featured in a commercial for Lincoln's MKZ in 2008, and Ameriprise Financial used the Spencer Davis Group's 1967 Gimme Some Lovin’ that same year. Coke used the Rolling Stones' You Can't Always Get What You Want (also 1969) for a spot it ran in 2004. Classic rock regularly appears on TV and movie soundtracks, and it seems like no American politician wants to use a song for his or her campaign that isn't at least a generation away from any significant iTunes traffic.

Is it simply Boomer targeting?

I don't think so since most of the marketing and entertainment uses seem to skew both younger and older. Sure, there are the CW shows that are laser-focused on a consumer demographic that wants to hear the same current songs that they listen to when they're shopping at Hollister, but for most everything else the go-to choice seems to be songs from rock's heyday.

Is it because the songs are more likely to be recognized, or that their content is more appropriate?

Not necessarily. Recognition is a dual-edged sword, in that any awareness usually involves an association that's at least vague, while the possibilities for more explicit knowledge aren't a guaranteed good thing. I'd wager that "old" is probably the first connection that comes to mind for when people hear a classic song, so that can't be helpful unless that's the connection you're trying to make (i.e. selling to Boomers). Broad awareness also means no brand, show, or political candidate can hope to "own" the song association in any meaningful way. I'm sure marketers and producers strategize about what songs should mean but it's a buckshot approach, at best. I wouldn't bet a penny on guessing someone's musical tastes.

As for appropriate content, have you listened to the lyrics of those songs? How about looking up what the artists looked like or were doing when they recorded them (and not see them as the craggy elder statesmen and women they are now)? We're talking young drug and sex addicts whose outfits and lifestyles were more shocking than any of the studied offenders we're offered these days. I'm surprised that Wal-Mart even stocks a CD with Gimme Some Lovin' on it. Yet we still hear this stuff in elevators, family restaurants, and during timeouts at sporting events.

Is it because the old songs are easier and/or cheaper to buy (i.e. the geriatric rockers are more willing to sell out)?

Nope. The current cadre of musicians seem all-too willing to partner with corporate marketers, and there's no shortage of experts who'll tell them (and us) that piggybacking with an ad or TV show is the way to break through the clutter (Feist, anyone?). "Older" also correlates with "prickly," doesn't it? Springsteen regularly turns down millions. Negotiating with Apple Corps must feel like undergoing dental surgery. And I'd have to think that more years of availability combined with some sustained awareness of the musician must equal greater cost?

My personal opinion is pure curmudgeon: the older songs are simply better than the newer ones.

All popular music is a rip-off of earlier/other forms, which means that the first generation of rockers were closer to the blues, jazz, and even classical stuff from which they wantonly stole. Todays artists are a few iterations further removed, often times borrowing from the borrowed elements of earlier rockers, like an nth generation copy of a copy. "Original" in any popular idiom is a synonym for "mashup" and in that sense there's a lot that's new in the marketplace. It's just seems somewhat less authentic, not to mention often lacking melody or coherence, at least to my aged ears. Perhaps because much of it is so smartly targeted at particular applications (parsing into ringtones, being memorable but only in 30-second samples) the new stuff doesn't apply easily to more generic or broad uses?

Come to think of it, not enough of it truly surprises or challenges me, so it doesn't feel particularly new after all...which makes the old stuff seem newer, oddly enough. I wonder if that has something to do with why my teenage daughter's guitar teacher only gives her 60s and 70s rock songs to learn, and he's not even 30.

The real reason why old rock doesn't fade away? I have no idea. What do you think?

Added: 17th June 2010

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