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Audio Slaves



The problem isn't creating associations with music through commercials--movies have been doing this with popular music for a long time with relatively little outcry ["In Praise of Selling Out," by Miles Raymer, June 22]. I'm sure most people can't hear "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "The Sound of Silence" without them conjuring superficial images of Wayne's World or The Graduate. And expecting advertisers to be condemned to using terrible music in their commercials for the principled reason that "good" music should be off-limits is pretty silly.

The problem is the new status quo on the horizon foreshadowed by this trend of artist/corporation collaboration. The implications are of a future where the new gatekeepers are big nonmusic corporations and not record labels.

It used to be the case that major labels held the key for many artists to open the gate to popular exposure. This model slowly broke down in the 1980s thanks to the rise of the DIY movement. But now in the world of MP3s and downloading, it is harder to make money as an independent artist when most people can get your music for free. (I won't use the word steal.)

So now huge corporations are becoming the new gatekeepers. Artists will increasingly have to win the approval of a giant mega-company in order to get their piece of the exposure pie (and get paid) as traditional record labels are replaced by proxy companies for big corporations. If Paul McCartney's deal with Starbucks's record label, Hear Music, to exclusively distribute his new record is any kind of weather vane, don't be surprised if Verizon or the Gap or ExxonMobile start their own record companies. These corporations have much more capital to spend and can handle thinner profit margins with respect to their music divisions than today's major labels--and if you thought Warner Brothers or Universal was evil, you haven't seen anything yet. These companies will treat their new commodities even more shamelessly than the record labels we've come to know and hate as artists become not much more than pawns in the corporations' game to sell their other products. (And it's not just major label artists either who will make the transition. Anyone who frequently attends local rock shows in Chicago has probably noticed the ubiquitous presence of Camel cigarettes in their promotion of free "indie" shows. Up next: R.J. Reynolds's indie rock record label . . . )

All this will be under the guise that it is a winning situation for the artists--but it's not. As interests become more and more conflicted--as we see with consolidation in the media industry and news outlets being subservient to big corporations--artists will find themselves in a new realm of restriction and forced compliance. What if the Shins (who licensed their music to McDonald's) write a song about how it's bad to eat meat? Or what if in the not-so-distant future Halliburton's theoretical record label signs a band like Interpol--will they barred from making antiwar statements? This situation may seem far-fetched, but it does not require too much imagination to think of the implications of a Wal-Mart or Nike record label, and the gag orders that would be part of their record contracts. Will artists have to make sure they write "safe" sanitized songs in order to prevent them from possibly offending a future corporate-sponsored record label (a la Ludacris and Pepsi)? Has Sonic Youth resigned the right to advocate for better treatment of coffee farmers by collaborating with Starbucks? This Faustian exchange might seem enticing to an aspiring indie artist looking for their break, but beware of trading freedom for fame.

Mark Berlin

Wicker Park

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