In the post-album-buying age, artists have to make money in new and ever-expanding ways. In the ’90s, back when people actually bought albums on the regular, going to a concert rarely cost more than $50, and T-shirts at the show were usually $10-$15. These days, as artists try to make up revenue they no longer get from record sales, concert tickets have skyrocketed in price, and merch can be positively extortionate. But there’s another weird side effect that has changed the face of music.
It started in 2008 with an aggressive marketing strategy by Beats by Dre. Recent HBO documentary series, The Defiant Ones, talks openly about the fact that Dr. Dre’s business partner, Jimmy Iovine, pushed the headphones on every single famous person he came into contact with — be they athletes, actors, or musicians — in order to market them to the public. That year, Beats by Dre headphones showed up in music videos by Lady Gaga, Ludacris, Pussycat Dolls, The Game, Snoop Dogg, Solange, Busta Rhymes & Linkin Park, Keri Hilson, and too many others to mention.
Not only was there nothing subtle about any of Beats by Dre’s marketing, it opened the floodgates. By 2012, Swedish House Mafia’s “Greyhound” video transformed into an Absolut Vodka commercial, Ellie Goulding’s “How Long Will I Love You” was one long, excruciating Nokia endorsement, and No Doubt’s “Settle Down” was a thinly veiled ad for Ice watches. The following year, Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” video was basically a Ralph Lauren brochure, and Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull demonstrated what great multi-taskers they were by advertising Nokia phones, Swarovski jewelry, Beluga vodka, and Ice watches all in the space of one video (“Live it Up” should probably be renamed “Buy More Stuff”).
It was the arrival of the Beats Pill speaker though, that took music-videos-as-commercials to the next level. The prior marketing of Beats by Dre headphones looked positively subtle by comparison. Between 2013 and 2015, it was hard to find a music video that didn’t spend an annoyingly long time lingering on a Beats Pill. Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, Robin Thicke, TI and Pharrell, Coldplay, Jessie J, Ty Dolla $ign, Lily Allen, and more prominently featured the product in their videos. In the “We Can’t Stop” video, we see the pill before we even see Miley Cyrus’s face, and in Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch,” the pill is even used as a ball gag.
Post-Beats Pill, all bets are off; some artists are shilling a wide variety of products (and now services!) in their music videos in a manner that can only be described as shameless.
Demi Lovato’s latest, “Sorry Not Sorry,” is the pinnacle of awfulness when it comes to product placement because it starts with the promise of realness (“On June 29th, Demi threw a house party and we made a music video”). The video then works its way through endorsements for Jaguar cars, JBL headphones, and speakers, and ends in a super prominent endorsement for Lyft. Despite Lovato’s still-thriving career, there is an element of it all that smacks of desperation.
Contrast this with Justin Bieber’s pool party video for 2012’s “Beauty and a Beat.” It’s a stark contrast of what a difference no endorsements make. Bieber uses technology throughout the clip and never once advertises anything. It is, as a result, a far superior music video.
The lines are now so blurred when it comes to music promotion and product placement that artists have now started to play with our general sense of confusion. With the release of their new album, Everything Now, Arcade Fire has been indulging in some post-modern mockery of the current sell-sell-sell musical landscape. In June, its Twitter threw up an ad for USB fidget spinners:
Finally. Available for pre-order soon, very limited run. pic.twitter.com/FiSfJuil8M
— Arcade Fire (@arcadefire) June 23, 2017
Thanks to how accustomed music fans have become to getting sold nonsense, the fidget spinner ad thoroughly confused a lot of people.
Really can't tell if this arcade fire fidget spinner is real but I need it
— clum hulse (@HulseCallum) June 30, 2017
It’s a stunning indictment of the times we live in that it’s impossible to know for sure whether or not a band is genuinely trying to sell us something.
In the internet age, marketing has become a stealth, around-the-clock endeavor, and it stands to reason that a less lucrative music industry would join forces with corporate entities for extra funds. A major problem arises, however, when the product placement overshadows the music. If the current trends continue, it’s going to become ever more difficult to engage with music visuals at all without a sense of cynicism creeping in. Surely that should be more important to artists than collecting money from a ride sharing app or speaker company.