The Who Sell Out (Really)

Ads for cars and computers rock to the Who beat

By |

Call it life imitating art The Who, whose seminal 1967 album, The Who Sell Out, combined songs and fake commercials to simultaneously skewer and revel in the uneasy relationship between their music and the marketplace, have suddenly become advertising moguls.

The band, which had steadfastly avoided licensing its music for use in commercials, has apparently had a change of heart: "Who Are You," "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Magic Bus" can now be heard all over television, appearing with varying prominence in ads for Nissan, and Gateway and Dell computers.

Pete Townshend, the Who's primary composer and usually plain-spoken representative, declined through a spokesman to comment on the ads. Similarly, Nick Goderson, the head of the Who's London-based music-publishing company, Eel Pie Music, would not offer insights into the band's thinking or provide details of the advertising deals. "It's just not something we're comfortable discussing," Goderson says.

Others in the music-publishing business, however, say that these arrangements are easily worth millions to Townshend and the band. "On a good day, just the publishing fee to use a Who song in an American commercial is $500,000," estimates attorney Michael Sukin, whose New York-based Sukin Law Group includes an active music- publishing practice. He adds that such a fee would cover just U.S. publishing – an additional fee would be required for using the band's recording of the song - with separate payments required for use in any other countries. Although each deal is different and is based on such factors as exclusivity, length of use and how recognizable the song is – "The more you use the music, the more you pay," Sukin says – a standard global advertising arrangement is double that of the U.S. fee.

If the Who's reluctance to talk about their new coziness with Madison Avenue is an indication of the lingering negative connotations these deals have, publishing executives say that is definitely changing. "I have managers approaching me all the time to try and find advertising deals for their artists," says Kathe Malta, vice president for Sony Music's advertising and new-media music-licensing department. "People are not embarrassed to have their music associated with a product anymore. Plus, you're reaching a whole new generation of listeners. MTV is drying up – they only allow a certain number of videos – and radio has a select playlist. Where else do you go?" Malta adds that in Europe and Japan, where commercial licensing of rock songs is more commonplace, having a song used as a jingle sometimes gives it a second life. "It's a way to get a Number One song in Japan," she says. Like Sukin, she expects the Who's songs, which have not been used before, to fetch a premium.

This story is from the September 16th, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 821: September 16, 1999
x