The Flaming Lips are one-upping fun., the Lumineers, Phillip Phillips and other acts who've boosted new singles with prominent TV commercials over the past year by writing an original song, "Sun Blows Up Today," for a Hyundai commercial set to air during the Super Bowl.
The 60-second spot stars gray-suited, bushy-haired frontman Wayne Coyne and the band eating breakfast with a bored family before leading them on a journey featuring ostriches, bikers, a garage-roof concert and, of course, a ride in a giant bubble.
"It's just a fantastic opportunity," says Lori Feldman, senior vice president of brand partnerships for Warner Bros. Records, which will release the band's The Terror April 2nd, with "Sun Blows Up Today" as an iTunes bonus track. "The point here is a band like the Flaming Lips, who are really one of the greatest-kept cult secrets in the world of rock music, are going to have a truly massive audience as they head back into a new album cycle."
Last year's Super Bowl reached an audience of about 111 million people, and 30-second ads cost roughly $4 million, so the Lips stand to gain crucial exposure (and anywhere from $100,000 to more than $1 million, according to Billboard estimates) at a time of diminished album sales for almost every kind of rock band. Last year, fun.'s "We Are Young" aired in a distinctive Chevy Sonic ad during the Super Bowl, and while the song had already been on Glee, it quickly shot into the Top 10, then sold almost six million singles in 2012, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
"We thought we could bring in a little money, the record company would bring in a little money they could use to market the record and we could make a little publishing money to fund other things," says Dalton Sim, manager for fun. "You can't write these things into a marketing plan. We got lucky that the music and the ad lined up and connected with people and it worked so well."
"It's part of the new music business," adds Christen Greene, co-manager of the Lumineers, who used a Bing ad last year to help break "Ho Hey." "Ten years ago, people would call it selling out pretty hard. Now it's more powerful than radio."
The Lips' Hyundai connection came together when the car company's agency, Innocean, approached the band for its Santa Fe SUV spot. The ad people are fans of the Lips, and when the timing worked out, the band, company and record label began to work together. (Hyundai.com will give away 100,000 downloads of the song.) "It was really a painless experience," Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd says. "We went back and forth with them on the song, but it was pretty effortless, then we went out to L.A. for two days to shoot the commercial."
"It feels like a true partnership," Warner Bros.' Feldman says.
Super Bowl ads have showcased music for years, of course: a gospel choir performed Eminem's "Lose Yourself" for Chrysler in 2011, and last year's ads starred songs by Kanye West, James Brown, the Animals and Echo and the Bunnymen. The Lips' spot is different because it involves a new song, although it debuted on rollingstone.com last week. The plan is potentially risky. "Just having a song on a commercial doesn't mean it's going to become a hit on radio or sell singles," says Bob McLynn, manager of Travie McCoy, who recently wrote "All In" as an anthem for the New York Giants and Pepsi. "You've got to make sure the stuff is right as far as it being the right treatment."
Drozd says the band mostly hopes to attract viewers' attention. "I would imagine there'd be some residual curiosity of people saying, 'Hey, what was that, maybe I should check that out,' and maybe they’ll Google us and see a little bit about us," he says.
Well-known artists occasionally write new songs for TV ads – Grizzly Bear did it in 2010 for the Washington State Lottery and They Might Be Giants wrote several songs for Dunkin' Donuts in 2006. It's far more common for a record label to try to break an existing song with the help of a TV commercial, asAmerican Idol winner Phillip Phillips did last year when "Home" appeared in an American Family Insurance spot. In addition to the exposure, such advertising deals can change an artist's financial fortunes.
"It's why I do what I do," says Todd Porter, music supervisor at Goodby Silverstein, which worked on fun.'s Chevy spot last year. "I got into this by seeing directly how licensing can help out my friends' bands. They would turn to me and go, 'Wow, we can go on tour now. We just paid for our recording studio.' That's what it's about for me."
Additional reporting by Eric R. Danton