Indie Bands Jump on Brand Wagon

Area musician Kidgusto works on a new composition in his homemade studio. He licensed a song to American University for a presentation. (Post)
Area musician Kidgusto works on a new composition in his homemade studio. He licensed a song to American University for a presentation. (Post) (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 8, 2005

Bob Mould is best known for his 1980s punk band Husker Du. Now 45, the guitarist and vocalist sells his new music primarily by touring and through his Web site. But it's a grind.

So Mould was thrilled when he was contacted recently by the music supervisor for the hit Fox show "The OC," who wanted to use a recording from Mould's most recent album in an upcoming episode.

The producers paid "in the low five figures," Mould said, to play his song "Circles" on the show multiple times, making it exactly the kind of deal that Mould, and artists like him, are looking for now.

Corporate executives are increasingly looking for new sounds to help create an image for a brand, whether it's a product, a store or a show. It could be music from an emerging artist, or something old and hip, such as Husker Du, but whatever it is, it is likely to be cheaper than the high price of licensing a hit song from a major record label.

The result is that corporate music buyers are changing the economics of being an independent musician. The once-standard dream of a record deal and radio play is giving way to the reality of restaurants, retailers and automakers scouring the industry for little-known music that can lend mood and edge to marketing campaigns.

"New artists have realized that the big labels really are not doing the job anymore, and if [the artists] can just get their music out, people will stumble onto it and then the buzz starts," Mould said, speaking on a cell phone from a San Francisco coffee shop while on tour. "As an artist, you've gotta look for ways to make money."

Don Rose, acting president of the American Association of Independent Music, said licensing represents "a growing and significant portion of any indie label's revenue portfolio." Selling music to advertisers used to be taboo among many sellout-conscious artists, but today "these commercial branding opportunities are being viewed much more positively," he said.

While there is no comprehensive data to show how much money such artists are making from licensing, Rose said it can be seen in any small music label's revenue stream. A good example would be ESL Music, which is based in Adams Morgan and gets nearly 40 percent of its revenue from licensing deals, up from almost nothing a few years ago, according to Phil Hawken, director of licensing for ESL.

ESL was founded by local musicians Eric Hilton and Rob Garza because they did not want to sign their group, Thievery Corporation, to a record label. As the business grew, the duo hired Hawken and moved the company to a large Adams Morgan rowhouse renovated with sound studios and entertaining spaces. Hawken finds plenty of takers for Thievery Corporation's wide-ranging, internationally inspired electronic sound, along with the music of other groups the label has signed.

ESL music has been on television shows "Sex and the City" and "The West Wing" and in retail chains such as Starbucks and Banana Republic and used for the marketing campaigns of major consumer businesses. Even Caesars Palace in Las Vegas plays some ESL music.

International bands are cashing in, too. Last year, Australian garage band Jet got worldwide exposure when Apple Computer Inc. featured one of the band's songs on an iPod television commercial. So did Italian music artist Nicola Conte with a Kmart commercial for Joe Boxer showing a young man dancing in his skivvies. Likewise with under-the-radar British band Dirty Vegas and its dance song, "Days Go By," featured in a Mitsubishi commercial. Legendary British punk band the Clash was paid $50,000 to have its anthemic "London Calling" used in a Jaguar commercial.

In Hollywood, most major television shows have music supervisors who do nothing but search for that arresting 12 seconds of music they can license for a particular scene -- for a good price. And companies such as PlayNetwork, SoundExchange, DMX and Gray V license and assemble music, much of it from independent artists and labels, to be played in retail stores, hotels and restaurants. Together, it is pouring millions of dollars in licensing fees into the pockets of individual artists and small labels.

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