A few months ago, Volkswagen asked to use a song by the indie-rock band Beach House for a car commercial. The band declined, but shortly afterward, a Volkswagen ad appeared with a very similar sounding song. Ad agencies that want the feel of a famous pop song, but can't get the rights, sometimes try to get as close as they can without being sued. In a story that originally aired in 2001, Bob takes a look at the nefarious underworld of soundalikes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A few months ago, Volkswagen released an ad in the UK for the VW Polo. This spot fits the VW formula, gauzy images of cute young families, Helvetica-esque subtitles and, of course, pitch-perfect music.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
DDB, the ad firm behind the VW spot, had asked to use a song by the indie band, Beach House. The band said no, but the song that ran in the ad sounded very, very similar to the Beach House song, “Take Care.” How similar? Here’s Beach House:
[“TAKE CARE” UP & UNDER]
The practice of ad companies creating Xeroxes of pop songs is a time-honored tradition, so time honored, in fact, that Bob looked into it during the primordial days of our show, back in 2001. The victim back then, Sheryl Crow.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm not really much into pop music.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's hard to believe.
BOB GARFIELD: I know. But I've been doing some research and now I'm like totally "hep" to the "cruc" of what "platters" the young kids are "grooving" on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Uh-huh.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah. Some voices are so distinctive that even I recognize them — your Jimmy Durante's, your Bee Gees, your Joe Cockers, your Yannis and, of course currently your Sheryl & the Crows.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And your Sheryl Crow.
BOB GARFIELD: Uh, whatever. Just listen.
[VW AD MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: If you're thinking, what's Sheryl Crow doing singing ad jingles, the answer is that isn't her. It's simply someone who sounds an awful lot like Sheryl Crow, with a melody much like Sheryl Crow's and instrumentation much like Sheryl Crow's, in other words, a soundalike. You don't hear many of them these days because back in 1992, when Lincoln Mercury used a soundalike of Midler singing “Do You Want to Dance” the Divine Miss M. sued the pants off the ad agency.
Since then, blatant vocal knockoffs have wound up costing ad agencies and clients big court awards and legal settlements, but that doesn't mean there are no soundalikes in commercials, because if you think about it, most advertising music isn't vocal. It's instrumental.
[MERCEDES COMMERCIAL CLIP]:
GIRL: It seems like they were thinking about it from the beginning.
MAN: In the 1930s, they built their first safety test vehicle.
MAN: They patented safety door locks in 1949.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MAN: They conducted their first rollover tests in 1959.
WOMAN: In 1960…
BOB GARFIELD: That was a TV commercial for Mercedes. Now listen to this track. It's a song called “Porcelain” by a performer called Moby.
CHRIS McHALE: And I can sit there and watch any of the, the major networks every night and you know I can hear it! I can hear where they came from, and I can bet you I could go back and find an early cut of that commercial that had that track on it.
BOB GARFIELD: Chris McHale is a composer, musician and president of the McHale/Barrone Audio Agency.
CHRIS McHALE: These days the editors like to work with music when they're editing the picture to kind of give them a rhythmic impulse for the editing. And, you know, the editing process might take two or three weeks, so the editor might put a piece of music on a commercial as a scratch track to edit to, actually cut the picture to.
JOSH RABINOWITZ: And what happens is a, a phenomenon called "demo love."
BOB GARFIELD: Josh Rabinowitz is a music producer at Young & Rubicam Advertising in New York.
JOSH RABINOWITZ: The people, the creatives and the producers and sometimes the clients that are sitting in on these editing sessions, they fall in love with it because it's something they've grown accustomed to listening to.
BOB GARFIELD: Which would be fine except, in all likelihood, the agency and its clients have no rights to use whatever music they were editing to. This leaves three options. One is to try to obtain the song from the original artists. This is always expensive and sometimes futile because artists don't necessarily want to sell. The second is to compose or obtain wholly different music, but the pictures are already edited to the demo.
The third option is to go to a music production house and commission a piece which is similar enough to the original to satisfy demo love, but different enough that the lawsuits don't start flying. In the euphemism of his trade, Rabinowitz calls these similarities "references" or "citations."
JOSH RABINOWITZ: There are some groups that people often cite, especially recently, Moby being one. Moby's actually sold a lot of his tracks to corporations for ads. Another person is Danny Elfman, seems to get a lot of play.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's see, one more time, here's Moby.
And here's "referenced" Moby, this time in an ad for DLJ Online Brokerage.
[MOBY-LIKE “REFERENCED INSTRUMENTAL][LAUGHTER]
Pretty brazen, and pretty simple too. They basically just changed the key. But while that may be easy work for advertising music composers, that doesn't mean they like it.
STEVE CURREN: It's sort of like they're hiring our hands and not our head.
BOB GARFIELD: Steven Curren, who runs Harvest Music in Lansing, Michigan, dies a little inside every time a client walks in to file the serial number off of somebody else's song. Luckily, Curren says, it only happens — every single week.
STEVE CURREN: We get a call from the producer or creative director on the project and they say, “We never intended to use it, but we really like this piece of music. What do you think?” “Well, what do you think about what?” “What do you think about getting close to that? Could we get close to that?” “No, we can't get close to that.” “Well, why not?” “Well, because we'll get sued!” “Okay but could we get kind of close to it anyway?”
BOB GARFIELD: So pervasive is this practice and so great is the legal risk that advertising agencies are reduced to consulting people like Matt Harris, a professional musicologist, to certify that ad "citations" aren't actually larceny.
MATT HARRIS: It's not always a matter of the notes. I mean whatever is significant.
BOB GARFIELD: The standard trick of the trade is to change keys or alter the melody, without disrupting the rhythmic structure. But Harris says that doesn't always work either.
MATT HARRIS: I mean, like in rap music there is no melody, there's no harmony, usually. So then you look at the drums. You see what the drums are doing. Even I listen to — if somebody has a very special kind of reverb or echo, I mean, all these little telltale signs that somebody is really after something, trying to get something that they can't have.
BOB GARFIELD: How much leeway an advertiser has depends somewhat on how shrewd he is or surreptitious. If, for instance, the agency tries to get rights to the song that everybody fell in love with and gets turned down, as Doritos once did with a Tom Waits song, the subsequently commissioned music had better sound very, very different.
But the soundalike radio commercial broke. Waits said that's not your property, sued, and Doritos got crunched 2.4 million dollars’ worth. As irony would have it, the song in question was “Step Right Up,” a wicked satire of the commercial culture. One of the more memorable lyrics, “Don’t be fooled by cheap imitations.”
[TOM WAITS SINGING “STEP RIGHT UP”]:
It's only a dollar, step right up
'Cause it forges your signature
If not completely satisfied
Mail back unused portion of product
For complete refund of price of purchase
Step right up.
[SONG UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Amy DiPierro and Eliza Novick-Smith, and edited — by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.