SSinger-songwriter Jack River (AKA Holly Rankin) caused significant unrest on social media last week after calling Channel Seven over the blatant lack of local music used during his full coverage of the Olympics.
It set off a kind of firestorm, with fans piling up to tag not only broadcasters but also the big brands they felt were not doing enough to easily help an industry on its knees since the start of the pandemic.
Having spent nearly a decade working in both the advertising and music industry, I have followed this debate with keen interest. While I think Rankin was right to call Seven – who would have signed a general trade deal with Apra anyway and have no excuses – the biggest opportunity, however, lies in what’s going on between sports coverage.
At a time when the means to make money for artists in this country are increasingly limited, a sure bet is big brand advertising. Over the course of my career I have written for many companies that advertise during games including CBA, Woolworths, Optus, and McDonald’s – companies that I call “blue chips” because they are the only ones with budgets. Decent TV.
Having a song “in sync” in a 30-second marquee venue for these guys may be worth more than being the theme song for a hit show, or even being featured in continuous NRL coverage. It makes your song playing in the background for 30 seconds right after the 400m relay sound like peanuts – and can really change an artist’s life.
This made me reconsider the question that has plagued me since I was a junior writer at Leo Burnett eight years ago: why is there so little Australian music in our advertising? As with any dilemma in the overlapping, complicated and often opaque media and entertainment industries, there is more than one answer. But maybe by unboxing them, we can find a way forward to ultimately support our brilliant talent.
Basically, the reason you hear so few Australian songs in Coles or Woolies commercials is that timing a song is a dark art. It relies on an ecosystem that brings together clients, creatives, producers, publishers, labels, sound design companies and oversight houses and is almost never as simple as a creative suggesting a Sampa the Great banger and the brand that lends it. ‘bought. In order for a song to get to where we hear it on a commercial, each of those arms has to work together despite very different goals. There are so many barriers, internal and external, to getting music featured in advertising in this country that it’s amazing that it is.
Young creative people in advertising companies are often the first to think of fresh music in response to a client brief. But they can often find themselves blocked by creative directors tasked with top-notch brand custodians. Statistically in Australia, they are middle-aged white men. Some of them like cool new stuff, but many don’t. This is where the most ridiculous ideas of Status Quo “Down Down” come from. Nothing comes out without their tacit approval, which may be the first place Australian music dies.
Clients also have a role to play in this file, particularly at higher levels. Because of their size, top-notch brands are inevitably entangled in politics. Given that we live in a conservative country under the sway of a conservative government, it is no surprise that marketers often prefer not to rock the boat, especially with a “mommy and daddy” audience who are theirs. main investors. This explains Australian advertising’s obsession with nostalgia and jingles. When using the local, they’d rather lean on a 20-year-old Powderfinger record multiple times rather than risk something new.
(One of the only memorable successes of a sync featuring a relatively recent song is Clair De Lune from Flight Facilities, sold to Telstra by ad agency The Monkeys for its major brand campaign and hit TVs and theaters. across the country. But they renewed this song for almost five years. It became its own form of nostalgia.)
Assuming that a runway attached to a concept crosses these two hurdles, it still needs to be cleaned up. Music publishers have a bad reputation for the incredibly difficult job of trying to maximize the income of their artists, especially when a white whale like Optus collapses in their lap. This means that they usually shoot for too high a number – something I’ve seen happen a few times i.e. when the client or producer walks away from a song.
Inevitably, the pitch is too advanced for a rewrite and either the client, or the creative, or both, are sold on the track. But they can’t get a license, or they can’t afford it, so they go for the next best thing, which is a knockoff. Our advertising landscape is littered with songs that sound parcel like the big local hits but slightly different – the direct result of “ghost studios” filled with session musicians and sound designers adept at imitating popular music at a fraction of the cost. There are currently at least three to four ads on the market that look way too much like Jungle Giants for it to be a fluke.
The way our overlapping industries tend to deal with these complex issues either by accepting them in bulk or by pointing the finger at the next link in the chain. Neither has proven effective. Putting more Australian music in the publicity is a win for all parties if they start working together. Education and transparency need to happen at all stages of an ad journey, but most urgently with clients, who both write the briefs and have the money to get the job done.
So take a leaf from Rankin’s book. The next time you interact with your bank, phone company, or insurance company, ask them why they use cheap stock music instead of a piece of killer package. Ask yourself why Woolworths hasn’t had a single local artist soundtrack in its commercials since Samantha Jade performed Cheap Cheap in 2015.
We shouldn’t have to rely on a multinational like Apple to hear up-and-coming rappers like Kwame soundtrack for TV spots. This is something that we have the power to collectively change, and at the moment Australian artists are not receiving this support from anyone or elsewhere.