In the old days, the benchmark of success for musicians launching their careers was to get their first radio hit. Now there's a new benchmark: their first ad hit.
More and more independent artists are looking to commercials on TV and online as allies in the fight to have their music heard. Where the soundtrack of advertising used to be custom-written jingles, the average commercial break now sounds more like a college radio station. Traditional jingles, such as that classic Canadian earworm " Fabricland, Fab-ric-land," are in the minority.
While brands have used indie songs in their ads for a while now, the industry's music supervisors say the trend – which began picking up speed seven or eight years ago – has grown exponentially in the past year or so.
"Definitely I receive more e-mails now from [music] licensing houses saying, 'Hey, we have more artists available if you want to use it in a commercial,'" said Judy John, chief executive officer and chief creative officer of Leo Burnett Canada, which regularly uses indie music in its commercials for clients such as IKEA.
Part of what's behind this growth is the air of authenticity the right indie song can lend to an advertisement. Marketers want their brands to seem fresh, contemporary, and culturally savvy. Given all the ways that people today can find the music they love, there's real value for an advertiser in bringing a new song to the public's ears.
"Indie bands are about discovery. When you find a great indie track and it creates a beautiful emotion, people say, 'Is that a real track?' And they'll reach out to us or to the client to try and buy it. It creates a halo effect around the ad itself," Ms. John said.
Ms. Mover's song Made for Each Other was featured in a series of commercials for Fisher-Price toys, and it has become the theme song for the brand. (The commercials were directed by Bob Giraldi, the director behind Michael Jackson's Beat It video.) The response was very positive: Fans praised the tune on social media, writing that they sang along to the ads with their children. On its Facebook page, Fisher-Price promoted Made for Each Other with a link for a free download at the time the ads started running.
"It's playing on people's curiosity about music," Ms. Mover said. "It's ear-catching when it's a real song, and if a person's ear is caught by the music, they'll look at the screen and they'll see what the product is."
Ms. Mover says advertising has affected her songwriting as well; she writes more pop-sounding, upbeat tunes in the (often justified) hope that they will appeal to marketers, while the music she writes for her albums tends toward the introspective, and a slightly more mellow or even darker sound. It's worked: she says licensing deals for her songs in TV, films and especially advertising now make up the bulk of her income. Made for Each Other has also been used in an ad for Fancy Feast cat food, for example; her tune No Hill Too High has been used in a Telus ad; and Ordinary Day was in a Bounce commercial.
And it's not just about music being used for marketing. It also helps to market the music. Ms. Mover says songs that get exposure in ads consistently have the most hits on YouTube, and she always sees a spike in visits to her website after an ad airs. That increases her potential fan base. The revenue from those deals (a couple of thousand dollars for an ad that runs nationally in Canada, and substantially more for a global campaign such as the Fisher-Price one) funds small tours and the cost of recording albums.
"When I first started doing it, there was still sort of an element of, 'Oh, it's selling out,' a bit. I think that's pretty much gone now," she said. "Bands take the money and run."
The business has been fuelled by the growth in music licensing houses. Marco DiFelice, who works with Ms. Mover, launched his licensing business Indie Joe as a division of Toronto-based audio production company Silent Joe eight years ago. Major ad agencies such as Taxi, Leo Burnett and MacLaren McCann, send him a campaign brief – the document explaining the ad's goals, its target audience, and its composition – and he searches his roster of musicians to offer them the sound they are looking for.
"It's raised the bar for the quality of music in ads," Mr. DiFelice says of the indie trend. Among other tracks, he has placed the music in many of the zoologically themed Telus ads. Those include Ms. Mover's song, and a cover of The Beatles' From Me to You, performed by Canadian indie band Walk Off the Earth. (That's the group that scored Internet fame and an appearance on Ellen earlier this year for their cover of a hit song by Gotye.) He also works with U.S. bands such as Louisiana-based group Royal Teeth, whose song Wild he placed in an ad for GM's Buick Verano.
Mr. DiFelice says he has to be careful to fit the tone of the song to the ad, but he will jettison a song if the lyrics are too close to the brand message. He'll never pitch a song with lyrics such as "Let's talk" for Telus, for example. Brands are so resistant to the jingle sound there is a fear that using the music that way will veer into parody.
TV shows such as The O.C., Grey's Anatomy, and Gossip Girl began using indie songs years ago, and advertisers saw how much audiences reacted to that, said Sanne Hagelsten, the founder of L.A. and New York-based licensing house Zync Music Group, which also counts Canadian singer Ms. Mover on its artist roster.
"That initially made the cool brands more open to using emerging indie music, and got them excited to try and find the next big thing," she said.
It's not always licensing houses that are responsible for matching an artist with a brand, however: Often, editors within production houses will lay down an indie track they like as a placeholder until the choice of music is decided. Clients will sometimes hear that song and keep it. Within ad agencies, people are trolling music blogs to keep in mind ideas for future spots as well, said Matt Litzinger, co-chief creative officer at Cossette Toronto.
"As soon as it gets on air, there's a bunch of Internet chatter – 'What's that song?' 'What's the name of it?' We love that because it's making your ad part of the conversation," he said, pointing to the song Big Black Car by Colorado singer Gregory Alan Isakov, which he and co-chief David Daga used in a McDonald's Christmas spot last year. They've used Canadian musicians David Jalbert and the band Pepper Rabbit in other ads for the chain, as well.
Ms. Mover believes more artists than ever are willing to lend a ditty out for commercial purposes. For musicians struggling to build a career, the benefit is clear.
"It's a hell of a lot better than working as a waitress," she said.