Sunday, May 18, 2008

KQED Music: Music + Advertising = Wrong

The advertising industry worked out long ago that just the right piece of oh-so-cool music can lend their 30-second sales pitches some much-needed hipster cachet. But, more recently, this particular street has become a two-way thoroughfare. Young musicians are leaping at the chance to soundtrack major commercials, thinking that nationwide exposure can only be a good thing. There's just one problem with this theory: these musicians are dirty little whores for suckling the teats of the evil corporate beast.

OK, so I exaggerate. Slightly. But the truth is that, in the rush to piggyback themselves on someone else's commercial campaign, these acts often don't realize how much of a burden this kind of association can become. The unlucky ones will become known simply as "the band from that commercial," and the luckiest will often struggle to completely wash this cheap stain from their reputations. (This is assuming, of course, that anyone notices either the ad or the music in the first place; many will just sink without a trace.)

It doesn't even matter much if it's a cool company or a great commercial; the fact remains that the whole concept stinks of sellout. Take the example of José González: I was completely unaware of him until I saw this Sony Bravia ad. It's a beautiful commercial and, yes, it did introduce me to his music. But I still can't hear "Heartbeats" without thinking of those brightly colored rubber balls and a certain Japanese television manufacturer. For me, it will always be a commercial soundtrack first, and a González track second.

Established acts, of course, can more easily hawk their back catalogs to the highest bidder without fear of doing so much damage to their credibility. Bob Dylan suffered less long-term from slumming it with Starbucks than Jack White did when he cozied up to Coke, for example. And the reputation of the Rolling Stones will rumble on regardless of their more recent, equally compelling Bravia commercial. But acts as big as Dylan and the Stones are special cases, having established corporate brand identities every bit as important in the public conciousness as the companies they have chosen to do business with.

The real difference tends to be about where you hear the band first. So, for example, I had already established a fairly steady relationship with Brazilian dancefloor punks CSS before Apple persuaded them to lie back and think of iPods, so that didn't upset me too much (although I did feel a little betrayed, it's true).

But Yael Naim didn't get off so lightly. When I first read about this French-Israeli singer, she sounded exactly like my kind of artist: kooky, worldly, interesting. But as soon as I clicked on her MySpace page I realized the sad truth: Steve Jobs and the Macbook Air had gotten to her first. Where's the fun in finding a new act only to discover some billionaire CEO is way ahead of you?

Now, I realize that all of this isn't just subjective, but also completely irrational to the point of gross hypocrisy. After all, the concept of the single was created, in essence, to be a radio commercial for a larger product (the album). And, as much as we might try to pretend that music is all about art and truth, the reality is that the people who run the record industry are just as corrupt, profit-driven, money-obsessed, and generally ruthless as the next industry, if not more so.

This proves that not wanting to be introduced to new artists by the likes of Wal-Mart, JCPenney, and Wells Fargo isn't logical, but that changes nothing. Music isn't about reasoning, after all, and I still feel that the whole sorry business is wrong, wrong, wrong -- like a sickness in my gut.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Friday, May 2, 2008

KQED You Decide: Defense Spending

Does the United States spend too much money on defense?

By Keith Laidlaw

Defense spending is the biggest single expense in the federal budget, costing more than $600 billion annually, or the equivalent of around $5,500 for every U.S. household. In 2008, we will spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined: just one country’s expenditures equal to that of all the other 191 members of the United Nations put together. Projections indicate that the amounts will continue to increase. Can we justify such a massive expenditure?

But shortages of basic equipment faced by troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan paint a very different picture, one in which the spending needs to be increased, not reduced. Also, we live in a world where vast inequalities of wealth, a growing global population, limited natural resources and widening ideological differences all point to a future of increasing conflict and a need to strengthen our nation’s defenses — and that takes money.

Yet the situation isn’t static. U.S. defense spending has jumped by around 11 percent in the past year alone, but much of the increase is to the result of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and these won’t go on indefinitely. When the conflicts end, will the defense budget be reduced? Or do these conflicts and many of the failures we have suffered during the course of them point toward a future in which military spending will continue to swell?

Think you know where you stand on this issue? During this activity, we will ask you three times: Does the United States spend too much money on defense? Based on your responses, we will argue the opposite point of view.

[Read full article]