BOB GARFIELD: Brooke, a small confession here. 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 BeeGees, your Joe Cocker's, your Yanni's, and of course currently your Sheryl & the Crows!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And your Sheryl Crowe.
BOB GARFIELD: Uh-- whatever. Just listen. [MUSIC]
WOMAN: [SINGING] SEE THE USA IN YOUR CHEVROLET AMERICA'S WAITING FOR YOU TO CALL DRIVE THAT CHEVROLET THROUGH THE USA COAST TO COAST YOU CAN SEE IT ALL.
BOB GARFIELD:If you're thinking what's Sheryl Crowe doing singing ad jingles, the answer is -- that isn't her. It's simply someone who sounds an awful lot like Sheryl Crowe with a melody much like Sheryl Crowe's and instrumentation much like Sheryl Crowe's. In other words -- a sound-alike. You don't hear many of them these days, because back in 1992 when Lincoln Mercury used a sound-alike 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 sound-alikes in commercials. Because if you think about it, most advertising music isn't vocal; it's instrumental. [INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC UNDER COMMERCIAL]
MAN: In the 1930s they built their first safety test vehicle.
MAN: They patented safety door locks in 1949.
MAN: In '51 they patented front and rear crumple zones. [MUSIC UPSURGE]
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. [SONG PORCELAIN'S INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC MUCH LIKE MUSIC IN COMMERCIAL]
CHRIS McHALE: 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. He says the way TV commercials are produced inevitably leads to some heavy-handed borrowing from pop music instrumentals.
CHRIS McHALE: Particularly in the editing of TV commercials, 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.
JOSH RABINOWITZ: ...actually cut the picture to -- and what happens is-- 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's 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. And-- I don't know if I mentioned Beck as well; people "cite" Beck a lot.
BOB GARFIELD:Well, let's see -- one more time, here's Moby. [SONG PORCELAIN'S INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC PLAYS] and here's "referenced" Moby, this time in an ad for DLJ on line brokerage. [MOBY-LIKE COMMERCIAL PLAYS] 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. In fact, they despise it and resist it as much as they can.
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 every time a client walks in not to get a custom composition built lovingly note by note, but 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! And if we get sued, you'll get sued, and then-- nobody wins! Okay, but-- could we get kind of close to it anyway? And that-- was - that's what happens. It's like going to a tennis match. No, we can't. Yes, we can. No, we can't.
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 j-- 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, and what are the effects on the drums and what - and 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. Had Doritos simply knocked off the Waits number without alerting the artist in advance, maybe nobody would have been the wiser. But the sound-alike radio commercial broke; Waits said that's Nach-yo' 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.
MAN: [SINGING] ...STEP RIGHT UP -- OW!!! THIS FORGES YOUR SIGNATURE-- IF NOT COMPLETELY SATISFIED MAIL BACK UNUSED PORTION OF PRODUCT FOR COMPLETE REFUND OF PRICE OF PURCHASE STEP RIGHT UP PLEASE ALLOW 30 DAYS FOR DELIVERY DON'T BE FOOLED BY CHEAP IMITATIONS YOU CAN-- LIVING IN IT LIVE IN IT, LAUGH IN IT, LOVE IN IT... [SONG CONTINUES UNDER] 58:00
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers and Melissa Sanford; engineered by Scott Strickland and George Wellington, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Dylan Keefe, Sean Landis and Kathleen Horan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large; Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org [THEME MUSIC UP & UNDER] and hello to WCPN in Cleveland. Thanks for picking us up! [GROUP OF PEOPLE SHOUTING HELLO CLEVELAND!!!] This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I sound much like-- Bob Garfield.