Sound Off: When Rock and Roll Goes Commercial

"Do a commercial, you're off the artistic roll call, every word you say is suspect, you're a corporate whore. End of story."

So said the late comedian Bill Hicks, who -- with the exception of Willie Nelson -- took a pretty hard-line stance on musicians appearing in commercials hocking products like corporate spokespersons. But what about a (presumably) lesser offense: letting your song be used in a commercial?

It seems every couple of years or so, music fans get all worked up over an artist allowing one of their songs to be used in a major ad campaign. Remember the fallout over Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" being used in a Cadillac commercial? How about the current Honda commercial featuring children on a road trip singing an a capella version of "Crazy Train"?

The latest band to draw ire for letting a classic song appear in a commercial is AC/DC, who lent the title track from Back In Black to retail giant Walmart for use in their ad campaign for Black Friday. Fans have already taken to the Internet in protest, with one fan saying, "Shame on AC/DC for allowing Walmart to use their song. Shame."

So why the outrage? Of course, there's the go-to stance, which is that music is art and loses all of its value once it's used in a commercial context. Of course, if you take this argument to its logical ends, which means a band is in the wrong for making any money off their music; after all, once a band sells one CD, what's to stop them from making even the slightest changes to sell more the next time? While not clear cut, there is, however, a discernible difference between wanting to sell your own albums and letting your song be used to sell sedans and video game consoles.

That said, I will point out that a lot fewer people took issue with the band partnering with Walmart back in 2008 for the exclusive distribution rights for Black Ice.

Then there's just the annoying fact that if you watch television a lot, those ads can create an unwanted connection in your brain between the song and the commercial. I was watching TV long before I got seriously into Iggy Pop, and to this day I can't listen to "Lust For Life" without a Royal Caribbean cruise line commercial playing in my head. (I thank my lucky stars I never saw the Toyota commercial featuring "The Passenger" as a kid.)

Back In Black is one of the highest-selling albums of all time, and its legacy is beyond tainting at this point, but who wants to think of Wal Mart as soon as Brian Johnson screeches out the opening lines? "A power pack? What's that? Can I get one at Wal Mart?"

Of course, the sad fact may that be a song like "Back In Black" appearing in a Walmart commercial just makes people feel old. A song by the band that you first saw on the "Lock Up Your Daughters Tour" is now being used to advertise the place where you do your back-to-school shopping for your daughter.

Rock and roll is fun because it's dangerous, because your parents don't approve, because "Fuck the system!" And what happens when rock and roll stops being dangerous? It teams up with the system and sells your folks a new car.

What do you think of bands letting their songs be used in commercials? Is it OK for bands to allow use in some situations and not others, or is any use of a song for commercial purposes taboo? Where do you draw the line? Let us know what you think in the comments, and we'll run the best responses later this week!

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month*

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Josh Hart

Josh Hart is a former web producer and staff writer for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado magazines (2010–2012). He has since pursued writing fiction under various pseudonyms while exploring the technical underpinnings of journalism, now serving as a senior software engineer for The Seattle Times.