From The Wall Street Journal:
In late March, the indie rock duo Beach House received the kind of offer that many young bands hope for these days: an advertising agency in London wanted to license a song for a Volkswagen commercial. The tune, “Take Care,” highlighted the Baltimore band’s “dream pop” sound, and featured a simple, repeating guitar phrase and the hypnotic vocals of singer Victoria Legrand.
The band declined the deal, saying that the song’s aesthetic didn’t match the proposed concept of the commercial. Over the next month, the ad agency, DDB, repeated its appeal to Beach House about five more times, according to band manager Jason Foster.
On May 3, in an email to Mr. Foster, a DDB producer said that the commercial would debut during the popular TV show “Britain’s Got Talent,” a slot representing “an amazing PR opportunity” for the band. To convince Beach House to reconsider, “I’d be happy to jump on a call, fly someone to the US, offer more money and listen to anything you have to say,” the producer wrote.
About a week later, Mr. Foster said, a fan tweeted about hearing Beach House—or what sounded like Beach House—in a new Volkswagen commercial airing in the U.K. The 90-second spot featured a twinkling guitar line and willowy vocals. The music accompanied glimpses of a father’s evolving relationship with his daughter, from infancy to adulthood, including the moment when he hands her the keys to a red Volkswagen Polo.
The band took to Facebook to distance itself from the ad. Fans sounded off online, many of them accusing the advertiser of ripping off Beach House’s work. They zeroed in on parallels such as the crystalline sound of the repeating guitar lines, the echoing tone of the singers’ vocals, and the sentiments in the lyrics: “I’d take care of you” (in Beach House’s chorus) versus “I’ll watch over you” (in VW’s). Other commenters claimed they couldn’t hear the similarities—or that they preferred the VW song.
The friction exposes the thorny side of an ongoing trend in advertising, in which the music of buzzy (and relatively obscure) bands is used in advertisements to telegraph coolness and credibility. This has been a boon to many emerging acts, who can only squeeze so much revenue out of touring, merchandise and music sales. Licensing a song for use in a TV commercial can earn a band anywhere from $10,000 to $500,000 or more, depending on the profile of the band and the scale of the commercial. Just as importantly, the right exposure at the right time can catapult a fledgling act into the mainstream. But things don’t always work out so neatly. When the cost of licensing an existing song is beyond the advertiser’s budget, or the song’s owners don’t want to play ball, the result can be “soundalike” compositions.
Beach House is far from the first band to cry foul about advertising which borrows their sound. In 1989, Bette Midler won a landmark lawsuit against an ad agency which used vocals that sounded similar to hers in a Ford ad. Tom Waits successfully sued companies, including Audi and Frito-Lay, for imitating his gravelly sound. In a blog post entitled “homage or fromage,” the acclaimed Icelandic band Sigur Rós embedded more than 20 commercials that seemed to poach from the band’s elegiac songs.
Beach House, which includes founding member Alex Scally, has licensed music before, including for a Guinness beer commercial. Mr. Foster declined to say how much they were offered for the VW ad, but said that money wasn’t a factor in refusing the deal. He said his goal was to sound a warning for other bands. “When someone takes Beach House’s vibe and puts it into a commercial, it tarnishes what they’ve done on their own,” he said. He added that the band is considering legal action, but is concerned about the steep costs involved.
In a statement, VW said that when it was developing the ad’s concept it had settled on using music from the “dream pop” genre. After considering “dozens” of existing songs and reaching out to “several” bands, including Beach House, the company commissioned its own track, according to the statement.
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