How glossy Christmas adverts changed the music industry

In an era of shrinking revenues, musicians have pivoted to writing songs for adverts, blurring the distinction between brand and art.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In the spring of 1988, Neil Young released his nineteenth studio album, “This Note’s For You”. A reference to Budweiser’s 1980s advertising slogan “This Bud’s for you”, the album lamented the commercialisation of music. On its title track, Young sings: “Ain’t singing for Pepsi / Ain’t singing for Coke / I don’t sing for nobody / Makes me look like a joke”.

The landscape of the music industry has changed significantly in 30 years. Today, landing an advert as a musician is far from a joke. Digital streaming platforms have slashed record sales and revenue for artists. Where musicians would previously channel their efforts into making a platinum-selling album, the industry has now pivoted to new methods of generating income: song writing aimed at generating hit singles; nonstop touring; and the licensing of music for video games, TV, film and advertising – a process known as synchronisation, or “sync”.

Sync in advertising has become a creative achievement. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Christmas. At their busiest time of year, brands pump resources into high-octane advertising campaigns with significant music budgets and impressive production values. Far from compromising artistic integrity, Christmas ads are now something artists aspire to.

Music journalist Eamonn Forde wrote in the Guardian in 2013 that the infamous John Lewis spot, which has become something of a UK tradition since its inception in 2007, was the modern equivalent of the Christmas No. 1: the perfect Christmas sync is mutually beneficial for both brand and artist. In 2013, this analogy almost became literal, with Lily Allen’s cover of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” spending three (non-consecutive) weeks at the top of the UK Singles Chart following the advert’s release in late November (she was pipped to the post for Christmas No. 1 by the X Factor’s Sam Bailey with “Skyscraper”). 

“The John Lewis Christmas campaign is one of, if not the most high profile advertising campaign of the year,” says Adam Gardiner, Senior Director of Sync at Universal Music. Universal represent Bastille, who covered REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” for this year’s John Lewis advert. “For John Lewis the music is just one facet of the overall campaign, but for an artist, the opportunity it presents can be huge. The size of the campaign means that it offers an unrivalled platform to reach new fans and re-engage with existing ones.” 

John Lewis traditionally commissions a cover of a classic song for its Christmas advert. Sync requires two types of permission: one from the record label, who own the recording, and one from the publisher, who own the song itself. So as well as having the opportunity to break an artist with its high profile - Ellie Goulding’s cover of “Your Song” for the John Lewis campaign in 2010 cemented her pop career, for example - a well-placed sync in a Christmas ad can revive interest in and income for a classic artist.

“If you’re a heritage artist, you’re buried in a sea of digital streaming platforms and the consumer is paralysed by choice,” says Arnold Hattingh, music supervisor and co-founder of specialist supervision agency Theodore, which worked on Ikea’s Christmas campaign this year. By licensing your song for a Christmas ad, you can capitalise on nostalgia. “It might give the label an opportunity to release the Best Of,” Hattingh tells me. “It’s a big, big market, and not one that anybody underestimates.”

The fees for big-brand Christmas adverts can be significantly higher than average, too: an artist could expect to be paid between the same and a third more for a six-week Christmas ad than a normal 12-month advertising campaign. “There’s less of an opportunity to use a track in the long term, but the same amount of money,” says Hattingh. “Writers, managers, labels, publishers, understand that quarter four is where everything happens, so they’re able to demand those fees.”

Hattingh’s role as a music supervisor is to manage the placement of music in visual media. A supervisor will usually receive a creative brief from an agency and then use their musical expertise and pool of contacts to find the perfect song. Though the agency makes the final decision, labels and publishers vie for supervisors’ attention to pitch their catalogues – especially at Christmas (“It becomes quite bloodthirsty,” Hattingh tells me). 

There is both a creative and financial incentive in Christmas ads for musicians; they often more closely resemble a short film than a traditional TV ad, selling a non-specific feeling or atmosphere. Artists “realise it’s a very important time for the brand so the quality of execution will be high,” Hattingh says. “UK TV advertising is some of the best in the world. Not only are you going to get paid for this thing you’ve made, but you’re going to be able to introduce new audiences to your music on something that looks amazing.”

The sentimental John Lewis formula is tried and tested, but brands are beginning to approach Christmas campaigns differently to cut through the competition. This year’s Ikea Christmas campaign is defined almost exclusively by its soundtrack, an original commission by heritage grime artist D Double E. Hattingh supervised the campaign and explains that the ad – which depicts anthropomorphised household items rapping to a family about the tired, cluttered state of their home, which is ultimately given an Ikea spruce – was a refreshing change from Christmas clichés. 

Grime is characterised by authenticity; it might once have seemed at odds with the genre for an artist to write a song intended as an advertising jingle. But the fabric of the modern music industry means there are no longer such contradictions between commercial brands and individual artists. “I didn’t want to do something pastiche grimey, but actually engage with a person in the community and work with beatmakers who write for grime artists instead of commercials,” says Hattingh. “Making money for your art is something the grime community are concerned about. People are like, good on you.”

Sync is one of the first things managers and artists now ask about when signing deals with labels and publishers, according to Michelle Stoddart, founder of licensing agency Stoddart Music and former senior vice president of Global Creative Sync at music publisher Kobalt. And labels and publishers are similarly mindful when signing an artist. Where 15 years ago a label might have been looking for a radio single, they are now conscious of potential sync singles. But signing solely for sync wouldn’t be wise, says Stoddart: there are never any guarantees that a song will make the cut.

What is certain, though, is that the boundary between brand and art has become much more fluid. The vague, glossy beauty of Christmas advertising presents new opportunities for musicians, and demonstrates how the two industries are merging. “I’ve got the real thing,” sang Neil Young in 1988, in the final verse of “This Note’s For You”. Today, what constitutes “real” is no longer so clear-cut.

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.