'Your credibility, your integrity and your honor are things no company should be able to buy'
Happy birthday Tom Waits
Musician Tom Waits turns 72 today, so I’m sending you a letter he once wrote about artists who ‘sell out.’ It can be found in the book, Letters of Note: Music. And before I go, I was recently invited onto a podcast to talk about my obsession with letters. You can listen to it here.
When, in 1988, Tom Waits heard what seemed to be his own voice singing on a Doritos commercial broadcast to the nation, his first thought was to question his own sanity. Then, very quickly, he became furious. It soon transpired that Frito-Lay, Inc. had hired a Tom Waits impersonator to bring the advert to life, perfectly imitating the gravel-voiced musician in a bid to sell snacks—a situation Waits could not abide. A lawsuit ensued, at the end of which he was awarded $2m. In 2002, fourteen years after that advert first pricked his ears, Waits read an article in The Nation by The Doors’ John Densmore on the subject of musicians allowing their work to be featured in commercials. Tom Waits responded with this letter.
Woodland Hills, Calif.
Thank you for your eloquent “rant” by John Densmore of The Doors on the subject of artists allowing their songs to be used in commercials.
Songs carry emotional information and some transport us back to a poignant time, place or event in our lives. It’s no wonder a corporation would want to hitch a ride on the spell these songs cast and encourage you to buy soft drinks, underwear or automobiles while you’re in the trance. Artists who take money for ads poison and pervert their songs. It reduces them to the level of a jingle, a word that describes the sound of change in your pocket, which is what your songs become. Remember, when you sell your songs for commercials, you are selling your audience as well.
When I was a kid, if I saw an artist I admired doing a commercial, I’d think, “Too bad, he must really need the money.” But now it’s so pervasive. It’s a virus. Artists are lining up to do ads. The money and exposure are too tantalizing for most artists to decline. Corporations are hoping to hijack a culture’s memories for their product. They want an artist’s audience, credibility, goodwill and all the energy the songs have gathered as well as given over the years. They suck the life and meaning from the songs and impregnate them with promises of a better life with their product.
Eventually, artists will be going onstage like race-car drivers covered in hundreds of logos. John, stay pure. Your credibility, your integrity and your honor are things no company should be able to buy.