Write On: Public Service Broadcasting

On the eternal quandary of ‘selling out’…

Write On is the section of Clash where we have our page/s over to an artist to pen some words on whatever they feel like. Previously, we’ve had Alt-J on their phenomenal 2012, and The Vaccines on the music scene of Iceland.

Here, we’ve something a bit special, if we may be so bold. Public Service Broadcasting broke into the album chart earlier this year with their debut LP, ‘Inform – Educate – Entertain’, which peaked at an impressive 21. Read the Clash review of said set here. ‘I-E-E’ is nominated at the AIM Awards 2013 in the Best Album category, and its makers in the Best Breakthrough Category.

Here, the band’s J Willgoose, Esq – who makes up 50% of PSB, alongside drummer Wrigglesworth – writes about the headaches facing the DIY outfit approached for sync opportunities. To buy in, or to sell out? It’s a question that faces many a band at some stage of their career, and one that PSB thought long and hard about before offering an answer on…

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Public Service Broadcasting, ‘Theme From PSB’, from the album ‘Inform – Educate – Entertain’

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I write to you today in something of a retrospective quandary, for my band, Public Service Broadcasting, was recently offered our first ever ‘sync’ payment.

Sync, for those not in the habit of keeping up with music industry jargon, means (among various other definitions) music used for adverts or other commercial services. In other words, you are being offered cash to help sell a product – and probably an unrelated one – to consumers.

I had always considered bands that licensed music to adverts as inveterate sell-outs, possibly slightly scarred by acts such as Hurricane #1 and the enormous fee they received for a campaign for The Sun. They may well have banked a six-figure sum (or more), but they never got over the stigma and quickly faded, Andy Bell jumping ship to Oasis, and then Beady Eye.

Acts who license their music for commercial products are taking something personal, something that surely at one time meant a lot to them, and hopefully meant even more to their fans, and carrying it all the way to the bank. How craven! How crass! How sad.

Well, I said it was a retrospective quandary because, reader, this is in the past now. We said yes. There are several mitigating circumstances, I might add: for one, it was a short-lived campaign for a modest fee (I cannot emphasise the word ‘modest’ enough, here); for another, we’re very much a cottage industry here at PSB Towers, running our own label and operating just above the breadline for most of the year (or so it seems to my bank account).

And for another, we don’t have major label money behind us. Advertising budgets are our own, and we are therefore reliant on receiving this kind of exposure to get our music heard. And for yet another, it was an advert for Freeview, a wholly commendable entity expounding the benefits of free public service broadcasting. Given our stock-in-trade and, indeed, our name, all of those reasons do go some way towards assuaging my rampant guilt.

But this is the (hopefully) interesting point, brought about by a somewhat surprising reaction to our appearance in ad breaks across the land. Should I be feeling guilty? I have been amazed by the comments on varying social media outlets. Messages, tweets, emails have come in, all asking the question: “Did I just hear your music on an advert?!” And when the sheepish answer comes back, “Erm… yes, you did,” every single messenger to date – without exception – has expressed something close to joy on our behalf, and offered heartfelt congratulations. To say that I am mildly surprised would be a fairly hefty understatement.

What’s going on, then? I was expecting to be roundly clobbered for selling out, and to have to repeatedly justify my decision to take the money and run (see the fourth paragraph above – all of that is very well-rehearsed, trust me), not to have to deflect praise and congratulations.

Have those brave punk-rock barricade-stormers Iggy Pop and John Lydon done it again, and forged the way for us with their bold commitment to, respectively, car insurance and butter? Has music become so commoditised that fans are unwilling, or no longer able, to see and condemn the rampant commercialisation of a once-sacred art form? Or is my particular band generally held in such low regard that it would seem impossible for us to sell out anyway?

I suspect, as with so many things these days, it’s simply another indicator of the enormous changes in the music industry since the internet assumed its stranglehold over modern western life. Bands cannot rely on record sales to bring home the bacon, and instead must tour, tour, tour and tour, and occasionally catch a lucky break like getting their music played on an advert. Then they should probably tour a bit more, just to be safe.

More importantly, I think most music fans these days (myself excepted, it would seem) understand that simple fact, and are willing to cut bands some slack. As long as said band spends the money wisely, by putting at least some of it into funding the next record and continuing to make music, they’re generally in pretty safe territory. Obviously all of this comes with several caveats; I doubt Hurricane #1’s decision to sell to The Sun, if repeated today, would do them many favours on Merseyside, and there are many such companies that should probably be avoided.

In any case, that aforementioned slack is, presumably, not everlasting, and the situation for today’s bands is therefore even trickier than it used to be. Previously, I would argue, all advertising was intrinsically bad (just ask Bill Hicks), as were all the companies trying to feed off the glamour and excitement of the music industry and shift a few more units of whatever they sell.

Moby’s career as an artist proper arguably ended when he licensed every single track off ‘Play’ for use in adverts. On the other hand, bands doing it just for the music, and the fans – Fugazi, for example – were good. There weren’t many grey areas.

But nowadays, even critically-acclaimed, fan-worshipped acts like Wild Beasts – who I love, incidentally – can get their music played on a Santander advert (can it get much worse than advertising for banks since 2008?!) and still come up smelling of roses. Mumford & Sons, meanwhile, take the admirable stance of discouraging commercial sponsorship of their shows, making sure no corporate logos were on display when they recently played the Olympic Park – and still end up almost universally derided. Where do you draw the line? How do you know if you’ve taken it too far, and ended up in the realms of The Dandy Warhols, doomed to forever repeat the one song everyone knows ‘from off of that advert’?

I have no idea. If someone comes to us with a potentially life- and career-altering sum of money to advertise a product I’m not particularly keen on, I’d hope I’d say no. We have already said no to a few things that would have benefited us financially but which just didn’t sit well with us as a band, or me as a person. But then maybe some of those same fans who congratulated us for our recent advert would tell us we were stupid, we needed to grow up, we should take the money and use it to make the music that we wanted to make. Is the more pragmatic view the right one? Or is the more idealistic one?

Needless to say, I don’t know. But all of this goes to show two things, in my opinion: one, that the music business is still a very hard one, and harder than ever these days to get right; and two, that the one thing that hasn’t changed in this whole equation is the fans. They, not us, are still the most important factor, and they continue to surprise and astound me with their generosity and support (not just for us – see the success of Kickstarter, or any of the other crowd-funded album-enablers, for extraordinary evidence of that). I don’t get to decide what’s right – they do.

And for the time being, I’m merely very glad that they seem to have decided that we’re alright. I think.

Words: J. Willgoose, Esq

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Public Service Broadcasting, ‘Signal 30’, from the album ‘Inform – Educate – Entertain’

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Find Public Service Broadcasting online here

The band tours as follows:

November
4th – The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen
5th – Oran Mor, Glasgow
6th – Picture House, Edinburgh
7th – Academy 2, Manchester
8th – Warehouse 34, Newcastle
9th – Leadmill, Sheffield
11th – Stylus, Leeds
12th – Library, Birmingham
13th – Rescue Rooms, Nottingham
14th – Sugarmill, Stoke On Trent
15th – Stiff Kitten, Belfast
16th – Button Factory, Dublin
18th – Junction, Cambridge
20th – The Forum, London
21st – Globe, Cardiff
25th – East Village Arts Club, Liverpool
26th – Anson Rooms, Bristol
27th – Concorde 2, Brighton
28th – The Brook, Southampton

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