Music licensing: good or evil?

Justin Rodstrom

The question of music licensing, albeit a new one, brings us back to the age-old problem of defining the term “sell-out.”

The obvious knee-jerk protest most hardcore fans put up against licensing is pretty understandable, if a little immature.

Songs hold meaning for us; we cherish the totality of the artist’s work, not just a 30-second derivation of some poppier element.

There is this sneaking suspicion among music lovers that with song licensing, somehow “The Man” has infiltrated that sacred realm of fanhood and stolen away a sort of proprietary hold we have over our beloved artists.

As easy (and tempting) as it would be to go right along and put down song licensing altogether, it might be best to step back and look at the big picture to get some clarity.

Why do the artists make the music they do?

If it’s to create a cult following of hardcore, die-hard supporters that will be there through thick and thin, licensing probably won’t appeal to the artists to begin with.

But rather, if their aim is to get their music out there and be heard regardless of who hears it, licensing may be a rather non-offensive route to achieve that goal.

As nice as it might be to have a great group of fans to support an artist, we often run the risk of the sort of elitism associated with such proprietary notions.

Rather, I would say that the latter approach could even be considered more democratic in nature, giving the music to anyone who would listen instead of tucking it away for fans vetted for dedication.

Now to the bigger question of how this reflects back on the band and what really constitutes a “sell-out.”

I’m not going to pretend I own the definition, but I would suggest that selling out is when you change your music to fit demands that are not genuinely within the musical interests of the band members themselves.

Whether that demand is a monetary one, fan demands or a recent trend, dishonest change constitutes the purist form of self-adulteration.

So how does this tie back in to licensing? Aren’t these people all just trying to cash in on contracts that have nothing to do with the music but are all about making a quick buck?

Well, if you talk to any artist who makes sacrifices so their art can be broadcast out to the people, the quick buck isn’t the only, or even the biggest, force driving music licensing.

To be frank, record companies, licensing companies and bands do make a buck or two from licensing.

But if the band manages to find root with a broader fan base, that helps everyone.

It certainly benefits the big, bad record company making money on the backs of it’s artists, but the band may get a better contract or a bigger billing at a venue near you or more studio time for their next record.

All of this exposure can translate into artistic freedom for the artist – freedom that can only serve to bolster the creativity they have.

So the next time you cringe at a Wilco song in a commercial for the new Jetta or feel like disowning Grace Potter & The Nocturnals for that spot on “Grey’s Anatomy,” just remember that for every whine you cry out, a new fan is born.