Once, back when rock ‘n’ roll still seemed dangerous, [John] Densmore was the drummer for the Doors, the band with dark hits such as “Light My Fire” and “People Are Strange.” That band more or less went into the grave with lead singer Jim Morrison in 1971, but, like all top classic-rock franchises, it now has the chance to exploit a lucrative afterlife in television commercials. Offers keep coming in, such as the $15 million dangled by Cadillac last year to lease the song “Break On Through (to the Other Side)” to hawk its luxury SUVs.
To the surprise of the corporation and the chagrin of his former bandmates, Densmore vetoed the idea. He said he did the same when Apple Computer called with a $4-million offer, and every time “some deodorant company wants to use ‘Light My Fire.’ ”
The reason? Prepare to get a lump in your throat — or to roll your eyes.
“People lost their virginity to this music, got high for the first time to this music,” Densmore said. “I’ve had people say kids died in Vietnam listening to this music, other people say they know someone who didn’t commit suicide because of this music…. On stage, when we played these songs, they felt mysterious and magic. That’s not for rent.”
That not only sets the Doors apart from the long, long list of classic rock acts that have had their songs licensed for major U.S. commercial campaigns, it also has added considerably to Densmore’s estrangement from former bandmates Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger, a trio that last set eyes on one another in the Los Angeles County Superior Courthouse last year.
[...] When Nike used the Beatles’ recording of “Revolution” for a sneaker ad two decades ago, there was widespread criticism. The hubbub quieted when the commercial was retired after one year. Nowadays, the debate is largely muted. The new take? Holding out is bad for music.
“Using your music in the modern landscape is not selling out; if it’s done right, it’s giving it new life,” said Amy Kavanaugh, an executive vice president at Edelman, the Los Angeles public relations and marketing firm that has worked with Starbucks on the coffee merchant’s extensive branding efforts with music.
Even among the classic-rock purist audience, there is a shift in expectation. Pete Howard, editor in chief of Ice magazine, a music publication tailored to audiophiles and intense rock music collectors, not only thinks that the Doors should take money for the songs of the past, he believes that they are risking their future if they don’t.
“They get a gold star for integrity, but they are missing a train that is leaving the station,” Howard said. “Advertising is no longer a dirty word to the Woodstock generation, and in fact, in this landscape, the band will find that if it relies on people who hear the music in films, on radio in prerecorded formats, that with each decade their niche among music fans will narrow. It’s advertising — with its broad audience and ubiquity — that gets new ears.”