Clip: Bah Hummer
- They can always use another Who song instead...
Indie rockers reject big money from the king of gas guzzlers
By Otis Hart
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
The Thermals, a rambunctious rock band from Portland, Ore., were en
route between gigs last year when they got a phone call from their
label, Sub Pop. Hummer wanted to pay them $50,000 for the right to use
their song "It's Trivia" in a commercial.
"We thought about it for about 15 seconds, maybe," lead singer Hutch
They said no.
Washington D.C.'s Trans Am were offered $180,000 by Hummer for the
song "Total Information Awareness."
"We figured it was almost like giving music to the Army, or Exxon,"
guitarist Philip Manley said.
They said no.
The post-punk band LiLiPUT, who broke up more than 20 years ago, could
have pocketed $50,000 for "Heidi's Head" after making close to nothing
during their five-year existence. But they, too, said no.
"At least I can sleep without nightmares," Marlene Marder reasoned.
GM's brand of luxury SUVs may be one of the most fashionable modes of
transportation in the world, but Hummer ad money is turned down like
... well ... like nothing else. That's even more shocking when you
consider many of the artists in line to benefit could double their
yearly income by saying yes. The offers generally begin at $50 grand —
a ton of money for relative unknowns.
Lyle Hysen runs Bank Robber Music, a licensing group that pitches
songs to film, television and advertisement companies. He's gotten his
clients featured in shows like "Six Feet Under" and "The L Word" and
in car ads by Volkswagen and Jaguar.
Hummer, however, has been a nonstarter.
"My standard line is you guys will play a hundred million gigs before
you see this amount of money," Hysen said. "Usually they come back
with, 'We'll do anything BUT Hummer.'"
The problems always seem to start with the environment, or rather
Hummer's effect on it.
Hummer has a miles-per-gallon rating pushing single digits (10 in the
city for the H2), which has earned it posterboard status in arguments
about the United States' increased dependency on oil. The company
defends its fuel efficiency, considering its heft.
But the Sierra Club has led the backlash, even creating a spoof Web
site called hummerdinger.com. It's also a descendent of the
government-designed Humvee (the civilian model arrived in 1992 after
seven years of military duty).
"It's not about the money," Manley said. "It's the principle."
While multi-platinum artists like Talking Heads and Smashing Pumpkins
have declined, more of the "thanks-but-no-thanks" crowd are musicians
who would benefit greatly by the exposure that accompanies a national
ad campaign, like electronic artists Caribou and Four Tet, or
acid-bluesmen the Soledad Brothers.
"It had to be the worst product you could give a song to," Harris
said. "It was a really easy decision. How could we go on after
soundtracking Hummer? It's just so evil."
Perhaps it's easy to understand why these stridently independent
artists are passing on Hummer. The more intriguing question is, why is
Hummer targeting those artists? Why not ask more mainstream artists
who have already embraced corporate financing?
"I will say about the Hummer guys, they are some of the most intense
music listening guys out there," Hysen said. "They are on my A-list.
They find music on their own, go to shows, they aren't waiting for a
major label to call them."
Lance Jensen, president of the advertising agency Modernista, is the
creative mind behind the Hummer campaign, and has seen firsthand what
prime-time, 30-second spots can do for unheard artists — six years
ago, he used cult-folk hero Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" in a Volkswagen
commercial, which single-handedly triggered a Drake renaissance and
probably led to what we now call "yup-rock" (polite indie rock for the
Jensen insisted that he and the rest of the marketing brains at
Modernista have no strict M.O. when it comes to the music they pursue.
"We just pick music that we like as people," said Jensen, a former DJ
at Boston College's esteemed WZBC college radio station. "Being a
music lover, there's so much interesting work out there, I wonder —
why not let people hear it? I don't know, I guess I just want artists
to make money. I don't want them to be poor."
Jensen's Modernista has produced some of the most innovative car
commercials ever. They avoid pitchmen — hell, they avoid people most
of the time — and focus on visual spectacle. And a big part of
attracting eyeballs is giving people a sound that will turn their
Unfortunately for Hummer, many artists aren't listening.