Licensing music of deceased artists to Advertising; moral or not?

I am not the best at checking on my social media channels, but today as I was working today I checked my YouTube page and found that the Chevy Corvette spot I finished last month and posted to my YouTube page had some serious comments on it. I felt the need to share this. First, take a look at the spot:

This track is unmistakable if you have ever been a fan of folk or bluegrass from the 60′s and 70′s. It’s timeless.

Here is what my commenter had to say:

A trend in the commercial music industry I have become greatly upset with is the using of classic American music, largely from the 60′s, to sell things on TV. After hearing the Stones or Nick Drake or now (sadly) John Fahey, countless times lined up with AT & T or Chevy I can’t help but think of their products when I listen to these artists albums at home. This makes me sad.

I don’t want to think of AT & T when I listen to Nick Drake, and I certainly don’t want to think of Chevy when I listen to John Fahey. It’s one thing for the Stones to sell the rights to their songs as they’re living, but lending deceased artists’ music to products in a manner they probably wouldn’t approve of is a morally dubious endeavor.

The two recent and unfortunate choices ( Nick Drake & John Fahey) of using tragic folk musicians, (Drake suicide, Fahey died alone and penniless) to sell items for large multi-billion dollar corporations smacks of a sad irony that plagues today’s commercial industry.

It is important that we do not treat art as a mere commodity. Most certainly John Fahey’s music has nothing to do with selling Chevy’s and I hope in the future you consider the importance and seriousness of the artists and their music whom you align with advertisements on TV. I ask you to think twice before lending deceased artists music to TV ads, ( especially people like John Fahey)


I think it is an extreme view to say that using their music is a “morally dubious endeavor.” When a piece of music is used, the rights holders are paid quite well. The music is used legally and the rights are given by the “owners” of that music.

As a matter of fact, one of the gentlemen who helmed this project is the son of one of the former members of The Kingston Trio, whom many consider to be as important a touchstone to folk music as Mr. Fahey was. I think he would agree, if the estate needs the money and the music is reflected in a positive light, it is a great thing for all parties.

So, let me repeat – the rights holders AGREED and they were paid well for the use of music in this commercial. I hope that Mr. Fahey was smart enough to see to it that his estate was set up in a way that his loved ones will get to see that money.

Music Licensing is one of the only consistent and reliable sources of revenue and marketing for artists today, and as the music business does, licensing in advertising follows the trends, and dare I say, sometimes we help set them. There are hundreds of artists who will see this spot and be inspired by the music. There are thousands of people who will see this spot and go buy John Fahey’s record, or even pull their old record back out.

You see this as a tragedy, but we see it as an homage that is one way to keep his spirit alive and back into the collective conscious of the music lovers everywhere. For the record, due to the resurgence in popularity of Nike Drake’s music after the Volkswagen commercial “Pink Moon” (which is arguable one of the best commercials ever made) the record label re-released his music with great success.


You seem to miss my point. My point was not that the estates of Nick Drake and John Fahey may or may not being compensated nicely, it is that these artists, especially John Fahey, would not have wanted his music used to help sell Chevy cars. His music has nothing to do with Chevy cars. Fahey was an avidly independent and non-commercial artist by principle. It is simply inappropriate to use his serious and important music for a car commercial without his permission.

You repeatedly point out that , “everyone is paid nicely” . This however misses the principle of my point : John Fahey certainly would not have approved of his music being used to help Chevy boost its image.


Your point is taken, but how do you know that Fahey and Drake would say no if they were alive today? There is simply no way to know. I staunchly (as said here) support artists right to say no to music licensing in ads or any other medium. I personally have worked with bands that have turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars based on principle.  But I, again choose to see this as a positive broadcast of John Fahey’s music. Albiet that I am slightly biased, being a music supervisor in commercials.

This brings me to a larger point that you have helped me make sir:

ARTISTS AND MUSICIANS, be clear in your contracts and in your will what you ARE willing to have your music used for. If you have sold your publishing, then you may have lost creative control. The only REAL way we are to know your wishes is if you clearly leave them behind.

Who is to be held responsible for an artist or musicians wishes once he is gone? If the use of your music is important to you, then think about it, write it down and place it into the hands of people you trust. Music is immortal, and there is no way to tell what is coming in the future and in what crazy ways your music might be heard, but give it some serious thought. Don’t let others decide for you.

In the case of John Fahey, the executors of his estate (or if they no longer own the rights to the music, then the label and the publisher) are responsible for making the decision to lend use of a song on behalf of the Artist, not the Agency or the Brand.

To those of you out there who have additional opinions, lets here them.

7 Responses to “Licensing music of deceased artists to Advertising; moral or not?”

  1. Glenn Jones August 10, 2010 at 7:13 pm #

    The two people John named as beneficiaries in his will would have approved the use of his music in this ad: Mitch Greenhill (his booking agent) and Melody Fahey (his former wife).

    Mitch was the son of Fahey’s longtime booking agent, Manny Greenhill, and while Mitch was late to the table and would not know much about what John’s wishes might or might not have been, Melody was as close to John as anyone and knew him for a good 30 years or so.

    These are the people one should complain to, I guess.

    I’m sympathetic to the concerns of anyone who hates to see music they care about used to sell something.

    I admire John Densmore of the Doors, for example, for refusing to allow the bands’ music to be licensed, even though the other members of the group were all for it.

    Densmore’s feelings were that a.), the Doors didn’t need the money, they were wealthy many times over, and b.), Morrison had been opposed to the commercial use of the groups’ music when he was alive.

    But in the case of Fahey, unless we knew the man personally, it’s sheer ego to pretend we know what John would or would not have agreed to if he were alive.

    I knew him for 25 years and I can’t say equivocally what he would or would not have wanted.

    You’re right to say John was independent. He did pretty much what he wanted all his life, and there is a naked and emotional purity to his work which cannot be denied, and which has nothing to do with what kind of car you buy.

    However, he also had no qualms about — and made no bones about — using his music to make money, and he felt he had excellent instincts as to what would do well in a commercial marketplace.

    E.g.: He recorded half-a-dozen xmas albums. The first was made without an inkling that it would sell so well. But when it did, all the rest were made, he said (plainly and without apology), for one reason and one reason only: the money.

    When he was alive he sanctioned the use of his music in at least two films, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (in spite of the fact that he hated the film and hated the director) and Straight Time, with Dustin Hoffman, which he told me he’d never even seen.

    However, I don’t subscribe to the view that the use of John’s music in this commercial will introduce Fahey’s music to countless more fans, as might have been the case with Drake.

    Few people will even be aware who it is (mainly Fahey fans, I suspect) and of those whose ears do perk up, how many are likely to start trawling through the internet to find out who is playing guitar?

    BTW: Fahey had some rough times in his last decade or so. But he did not die alone and penniless. He wasn’t rich and well-off by any means, but he had a number of supporters and friends, he had royalty checks coming in for sales of his back catalogue on CD, and was recording new records right up to the end.

    He’d also exchanged the welfare motel he’d lived in for many years for a clean and roomy house.

    Glenn Jones
    Cambridge, MA

  2. Adrian Morales-Demori August 11, 2010 at 7:31 am #

    I kind of see where the guy was coming from, but I still don’t see where the “moral” issue is?.

    As you pointed out, if the artist sell their right, then is no longer their call and who ever buys the publishing, has the right to make his money back, is as simple as that…

    if artist care about where and how their music will be use and/or heard, then they should protect their rights as much as possible.

    We represent and administrate the masters and publishing of all the songs from our artist in our catalog and when we sit down to work the contract, they are fine with us handling the Publishing, but some of them do fight for guidelines and rules about where they DO NOT want their music, either protect their image or just believe is not right, most cases are like: Porn, political, military and even have artist that will include: alcohol drinks and smoking campaigns. And some, just they don’t care, they just want the extra $$$.

    Also, as Glenn mentioned. Beside the whole “selling a product with music thing”, this AD campaigns, Tv shows and movies help to introduce old and new music to an overly saturated market, and the money invested in an Ad campaign could never match any budget by any labels to promote and break an artist…. I don’t believe artist like Sara Bareilles would have made any major splash without the AD campaign.

    So, the final point is…. if fans like tha,t wants to stop making music “a mere commodity”, it starts with the artist, not the rest of the industry.

  3. jimmy August 11, 2010 at 10:09 am #

    When Miles Davis died suddenly muted trumpets were all the rage in industrial ad spots. So, instead of cutting and pasting Fahey’s spirit onto a Chevy add, why not just record something “in the spirit”? It is still a “rape the dead” feeding frenzy mentality, but at least you leave him ( Fahey) out of it since he cannot speak on the issue.

  4. DannyDee August 11, 2010 at 6:00 pm #

    Is it moral to license music of deceased artists? via @sarahgavigan RT @MusicLicensed #musiclicensing #artistadvice

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  5. digipendent August 11, 2010 at 6:00 pm #

    Is it moral to license music of deceased artists? via @sarahgavigan RT @MusicLicensed #musiclicensing #artistadvice

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  6. KarolaRiegler August 12, 2010 at 6:33 am #

    “Is it moral to license music of deceased artists?” by @sarahgavigan via @DannyDee #musiclicensing #artistadvice

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  7. Steve W August 14, 2010 at 9:16 am #

    I just saw a L.L. Bean commercial with “Big Rock Candy Mountain” as the theme. When I was younger I was more idealistic about the sale of music for commercial purposes. In today’s world unless one has been extremely lucky to have achieved great wealth in this industry like John Densmore , it’s either grab your opportunities in the market while they exist, or let the product (your music) sit on the shelf perhaps forever. The quantity of music produced in the digital age has changed the value of music today and for future use. It’s very unlikely that most of today’s musicians will be able to provide income for future beneficiaries like John Fahey. I can see the commercial use as a tribute from the ears of great music supervisors to our own perhaps unknowing ears, and it does in fact stimulate interest in the music and history of bygone musicians and eras, else we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Are you more of a sell-out if you use your music to sell a product you don’t personally approve of (gas guzzlers), as opposed to using it to sell a product you do approve of (electric or hybrid autos)? There are no black and white answers. As life progresses, one thing I have learned is that everything is sacred and nothing is sacred. It’s up to the individual copyright owners to make that decision in this case.

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