Ben Neill is best known as the inventor of the "mutant trumpet," an electric horn with extra bells and valves that, wired to a computer, produces sounds and images. Now the New York "dance electronica" composer has invented the mutant album.
In a music-industry first, all 10 tracks on Mr. Neill's latest CD are expanded versions of 45-second tunes he originally composed for Volkswagen commercials.
Musicians have long reaped rich rewards licensing original work for advertising, but Neill is the first artist to release an "original" album of songs written first as advertisements.
"There is no difference between something that is considered art and something that is a commercial," he says. "My album is a statement of that."
It is also a statement of how the line between art and commerce - never an easy one to define - is growing ever blurrier. We've come a long way since the uproar over Nike Inc.'s use of the Beatles song "Revolution" in a 1986 shoe commercial. Retailers from Pottery Barn to Victoria's Secret have for years released compilation CDs of original music used as "background noise" in stores or ads. Electronica artist Moby licensed every track on his 1999 album, "Play," to one company or another - the track "Find My Baby," for example, was used by American Express - to drum up interest before it even hit the stores.
The artist-merchant relationship has evolved beyond simple licensing to cross-promotion. Recording artist Sting, for example, boosted sales of a 2000 single by placing it in a Jaguar television commercial. The ad even ran a caption with the title of Sting's song, "Desert Rose," over images of the singer riding in a Jaguar.
And now we have Neill's new record, tellingly titled "Automotive." It's more than a cross-promotion; it's the advertisement as art, or art as advertisement.
That tactic will likely prove to be controversial with some consumers, who may bridle at being marketed to even as they try to escape the barrage of commercial pitches in their daily lives.
Still, proud and unabashed, Neill and his patrons at Volkswagen's Boston-based ad agency, Arnold Worldwide, say the power and reach of today's global brands offer up-and-coming artists an ideal platform for their work. Never mind that the creative process becomes fused with commercial demands; the fusion is still a "valid" art form, Neill insists.
"Brands are developing all kinds of different emotional and cultural expressions," says Neill. "It's a construct and an identity that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with a product being sold."
Although both Volkswagen and Neill say selling more cars is not the intended purpose of "Automotive," the association alone is branding, nonetheless. But for whom exactly isn't clear.
Although the album was produced by the San Francisco label Six Degrees Records, the cover art and liner notes were created by executives of Arnold Worldwide. The album cover shows a picture of a Volkswagen taken from one of the agency's commercials; the liner notes purport to convey a "typical conversation" between Neill and an account executive at Arnold Worldwide, clearly a relationship of kindred spirits.
"I don't think Ben is compromising himself one iota," says Tim Brunelle, creative director at Arnold Worldwide. "We would tell him, 'could you make the drums sound happy?' or 'it sounds sludgy,' and fortunately Ben would say, 'Aha! How about this?' " says Mr. Brunelle.
Neill's responsiveness was a breath of fresh air, Mr. Brunelle adds. "When artists fight with agencies because they think they're compromising their art, that lasts about two seconds. We're paying way too much for that kind of prima donna [behavior]."
Volkswagen also co-sponsored Neill's recent 20-city concert tour, during which the musician showed videos from Volkswagen's "drivers wanted" ad campaign on an overhead screen at his performances. Neill says his purpose is to showcase the ads, alongside his music, as legitimate "works of art."
And Neill and Volkswagen will likely spawn imitators.
BMW, for example, hired film directors including John Woo to make a series of action shorts featuring BMW cars. The films can be viewed on the website bmwfilms.com. Similar types of "advertainment" will reach TV viewers when a new short-film cable channel called BOB (Brief Original Broadcasts) launches in March.
Who, or what, is the tool here, some critics ask, artist or corporation? Ben Neill or Volkswagen? Or, ultimately, is it consumers living in a society in which even art serves the sole purpose of selling consumer goods?
Author Douglas Rushkoff, who has written extensively about coercion in modern marketing, says he respects Neill's candor. "I'd much rather see a CD that is blatantly and honestly the result of advertising than, say, a rap hero like Jay-Z going on a tour for Sprite that is made to look like a tour for black urban youth," Mr. Rushkoff says. (His example is not a far-out hypothetical. The "Sprite Liquid Mix" tour ran from August to September of this year.)
Nor does Neill's musical genre, electronica - which rarely contains lyrics with any social or political meaning - make any pretenses about being something it is not.
The worst, says Rushkoff, was hearing Iggy Pop's punk anthem "Lust for Life" in a Royal Caribbean International cruise commercial. "It castrates the music because punk was the music of rebellion," he says.
Volkswagen is considering selling Neill's album in its dealerships, which suits the artist just fine. "Bach was working for the church," says Neill. "He had to use the text he was given," too.
Rushkoff puts it another way. "We're all in bed to some extent with big business. The question is whether you're playing them or they're playing you."