Oreo versus Art

Andy-Warhol-32-Soup-CansI recently sang about Oreos in a TV commercial.

I’m part of a band that’s had some recent success, which has been hugely exciting for me. I love music and consider being a musician a core part of my identity (not that I am fully supporting myself this way yet, Oreo commercial notwithstanding).  I genuinely enjoyed producing the Oreo spots, which might horrify some artists. Thinking about why an Oreo commercial might stir up negative emotions for others led me to question my work. Does my participation in this commercial affect the “purity” of my music as an art?

It’s a common cultural narrative that participating in commercial ventures contaminates art you create for yourself. I don’t think that’s true. People who pursue an artistic passion are often confronted with a diabolical juxtaposition: If you’re going to make art full time, then that art needs to make you money. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, their art will never earn them enough money to live off of. This occasionally means following opportunities to apply their artistic skills to commercial projects, often for corporations since they do have enough money. These projects are almost always in the service of selling something, and artists rarely have any creative control over the work – both things that can leave people feeling icky. But in most cases, neither of these things disturb me.

As a musician, I’ve worked and remained friends with an advertising team behind commercial jingles like the spot from Oreo, and the opportunity to voice one wasn’t completely out of left field. Was money the motivating factor? It was certainly a nice component of the project, but it wasn’t an overwhelming impetus. Nor was I nagged by any moral obligation to say “Fuck you, Nabisco.” I love Oreos. I love singing about them just about as much as I love eating them.

If this particular commercial advertised something more sinister than a delicious cookie, I would probably feel more conflicted. Profit-driven commercial work can threaten the purity of something so deeply personal, as singing is for me, so there’s a balance of intent that I think is important for a commercialized project like this.

But if it doesn’t compromise your ethics, a commercial opportunity can leave the integrity of your unpaid art intact, and in many ways can help you keep producing it. Commercial opportunities are frequently the very thing that allows you to spend time doing the thing that you really love (but that doesn’t pay you). While this makes many artists uncomfortable, I feel OK about that!

Most musicians don’t make their living off of music sales anymore. Instead, music profits are made largely through touring and commercial placement. “Selling out” is a term that was thrown around a lot more ten years ago than it is today. Very quickly, the lexicon seems to have gone from, “Dude, I heard [insert band you like] in a potato chips commercial… what sellouts!” to “Dude, I heard [insert band you like] in a sriracha-flavored potato chips commercial… they’re killing it!” In my experience, people nowadays are more encouraging of those experiences and pursuits – and I personally am grateful for that.

While the conflict between commercial work and “pure” art will probably continue to rage on, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like there is room for both in any artist’s life. There has to be. I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to sing the Oreo jingles. It gave me more work experience, and I was paid to sing. I also feel lucky because of what I learned, indirectly, about what sort of commercial work I feel comfortable with. I’ve discovered some personal guidelines that I need to follow in order to maintain a balance of intent and results — and to stick to the boundaries of what I’m comfortable with.

Brett lives in New York City.

Image: Andy Warhol’s “32 Campbell’s Soup Cans” (1962)