Billy Joel has moved from “Allentown” to Madison Avenue.
The piano-playing hitmaker was once regarded by advertisers as one of music’s “untouchables” – artists like Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Tom Petty and R.E.M. who shun the idea of aligning one of their popular tunes with an ad for a new kind of soup, sneaker or SUV. Now the artist sometimes known as “The Piano Man” has allowed his songs to be used in ads for The Gap (“Just The Way You Are,” sung by his daughter, Alexa); Merrill Lynch’s Bank of America (“My Life”); and New York State tourism (“New York State of Mind”).
“An artist with the status of Billy Joel is iconic, and can help elevate a brand,” said Paul Greco, director of music at JWT, the large ad agency owned by WPP Group of Britain.
The crowd of top rock and pop artists adverse to use of their work in commercials has thinned in recent years, as anyone who has heard The Who, The Clash, The Band and even Bob Dylan singing on behalf of everything from Jaguar to Diet Coke to Chobani yogurt can attest. With radio formats narrower and sales of traditional recording formats winnowed, commercial appearances represent a lucrative revenue stream at a time when others may slow to a trickle. Joel’s interest in such stuff only spotlights how eager advertisers are to latch on to the world’s most popular singles even when there is so much music already available to them.
Joel’s songs have long been viewed as being under glass. “In the past I know he was hesitant, and I had multiple discussions with his people about how he wasn’t necessarily ready unless the right thing came up,” recounted Josh Rabinowitz, executive vice president and music director for Grey Group, another large ad firm. “They discussed how he had passed on several big offers” (He has seized some, too. A re-recorded version of “My Life” was the theme song for the 1980 ABC sitcom “Bosom Buddies”).
That thinking seems to have changed. In 2012, Joel struck an agreement with Universal Music Publishing and its Rondor Music unit, with the idea that his songs “were just hanging around with nothing to do,” he said in a statement. “I took good care of them, but now it’s time for them to go out and take care of me for a change.” Over the last 18 months, said Claire Mercuri, a spokeswoman for the singer, Rondor has secured approximately 127 different uses in the U.S. alone for Joel’s songs. In the past, Joel did not have an outside party seeking opportunities.
To draw attention to the fact his songs were on the market, Joel took part in two events aimed at drawing music supervisors – one in Los Angeles and one in New York. At the east coast meet-up, Grey’s Rabinowitz saw songwriter Jimmy Webb (“By The Time I Get To Phoenix”) conduct an interview with Joel, who was “very articulate on his music and the inspiration.” JWT’s Greco recalls Joel explaining the creative process behind some of his best-known works.
Joel may have more impetus to pursue such stuff than his contemporaries. While he continues to tour actively – his current residence at New York’s Madison Square Garden has generated sell-out box office – he has not released an album of new pop music since 1993’s “River of Dreams.” He has instead taken to creative touring executions, like appearing with Elton John in a string of concerts.
Finding ways to get his music heard, including appearances in TV shows and movies, can help Joel reach new audiences who may not have the more traditional prod of a song played on the radio to spur them to check out his music. Older artists “sometimes find a new fan base,” said Greco. “I think that is probably what Billy is doing, too: Trying to get a fan base that might not have known about him or his music had it not been in a TV show or commercial.”
In at least one recent instance, the idea has worked. In the Netherlands, for example, Joel’s famous standard “Piano Man” was used in an ad for the country’s new rail system. A young man is depicted listening to the song on his iPhone while he navigates his way to a club in London. Upon his arrival, the guy finds the whole club is signing the song. After the campaign launched, according to Mercuri, “Piano Man” found its way on to the Netherlands charts.