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Songs For Screens: How Volkswagen Snagged David Bowie, Simon & Garfunkel Songs for New Campaigns

Volkswagen has a long history of introducing obscure and previously overlooked music to mass audiences through its commercials, having single-handedly revived the posthumous catalog of Nick Drake and post-breakup career of German group Trio in the late ‘90s.

But for its latest pair of campaigns, the first under new U.S. ad agency Johannes Leonardo, the automaker looked to more recognizable, iconic songs that could help set a more lean-forward tone to match the brand’s post-emissions scandal efforts to embrace electric cars and more sustainable production.

The first spot, “Hello Light,” debuted in June and featured the original master for Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” as the soundtrack for the creative process behind VW’s new all-electric vehicles. The campaign placed Silver for Use of Music at the 2019 Clio Music awards last month.

The follow-up, “A New Mission” premiered in July with a previously unreleased home demo of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” for an ad connecting VW’s pledge to go carbon neutrally globally by 2050 to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

How did Johannes Leonardo and its music agency Groove Guild pull off such complex licenses? In the case of “The Sound of Silence,” it started by locking in a creative concept for “Hello Light” that was inextricable from the song.

“It was a very delicate brief, and we tried coming up with lots of ideas,” explains Leo Premutico, co-founder and co-chief creative officer at Johannes Leonardo. “We decided we had to search for a feeling, and it was really identifying that song, ‘Sound of Silence.’ When I heard that, the entire commercial came. We wouldn’t have been able to make that spot without that track.”

But in order to woo the song’s many stakeholders — across Simon, Garfunkel, Sony Music and Universal Music Publishing Group — the mission shifted to being very precise with Volkswagen’s request rhetoric.

“Every word you put in the email is absolutely critical. If you go back and forth and back and forth, they’ll walk away,” says Al Risi, partner-head of music supervision and licensing at Groove Guild, noting it took months to secure Simon’s approval alone. “Once we got the edit, it was very critical how the song laid against picture in such a way that felt good to the agency, to Volkswagen and to all the rightsholders — including Paul, who was the most heavy-handed on it. In the end, it was a really great, professional, collaborative effort.”

And for “A New Mission,” finding a new musical window into an event as recognizable as the moon landing was equally key. “When you look back at the ‘60s, it’s hard to find pictures that don’t have a Beetle or a VW bus on it,” says Jan Jacobs, co-founder and co-chief creative officer at Johannes Leonardo. “We were talking about some ideas with Al and he said, ‘I don’t know if you guys are aware, there’s an anniversary of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ too, and they’re going to release an unreleased demo of the track.’ And we said, ‘Funny you should say that. We’re gonna make a spot for the anniversary of the moon landing.’ Just the fact that there was an original of that song coming out, it was meant to be.”

Adds Risi, “It’s so rare. It wasn’t like we had to look for a bunch of tracks. Everyone just knew once this track hit their inbox.”

As for other potential future homages to previous Volkswagen work? Jacobs says to expect more strong uses of music. “We’re always trying to do the right thing for the spot, and there’s no doubt that music’s going to remain a really integral part of that. We will constantly be looking for songs that say really specific things.”

Songs for Screens is a Variety column sponsored by music experiential agency MAC Presents, based in NYC. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @ahampp.

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