Like many people, John Sebastian, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee for his years as a founding member and vocalist for the Lovin’ Spoonful, was getting ready to write off 2020 as a wash.
After abruptly canceling a planned solo tour in March due to the pandemic, “I was looking down the barrel of no work — ever,” Sebastian says on the phone from his home in upstate New York. But late in April, just a few weeks after all live venues went into indefinite lockdown, Sebastian got a call from his catalog admin team at Downtown Music Publishing with some promising news about his best-known solo hit, “Welcome Back,” a Hot 100 chart-topper in 1976 during its heyday as the theme song of the John Travolta-starring ‘70s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
A music supervisor for French sporting goods company Decathlon placed a call to see if “Welcome Back” was available to be used as a sync for the brand’s campaign that was set to debut on May 11, when many businesses in France were set to re-open from quarantine lockdown. And soon after, the calls kept coming — from Applebee’s, Long Island’s PSEG, Major League Baseball, Fox Sports Network and many others.
By late July, “Welcome Back” had become an unofficial reopening anthem for a pandemic-plagued world. Sebastian’s original master, its popular 2004 remake by Mase and other versions had been licensed for more than a half-dozen major ad campaigns and promo spots, with another seven pending. The activity also led to a 333% boost in total streaming for the song year-to-date (343% since the outbreak period of late March) and 230,000 combined Shazams for the two main versions.
“My publisher called and said, ‘Don’t take any low offers on this as they come in.’ It was quite an onslaught,” recalls Sebastian, who was worried that a year without touring would dry up his finances. “Then he said, ‘This is a year when you don’t have to work.’ I was really to hear that from him, and then my accountant was quite wonderful.”
Jedd Katrancha, exec VP of creative at Downtown Music Publishing, says “Welcome Back” is already the publisher’s most-licensed song for advertising in 2020, and expects the momentum to continue into 2021.
“Reopening is happening in phases, and every phase gives a different industry a chance to use it, so I believe this will be a big song for us for 12 to 18 months,” he says. “Next year is going be a huge year for sports in particular, because even as we’re welcoming back the athletes now, next year we get to welcome back the fans. Whatever that next phase is, we’re celebrating it each time.”
One way Downtown hopes to keep the next wave of “Welcome Back” licenses fresh is via a newly recorded cover of the song created in partnership with Signature Tracks, featuring Grammy nominee Aloe Blacc and co-produced by multi-platinum producer Scott Storch and Russell Howard. Check out a preview of the soon-to-be-released version, which Songs For Screens can premiere exclusively.
Katrancha hopes even more creative uses of the song will benefit the musicians and the audio community who get commissioned. “It’s another welcome back,” says Katrancha. “Welcome to the studio, welcome back engineers, welcome back employees.”
The song’s equal footing in the pop and hip-hop worlds played a key role in its use in Major League Baseball’s 2020 branding campaign, which features Mase’s version. “We felt it encapsulated the feeling of summer and the excitement of baseball returning,” says Barbara McHugh, MLB’s senior VP of marketing. “Just like Mase put a fresh spin on the classic song years ago, we feel like our current superstar players are putting a new face on baseball. We thought the upbeat song with the anticipated return of our game would resonate with our players and fans.”
Since MLB’s spot debuted on July 3, the campaign has accumulated over 11.7 million video views across over 200,000 engagements, with a 99% like to dislike ratio and an uptick in Google searches for “Mase Welcome Back” in July.
Sebastian’s original master was the preferred cut for France’s Decathlon, whose May campaign became the first of many to hit the air. Though the song’s sitcom origins are still inextricable in the minds of many Americans, Decathlon’s music house Schmooze arrived at the track independently after music supervisors Matthieu Sibony and Germain Izydorczyk came across it in a search and recommended it to the brand’s agency Romance.
“When I heard it, I said, ‘That’s fantastic, that’s exactly what we want. It’s feel-good, very live and the meaning of the lyrics have a very strong resonance,’” says Sibony. “Sometimes you make so many rounds of searches, but this was on the 28 th of April and we had to have the film ready with creative on-air in 12 days, so it just made things easy knowing this was the right song.”
The sudden cultural resurgence of “Welcome Back” — plus a surprise cover of his Lovin’ Spoonful hit “Daydream” by M. Ward for Stella Artois’ summer campaign — means Sebastian can now enjoy his summer without having to worry about keeping up his touring schedule. And all from the exact same home he bought in ‘76 during the song’s first wave of success. “We’ve torn down parts and then the whole thing a couple times, but it’s still the same house, so here we are,” he says. “I get to take four to five dog walks a day. I’ve been one lucky boy.”
Songs for Screens is a Variety column sponsored by Anzie Blue, a wellness company and café based in Nashville. 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 Hampp on Twitter at @ahampp.