In life, British folk singer Nick Drake was a commercial disaster: an artist too sensitive to tour, too withdrawn to give interviews, too high-minded to compromise his artistic vision, even as he longed for a wider following.
In death, he is a rising star, thanks to a car commercial.
Drake, who died in 1974 at the age of 26, got his big break when his song “Pink Moon” was used in a TV ad in 1999 for the Volkswagen Cabrio. U.S. sales of the “Pink Moon” album rose rapidly, from about 6,000 copies in 1999 to 74,000 in 2000, according to Palm Pictures, which distributes Drake’s record label, Hannibal Records.
“It’s been a huge boost,” says Hannibal founder Joe Boyd.
The rediscovery of Nick Drake is the most dramatic example of a broader trend. At a time when consolidation in the radio industry has made many stations less adventurous in their musical choices, challenging and little-known music has found an unlikely outlet in commercials for shoes, clothes and cars.
Fatboy Slim and Moby both benefited from the early use of their music in ads, as did this season’s newcomer, Badly Drawn Boy, who was heard in a Gap ad before he was seen in a “New Faces” profile in Rolling Stone.
“I’ll be out at a show or at a bar and I’ll talk about Badly Drawn Boy, and people say, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I saw that Gap commercial. That was great!’ ” says Matt Harmon, director of marketing at Badly Drawn Boy’s U.S. record company, the Beggars group.
Similarly, Nike’s use of the song “Bitter Sweet Symphony” in a 1998 ad was an early break for the Verve.
But few tales of commercial redemption have been as clear-cut as that of Drake, who died of an overdose of antidepressants after years of depression that some believe was related to his stalled musical career.
That career began auspiciously enough when Drake was discovered by Boyd while still a student at Cambridge University. “I heard part of half of one song and I felt I wanted to make a record with him,” says Boyd, who has produced Pink Floyd and R.E.M.
Some reviewers were captivated by Drake’s eerie voice, brooding lyrics and skilled guitar work. But Drake, by all accounts a sensitive soul, withdrew from an early tour, unwilling or unable to handle drunk and distracted audiences. By the time his second album came out, even interviews were too much for him.
“I think it was a pretty steady downward decline emotionally, from the time I first met him, really,” Boyd says. “As he got more and more accomplished professionally, I think there was also the problem that I and other people told him how wonderful he was and encouraged him to feel he could be successful, and he didn’t get successful, and I think that was very hard for him.”
In 1972, Drake released a third and final album that added little to his commercial appeal: 28 minutes of spare and sometimes inscrutable Nick Drake songs accompanied by Nick Drake on guitar and Nick Drake on piano.
The title song consisted of only 16 lines, most of them variations on the first five: “Saw it written and I saw it say/Pink moon is on its way/And none of you stand so tall/Pink moon gonna get ye all/And it’s a pink moon.”
The record sold poorly and Drake’s downward spiral continued. In a 1979 interview, Drake’s mother, Molly, said he once told her, “I have failed in everything I have tried to do.”
After Drake’s death, ruled a suicide by the coroner although some dispute that, his legend was kept alive by true believers such as Boyd, who sold his production company to Island Records on the condition that Drake’s records never be deleted from the Island catalog.
Each year, Boyd says, more Drake records were sold worldwide: about 13,000 copies of all three Nick Drake albums in 1985, 50,000 in 1995. But U.S. sales remained modest, with “Pink Moon” selling only about 4,000 copies in 1998. At the same time, American radio was consolidating--with more stations in the hands of fewer owners--and often becoming more uniform and predictable.
“It’s easy to recycle the same formulas, because you have a better-than-average chance of getting listeners,” says Alan Pafenbach, a group creative director at Arnold Worldwide, the advertising agency that did the “Pink Moon” commercial. “The problem is, you never find anything new.”
By the late 1990s, companies such as Nike and Volkswagen were rushing in where radio preferred not to tread, perhaps most memorably in the case of VW’s 1997 use of the German novelty hit “Da, Da, Da” by Trio.
“It was an out-of-print German band that had done that song, and it just caught on,” says Jean Halliday, Detroit bureau chief of Advertising Age.
“Pink Moon” wasn’t the original choice for the Cabrio commercial, Pafenbach says, but a member of the advertising team had the music and suggested it might work.
The result is an ad in which four young people drive along a country road, captivated by the moon, playfully reaching for the stars. They stop at a party, exchange glances, and, without saying a word, agree not to go in. Their car exits into the night. Throughout the commercial, the only sound--aside from a few very faint sound effects--is the song “Pink Moon.”
The commercial, which debuted in late 1999, is still seen occasionally, although its official network run ended in October. It was an instant hit among new listeners such as Kate Orr, 18, of Portland, Ore., who bought the “Pink Moon” CD within a week of seeing the ad. “The music was killer,” says Orr, a college freshman who finds that many of the songs she owns are showing up in ads.
At Amazon.com, customers posted “Pink Moon” reviews with headlines such as “Thank you, Volkswagen,” “VW does it again,” and “Now when I think of VW, I think of Nick Drake and not Hitler.”
Not everyone is happy with such synergy. At Amazon.com, hard-core Nick Drake fans express dismay at the use of a resolutely noncommercial musician’s work in a car commercial. But some artists have openly embraced their role in ads, with Moby telling MTV News he was “really happy” about the widespread use of his music.
What Drake would have thought is, of course, an open question, but not one without precedents in the artist’s life and work. “Safe in your place deep in the earth/That’s when they’ll know what you were really worth,” Drake wrote in his 1969 song “Fruit Tree.”
“I think he would have been very pleased about the commercial, because it’s exposed him to a lot of people that never heard about him before,” Boyd says.