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Apple's iPod ads are the new music-star makers

Nick Haley took just 30 minutes to pluck the Brazilian band CSS from obscurity and hurl it into the national spotlight.

In September, Haley paired the band’s dance-pop song “Music is My Hot, Hot Sex” with his 30-second amateur video, displaying the capabilities of Apple’s new iPod Touch.

The video ends with the lyrics, “My music is where I’d like you to touch.”

“I was like, ‘This song is too perfect,’ ” said Haley, 18, by phone from the University of Leeds in England, where he studies politics. “It’s punchy, loud, fast and naughty.”

Marketers at Apple headquarters in Cupertino were so impressed with the song selection and YouTube video, they arranged for Haley to travel from England to Los Angeles, where he helped advertising executives at TBWA/Chiat/Day produce Apple’s newest iPod television commercial.

“This has been a remarkable experience,” Haley said. “As a fan of CSS, it’s great to think that in some small way I have helped to launch them.”

Since 2001, small, independent bands appearing in iPod commercials have sold thousands of records, been placed on numerous Billboard charts, and drawn the respect and admiration of music fans around the world. Apple’s promotional influence has grown so great that music industry insiders now compare it with Oprah Winfrey’s ability to create best-sellers through her book club.

CSS (Cansei de Ser Sexy, a Portuguese translation of “tired of being sexy,” taken from a Beyoncé Knowles quote) released its debut album in July 2006. American fans and critics touted the group for its high-energy act and playful innocence. But CSS soon learned that buzz, rave reviews and a small indie following do not necessarily translate into lofty record sales. The album sold just 340 copies per week through October, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Then the iPod Touch commercial premiered on Oct. 28. In the next two weeks, CSS sold 2,000 records and climbed to No. 15 in song downloads and No. 5 in ring tone sales at Apple’s iTunes Store.

“This is one of the rare instances where we can point to a single event and say, ‘This is for sure what’s driving all of our record sales,’ ” said Tony Kiewel, CSS’s agent at Sub Pop records. “The band is completely absent from this country and has been for ages. And the record is over a year old.”

CSS’s year-old record now stands at No. 19 on Billboard’s Top Electronic Album chart, and “Music is My Hot, Hot Sex” has since broke onto the all-important Pop 100 chart.

“America’s response to our music has been crazy,” said guitarist and drummer Luiza Sá by phone from the band’s hometown recording studio in Sao Paulo, Brazil. “The whole story, the way that this ad happened for us, is amazing. We plan to do everything we can to keep the buzz going and also to remain pure and true to our fans.”

Apple commercials have featured music giants Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, U2 and Wynton Marsalis. But for a small band like CSS, iPod commercials are legitimate springboards into the mainstream music scene.

“If you can take an indie band and can get this kind of exposure, you do it,” said Al Masocco, a music industry veteran who put together the 100-hour promotional stunt “The Backstreet Boys Around The World.” “Let’s face it, the majors are in a tailspin.”

Major record labels have yet to recover from an industrywide shift to digital downloads. With Tower Records gone, and music floor space shrinking annually, physical sales are down 15 percent in the past six months, according to SoundScan. Further complicating the matter is a decline in overall band exposure. For the most part, radio has been unwilling to break the Top 40 model and television stations like MTV and VH1 have all but dropped music by unbranded bands.

In response, labels have turned to companies such as Apple and Volkswagen, and television dramas like ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” to promote unknown bands that both attract young audiences and translate to high product sales and ratings.

The Canadian band Feist was quick to realize the benefits of its Apple partnership. Headed by singer-songwriter Leslie Feist, it released “The Reminder” on May 1, a well-reviewed collection of alternative and folk songs. The record sold decently – 31,000 its first week and 21,000 the next, according to SoundScan. On Sept. 9, when its song “1234” was paired with Apple’s new iPod video Nano, the band was averaging 6,000 record sales weekly for a grand total of 216,000.

During the next four weeks, as the catchy ad beamed into millions of American living rooms, weekly sales for Feist improved to 14,000 the first week, 19,000 the second, 28,000 the third and 20,000 four weeks into the ad campaign.

“I would contend that anything above 6,000 in those weeks was driven 100 percent by the iPod ad,” said Phil Gallo, a music industry expert and Variety associate editor. “That’s eight grand the first week, then 13,000, 22,000 and 14,000. (In all) nearly 60,000 bonus sales in one month.”

Feist’s single placed seven times on Billboard charts, climbing as high as No. 4 on Hot Digital Songs and No. 10 on the Pop 100 chart. At the iTunes Store, the record is No. 25 in album sales and No. 44 in song downloads.

On Nov. 3, Feist secured the highly coveted musical guest spot on Saturday Night Live. And as of last Saturday, “The Reminder” had sold 346,000 total records, 130,000 additional sales since the iPod commercial premiered.

Haley handpicked CSS to appear in the iPod Touch campaign, but it is unclear how Apple selected Feist. Historically, Apple has chosen half of the artists used in iPod campaigns, while the other half were discovered based on artist-submitted demos, an Apple spokesman said. Apple, along with the bands interviewed, declined to say how much artists are paid for their participation. Steriogram, a pop-punk band from Auckland, New Zealand, permitted Apple to use the single “Walkie Talkie Man” in its recent iPod and iTunes spot.

The band’s guitarist, Brad Carter, said he had long been a fan of Apple’s sleek, best-selling music device. “What band wouldn’t welcome this type of attention?” Carter said. “The advertisement gave us a new lease on life. We were able to expand our tours, gain recognition in America, and have our music heard around the world.”

Capitol Records released Steriogram’s “Schmack!” on May 18, 2004. But it was only after the iPod ad premiered on Aug. 29, 2004, that the album made No. 18 on Billboard’s Hot Digital Tracks, placed on numerous European and Japanese sales charts and sold 48,000 records, according to SoundScan.

“There really is an amazing element of luck to this,” said Carter, who was reached in Los Angeles. “If bands stick to writing good songs, they will get noticed.”

Jean-Philippe Freu, who leads the electro-rock band Rinôçérôse, feels the same way. He said Apple contacted him to use the single “Cubicle” before its third album was released in April 2006. The commercial premiered on March 3, 2006, and by May the album by the little-known band from Montpellier, France, premiered at No. 25 on Billboard’s Top Electronic Albums chart and “Cubicle” reached No. 48 on the Hot Dance Club Playlist.

“Quickly, everybody in the music industry knew of it,” Freu said. “To be in an iPod ad gives you credibility. Thousands of bands would do it for free.”

Not everyone is enthusiastic about Apple’s growing power as music industry scout. Bob Lefsetz, publisher of the Lefsetz Letter, an acerbic and often profanity-laced daily rundown of the music industry, says young artists should not leap to gain exposure through commercials. “If you sell out up-front, your career is shortened,” Lefsetz said. “What kind of screwed-up world do we live in where the iPod is cooler than the music it plays?”

But most bands – and their advisers – are not heeding this argument, especially as more listening is being done on iPods. In a recent survey of 474 Americans between the ages of 14 and 24, 73 percent favored iPods and home-burned compact discs to radio, according to Paragon Media Strategies in Denver.

Back in Brazil, Sá said CSS is busy recording tracks for a new album and preparing for an upcoming European tour. On Dec. 2, the band will take the stage at the University of Leeds, a venue made famous by the Who. Haley said he plans to attend.

“It will finally be great to meet him,” Sá said. “He gave hope to all bands out there. You can say this gives hope to the industry.”

E-mail Chris Cadelago at [email protected].

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