Songs for Screens: Lil Nas X, Shaggy, Dolly Parton — and Bruce Springsteen? — Lead Booming Year for Super Bowl Music Ads

Andrew Hampp
·8-min read

For a few days last October, ongoing COVID-19 complications made it seem like Super Bowl LV might not take place as planned this Sunday — or lead commercial music supervisors to take on a more somber tone harkening back to the early-quarantine days where seemingly every commercial featured morose piano music.

However, the NFL’s successful bubble strategy kept players safe into the winter, which inspired confidence in the ad marketplace: CBS sold out of inventory for the big game earlier this week, selling commercials at an average fee of $5.5 million per 30 seconds. So this weekend’s Super Bowl ads will be largely business-as-usual, with a few tech brands stepping up to fill the vacancies of stalwarts like Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and a quintet of automakers (Hyundai, Kia, Genesis, Audi, Porsche). An air of optimism will be reflected in the music, too, with a mix of well-known catalog hits and familiar faces set to appear in many spots.

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“While the pandemic caused some of the usual suspects to decide not to advertise this year, new and exciting brands have taken their place,” says Tom Eaton, senior VP-music for advertising at Universal Music Group. “As in years past, the storytelling in these ads ranged from serious to humorous, with music playing an important part in conveying their message.”

Adds Jessica Shaw, senior vice president of sync licensing at Sony Music Entertainment, “Much of the Super Bowl commercial business has held on, with an encouraging number of requests and quotes for music syncs in a challenging environment for licensing and production.”

Music publishers, whose songwriters often drive many music licensing conversations for Super Bowl spots, have seen a particularly strong year for synch activity — with at least one synch commanding more than $1 million in licensing fees. As of Friday morning (Feb. 5), Sony/ATV had secured 11 synchs for national brand campaigns airing post-kickoff, while Universal Music Publishing confirmed seven, Warner/Chappell locked in five, and Kobalt and BMG each had three.

As the dust settles on final negotiations (publishers were still waiting to confirm a few outstanding requests as of Friday), this year’s marketplace is already a record revenue year for Sony/ATV. “That just shows the power of brands turning to iconic songs to get their message to their consumers,” says Brian Monaco, president and global chief marketing officer at Sony/ATV. “It’s been a challenging year for the music business, so when you have artists whose income from touring has been largely taken away, synch revenue is important value to be able to bring to them.”

Artists sharing screentime with their songs will be a big theme this year, including Lenny Kravitz (“It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over” for Stella Artois), Lil Nas X (“Call Me By Your Name” for Logitech), Lil Baby (“Errbody” for Rockstar Energy) and Shaggy (an updated “It Wasn’t Me” for Cheetos). Dolly Parton will also feature prominently in a Squarespace ad that sees the country icon updating “9 to 5” into a side-hustle anthem called “5 to 9.”

Unclear as of Friday morning was the fate of Jeep’s rumored campaign with Bruce Springsteen, which had yet to finalize whether it would include The Boss’ music or a voiceover, according to executives familiar with the campaign (a Jeep spokeswoman could not confirm whether the spot was even happening as of Thursday).

For Lil Nas X, the Logitech campaign marks the second year in a row the breakout rapper has starred in a Super Bowl spot, following last year’s popular ad for Doritos Cool Ranch — a coveted rarity for any artist, but especially for one not even three years into their mainstream career. “He’s so relevant on social media and his place in the world as a young gay man sharing his story with the world, so the fact that Logitech wanted him not only to appear in his spot but narrate it as well, was a testament to how impactful he is,” says Jennifer Frommer, senior VP – creative content and brand partnerships at Columbia Records.

Plus, it’s an opportunity for Lil Nas X to further tease a new song that his fans have been asking him to release for months. “We don’t have a release date — suffice to say it will be coming soon,” Frommer says of “Call Me By Your Name.” “But we wanted to use the power of the song to complement a spot that’s all about creators defying logic, which is what he’s all about.”

In the case of Shaggy, the opportunity to revisit his 2001 chart-topper 20 years later with Cheetos was “the most exciting thing that has happened since its inception,” he says. “I cannot tell you there was one executive that heard this song and thought it was going to be a massive hit, but it did. It’s just a testament that if you stick to your guns and make timeless music, you’ll win. It’s great to see it resonating with a younger generation and becoming a big record on TikTok.”

Newer artists will also get a big exposure bump from several key spots. Singer-songwriter Bruno Major scored a featured synch for Amazon’s Alexa spot starring Michael B. Jordan, featuring Major’s 2020 single “The Most Beautiful Thing” co-written with Grammy-winning producer Finneas. Bianca Bhagat, senior VP of creative marketing at AWAL, says the label is optimizing the song’s exposure by teaming up with Amazon for an extensive cross-platform promotion, as well as launching a digital marketing campaign to help potential fans connect the dots between the song and the spot.

“It’s a great opportunity to market to both Bruno’s core audience and the audiences discovering him for the first time. We’re already seeing a ton of traffic on YouTube from fans saying they just heard about him,” Bhagat says. “To be able to give life to an album that came out last year is really exciting on a lot of levels.”

Kobalt felt so fortunate to score two high-profile synchs for its up-and-coming writers — Tim Gent for Frito-Lay’s football all-stars spot and Wilder Zoby for Uber Eats’ star-studded spot with “Wayne’s World” and Cardi B — that it opted to hold the commercial release of each song to coincide with the big game in an effort to maximize discovery. “We’re absolutely thrilled with these opportunities,” says Julie Hurwitz, co-head of sync and brand partnerships at Kobalt. “We’re making sure the songs are Shazam-able and the credits are all over the place on YouTube so that people can find it when they go to search for it.”

While many spots will feature a familiar mix of humor and movie-level production, striking the right tone was trickier than ever. “A lot of ads are going to reflect what people have gone through over the past year,” says Keith D’Arcy, Senior Vice President, Sync & Creative Services at Warner Chappell Music. “There seems to be quite a bit of nostalgia in the spots released so far. We’re seeing a lot of big brands supporting small businesses through their messaging, along with an emphasis on human connection, social justice, and inclusivity.”

For jobs site Indeed, the brand turned to a re-record of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” (sung by 16-year-old Christian Shelton,) to soundtrack a poignant commercial about providing career opportunities to women and BIPOC who’ve been adversely impacted by the pandemic. It’s the latest commercial to feature Day’s Grammy-nominated perseverance anthem, and arrives on the heels of the singer’s Golden Globe nominations for her acting debut in Hulu’s “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”

“For someone like Andra and a classic in the making like ‘Rise Up,’ having a Super Bowl spot with her song air in the Super Bowl is going to shine a big light on her at a crucial moment in her career,” says Jonathan Palmer, senior vice president of creative sync at BMG. (Even though the song is a re-recording, Day is a BMG writer, so the company brokered the deal and will collect the synch fees for the use.)

Though synchs that air in national post-kickoff commercials for brands tend to command the highest fees and biggest audiences (just the option to synch a song in a Super Bowl spot can cost brands $50,000 in synch fees before other terms have been negotiated), music will be heard throughout the night on CBS and across the internet. Two spots airing just before kickoff will feature prominent use of music – including a McDonald’s medley (featuring sing-alongs to Alicia Keys, 24kGoldn, J Balvin and others) and a YouTube trailer featuring a Kinks cover performed by Lucius and Black Pumas — while TikTok is planning a cross-platform tailgate event headlined by Miley Cyrus that will feature additional music licenses from several Sony artists.

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 Andrew on Twitter at @ahampp.

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