Why Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel and Dylan Now Readily Sell Their Songs to Brands

Easy money, new audience appeal to classic rockers

When Led Zeppelin licensed “Rock and Roll” to Cadillac for its Break Through spot in 2002, it was a huge coup for the carmaker, as the band had never let a marketer use one of its songs before. Fast-forward to 2014 and the group has licensed two songs—to Activision and Dior Homme—in just 12 months.

Similarly, other classic rockers with boomer appeal, including Billy Joel and Bob Dylan, are now liberally licensing songs to marketers after decades of holding out, and there’s even talk of Prince following suit. And while such longtime holdouts remain picky about the brands they deal with, clearly any philosophical barrier around “selling out” has been shattered.

The simple reason is that there’s big money to be made as traditional sources of revenue have dried up. In short, music sales are down, MTV has abandoned videos and radio is dominated by a handful of mega-pop stars. So, particularly for nontouring bands like Zeppelin, advertising has become a welcome cash cow. “Advertising has become the new MTV in a lot of ways for artists, bands to get their music out there and actually get paid for it,” explained Paul Greco, JWT’s director of music and radio.

Depending on the popularity of a song and how long it’s used, the payday ranges from tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to more than $1 million for the most coveted songs from the biggest names, including The Beatles (whose “Revolution” cost Nike $500,000 way back in 1987), per agency music directors.

For big acts like Zeppelin, “it has got to be a big money deal. Otherwise they don’t do it,” said Josh Rabinowitz, director of music at Grey.

Beyond cash grabbing, licensing deals introduce old music to younger generations, thereby expanding a band’s audience for music and ticket sales. “Obviously, they’re making money, but it’s also putting [songs] back out there for a new audience,” said Melissa Chester, an executive music producer at BBDO. “It’s next-gen, and they don’t want to be out of it.”

Finally, there’s transactional appeal, as ad placements can cross-promote the launch of a tour or rerelease of classic albums, as Zeppelin is doing now. The graphic above takes a closer look at three recent deals.