Moby's 'Play' Becomes The Thriller Of Licensing
In the vegan darkness of his flop album, 'Animal Rights', Moby emerges the other side as an advert soundtracking Titan.
It is 1999. In August, two Indian trains collide outside Delhi, 500 are killed in a spaghetti bolognaise of meaningless carnage. Just two weeks later, more than 14, 000 perish in a pair of deadly earthquakes in Turkey. As Serbian forces accelerate their ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanian villages in the disputed region, Nato reprisals bring fresh waves of aerial murder. As the page turns on the second millenium, Death's stench rises up from the global geopolitic as never before.
Meanwhile, in an apartment in New York, Moby is headed towards to his fridge. He scans through the shelves. Nut cutlet. Bean curd burger patty. Dairy-free aubergine lasagne. He will have the lasagne. As he waits for the lonely 'ping' of the microwave, the New York techno guy perhaps wonders whether his commitment to ethical veganism has gone too far. Animals are lovely. True. And killing them for our own selfish needs is cruel. No one wants to see the look on a pig's face when it is told it must die to bring us an Iceland Bacon & Cherry Glaze Roast. God no.
Did they have to go and fuck up his career like that?
In 1999, Moby views himself as an abysmal failure. By 2001, most people will view him as an abysmal success. But right now, the critical and commercial swan dive performed by his previous record, Animal Rights, has hollowed him out like an aubergine ready for a filling of dairy-free soya cream cheese.
In terms of flops, Animal Rights made Metal Machine Music look like 21. It made Last Action Hero look like Avatar. A "bold experiment" (also known as a "big flop"), it was a) about animal rights, and b) featured a darker, more guitar-driven industrial-techno sound that seems to have wiped out his entire fanbase just as surely as if he'd given them a Zyklon-B power-shower. From big halls, he is now back to playing to about 50 people a night on tours he's having to finance himself. Somehow, he has ended up opening for Soundgarden, an experience that has chiefly involved "getting shit thrown at me every night". Things are so bad that he is toying with just packing it in, music-wise. Go back to school. Reboot. He is actively scanning brochures of architecture colleges.
But as the microwave pings, Moby is snapped out of his reverie. Yes, he thinks, at least I've still got my new album. The one with all the old field recordings of blues, sampled and placed against well-rounded, crisp modern techno. Perhaps there's been some movement on that? It hasn't shifted anything in America yet, true. But maybe it's picking up heat abroad? As his dinner cools rapidly on a sideboard, he phones up his agent to ask how it is placing in the charts. “Craply,” his agent says, a brusque sort who always tells his clients the bad news first. “It went into the British charts at 33, and it's been drifting downwards ever since. Sold about 6000 in its first week.” Moby thanks him and hangs up. “Shitcunt,” he sighs. His dinner is cold. His heart is colder.
Twelve months later, that same record is selling 150, 000 copies a week in the UK. It is number one there. It is number one in France too. And Australia. And Norway. And 10 other countries. He has released nine singles from it.
It is nothing less than a cultural phenomenon, as polished for the modern coffee table as his own chromey head. It is everything a new paradigm ought to be. World-y. Eclectic. Yet at the same time: sophisticated and neutral. It is joyous. But also: laced with a mournfulness that stops it from seeming too throwaway. It is rootsy. Yet it is also the acme of modernity. It is a huge hit. Ooh lawdy, he travelled so far. Ain't nobody know his troubles, but God he got a lotta money. Why does his heart feel so glad? 'Cos of a sudden unexpected injection of $$$. Etc.
And why has this extraordinary turnaround taken place? For one simple reason. Because Moby has managed to license the songs on Play more often than any other songs in history. He has sold them and re-sold them: to manufacturers of mid-range motorcars, to manufacturers of upper range motorcars, budget motorcars, home appliance distributors, coffin polishers and electric dog grooming equipment rental companies. The truth is, that getting to number one in the charts was just a cherry on a cake that had already been made elsewhere.
Away from their talent, Moby's managers, Marci Weber and Barry Taylor, had begun laying the groundwork long before the album came out. They had picked up on the fact that a previous bit of Moby music, "God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters", had played a key part in the climax of the film Heat, and that this had made "an enormous impression" on the insiders who ran the film industry's music-choosing departments. So, they'd decided to hammer home their advantage, even throwing free party at the Slamdance film festival to try and increase Moby's visibility within the film industry. He'd then gone off and crapped on that bank of goodwill by making Animal Rights, true, but now that he was back in the game, and given that radio was ignoring him, they were going to go with it and come up with a strategy that had nothing to do with radio.
So, rather than hitting the big FM pluggers, they headed off to the big ad agencies. They bothered the indie film companies. They double-underlined their faxes to the big editing suites. They plugged their poor little hearts out in hinterlands previously considered an afterthought to labels. And gradually, one by one, the orders started to come in. Bailey's Irish Cream took "Porcelain". As did Nordstrom. "Find My Baby" offered American Express a smooth, grown-up way to express the joys of indebtedness via a young Tiger Woods. "The Sky Is Broken" punted Galaxy, "Everloving" sold pointless chocolate company Thorntons, "Bodyrock" gave its blessing to Rolling Rock. The Volkswagen Polo got "Porcelain" again, Maxwell House had to make do with "Run On", as did Nissan. Bosch and France Telecom opted for yet more "Porcelain", while the makers of the Renault Scenic hoped no one would be too subliminally conditioned into buying coffee or indeed Nissan when they once again heard "Run On". On April 20th 2000, the final, unlicensed track fell: a scrappy little splodge of sound they'd never expected to sell called "7", flogged off to a British indie production company. They had succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. People at biz conferences had begun whispering about "new paradigms" and while Moby hadn't exactly invented the genre of music for ads, he'd certainly perfected it.
From now onwards, at every biz meeting, Moby's shadow will be there in the corner of the room, telling you that licensing's the real thing. From now on, when you sign a record deal, there will be an exec at the back of the room whose entire job is to listen to your tracks while imagining what they would sound like against some moody black and white shots of a Honda Civic.
All over the world, in smoke-filled boardrooms, executives ask their secretaries to turn off the smoke machines and then advise the rest of the board to sign things which can appeal to advertisers. Albums are one thing. They're good when they work. But here's a way that even loss-making albums can recoup their costs, long after the public has ceased to give a shit. Instantly, a whole new genre of glassy electro and rootsy techno is called into being. Music that specifies a geographically formless, airbrushed but distinctly urban world has become a 'thing' in itself.
It isn't long before a declining industry has started to develop a saviour complex about licensing. As times get even tighter, in smoke-filled boardrooms, execs take their burnt cakes out of the oven and put ever-more pressure on their indie acts to sell off the rights to that cutesy little lullaby one on the back end of the record. The Maccabees end up being offered the choice between flogging "Toothpaste Kisses" to Samsung and being dropped. They choose life. Chairlift are born via an ad, and ultimately die in the backdraft created from it. So it goes. And so it goes on. Too bad for them. But pretty good for Moby. He made so much money he doesn't even do his own microwaving anymore.
Follow Gavin on Twitter @hurtgavinhaynes