The Sound of Simon

Musician Paul Simon performs onstage at the Beacon Theatre in New York City.

KAI RYSSDAL: Over the past five years, Sean Cole has done stories from Boston and London, Dubai and Toronto up north of the border. He's moving on to do other things.

So it's with a certain sense of nostalgia that we bring you this, his last story for us. It's about nostalgia, in fact, and the power it has to sell.


SEAN COLE: There's something wrong with me. I can vividly recall almost everything I saw on TV from, say, age 8 to 18. So I remember the night in 1987 when Paul Simon went on David Letterman and said he'd never license his music for advertising. In fact, he went as far as to say, "There would be no offer that would tempt me."

PAUL SIMON ON DAVID LETTERMAN: There would be no offer that would tempt me. I actually really resent it. I think they've taken the music of my generation and all this music that I treasured so much and they've associated it entirely with selling.

DAVID LETTERMAN: Yeah.

SIMON: And I really, I deeply resent it.

LETTERMAN: Mmhm.

Fast-forward 23 years. I'm watching TV in my apartment in Toronto and this commercial for snow tires comes on. Cars are careening out of control and smacking into each other on icy roads. Accompanied by a Paul Simon song called...

AD FOR BLIZZAK TIRES: Slip sliiiiiiidin' away.

ANNOUNCER: On even the worst winter roads, Blizzak Tires help keep you under control.

Now I know it's just one ad. And I know Paul Simon said what he said on TV more than 20 years ago. But yes, I honestly, naively thought he'd stand by those words forever.

Plus, it's not just one ad. There's also this Australian beer commercial.

AD FOR PURE DOVE BEER: I'm sittin' in the railway station, got a ticket for my destination.

In both cases of course it's not Paul Simon singing. More recently though there was a Honda commercial in which Simon and Garfunkel are singing...

AD FOR HONDA ACCORD: Presenting the one, a 34 mile per gallon Accord from Honda.

And after not too much obsessive digging I found a press release from 2004 headlined "Paul Simon Signin' Music Publishing Deal." Turns out, he had been doing this for years. And now a company called United Music Publishing Group would handle all of his licensing outside North America. I put in an interview request with them. And while waiting to hear back, I called this guy.

TERRY O'REILLY: My name is Terry O'Reilly. For a career, I'm an ad man.

Terry personally directs 500 commercials year with his company Pirate Radio and Television in Toronto. And he also critiques the industry on a warts-and-all Canadian public radio show called "The Age of Persuasion."

O'REILLY: I wouldn't throw arrows at Paul Simon, I think just the zeitgeist has changed a bit on that topic.

Terry says he started to see this change around the time Reagan came into office. Somehow, he says, a Hollywood actor becoming a politician -- it just changed the rules for what artistic celebrities were allowed to do.

O'REILLY: It made it OK for actors to start doing commercial work and it eventually, which is further ripples in the pond, made it OK for music writers to license their tracks. What he was really objecting to in that interview on Letterman was when they change the lyric of a song.

PAUL SIMON ON DAVID LETTERMAN: The people from Midas mufflers sent me a demo of their commercial. They wanted to use the "Sound of Silence" as the... for their muffler. And they sent me their demo, you know.

LETTERMAN: How would that have sounded?

SIMON: Hello Midas my 'ol... Within the soooooound of Midas.

O'REILLY: I mean that, I hate as an ad man.

COLE: Really?

O'REILLY: Oh! Hate it. I think it just cheapens the whole industry, gives us all a black eye. Where Paul Simon made his change? It'd be interesting to talk to him. So I hope you do get to talk to him to ask him that.

I did try. The publishing company sent my request to Paul Simon's management, who never got back to me. So when I heard he was doing an event at JFK Library in Boston, I sent a local reporter there, Anna Pinkert.

ANNA PINKERT: I've just walked through the door at the JFK Library and I am waiting to speak with Paul Simon.

The event coordinator said she'd try to arrange something, but Simon didn't want to do it. So Anna settled for interviewing some fans in the lobby afterwards. A couple of them had no qualms about hearing "Slip Slidin' Away" in a commercial.

WOMAN: Yeah, wouldn't you rather listen to that than some other schlock?

MAN: I'd much rather listen to music written by somebody good than to some trite jingle.

Others had plenty of qualms.

WOMAN 2: Some of his music is just from my growing up and my young adulthood and I just, I don't think it should go along with tires.

And you could argue that the latter point of view is unrealistic nowadays. But that's not true. It unrealistic even back in 1987.

O'REILLY: Artists are out to make money.

Again Terry O'Reilly.

O'REILLY: Artists, Paul Simon, love to create music and love to make money from their music. Everybody is a marketer. And I don't mean that in a bad way, I actually mean that in a good way. It's just a fact of life. They're out marketing their music.

And these days landing your song in a commercial is just part of the business plan for a lot of artists. Artists are even singing about products these days. Wait a minute...

Anyway, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace.

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