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In the Big Time Productions studio space in the old Paris Theater on South Beach, two trendily clad girls are scampering around on a scaffold, lip-synching the backup vocals of "Money Makes the Monkey Dance," the first track on Nil Lara's soon-to-be-released four-song CD. The models are accompanied by a multiethnic crew of jeans-wearing dudes bobbing and weaving to the beat with suburban homeboy attitude; a rhesus monkey also figures prominently in the scene, which is being captured on film for broadcast on MTV, among other stations, later this summer.
But this is not a music video. It is a Burdines commercial, the second to make use of Lara's music -- a radio spot featuring his song "I Will Be Free" aired earlier this year. That tune was also selected for the singer's first music video, which, not coincidentally, was directed by Michael Maher, who is broadcast director for Burdines.
Lara is one of several local artists who have lent their songs to Burdines in an ongoing ad campaign Maher created to hype the retailer's young men's department, as well as The Edge (the juniors' department). Besides Lara, Burdines contributors include Mary Karlzen and Forget the Name; Tampa-based Men from Earth will join the lineup this fall.
"The ads give the band a name-recognition factor," says Maher, who at age 37 has worked at Burdines for thirteen years. "People think they know the band even if they've never heard them except for on a Burdines commercial. We pick songs that are going to be instant likes, not ones that you have to hear five times before you get into it."
Maher and the bands contend that it's a beneficial tradeoff: The department store lures young audiences with the music they like, without having to pay a licensing fee for the use of the songs; unsigned local artists get much-needed regional exposure A and more. The Burdines exec sweetens the deal considerably by offering to direct a real music video for the bands at a minimal cost. As a side venture unaffiliated with Burdines, Maher and his crew donate their time to shoot a video; the band members only have to pay for the film. With production costs for a typical video exceeding $50,000, Maher's proposition would seem too tempting to pass up.
But in spite of the incentive, some local bands remain uncomfortable with the thought of their music being employed to hawk Guess jeans, courtesy of "The Florida store."
"We're not going to do it because that's the sort of image thing I don't think you could shake later on," explains Bill White, bassist for the Gainesville group For Squirrels, who were recently approached by Maher. "It's not like we're some high-and-mighty poets or anything, but it seems like it would trivialize the music, and we don't want to do that."
Others, such as Nil Lara, believe the compromise is acceptable -- within certain parameters. "The first ad I did, there was some mention of me and Burdines, so it was like a direct association, and I didn't like that too much," explains Lara, noting that while past ads mentioned bands and songs by name ("If you like this song, you'll love The Edge"), at his request the "Money Makes the Monkey Dance" jeanswear spot will simply display an MTV-style ID in the bottom corner of the TV screen. (A more subtle approach for radio ads has not yet been devised.) Besides, Lara notes, the commercial, set to air soon after the release of his CD, "is free advertising for me."
Adds former Forget the Name frontman Rene Alvarez: "For me, selling out is when you change your music to pander. Burdines just used one of our songs." Alvarez and members of his band appeared in a 1993 Burdines ad for Dr. Martens (Alvarez wore his own Timberlands), performing "She Tried." In exchange, Maher directed a full-length video of the same tune. "It's just another way of being out there," Alvarez goes on. "If radio in Florida won't play our songs, then we have to turn to whoever will."
Radio executives, accustomed to being criticized for refusing to showcase the music of local bands (if a tad sensitive to that criticism), seem relieved that someone is willing to shoulder some of the burden. "I'm glad to see somebody else jump in there and people be concerned with showing a little support for local bands instead of busting everybody's chops about it," says Bill Pugh, program director for WSHE-FM (103.5). "We give support but I just can't go hog wild. We're just not going to turn into local radio. I have a business to run like everybody else."
Concurs a similarly defensive Neal Mirsky, programming chief for WZTA-FM (94.9): "Local music just doesn't fit our format. It would be like asking a country station to play rap music. I think the fact that Burdines is supporting local bands by using their music in commercials is fabulous. I don't think there's enough of it, and that whole concept of bands 'selling out' is garbage."
Both stations air radio versions of the Burdines ads.
Maher says he plans to expand the ad campaign in time for the back-to-school season -- more bands, and more music videos. He has enlisted Mia Johnson, who works at the South Beach music club Stephen Talkhouse, to help him in a statewide search for new artists. Also in the works is a plan for Burdines to sponsor CD giveaways next fall through the stations that carry their advertising, an idea both Pugh and Mirsky say they will consider.
Meanwhile Maher, who creates all of the department store's radio and TV commercials, is attempting to make the ads more conceptually sophisticated in order to please the bands, while still keeping the buyers coming.
"It's important to get a sense of what the clothes look like in the ads. I know that I have to put the Burdines shtick in there, but I try to make an even compromise," says the adman/director. "The important thing is to find the fine, fine line and walk it. If anything, I'd love to think that we could help push a local band to the point of success.