When Words Sold Music

The strange, conversational language of early Rolling Stone ads

The Atlantic

Earlier this year, the image of a mop-headed young man went up on a billboard off Sunset Boulevard. “You can’t miss Tobias Jesso Jr.,” the text said. “He’s six foot seven.” On similarly designed posters, in smaller type, were some statements of dubious grammatical merit and general musical praise—“A genius of song and heartache. Get in the mood with Tobias before he get’s in the mood with you. Because you see, Tobias Jesso Jr. sings from the heart.”

True Panther

The fragments, the vague promises of genius, the period as favored punctuation mark—even setting aside the yellowed background color and cruddy ink-on-paper picture quality, the ad was a clear callback to printed music ads of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Which makes sense: Jesso, one of the most acclaimed new musicians of 2015, sounds a lot like Randy Newman or Paul Simon. His music recreates the earnestness of those singers’ heyday but with the faintest hint of a smirk, not unlike the uncanny-valley text used in his album’s ad campaign.

“I feel like the visuals of that era have really been mined to death,” said Dean Bein, the head of Jesso’s label, True Panther. “The pop-art, psychedelic whatever. But the humor, the language, and the style, where you’re trying to have a conversation with whoever’s looking at the ad, you’re trying to tell a story—I haven’t seen so much of that.”

The early, much-romanticized years of rock magazines—the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Cameron Crowe was living out Almost Famous and Lester Bangs was starting to inspire a generation of imitators—were a time when print advertising relied on a lot more words than it usually does today, and when it was one of the few means available to promote music to new audiences. (MTV wasn’t around; YouTube-style song sampling would have seemed like science fiction.)

Rolling Stone

Of course, per the famous expression about dancing about architecture, writing about music is hard. Rolling Stone and others were pioneers in doing just that, but advertisers who tried to capture the same energy and linguistic innovation of the magazines’ editorial content were hobbled by the fact that their rock criticism could contain no actual criticism. Instead, many of their ads read like resumes. Promotional space in old Rolling Stones is filled with notices for releases by sidemen for famous artists, whose impressive credentials made for an easily made pitch—usually in the same declaratory but familiar voice. Bein said that voice appealed to his team when coming up with ways to promote Jesso: “It was so much more conversational—and maybe in a way that we think of as cheesy now, but I think that started resonating with us.”

Rolling Stone

Other copywriters made spirited attempts to sound like authentic, gonzo record reviewers. The track-by-track description of Fairport Convention’s Angel Delight set out to prove that ads could be as hip and filthy and in tune with the counterculture as anything. One song is referred to as “a warning to all those about to launch their frail human canoes on the raging river of clap.

Rolling Stone

Genre and politics also made for useful ad grist. The mainstream began fragmenting with ever more genres, leading to the fan wars over “realness” that still rage today—progressive rock vs. “MOR,” guitar-lovers staging “disco sucks” demonstrations, etc. Identity and gender were increasingly hot topics as well. This ad for Sirani Avedia, from a late 1979 Rolling Stone issue, just about hit upon every talking point the preceding 10 years had produced:

Rolling Stone

Some of the best copy was for artists who had their own mythology and shtick. Is it any surprise that  Parliament Funkadelic was able to stand out with tales of “the baddest motherfunkers from throughout the galaxies” and commands to “GO WIGGLE!”?

Rolling Stone

Flip through the music magazines published today, and the album ads that still exist are almost entirely image-based, or else feature a couple of quotes from favorable reviews. Which makes sense, given both the distribution changes for music, the shift in pervading ad styles—fewer words!—and the obvious pitfalls of trying to pitch records that the reader couldn’t yet listen to. The ad writers themselves, even in the ‘70s, were aware of the strange task before them. The one below tells a short story of being asked to write a Rolling Stone ad for Ampex records.

Rolling Stone

The story features a debate over what exactly to portray (“A full-page shot of a nude 12-year-old boy”? “Maybe something rousing copywise to make them do competitive somersaults over at Warner Brothers”?). But in the end, “we never settled on no thing … Why, I think we even came round to believing that ads can’t really sell records.”

But while the Jesso ad might seem to send up that old style, it’s also a loving embrace of it and a reaction to recent trends towards obscurity, mystery, and image in music promotion. “Everything feels like it’s become very logo-based, holding away information,” said Bein. “But it’s fun for people who have become Tobias fans to see his personality and the context for his music in all these different ways, not just visuals but being able to read a long-form thing about him.”

The most direct inspiration for the Jesso poster was a promo for Randy Newman in concert. The parallels are obvious, and like many of the ads of its era, it couldn’t help but be a little meta. The text promised that one day, the people who went to watch Randy Newman live could brag, “I remember seeing Randy when he was still playing clubs and Reprise still had to advertise him.”

Poster Scene