This may not come as a huge surprise, but Feist's "1234" didn't get so popular just because it's a fun, catchy song. Nope—it was probably more because it showed up in a television ad for the iPod Nano.
We certainly don't mean to downplay Feist's talents, or her significant fan base before the commercial appeared. Canadian singer/songwriter Leslie Feist, who performs under her last name only, has been a fixture on the indie music circuit for years now, and she collaborated with an impressive number of other artists before focusing on her solo career. In fact, before we talk more about how "1234" made her famous—and what that might tell us about the future of music—let's take a look at how she came to be the artist we know.
Although Feist hasn't always made a living from her music, she started her musical life early. From her high school band, she graduated to working on other projects with friends. She has credits on many other artists' albums, such as that of electro-punk singer Peaches. She was also one of the many members of indie rock outfit Broken Social Scene. For many months at a time, she'd find herself on tour without a permanent home. According to her collaborator Gonzales, "She’s really great at meeting people, and she’s a very outgoing person. Every musician I knew had had some kind of run-in with her" (source).
It was during a period of travel that Feist recorded her first major solo album, 2004's Let It Die, produced with Gonzales. At first, she wasn't looking to make an album at all—her recordings simply caught up with her, and she decided she had enough material to package them together. The album features mostly covers and songs written by other people. According to Feist, this has something to do with the circumstances under which she recorded it. "...A lot of people say, 'Oh, you can hear Paris [in the record].' But what I hear is the homelessness" (source), she told an interviewer from Pitchfork. She picked up two Canadian Juno Awards for Let it Die. And despite speaking no French, Feist settled down in Paris for a while, instead of in Berlin with fellow Canadian indie musicians.
For her next album, Feist took a completely different approach. She wrote nearly all of the songs that appear on 2007's The Reminder, and strove for a more organic sound. She and her band recorded the album in a studio housed in a large house in Paris, where they were able to make themselves at home and set up microphones in the living room. Warm and lively, "1234" definitely reflects the recording techniques.
Clearly, Feist hit her stride with that album. Although she had already built up a fan base in Canada and Europe, it was only after the release of The Reminder and the placement of "1234" on the iPod commercial that Feist really penetrated the Billboard charts and receive widespread recognition in the United States. She was named "Breakout Artist of the Year" in both Spin and Blender magazines, had other songs from the album featured in several TV shows and films, and was invited to perform on both Saturday Night Live and The Colbert Report. She had catapulted from indie darling to mainstream sensation.
Okay, we know you're tired of hearing this, but the world we live in now is changing pretty quickly, and a lot of things are now only a mouse-click away. That's especially true in the music world: in fact, there's almost too much to choose from. Consumers have learned to be very selective about what we pay for, since they can find a lot of it for free. That's why commercial space is so valuable to artists these days: when we're watching television, someone else is choosing the soundtrack for us.
The result is that corporations sometimes aspire to become musical tastemakers, in place of the radio disc jockeys of yore. One company in particular has stayed on the cutting edge of new technology, new music, and new marketing trends, and that's Apple. Remember those colorful commercials with the silhouette dancers who carry iPods and wear earbuds? Those ads launched or expanded a whole slew of music careers. One of those careers was that of Leslie Feist.
Let's break it down by the numbers. Before the iPod Nano commercial featuring "1234" appeared on television, sales for Feist's album The Reminder averaged about 6,000 per week (source) and total single sales were topping out around 7,000, according to Nielsen Soundscan. After its commercial debut, track sales jumped from 7k to 41k in a week. (Source) The Reminder ended up being the iTunes Store's best-selling album in 2007 (source).
Some purists find this new reliance on TV commercials for music exposure a little disheartening. For old-school rockers, the memory of their favorite artists "selling out" is still fresh in their minds. But if commercials have taken the place of radio, is licensing your songs really such a bad thing?
Well, maybe not. Plenty of artists have managed to license their music while still maintaining musical integrity in the eyes of their fans. In this video, the members of Bear Hands try to reconcile their aversion to this practice with the knowledge that, especially for a small indie band or artist, it's one of the only ways to make significant income and gain national exposure. Nowadays you can see songs by the likes of Spoon and Wilco in car commercials, for Acura and VW, respectively, and neither band has seemed to lose any credibility in the aftermath. In this interview with The Washington Post, Spoon's Britt Daniel talks about how he willingly licenses his songs to commercials, but uses his own judgment in choosing what companies to be associated with.
Whatever your opinion on the matter, this trend does not seem to be dying down, and there is no bigger trendsetter in this area than Apple. In fact, Apple television spots are one of the most sought-after licensing opportunities by artists—being featured in an Apple ad pretty much ensures exposure, if not massive sales numbers. Of course, those sales and that popularity won't necessarily last after the commercial has stopped airing. So, although Apple may have propelled Feist into the limelight, it's definitely her talent that keeps her there.