When the Black Keys attend the Grammy Awards tonight, the nationally televised ceremony will be more than a chance for the Akron-born band to pick up some hardware.
Yes, there is 'ware to be had as the duo of Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach can share in up to seven Grammys, including four for their own work; one for producer Danger Mouse (nominated as producer of the year for multiple recordings) and another for Patrick's graphic-designer brother Michael, nominated for the package for the Keys' breakthrough album Brothers. In addition, a nominee for compilation soundtrack is The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, which includes the Keys' Chop and Change.
The Eclipse nomination is noteworthy because it illustrates a key aspect of the duo's career — their using TV and movies for financial and promotional boosts, both by licensing their songs to productions or making the rounds of the late-night shows.
Black Keys songs have been heard in Rescue Me, Hung (where the theme song is theirs), Zombieland, Cloverfield, School of Rock, Sons of Anarchy, Black Snake Moan, Dexter and Vampire Diaries. They have also been heard in ads for Sony Ericsson, Victoria's Secret, American Express, Molson, Zales and Subaru, among others.
So popular is their licensed music, Patrick Carney said recently that ''according to some music supervisors that I know, they get requests for Black Keys soundalikes. A lot of bands or musicians get asked to fake music that sounds like us. We actually had to file a lawsuit against a show in England that ripped off one of our songs, note for note.''
But all those ads have also led to charges of selling out on a fan site, The Colbert Report (where they had a humorous sellout-off with Vampire Weekend) and, in the wake of Colbert, on National Public Radio's Fresh Air.
The message in events like the Colbert appearance has concerned the band.
''I mean, it's funny but it's also — you kind of step back a minute,'' Carney said by phone from Nashville, where the band is now based. ''We've had talks with our friends who are musicians who are way more successful than us, and they say you need to watch out. You say yes to one thing, and then you're known as the band that had a song in that movie — and being known as just that band, and not for your albums or something.''
At the same time, though, Carney does not apologize at all for taking advantage of many of the opportunities that have come along — including the Eclipse song.
''Even though it's not the hippest thing to do, and maybe it's borderline cheesy, the reason why we did it was there were going to be tons of 16-, 17-year-old kids going to that movie,'' he said. ''When we did it, we had never had a song played in daytime on MTV or VH1. That's a way to use your licensing to reach a broader demographic.''
Besides, Carney said, ''There's a difference between selling out and making a living.''
The Who did it
Early in their career, the Black Keys were in a similar position as the Who was in 1967, when the British band was recording real commercials as well as pursuing sponsor deals via their album The Who Sell Out — which would not have been quite the same if called The Who Try To Make a Living. Like the Who, the Black Keys needed revenue beyond what came from performing.
''Our music was never getting played on commercial radio,'' Carney said.
The potential for big money from album sales was declining and still is, for most artists. Another way to make money — and get airplay of a sort — was by licensing songs to commercials.
The band's manager at the time thought commercials were a bad idea, and persuaded Carney and Auerbach to turn them down for a time. Eventually, that disagreement led to the band's changing managers and licensing their songs.
''We had a song in that movie, School of Rock, and in commercials,'' Carney said. ''It raised the profile of the band. When we did shows, people would know certain songs more than other songs'' because they had been in ads and shows.
The commercialism of it did not bother Carney, who had heard bands he liked in ads before the Black Keys even existed.
''There are still a lot of bands that say they will never put a song in a commercial,'' Carney said. ''In my mind, it's [about] getting more exposure, and it's part of the job. You never hear actors like Jeff Bridges getting yelled at for doing voiceover work or something. What's the difference?''
The key, says Carney, is to be selective, though less about the products you're selling than about how often the ad is going to be heard.
''We've agreed to do certain ads in a much larger campaign than we initially thought,'' Carney said, though he deliberately would not name names. ''It's appeared all over television to the point of annoying. That's the fine line. You don't want to get involved in an ad that is played way too much. . . . It will ruin the song for your fans.''
But the licensing is just one kind of exposure the band has sought on the small screen. Another has been to perform themselves, notably on late-night shows from Leno and Letterman to Saturday Night Live. When we talked in January, they had been about everywhere except Jimmy Kimmel's show and ''I don't think we've ever been asked.'' They did plan to bracket the Grammys with appearances on The Tonight Show this past Friday and Conan on Monday.
''I think that we are a live band. That's how we've built our careers,'' Carney said. ''Television isn't the ideal place to see a band. There is audience, but it's not your audience. They're there to see Meryl Streep or whatever. But I remember being 6 years old and my dad [Beacon Journal reporter Jim Carney] waking me up to watch my uncle [Ralph Carney] on Letterman. As I got more and more into music, I'd always stay up when a band I liked was on Conan or Letterman. I'd stay up and sneak downstairs to watch it. For a lot of kids, that's the only way you're going to get to see one of your favorite bands. . . .
''I remember the first time we played a late-night show. It was '03 and we played Conan, and I flew straight back to Akron and went to the Lime Spider and watched it on TV there, just to see the band on TV. It was exciting to have the opportunity, and we were playing where a lot of my favorite bands had played.''
But TV has its stresses. ''I hate watching myself on video,'' he said. And at least one late-night host will not be seeing the Black Keys again.
Carney would not say which host, although he narrowed the field considerably.
''When you play Letterman, he doesn't come backstage and say hi,'' Carney said. ''It's not what he does. But it's cool. It's just his thing. But you run into him in the hallway in the show, he's extremely friendly. And after the show he always comes over and shakes hands with the band.
''Conan and Fallon are more personable. They come backstage and say hi, when they have time. And Leno does the same. [But] when you play a show and the host doesn't like you — isn't even there — you never want to do the show again.''
But Saturday Night Live ''was pretty incredible,'' he said. ''It's like the biggest American TV thing for a rock band, I would think. And yeah, it was terrifying, to be honest. Because all my friends and family were watching it, and it was live, so you could really screw it up and everyone would know. But when we finished the second song, I've never felt that accomplished before.''
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels.ohio.com and on Facebook and on Twitter. He also does a weekly video chat for Ohio.com. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.