5 Years Ago: The Black Keys (Don’t) Sell Out With ‘Brothers’
For a duo whose origins are as DIY as the internet age has allowed — their first four albums were recorded in either an abandoned tire factory or drummer Patrick Carney's basement — the Black Keys sure seem to have sold out (or at least fans like to think so). Their songs have been in commercials to shill products from Hewlett Packard, Zales, Victoria's Secret and Tommy Hilfilger, among others. What else is a band to do when they're trying to make it, trying to have their music heard?
Five years ago today (May 18), the band released Brothers, their sixth record. Before that point, the Black Keys were already an established name in indie circles, and their previous album, 2008's Attack and Release, even had chart success, peaking at No. 14 in the U.S. Any band worth its weight in groupies wants more than what it already has, and Carney and singer Dan Auerbach are an ambitious duo. After their first four albums — 2002's The Big Come Up, 2003's Thickfreakness, 2004's Rubber Factory and 2006's Magic Potion — were produced in largely the same manner, they branched out.
For Attack and Release, they brought in an outside producer for the first time, handing the reigns to Danger Mouse. It paid off: Rolling Stone thought the record was one of the 100 best of the decade. A year later, they released Blakroc, a swampy, bluesy hip-hop album featuring greats like Ludacris, RZA, Mos Def and Q-Tip on the mic. This also paid off: It charted at No. 7 on the U.S. Billboard Top Rap Albums and earned two white guys from Akron, Ohio, the respect of the rap community.
These experiences came together on Brothers, an album that a lot of people heard: It was their first to break the Top 10 in the U.S., peaking at No. 3. Even more people only heard parts of the album. Specifically, lead single "Tighten Up," largely because they had no other choice: The Black Keys licensed the absolute hell out of the track, and it appeared on the video games Rock Band, Rocksmith and FIFA 11, the movies I Am Number Four, Bad Teacher and Spring Breakers, the TV show Gossip Girl, and in advertisements for Molson and Subaru.
Science has proven that the reward centers of the brain are more active when people hear songs they are familiar with. Be exposed to "Tighten Up" a bunch of times and you'll start to like it and then start wondering what these Black Keys guys are about. The two got a lot of crap about selling out, but the problem with selling out is that it is often confused with success. The Black Keys compromised nothing when making these songs -- they just wanted people to hear them. About a year after Brothers came out, Carney, the band's clear vocal leader despite Auerbach's position behind the microphone, said the following to NPR:
A lot of people see a Nissan ad and they see a finished product in a record store or on iTunes and that's the face of the band. What they don't see is that we made ['Brothers'] in a cinderblock building in the middle of nowhere in Alabama, with five microphones and a guitar amp and a drum set. I don't know what that means, exactly, but I do know we didn't spend a lot of money making this record, and it's an honest way of approaching making music. And once the music is out there, when you're selling a record and selling music and people are going to do whatever they want with it, it's kind of hard to resist certain opportunities, especially in the record market now.
He later said during a 2011 interview with QTV's Jian Ghomeshi: "If you’re going to have to be exposed to music randomly, I’d rather it be our music."
What the Black Keys seemed to have understood before their indie peers is that you have to adapt in today's ever-shifting music industry, that the same standards as a decade or two (or three or four) no longer apply.
Anybody with a MIDI keyboard and a Bandcamp page can add their noise to the airwaves and overcrowd the marketplace, so a primary concern nowadays is keeping your head above water in an over-saturated environment. Brothers is a fantastic record, but if nobody was listening, it may as well have been released exclusively in Antarctica for only the emperor penguins to hear.
The Black Keys didn't sell out: They just got heard.