Me and my McMusic

But on closer inspection, it seemed that people were paying over and over again for another chance to win hopeless, remaindered albums — bands like Trooper and Chilliwack were too good for that booth. And I remember wondering, even then, whether "free" was worth the bother.

The Globe and Mail
July 10, 2004

Me and my McMusic
GUY DIXON munches his way to free downloaded tunes with McDonald’s buy-a-burger, get-a-song promotion
Guy Dixon

Many years ago, a cereal brand in the United States offered cut-out, 45 rpm singles by the Jackson 5 on the back of their boxes, probably ABC or I Want You Back. I can't remember which. But I do remember, at age 5, thinking that this was sheer gold, that is, until Michael's barely audible voice came through the family stereo speakers above blasts of pops and scratches from the cardboard-backed disc. To this day, I remain leery of "free music."

Still, I'll cut McDonald's and its Big Mac Meal Tracks campaign a little slack. Some child might forever remember getting a nominally free (after buying a Big Mac) Avril Lavigne or Sum 41 song this summer off the Internet courtesy of McDonald's. The fast-food chain is running a campaign until the end of July which allows customers to use a numerical code printed on the side of each Big Mac carton to download, for no additional cost, a song of their choice off Puretracks, the Internet music service.

Yet, a high-quality, downloaded file, in my mind, will never have quite the same charm as a scratchy Jackson 5 flexi disc. And it begs the grumpy, adult question of just how companies perceive the value of music. At its base level, is it only worth the same as a plastic prize in a cereal box or Big Mac Meal?

That's what I wanted to answer as I embarked the other day on my own mini version of the film Super Size Me.

Jake Gold, of all people, got me on this kick. The Canadian Idol judge/semi-celebrity/music-industry manager similarly questioned what the McDonald's campaign means to the perceived value of music at a panel discussion at the recent North By Northeast music conference in Toronto. You don't get a free song with a McDonald's salad. You only get one with a Big Mac, which has lost much of its appeal with today's low-fat, low-carb thinking. Is the message here that music is akin to gluttony?

McDonald's was also a sponsor of the festival, and an advertisement in its programs had a picture of Ronald McDonald's striped-shirt arm and white glove holding a microphone, with a caption saying how "stoked" McDonald's was to sponsor the festival. One musician at the panel discussion laughed and indicated how flabbergasted he was by the whole thing.

But did it take away from the music? I was about to find out.

Day One — Stevie Wonder's Big Brother. Using the code on my Big Mac carton, I downloaded Wonder's Nixon-era lament to broken election promises and poverty. "Your name is Big Brother/You say that you're tired of my protesting/With children dying everyday." It seemed the perfect crutch given the mood I was in, incongruously having to walk to a McDonald's in a downtown Toronto food court in order to get music - as well as my distaste at not being able to do so anonymously, but having to register my name in the campaign's database when I downloaded the song. It left me wanting to lash out at "the man," in this case, Ronald McDonald and his buddies.

Listening to my "free" song after paying $5.97 (tax included) for a Big Mac Meal, Wonder's early 1970s brilliance wasn't diminished. And admittedly, downloading the track was painless, unlike other music freebies which invariably seem to gum up my computer. The more freebies I've downloaded, the worse it has gotten. Thankfully, the McDonald's campaign, run in alliance with Sony, spared me all that. And as the special sauce dissipated, my song was still there.

Day Two - The Clash's I'm So Bored With the U.S.A.

I needed to fight back harder and enlist the Clash. I wasn't lovin' the fact that even they can be turned into a side order. Who would have thought that the Clash could ever be super-sized (or stored in a faceless digital file, for that matter)? But there I was, eating another Big Mac and listening to their classic tirade on my computer. "I'm so bored with the U … S … A …/But what can I do?" God, the song's rowdy call and response was making it all rather enjoyable.

The trick is that being able to download any track you want (even from a limited selection like Puretracks') prevents people like me from immediately snubbing the whole idea. It's easy to scoff at Justin Timberlake appearing on McDonald's ads or Nickelback's Chad Kroeger helping to announce the Big Mac Meal Tracks campaign. But when the Clash gets roped in, even indirectly, it's a little harder to dismiss outright.

Budweiser's current True Music campaign has a different approach. Each 28-bottle pack contains a code which allows customers to download three prepaid songs from Budweiser's own website. The selection is restricted to a few Canadian bar rock bands such as Finger Eleven, the Trews and others, and the campaign's selling point is to try to give these up-and-comers more exposure — i.e., it taps into the beer-culture adage of helping out your buddy, even if it's music you may not normally buy.

Labatt, meanwhile, has rolled out a campaign in Ontario in which it's giving away CDs by the Tragically Hip, Our Lady Peace, Sum 41 and Jet in its 28-bottle cases. The discs contain three songs which are either previously unreleased or are acoustic or live versions of their songs. It may not be music you necessarily must have, but hey, if you get a free CD in your case, far out, dude! Right?

Day Three - The Organ's No One Has Ever Looked So Dead. Okay, three proved to be enough. Another burger, another download, and the women at the counter were laughing every time I made sure I was getting a Big Mac with a "free music" coded carton. It made me think back once again, to a fairground booth at Vancouver's Pacific National Exhibition which had a ring toss or some kind of skill-testing game. The booth used to give away free LPs if you won, and older kids would hang around it trying to look threatening. Of course if you did win, you'd have to carry your album around the fairground the rest of the day, warping in your hot little hand.

Music lent the booth an air of cool. But on closer inspection, it seemed that people were paying over and over again for another chance to win hopeless, remaindered albums — bands like Trooper and Chilliwack were too good for that booth. And I remember wondering, even then, whether "free" was worth the bother.

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