You might not know the name The Heavy, but you probably know the Bath, England, band's music. At least, if you've watched a movie, or an ad, or a video game, movie trailer, or TV show in the past five years, it's going to sound familiar. While the band started licensing its music early on in its career—advertisers in France were particularly keen on early single "Colleen"—it didn't become a major part of the business of being The Heavy until the release of the band's 2009 album, The House That Dirt Built, and the lead single, "How You Like Me Now."
"The magnitude of it was quite a surprise," guitarist Daniel Taylor says of the way the licensing around that song—which appeared in movies from Ted to The Fighter, as well as Kia's 2010 Super Bowl ad. "We're in England, so when it became as big as it was over here, we didn't see that—it didn't come to our TVs. We don't even know what the Super Bowl means." Still, drummer Chris Ellul describes the Kia ad as the turning point in the band's career.
The music business is a tough one to make a living in as an artist, and artists are constantly looking for revenue streams—including advertising. But when The Heavy—whose most recent brand deal involved licensing the single "Turn Up," from the band's forthcoming album, to the NCAA for the men's Final Four—go into the studio, they try to keep the knowledge of what that revenue stream means at bay.
"It's a difficult path to tread, because if you start thinking about it too much, it becomes almost made-to-measure and predictable," Taylor says. "We struggle, because being English, we're naturally quite pessimistic— whereas if you’re setting up to write a brief to advertise something, it needs to be glass-half-full, or really overflowing."
Still, Taylor is open about the fact that the realities of commerce are a factor in the band's decision-making. "You can get those briefs from publishers that come through that are, like, looking for certain types of songs. So maybe you sit down and measure it out a little bit more," he says.
That's an interesting tension for an artist whose day job is making music to be recorded with a band, sold or streamed as records, and performed live. During SXSW, The Heavy were all over Austin, playing six shows in four days—and each time, when they dropped "How You Like Me Now" into the set, the audience came to life. "The lightbulb comes on—'Oh, it's that band!' and everybody starts going crazy. Then we're done," Ellul says.
"I think what we do just happens to tick those boxes," Ellul says of the way advertisers and filmmakers respond to the band's music. "We’re into stuff that could be recorded technically badly, but if it sounds cool and we like the sound of it, then we’re gonna go with it. I guess that creates a bit of a world. Certain records you listen to, you’re taken into a whole world because it’s so unique. That appeals to film and advertisers and stuff—that's what people are attracted to."
The Heavy formed in 2007, and its members are all old enough to remember that there was a time when letting your music be used in advertising was "the kiss of death," as Taylor puts it, for a band's artistic integrity. "I remember people would get Levi's ads, and it was a really bad thing," he says. And when pushed on that question, he sounds a little defensive—he talks about the fact that the band records everything in their bedrooms, produce their own records, maintains a DIY aesthetic, and still manages to compete with artists who are "some kind of Simon Cowell creation." "You have to think cleverly about how you're going to get into all of those living rooms across America. How are you going to do that? Television. Advertising. Films. We make exciting music, which music supervisors obviously feel fits what they're looking for, so that, for us, is cool. We're making the music we love to make."
With that in mind, there are lines that the band draws about what they're willing to promote. They don't do cigarette ads, and famously ordered Newt Gingrich to stop using "How You Like Me Now" during his failed 2012 presidential campaign.
"For me, that’s the one thing—sometimes the brands . . . " Ellul starts, seemingly trying to decide if he's willing to burn any specific bridges—before deciding that he will. "I don’t want to be endorsing McDonald’s, or this, that, or the other. Those companies do bad things," he says. "That’s the rub. But generally, most of the stuff that comes through are big corporations, but not people who are the lowlives of it. McDonald’s [has] asked us to do stuff, and other people, but we haven’t done it."