Brendan Benson, Raconteur

If singer-songwriter Brendan Benson seems a little unfazed by his song "What I'm Looking For" getting a coveted spot in an Apple commercial, you can't blame him. Since getting into the business about 15 years ago, Benson seems to have had more musical lives than the cast of "Cats." Right now, however, he's more interested in mopping up his flooded basement ("in a robe and my Wellies," he admits) in Nashville, where he lives with the rest of the Raconteurs (yes, the White Stripes' Jack White's other band). The group is rush-releasing its new record, "Consolers of the Lonely," today in an attempt to prevent any leaks on the Internet—which, let's face it, has become sport for bloggers and spoilers alike. "Consolers," the group's sophomore effort, was completed earlier this month and is being put out "without the usual three-month lead-in," Benson says, referring to the typical music industry practice of marketing a record before its release. Instead, both the physical release (albums in stores) and the digital release happened at the same time for everyone, everywhere. That was the plan, anyway. The album, however, ended up being posted for sale on iTunes last Friday by mistake. It was swiftly removed, but not before a few hands had dipped into the cookie jar.

Benson co-wrote the new Raconteurs record, as he did the first one, and will have a solo record out next year. And unlike Feist's song "1, 2, 3, 4," used in an iPod Nano commercial last September, and more recently, Yael Naim's "New Soul" soundtrack to the MacBook Air commercial, Benson's "What I'm Looking For," which debuted on an iPod iTouch commercial late last month, hasn't become the sole fingerprint of the artist. True, Feist had a solid following before, but it was the commercial that really pushed her through to the mainstream—and possibly to those four Grammy nominations. And Naim, who many people actually thought was just Feist again, released "Yael Naim" last week, with the nearly 500,000 digital sales from the MacBook Air ad giving the unknown duo (Naim and collaborator David Donatien) a running start.

Benson's song appearing in the Apple ad has barely affected the singer's trajectory. According to Nielsen SoundScan the numbers jumped considerably after the ad aired, but it wasn't nearly as high as Apple's other "ad rock" darlings. That's just fine with Benson. He's here to make music, not track its sales. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jac Chebatoris about the old days and the new record. Excerpts:

So this new CD was a quick release indeed.
Yes, it's superquick. We did a photo shoot, all the artwork, a video and the mixing it and mastering it all at the same time. It was hectic. Everyone's got their own spin on it. My spin is just that in the old days people would make records and then they would come out the next week. In the '60s they would make a single and it would be on the radio the next week, and that's just kind of cool. I like that. So I'm excited about how fast we could get it out. It's so hard now because of the way things are set up. iTunes has a specific way it wants to deal with things, and of course record companies have their way, so we had to really kind of rail to get it done.

Was the label into the idea?
Warner Bros. is putting out our record, and I thought, "No way. They'll never go for this." They do the usual three-month lead-in and all that, and during that three months invariably it gets leaked. The press starts giving it away, kids are listening to it, downloading it, and the record doesn't have a fighting chance in the stores. Not that anyone buys records anymore.

Just last month the little record shop on my street in Manhattan finally closed, and it's sad, you know?
It sucks. I worked at a record store when I was younger and I remember even then—this was in the late '80s and early '90s—and business was bad then. It went in phases, but for alternative music and punk, nobody was really buying that, so the owner got into selling Civil War toys and memorabilia.

It must be a lot fun to be in the Raconteurs.
It's a blast. The toughest part is being constantly referred to as "Jack and company" or "Jack and his band" or "Jack and friends," that sort of thing, which I didn't mind on the first record but …

But because you wrote all the songs with him …
Yeah. It's just like, you feel a little slighted.

Is the new record the same?
Yeah, we did it the same way, although the rhythm section had a lot more input in the arrangement this time, and it sounds so good. I'm really proud of it.

When do you fit in doing your solo stuff?
That's what I did in the interim—while we were not recording, I recorded my record. It won't be out for another year. The idea was to get it done now so I wouldn't have to go make it then after the Raconteurs. It's good and bad: I have to wait, and by the time it comes out the songs will be kind of old.

But they'll only be old to you!
Yeah. [Laughs] I can deal.

Your solo work keeps popping up in commercials [for Sears and Saturn], and the last one for the Apple iPod iTouch. So what's that like?
I don't care, almost to a fault—I think I probably should. I see a lot of musicians who take an interest in the business, and a lot of times they're really good at it, and it works for them and they know how to work it. I'm always just so occupied with other things, and I've been doing this for 15 years.

That's probably part of it, right?
I mean, I make the music and I play the music and I do the artwork—if I can, and that's a lot. That encompasses so much. So then to go on and keep track of record sales and come up with marketing strategies … So when the iPod thing happened, I honestly thought, "Oh, cool. OK, that's fine. I like Macintosh computers."

Do you have one?
I do.

Did they give you an iPod iTouch?
No, they didn't! They don't give people anything. Like a Nano or something? A charger …

You know Feist probably got one!
A spare adaptor even … [Laughs]

Why don't you follow what's happened after the ad?
The main reason I didn't pay attention was that it was from a three-year-old record. I don't know how record sales are. But there are a few variables: one is that record is old and I'm way, way over it. Although getting an Apple commercial nowadays is the equivalent of playing on "Saturday Night Live"—what playing on "SNL" used to be. That got you out. That sold records. That was great exposure. But it's not anymore, because no one watches it. No one cares. The other variables are that I don't have a label. There's no one to sell records for me.

Have you even looked at your MySpace page since to see the activity?
I haven't since this commercial. In fact, the guys in the band [the Raconteurs] asked me how it was doing, and I said, "I really don't know." And they're like, "You're kidding—you haven't found out what's going on?" I suppose I should. Maybe I'm jaded?

But are commercials and TV placements becoming the only way to get heard?
It's one of a few—and dwindling—ways to get out there. The Internet is like a major label—you could do great, or not. I think the artists are taking the power back, and it's up to them, so now there's different ways to sell a record. You could potentially, as an artist, do it all: make it, sell it, promote it. There are these coveted spots, like the iPod commercial—that's huge. Maybe it's just the only way to hear music. Maybe people don't really listen to the radio. It's also one way to hear music that you haven't really heard before maybe. For a new artist to get that iPod commercial, that's got to be the best. For me it is great, but it's from an old record. If they had wanted to use a song on my new record, and my record was coming out, that would be ideal. Then I would be on it. I'd keep track of it and everything.

According to SoundScan, it jumped a bunch—for what it's worth.
Oh, good. How's it doing?