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Pink Moons & Paper Planes: Synchs Brought Obscurities to Public Attention, But Did It Last?

A decade after their redefining synchs, a look at how some songs have survived after their fleeting brushes with success.

“Paper Planes” still flies, but “Pink Moon” has been eclipsed, while “How to Save A Life” remains vital. All three songs owe their place in most readers’ consciousness to the music supervisors who championed them. A decade after their redefining synchs, these songs have a widely varying footprint, depending, in part, on how big a radio hit they were at the time of their new ascents.

Movies, TV and advertising have always had the power to jump-start a record, but their power was magnified in the mid-’00s, as radio programmers became less likely to pluck a record from total obscurity, or look for “bringbacks” among those songs that had garnered little initial attention. Radio’s “promotional consideration” scandals had the perverse effect of leaving radio more in lockstep with record labels’ priorities. Music supervisors used their big megaphone to bring some seemingly eclectic choices to public attention. It’s a practice that continues now with the re-emergence of Empire of the Sun‘s “Walking On A Dream,” or Haley Reinhart‘s TV-sport-driven “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”

One of the most eclectic of those choices, Nick Drake‘s “Pink Moon,” figures into Tom Vanderbilt’s recently published You May Also Like. That song’s early ’00s resurgence (emergence, really) in a Volkswagen commercial is just one in a series of clues to taste, popularity and endurance that also includes French impressionist painters and the favorite breeds of cat fanciers. Vanderbilt suggests that the public needed more time to grasp the elder Drake’s work than some of the instantly combusting (and now largely forgotten) early ’70s schlock-pop that surrounded it.

That said, even propelled back into public consciousness, it’s interesting to ponder how much that attention mattered long-term. It’s not quite fair to say that “Pink Moon” merely had a moment — you still know what song I’m talking about. But “Pink Moon” never broke through to become a radio record, partially because nobody had any reason to make it so. Last week, it received less than 10 spins and sold 77 digital downloads. (It did generate 78,500 streams, according to Nielsen BDSRadio.)

By comparison, Cat Stevens‘ “Wild World,” which bestows no hipster cred upon the listener, got 113 spins, had 1,016 track sales and 238,200 streams. “Pink Moon” is remarkable for having found a place in mainstream pop culture at all. But popularity and critical acclaim aren’t quite in alignment yet.

And then I wondered how well the other songs championed by music supervisors had endured. Even a decade ago, those songs fell into a few different groups. There were seemingly eclectic singer-songwriter songs, often on indie labels, that might not have made it beyond non-commercial Triple-A otherwise. There were songs that were years (or decades) old that emerged through synchs, like “Pink Moon.” Songs from those two groups would not likely have ended up on the radio without intervention.

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Even then, however, the synch was also becoming a frequently-used tool of the marketing department and part of the “sizzle reel” — one of many stories meant to bolster breaking a song at radio. For every “Walking On A Dream” now, there seem to be more songs like X Ambassadors‘ “Renegades” or Jess Glynne‘s “Hold My Hand” that would have arrived at radio anyway, but now do so with more of an existing story. Two such songs became the biggest hits of all the mid-’00s synchs, and remain the most enduring.

That would be Snow Patrol‘s “Chasing Cars” (heard on Grey’s Anatomy and One Tree Hill) and the Fray’s “How To Save a Life” (Grey’s Anatomy and Scrubs). The latter had the added advantage of being the follow-up to another hit, “Over My Head (Cable Car).” Last week, it had 1,061 Nielsen BDS spins and was among the top 100 most played gold at both AC and Hot AC. “Chasing Cars” had 874 spins and was in the top 125 at both AC and Hot AC. “How To Save A Life” also seems to be the most inescapable beneficiary of AC radio’s decision to eliminate most ’70s music, a move which often led to playing more ’00s music instead. 

What about music supervisors’ other “greatest hits” of the mid-’00s? Here are a handful of less likely songs that came to prominence and how they fared afterwards. They were, of course, just a handful of titles that got exposure outside radio at the time, but they were the most-played or most publicized.

M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” — With its exposure in an ad for Pineapple Express, the nearly year-old track became a single and a hit at top 40 and alternative radio. Nearly a decade later, it has the advantage of fitting in at a wide variety of formats from classic Hip-Hop (KZEP San Antonio played it 12 times last week) to Alternative (Toronto’s Indie 88 gave it 10 spins) to Top 40 (five spins at KDND [the End] Sacramento.” In total, it got 136 spins at radio last week.

Ingrid Michaelson’s “The Way I Am” — This “Old Navy” ad is actually the most-played of the left-field synchs from the mid-’00s, with 175 spins altogether. Michaelson parlayed her synch success into a regular presence for subsequent songs at AC and Adult Top 40 radio. Last week, she got 13 spins at KBZN Salt Lake City as well as nine at AC KOIT San Francisco and Hot AC KMYI San Diego.

Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” — For a while, becoming a staple on both American Idol and dramatic series made Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” a reliable song for a small handful of stations that tried testing it. The six-minute length held it back, however, and despite its multiple covers, no version of “Hallelujah” ever became a radio hit. That said, it still plays at both KINK and KNRK (FM 94/7) Portland, Ore., but as part of only 24 overall spins a week now. 

Landon Pigg’s “Falling In Love At A Coffee Shop” — Another “hard-to-imagine-on-the-radio” song that briefly became one. But it got only one radio spin last week.

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Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World” — Far more than “Pink Moon,” it is my nomination for the song that most claimed its place in the firmament without ever becoming a radio hit. “Rainbow” got 115 spins at radio last week, mostly from ACs like KOIT San Francisco, (11), WSHE Chicago (6), and on home turf at KRTR Honolulu (6). This despite some programmers being reluctant to play it for the same reasons (too soft, too saccharine) that some resist the Louis Armstrong version of “Wonderful” these days.