LOS ANGELES — Music fans may want to pay close attention to the London 2012 Olympics, especially since the Games’ organizing committee more than hinted at its intentions four years ago during the closing ceremony for the Beijing Games.
There, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and pop vocalist Leona Lewis emerged from a double-decker bus to perform “Whole Lotta Love,” signaling that the London Games would have a decidedly pop-culture focus.
Secrets and rumors still surround Friday’s opening ceremonies, the latest being that iconic spy figure James Bond (actor Daniel Craig) will open the show and that the very real former Beatle Paul McCartney will close it.
Music is sure to play a pivotal role at the opening event, which is directed by Danny Boyle. His films, including “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” have used soundtracks as a character. A shortlist of potential songs to be played at the ceremonies was leaked to the British media in June, and it included numbers by the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Rolling Stones and the Who. The latter are confirmed to perform at the closing ceremony.
This will be the first time in Olympic history that music from the opening and closing ceremonies will be digitally released (Universal Music Group will make it available to online retailers in Britain immediately following the event). LOCOG, as the organizing committee is known, also commissioned five original songs for the Games, featuring selections from artists as diverse as rapper Dizzee Rascal and theatrical rockers Muse.
The two-week marriage of sport and music has not come without tension, though. A small but vocal group of artists have started an online petition against what they believe is a lack of proper compensation on the part of Olympic organizers.
This is where it gets confusing: The LOCOG has reached an agreement with Britain’s Musicians’ Union that clears the way for volunteers and headlining artists to perform free. So what’s the problem? The fine print states that “professional” musicians are to be paid.
The distinction isn’t quite clear. The Olympics are a showcase for amateur athletes, except for when they’re not (see the participation of millionaire NBA stars).
Jazz musician Corey Mwamba has started an online petition at change.org claiming that the “LOCOG is not paying professional musicians for performing, citing that the publicity is adequate compensation.” A spokesman for the LOCOG did not respond to requests for comment.
One such artist who said he couldn’t afford to play the Olympics is Jan Steele, who performs in Cuban-influenced jazz act Cafecito. His act was contacted about potentially performing at an Olympic venue, and emails between Steele and event organizers show that Cafecito was offered 50 pounds (about $77) per hour for a possible 2 1/2-hour gig.
For acts such as reunited Brit-pop group Blur, the publicity surrounding an Olympics concert is a no-brainer. Few events — perhaps the Super Bowl halftime show — offer access to a worldwide audience, and on July 31 Blur will be releasing a limited, 18-CD boxed set, which should get more attention after the band headlines a Hyde Park concert on Aug. 12, the final day of the Olympics.
But what about, say, an act performing at a rowing event at Dorney Lake, a concert without a global TV audience?
“Our agreement was that volunteers and headline acts need not be paid,” wrote Isabelle Gutierrez, a spokeswoman for the Musicians’ Union, which negotiated with the LOCOG. Major acts, she writes, “may well choose to perform to promote a new album.”
The lines separating a professional act versus an amateur act versus a volunteer are less clear. On its website, the Musicians’ Union notes that it has been made aware of examples in which non-headlining musicians have been asked to play for no or little money.
“LOCOG has repeatedly told us that all professional musicians will be paid, and yet we’ve seen example after example of them breaking their word,” the union says on its home page. “If they want musicians to entertain thousands of people then they should pay for it. It is difficult enough to earn a decent living as a professional musician these days — where does this idea come from that musicians should be happy to work for free?”
Steele said the band couldn’t accept the 50 pound-per-hour offer; Cafecito is a five-piece band and that would have meant performing at a loss. He also failed to see a promotional payoff because of the unique constraints surrounding the Olympics.
“There is no promotional benefit whatsoever from us playing because we had to sign a document saying that we wouldn’t publicize that we were playing at the Olympics, wouldn’t sell merchandise, wear our logo on our clothing, hand out publicity, etc.,” wrote Steele in an email.
Steele was also asked to sign a contract that stated his services would be provided to the LOCOG on an “unpaid voluntary basis.” That’s swell, he said, if the world already knows who you are.
“If headline acts like Paul McCartney want to play for free, that’s fine by me,” said Steele. “They can afford to.”
Five songs that have a sporting chance
The London Olympics won’t get underway until this weekend, but numerous songs from these pop-heavy Games have been released already. As part of its “Rock the Games” music program, the organizing committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games commissioned five songs.
The first to appear was Muse’s “Survival,” and the last will be Dizzee Rascal’s “Scream,” which will be released midway through the Games on Aug. 6.
Here, we pit the official Olympic songs against one another and rank them the only way the Olympics know how: gold, silver and bronze.
The contenders: The Chemical Brothers’ “Theme for Velodrome,” Delphic’s “Good Life,” Dizzee Rascal’s “Scream,” Elton John vs. Pnau’s “Good Morning to the Light” and Muse’s “Survival.”
Gold: “Good Morning to the Light.” Australian dance duo Pnau raided the ’70s catalog of Elton John for this spry, cheery anthem, mashing up more than five John originals to create one blissfully uplifting and cross-generational techno-pop anthem.
Silver: “Scream.” Dizzee Rascal’s frantically fast delivery needs subtitles; he unleashes his vocals like he’s rapping a pep talk. The song works because singer-collaborator Pepper is an inspirational, soulful foil to Rascal’s edginess.
Bronze: “Theme for Velodrome.” Designed as a theme for Olympic cycling events, this song starts off slowly, with creepily precise robotic vocals, and builds to an assortment of “Tron”-like digital effects. The whole thing is slightly more eerie than typical sports anthems, but this is designed to keep listeners moving.