There are a few things that are very important to me that I believe are quite obvious for anyone who knows me and the people that read this blog. I love my family, I love music, I love wine, and I love food.
That all being true, I consider myself extremely lucky that I have found a career in music that allows me to spend a lot of time in New York, Boston, and other major and semi-major ad markets. As a bonus to the situation is that it also gives me plenty of great opportunities to try fantastic food and wine as well. This IS a relationship business after all, and what better way to begin solid relationships with, than with great food and drink over excellent conversation. So before I say too much more, I must stress again, that I love what I do and I love the people I do it with.
Now that this has been established, I feel that I have to talk about the music for advertising business and the things that I have noticed in the last 7 years. Especially what I have been dealing with for the past year or two. Is it a rant? Yeah a little, but I also think it needs to be said. Self-therapy, advice for the young musicians out there, karmic bullets, whatever you want to think of it, here it comes.
There are many, many options out there when it comes to choosing music for advertising. You can license a band/artist through a label. You can license the same through a publishing company. You can license music from a collective (who essentially collect multiple tracks by artists and producers and have them available for use). You can license from a massive stock music library. You can buy publishing only of a song and then cover it. You can hire an original company and have them write custom tracks for you. Should you go that last route, there are music companies that could have 8 composers. 1 composer. No composers, you get the idea. You can have a band write the tracks for you. Well, I’m sure there are about 50-100 other ways to spin it as well.
My company falls into the original music category, and we currently have 4 staff composers, one being our creative director. Then, like many of the modern “music houses” we have a group of freelancers that range from experienced commercial writers to band members to young engineers/producers right out of college. With the way budgets have decreased and the amount of spots being produced decreased, this has become a very common model to keep costs down but creative and variety of style up. But this is all just backstory to what I really wanted to talk about.
What truly confuses me and has done so since the first day I started working at a music company, is how much of an afterthought music and audio are for advertising. Not only an afterthought, but one that seems to frighten most producers and creates to a degree that is similar to what putting a half an arm into a garbage disposal may induce.
In a conversation I was having with someone today, we actually put it into a great food analogy. It seems like making a great spot is like crafting a gourmet cupcake, and instead of the music being the flour, the sugar, or the frosting, it ends up being the sprinkles. Let’s take that even further, and say that in many cases, it’s equivalent to the sprinkles that are thrown onto the cupcake, from 5 feet away, as the cupcake is on the way to the table. Even worse, there are many times where instead of the sprinkles being chocolate, they are liver flavored. Who the heck wants to eat that?
Cooking IS like music in so many ways. You take ingredients of all kinds, mix them together in particular measurements (of course, if we’re baking, very precise measurements are needed due to the science of things), apply heat of various natures for specified amounts of time, and create a finished product that you feel really good about consuming. Also like music, cooking has a direct relationship between the quality of the ingredients that go in, to the quality of the product that comes out.
When a company such as ours creates music, or to the most degree, anyone making music, gets into the trenches it’s the same basic theory. Just like in cooking there are MANY variations of the theme: folk acoustic; electronica; heavy metal; acid jazz; etc. In creating these there are many factors that dictate the quality of what can be delivered, and it’s OUR job to make sure that most of those factors are in place. Talent, understanding of the technology or music gear, creative instincts, and other intangibles. What the clients have control over is the budget, the schedule, and the overall creative direction. What NO ONE has control of is the subjective nature of music. Whether you’re a Rush fan, a Carpenters fan, a Holy Ghost fan, a Lady Gaga fan, all of that is within the foundations of personal taste, and of course different for each individual. That is often where music for advertising gets into trouble, and where the people on our side of the business try and predict as much as we humanly can.
I’ve heard such amazing things in my time such as “Really modern and hard rockin like Cheryl Crow”, “It should be anthemic and fresh and unexpected, like that Coldplay song from 5 years ago”, “Who are the Kinks?”. More whoppers than I can fit into a blog and most I have shut out of my mind like a memory of falling off a bike badly as a kid.
I often talk about how describing music is like describing a color. Everyone has their own “shade” in their mind’s eye and it’s virtually impossible to identify what someone wants without seeing or hearing it as an example. We use many methods to try and help this problem, just like design companies would use samples and palates to try and hone in the proper creative. We post tracks from our internal library of demos to get a sense of people’s tastes to mood, style and instrumentation. We might also talk about bands, and then even go so far as to talk about specific songs. Of course, that leads to ANOTHER frightening fact of ad music, which is demo love.
When rushing to get the music onto an edit (see the sprinkles flying through the air?), often a track by a popular band lands on the spot in an effort to at least gain a mood and tempo. Not a terrible idea on the surface, but then what happens when the creatives and the client fall in love with that track, which is then impossible to license because of costs. Everything else that comes after it will sound like crap to the ears of those who have seen the cut 389498 times with that music on their.
To get back to the metaphor, it’s like putting a decoration on the top of the cupcake, instead of the sprinkles. But in this case it’s a large, solid gold guitar. It weighs 5 lbs, to the cupcake’s 4 ounces. It crushes this poor thing under the weight into some form of an expensive pancake with the texture of a cake. Then you throw sprinkles on it, although really all along you SO wanted that gold guitar. In the end you have a crushed thing, with sprinkles on top.
Most clients know to avoid this, or are careful enough to get something that is gold leaf, which won’t crush, or something that is fancy but light enough to still be removed and replaced by something more tasteful, and most certainly more affordable.
But, many clients are not, or they just don’t give a shit about what they deliver to the table at the end of the day anyway. Sad, but true.
Many agencies put music and audio as part of the concepting stage, and I find that most of these shops are delivering the best work. They understand the power of audio, or if it IS a non-audio driven project, knowing that early and pushing forward with the rest of what will make the concept work. I will admit that sometimes silence IS golden, and I respect that decision.
I understand that it’s easy to be scared of things that pertain to your ears when you don’t have a background or foundation for music and audio. There’s a really interesting phenomenon where it’s easy to conceptualize around things that you can see and touch, but very difficult with things that you hear. I experience it often in conference calls, music briefs, meetings, and other discussions that revolve around music that people throw out adjectives and ideas like they are throwing out confetti at a wedding. The problem with that is it works with a wedding since it’s for effect, but now imagine that your goal is to get one specific confetti into a small shot glass on the Church stairs. It’s a bit of a disaster to make all those things come together perfectly.
The solution of course, is to find people you trust. Huge word there, TRUST. There will always be the problem of layers of approvals. There will always be the obstacle of subjectivity. We know that, we fear it as much as you do, but it’s our job to make this easier and to educate. Give trust and earn trust. Seems pretty simple to me. But again, there seems to be something about music that people do NOT trust.
Certainly I can empathize! Many times we’ve been in a great place musically on a job only to have the client pull a complete 180, which essentially destroyed the vision that we all had for the final product. This happens to us, happens to our clients, happens to the clients clients. We all seem to have someone to answer for, and with something so subjective and fluid as music, it is inevitable that it gets its ass kicked.
Regardless of those concerns, there needs to be trust and an understand of how much work goes into what we do. I am not sure what people think happens once we get a music project, but I can guarantee you that there is no “make music like this” button we hit and are done for the day. Nor is there a “get perfect song” button. Whether it’s a publisher, label, artist, music house, composer, or any level of music professional, there is an finite amount of time and energy that can be put into the project, and for the most part the people that do these things are passionate about it. People who aren’t passionate about music and creating music for a living, don’t make it a living. It’s a hobby. And a hobby they probably aren’t good at either.
Everyone that I know in this business (with a few exceptions of course) looks at each project as a gift and a challenge. We have to! Jobs are fewer and fewer and the budgets are lower and lower. Thus it becomes more of a numbers game than a matter of large creative strikes. Not ideal, but if you find that middle ground then you can not only sustain your business, but you can also put out some really great work. We work just as hard as an editor, a director, a flame artist, a CGI artist, or any other part of this amazing piece of media that the client is spending money for.
Yet, we still do it on occasion, for free. We do it in 24 hours. We do it over weekends. We do it with direction that is so vague that if we followed it to a T then we would have to deliver options all the way from Beethoven to Bat for Lashes. When we look for bands people assume that because they are going to be used on their spot for this amazing brand, that they will do it for $5,000 and a smile! When that doesn’t work out, then they want an original piece, that sounds JUST as good as that track (which was worked on for 2 months, in two studios, after 2 months of writing, and then 2 weeks of finishing and mastering) and they want it in 24 hours. But, don’t get too far from that track, because then the client won’t like it. But don’t get too CLOSE to the track, cause then everyone will get sued. Oh, but also throw in a few more options that are kind of like it and sound just as good, since you’re already working. Oh, and the final budget is actually $4k, not 5. Oh, and there are two other music companies ALSO working on this for free, so your chances of winning are 1 in 30 depending on how many demos come in.
Where else in the world of advertising do you get odds like that? It’s already an insane proposition, which we take on with a smile because as I said at the beginning of all of this, I love it. We love what we do. The people I work with love what they do. There’s an uncanny thing about music people in that we have very thick skin. Does that mean we should be screwed over? Hell on, but we will be anyway, and we’ll keep coming back for more.
All in all, the moral of the thing is to find trust. Find knowledge and don’t expect the most amazing cupcake you’ve ever delivered if you’re throwing crap flavored toppings onto it from an unreasonable distance as it’s traveling through the kitchen to the table. Like anything in life, if you’re scared or frustrated with something, then find people who are experts in that something and give them enough respect to make it better for you. There is rarely enough time or money, and we’re prepared for that, but we expect you to be prepared with an open mind and some forethought so it can be a partnership.