A Word From Our Sponsor
By Greg Beets
DECEMBER 22, 1997: In a culture where the candidate with the most entertainment value is usually the winner, having a basic understanding of how ideas and messages are marketed is rapidly evolving from just another thing you need to know to get a business degree into a genuine survival mechanism. And whether you think of marketing and advertising as the American Way or the Scourge of Satan, the idea of putting an artistic device such as music in the service of commerce is worthy of exploration on many different levels. Although many artists credit an almost magical sixth sense of inspiration for their creativity, composers who write music for advertising are seldom afforded such vagaries. You can't just sit around waiting for some nebulous, romanticized creative urge to strike, because commercial music is a business of strict deadlines. The turnaround time for ad music is usually only a matter of days, so professionals have to be quick on their feet in all elements of music composition and production. As a result, many commercial composers offer keen, hip-pocket insights into the process of writing music that more traditional musicians or songwriters would not be able to coax forth from themselves so swiftly.
More than simply streamlining the creative process, however, the business of commercial music demands a level of skill and versatility that is undeniable. Even within the limited parameters ad composers are allowed to explore, good commercial music can be more interesting and more memorable than 90% of what you'll find in clubs on any given night. Though repetition certainly plays a role in this, it's still quite impressive that a sliver of seemingly inconsequential music can lodge itself in a listener's brain -- whether you want it there or not.
Embedding themselves in the conscious/unconscious minds of radio and television tune-ins, the music that goes along most commercials is often referred to -- and usually with more than a hint of derision -- as a "jingle" by the layperson. In the profession, however, this generic term is only taken to describe a 30- or 60-second "song" about the product being advertised. Jingles are just one element in a broad spectrum of music produced for commercials.
"Every commercial that goes out of here needs music or sound design or some sort of audio," says Tom Gilmore, creative director for Austin-based advertising agency GSD&M. "Ninety percent of them are probably just music or sound design, and maybe 10% would be a jingle."
Carl Thiel, who works on both commercials and more traditional music projects with artists such as Hot Buttered Rhythm, MC Overlord, and Lisa Tingle (Thiel's wife) at his downtown studio, believes the advertising industry is moving away from the musical axioms that defined the "Winston tastes good/Like a cigarette should" era. "The word 'jingle' is kind of a misnomer, because agencies are really trying to make it sound more song-like," says Thiel.
Dallas-based songwriter cum Clio Award-winning ad composer Tom Faulkner says the number of jingle-style compositions has been on a steady decline. "Jingles are clearly not in vogue now," asserts Faulkner, who created the home-spun folk music that plays under Tom Bodett in the Motel 6 ads. "Twenty years ago, there were tons of jingles, but now, there are less and less jingles where people are singing songs about their products. And the reason is, for the most part, that it's not very real. It's pretty tough to buy off on somebody singing about a soft drink."
Indeed, one of the first things an ad composer must do is create a piece of music whose de facto intro ("a word from our sponsor") isn't merely a cue for listeners to change stations or go to the bathroom. For Wally Williams, CEO of Tequila Mockingbird Music & Sound Design in Austin, the strategy for combating audience apathy is a minute-long dose of well-crafted, clever pop music -- often performed by local luminaries such as Don Walser, Dale Watson, or Lou Ann Barton.
"What I love to do is take a song or a style of music and put the advertising message in that," says Williams, who has done commercial music for clients including Southwest Airlines, the Texas Lottery, and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). "Then all of the sudden, people don't say, 'That's a jingle. I'm going to change stations' or 'That's a jingle, they're trying to drill the same piece of information into my head over and over.' They really say, 'Well, that's a great little song. They're trying to sell me a product and I don't even mind.'"
For Patterson Barrett of Austin's Barrett & Harwell Music, the starting point of writing music for commercials is coming up with an irresistable hook, such as the rock guitar progression that kicks off the radio spots Barrett and his partner/engineer Bill Harwell made for Thundercloud Subs. "Everybody wants something that will stick in your head," relates Barrett. "To a certain extent, it's the composition, and to a certain extent, it's the airplay the thing gets. Some jingles people remember are remembered because they're bad, but they get played so much that you remember them.
"We try to write stuff that has a good, little memorable hook in it. We try to place it in spots so that it grabs your attention at the top and then later in the middle and at the end. It's not unlike writing popular music if you're trying to write hits. It's not so much art as it is writing memorable stuff."
Memorable is an apt term to describe a recent spot written by Williams for TxDOT's "Don't Wreck Your Life" highway safety campaign. The spot is called "Blood and Guts," and its lyrics -- sung by Will Sexton -- are almost as ghastly as a driver's education scare film:
Blood and guts, blood and guts/Your broken body full of cuts/ Lying there beside the interstate/ Brain matter, brain matter/Feel it ooze out, see it splatter/Sirens coming, but they're coming late.
Tequila Mockingbird president and former Asleep at the Wheel fiddler/keyboardist Danny Levin was as surprised as anyone when TxDOT approved the spot. "It blew our minds," he says. "The creatives over at GSD&M loved it. They said, 'We're going to present it at the meeting. We know they're going to shoot it down.' But everyone at TxDOT loved it."
Willie Wilcox of Lincoln Road Studio in Miami believes the ability to provide an interesting conceptual framework for ad music is tantamount. This approach -- which Wilcox has used to compose spots for clients like MTV, Nickolodeon, and Target -- would seem to be a logical extension of Wilcox's past work as drummer for Utopia. "As the musician, your job is to enhance their vision of what their spot is about and to support the emotion of what it is they're trying to represent," says Wilcox. "Beyond that, what really makes people good at doing it is providing a unique perspective on their vision."
To get an idea of what a composer is up against when handed a TV spot to score, try watching commercials with the sound down. Music is usually the last thing added to a spot before it airs, and that music is often created under a deadline ranging downward from a week to four hours. "For TV, you go to a rough cut, and then once the rough cut's approved, you go to finish for the picture, and then you usually go to the music," says GSD&M's Gilmore. "You can either pre-score it or post-score it, but probably 90% of the stuff is post-scored."
Composers must also be able to create music that conforms to the direction put forth by the "creatives" at ad agencies. "These guys have already sold this idea to the client before they come to us," says John Hunter of Juniper Music in Dallas, who has composed ads for Oldsmobile, Gatorade, and Tabasco. "Whether it's a good musical idea or a bad one, we've got to make it work. In very few instances will a creative actually say, 'This is a crappy idea. Let me go back to the client and tell them it's not going to work.'"
Although creative directors at ad agencies usually act as go-betweens for clients and composers, some clients give very specific musical and lyrical directions. "Sometimes, you're really lucky and you get a creative person at their end that makes it fun and easy," says Thiel, "but sometimes, you get some guy who has no idea of a rhyming scheme or anything like that. The phrases are very awkward and strained, but you have to work with that, too."
It's often up to the composer to politely explain in non-musical terms why something won't work musically. "They'll have specific information that they want to put across," says Barrett. "And sometimes, we'll sit down with them and we'll say that in our experience, some of this sort of thing is better covered in a voiceover rather than in the actual singing. You want the sung part to be a little more ambiguous as opposed to hard information so that the thing will have some life for you."
Rhyme and phrasing issues are further compounded when a client wants a jingle-style commercial in both English and Spanish. "I get the lyrics in Spanish and English, and the phrasing is totally different, but they want it to sound similar," says Thiel, who has done Spanish-language ads for companies like Coors Light, Chili's, and U.S. West. "And the guy who translated it into Spanish didn't take into consideration that some phrases are going to be sung totally different. To translate an English idea into Spanish is a tough thing already, and then to make it rhyme and make it flow and have the same number of syllables to make it sing right is even harder. You have to be a lot more playful and flexible with the phrasing to make it flow so that it seems natural."
For Faulkner, dealing with the inevitable creative differences involves mentally relinquishing a certain degree of creative latitude. "You must understand that when I write a commercial, I truly view myself as a servant," Faulkner says. "Not in a derogatory manner, but my job is to serve the people who hired me. To that extent, I want to give them the piece of music that they want.
"Because of the very nature of music, it's such a subjective medium. I would venture to say it's more subjective than any other medium of entertainment. While it's tangible to the ears, it's not tangible to the eyes. It's the one thing that we utilize from a strictly audio source of response, but it is nonetheless a stimulant. It moves you, it saddens you, it lifts you up, it angers you, it nauseates you. Music can do a number of things that you don't think about, so when I would approach a piece, I always tried to be true to what the client wanted, think first of what they wanted and second of what I wanted."
Ironically, according to Hunter, the client or agency rep that knows a little bit about music is often more difficult to work with than the person who knows nothing at all. "They know just enough to make them deadly," Hunter laughs. "They're flying around the studio saying, 'Well, let's throw this arpeggio against the picture and maybe you can have it crescendo to an allegro part and have it retard...,' and you're just like, 'Man, you don't know what you're saying!'"
This problem has sometimes been compounded by the relative youth of Hunter and his partner, Jon Slott, both of whom founded Juniper Music in 1994 after graduating from Boston's Berklee College of Music. "I'm 28, and Jon's 26," says Hunter. "And when we first started, we were 22 and 25, so it was a big deal for them to let these two youngsters -- who were working out of their bedroom at the time -- to work on a national TV spot. But it's gotten a lot better. You just develop your relationships just like anything else you do."
Once a composer has written a piece of ad music, the next step is to cut a demo for agency and client approval. This process is also fraught with a fair amount of give-and-take. "We do our down-and-dirty demos where I sit at the piano and sing my idea, or I sit at the computer and sketch it out," says Levin. "You know, MIDI fake horns, drum machine, acoustic bass sample, and what-not. And I send that to them with a disclaimer that says, 'This sounds like crap, it's coming out of a box. We'll have all real players to play it and you'll love it then.'
"And they'll make comments. They'll call me back and say, 'Oh, we hate it. We're scrapping the idea,' or 'We love it. Don't touch a thing,' and all gradations in between. Like, 'Oh, we don't like the melody on the second line,' or 'We need this word to last longer.' Very often, we get this comment: 'Loved your piece, but that script wasn't approved. We have to add four lines of lyric at this point, and by the way, there has to be 10 seconds in the middle for an announcer to say something.'"
According to Patterson, another stumbling block that comes between the demo and the finished product is the vocal. "We don't get positive results on those as often as we do on the composition itself," he says. "They'll say, 'That sounds pretty good, but let's hear somebody else sing it.' People's affinity for a particular voice is really more of a personal thing. It's a more personal expression for a singer and it's more of a personal opinion for people listening to singers."
Musically speaking, dif- ferent composers approach the recording of spots with wildly divergent philosophies. For Barrett & Harwell, a self-proclaimed "Pop & Pop" operation, the move is toward as much self-containment as possible. "On most of these things, I play all of the instruments outside of the drums and horns. In all ways, it makes it easier for us. I don't have to write a lot of charts to teach people stuff, I don't have to try and communicate to people what we have in mind for a particular spot, there's no real learning curve, and you don't have to schedule people to be there to do their part at a particular time. I just go in in the morning and we'll cut a track with a drummer and I'll just overdub it until I'm through. It saves time and money and makes it a lot simpler for everybody."
Across town at Tequila Mockingbird, the emphasis is squarely on live recording. Ample evidence of that can be found in the 1,000-square-foot live room at Tequila's soon-to-be-completed new studio. "We can record a string orchestra in there or a full choir," says Levin, "and we're going to be going toward more full band-type stuff. That's the way they do it in Nashville."
Juniper's philosophy involves breaking away from the traditional industry reliance on studio musicians and seeking new talent from the Metroplex club scene and the University of North Texas music school. "If you use studio musicians, they're so used to reading the part that you've got down there on paper that they're really not bringing a whole lot to the table," says Hunter. "I'm not a bass player. I can write a bass line down, but I'm not going to say, 'You must play these notes.' I would rather write down the chords and tell the guy, 'Hey, this is a bossa feel. Just take these chords and do a really nice bossa feel.' And if his line sucks, I'll tell him to play the line that's written, but nine times out of 10, he's going to come up with something much better than what I would've written, because I'm not a bass player."
In order to increase the comfort level of non-studio musicians who aren't used to sight reading in front of clients and agency reps, Juniper has built a studio without the traditional control room window. "We have a little video link instead," Hunter says. "And in the actual recording room, we have coffee tables and some chairs. It's not a real sterile environment. We kind of try to take the 'MTV Unplugged' vibe and bring it to the studio."
One of the major bones of contention in ad music is synth versus live instrumentation. While synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines are now used at some point in the process by many (if not most) ad composers, there's a thin line between utilizing new technology as a creative tool and what Hunter derisively calls "synth-abuse." For Wilcox, though, versatility is the key to gracefully blending the organic and synthetic.
"I just read an article in one of the trade magazines that said synthesis is killing music," Wilcox says. "But to me, that's always an extremist point of view. Yeah, there are a lot of synthesizers and a lot of one-man bands and people designing all their own things, but I think it's all valid. You never hear painters getting angry at red.
"When we got our big television monitor delivered, I did a national Target commercial and the box that the monitor came in was in the studio, so I stuck a mike in it, watched the spot, and played along with it using my hands. I processed all the sounds, and it sounded like some weird hand percussion instrument. So there I was doing something live, and I was playing a cardboard box. From my point of view, I don't want to be restricted by having to do live music or only doing synthesis, because why restrict yourself?"
Although some composers -- such as Hunter and Slott -- graduated with degrees in film and television scoring and went right into doing music for ads, the accidental tourist route into the industry is widespread. Faulkner accepted his first commercial music assignment 17 years ago after major label deals failed to materialize for his band.
"A guy asked, 'Hey, will you write a jingle for me?' and I said, 'No, I hate jingles,'" recalls Faulkner. "I was very snobbish about it. So he said, 'Look, I like your songs. Will you write a jingle like you'd write one of your songs?' And I said, 'No, I just don't want to do it.' Then he said, 'Look, I really need it. I need it bad and I'll pay you $1,000.' And I went, 'Hmmm.'
"I never viewed it as a profession. For 17 years, I've always had a foot in and a foot out. Those who know me and who've worked with me know that when I take on a commercial project, I put my heart and soul into it, but that my real love has always been the record industry, and I've never wanted to lose sight of that."
All this isn't to say that writing ad music hasn't helped Faulkner develop his own music. His recent, self-produced album, Lost in the Land of Texico (Serrano), is a warm pastiche of stories, imagery, and musical forms culled from Texas, Mexico, New Mexico, and Louisiana. Because ad music requires a composer to be able to go from blues to classical to jazz to rock and back again, Faulkner has been able to cultivate songs in genres that were previously foreign to him.
"A friend of mine at the Richards Group asked me to produce a campaign for El Chico and it was 'original Tex-Mex music from the original Tex-Mex cafe-El Chico,'" recounts Faulkner. "And it exposed me to a lot of music that I was aware of but had not embraced -- specifically, the Tejano stuff. Then I wound up doing a lot of Tejano Coors Light music for GSD&M. I got to work with Mingo Saldivar, who's just a genius.
"It had a great impact on my own personal music. It changed the shape of what my album is. There's obviously a great deal of influence from the Tejano side. You hear Tejano accordion threaded in two or three of the tunes. A third of the album has accordion in it, whereas 10 years ago, I wouldn't have even thought of putting accordion on anything."
Thiel, another ad composer with one foot in the music industry, believes the mechanics of writing music for commercials has sharpened his songwriting skills. "I think jingles have really helped me in the sense of coming up with catchy phrases that are memorable," says Thiel. "When I'm writing songs, I'm using that tool in my head."
Although Wilcox typically sees popular music influencing the sound of commercials and not the other way around, he does believe the cutting-edge sound design techniques often used to enhance the impact of the visuals in ads could hold some exciting prospects. "From my perspective, the only thing that I find interesting from commercials and that I'm trying to incorporate in dealing with the producing of a band and writing songs is the combination of sound design and music," says Wilcox. "The way commercials share music and sound design together can be applied backward toward making records."
And let's not leave out the benefits of seeing a well-oiled marketing machine operate up close and personal. "I've seen some of the best campaigns in the country from their inception," says Faulkner. "And I've watched them grow and I've been part of that growth, from the print campaign to the TV roughs that I got to score, to final product that comes out. You see how it all works.
"So, in terms of marketing my CD, I clearly have a leg up on another guy who may have a quality piece of music but has absolutely no idea about how to have a CD cover with good art direction. I just wouldn't have known how to do that without having been involved in the advertising industry."
Although some composers watch and listen to commercials intently - the Miller Lite "Dick" ads seem to be especially popular right now -- Barrett avoids ads once the day is done. "I guess that sounds strange for somebody involved in the business, but you also hear from musicians a lot that they don't ever really listen to music," Barrett says. "I have a couple of young children at home, and we've kind of decided that television is not all that great a thing for them to be watching."
Levin is equally candid in his assessment of the advertising industry. "I have to say that most of the crap that's being sold is crap," he says. "What we're selling here is an image. Sprite or 7-Up -- who cares? Either one, or neither. That's what's so funny about those 'Image is nothing -- thirst is everything' ads for Sprite. Image is everything to advertisers!"
Nevertheless, composing music for ads has proven to be a satisfying -- not to mention lucrative -- wellspring of creative energy for the artists involved. "When I could write and record anything I wanted, for me, it was actually harder," reveals Levin. "It was like, let me search my soul and see what's in there and spit it out for the world.
"Now I don't have to search my soul. I have to search my client's company culture and his attitude, search the parameters that a particular spot has, and kind of plug it in to come out with an answer that's more like a puzzle than a deep expression of my inner soul. I like that. I've never thought music should be deadly serious, and that's one of the reasons this ad stuff appeals to me, because, hey, it's just advertising. It ain't brain surgery."
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