Stuff I Learned Writing Music for Advertising—The Evolving Ecosystem and Tearing Down Walls
Some networking, research, and lucky timing got me an interview for a coveted studio assistant position at a “jingle house.” Eighteen years later, I’ve had more music on TV than I can keep track of, though hardly anyone would know my name.
If the world of music for advertising and media is thought of as one big company, I’d argue it’s spent the last ten years converting to an open office plan.
Let me start at the beginning. I graduated from the University of Virginia in 1998 as a music and English major, and I had one goal when I moved to NYC: a job with the word “music” somewhere in the description that offered health insurance. Some networking, research, and lucky timing got me an interview for a coveted studio assistant position at a “jingle house.” Once I was allowed into that exclusive club, I made my future with some hard work, inspiration, communication skills, and by being in a supportive environment. Eighteen years later, I’ve had more music on TV than I can keep track of, though hardly anyone would know my name. But I still feel very lucky to have gotten in the door.
On the other side of that door was a creative beehive of composing studios that shared a large live tracking room. The studios were nested in a larger open space that felt like an awesome loft apartment with a few extra desks. Each room was well-equipped with state of the art writing gear of its era: 2″ tape, a Synclavier, early ProTools rigs limited to 8 or 16 tracks, DA88 and DAT decks, outboard Akai and Emu samplers, sound modules, drum machines, compressors, and reverbs.
To be clear, I’m not digressing into gear nostalgia: I mention these tools because they were essential to creating believable demo recordings, and believable demos were—and still are—a requirement for winning a competitively bid ad gig. Zooming out, it’s also apparent in hindsight that having a flexible team of full-time composers in Midtown Manhattan was essential to serving our clients during the presentation and revision process. It would be a number of years before we’d be able to post a Dropbox link to a folder of Quicktime videos and mp3s. We received “picture” on 3/4″ video tape and sent our demos out on duplicated tapes called “laybacks.” We sent final mixes and “stripes” (i.e. split out parts or stems) on DAT tapes. When I worked on a Pontiac campaign in 1999, we even used a pricey company called Joyce, which messengered tapes to and from airplanes if we missed the FedEx cutoff!
The First Wall
Today I run a company called COPILOT that I formed with my longtime executive producer Jason Menkes in 2008. When we started COPILOT, we imagined years later having a large facility and staff devoted to music for advertising. The reality is we’re still a small shop without a large studio, and we work on a lot more than advertising. We have a deep pool of composers, producers, musicians, singers, and engineers that we draw from to tackle projects of all sizes, but this talent can be located anywhere you can imagine having power and internet. Not only have we stayed in what we thought was “startup mode” for eight years, we’ve watched many larger competitors move in this direction: downsizing to less space and smaller full-time staff.
One of the most common anxieties I hear expressed by fellow composers with long track records of professional work for media goes something like this: “any kid with a laptop, some software, sample libraries, and a website can now try to be a jingle writer.”
This is the first wall that has evaporated: physical assets and financial hurdles, like studio gear and office space, and logistical requirements, like living in NYC or LA, were barriers of entry to aspiring composers. Today, where you live and what gear you own factor much less. This decentralization of the industry, by its very nature, invites more diversity and creates more opportunity for those inspired to work in this area. With a minimal amount of gear and software, a cell phone and an internet connection, you can be in the game, and your success becomes focused around your ideas, your relationships, and your reputation.
There are always tradeoffs in transitions like this, and the biggest loss I see is the lack of professional mentorship opportunities. (Large central facilities create assistant positions.) This is one reason that I enjoy teaching at the Vermont College of Fine Arts so much. Still, I believe that dwindling mentorship opportunities are balanced by broadening opportunity. To me, the technological transformation of music production and collaboration has dissolved distinctions that once mattered greatly when looking for composers: professional/amateur, full-time/part-time, composer/singer/musician/engineer. Notwithstanding the sustainability of this model, a more inclusive industry is a better industry.
The Second Wall
Getting back to that Pontiac campaign… In 1999, television was how you reached a mass audience as an advertiser, and the thirty second spot was king. The price of media time reflected television’s reach and power, and so a brand had to be smart and focused about what it created. Also consider that the cost of creating polished visual media was extraordinary. Video production, editing, and visual effects, similar to audio production, required really expensive equipment, centralized in expensive facilities in NYC, LA, and other production hubs. Low budget visual production looked about as good as stock music from the time period sounded—which is not very good. So put these two factors together and big brands like Pontiac spent tons of money to make a dozen or so great spots each year. These ran everywhere all the time, their high creative and production values standing in stark contrast with the local furniture and mattress store ads.
Today it is not crazy to imagine a small new business or brand, perhaps a restaurant or a tech startup, producing a slick two-minute video introducing itself to the world via YouTube or Kickstarter. The production company could be a small, lightweight operation shooting with affordable DSLRs, perhaps working with a very experienced editor. Visual effects might come from overseas and there could even be judicious use of high quality stock footage. And the media time? By its nature, free. If it’s on the brand’s landing page, crowdfunding site, or YouTube channel, the only media expense is getting the eyeballs there.
The result of this transition? There are fewer opportunities to get a big jingle on TV, not to mention one with a healthy up front budget and union (AFM, SAG) residuals on the back end. But the flip side is that any and every brand can use polished video, often with original music. The amount of media being produced for marketing is increasing, and there will always be a chunk of that work that would truly benefit from original music. It will be more dispersed geographically and budgets will be all over the place, but it’s there and it’s growing, and that should be exciting for composers looking to make a career of their passion.
The Third Wall
One of the most important technological shifts to impact my industry is the decline in revenue from CD sales (and sluggish replacement of that revenue from digital downloads and streaming). My work for advertising has always been custom scored music that’s gone straight to the client as a buyout “work for hire” or been licensed. It has never existed on a CD or been posted to purchase or stream. So how does this affect me?
Speak to anyone in the music business, at a label or publisher, and ask that person where the money is. Sync is probably the first answer. On a recent sync podcast I was listening to, The Future of What, an indie label head casually said, “One good sync can make an artist’s year.” Another anecdote: attending the SXSW music festival in 2009 and then again in 2014, it was striking to me how many labels and publishers had shrunk in size in departments like A&R and publicity but staffed up in hiring representatives for sync licensing. Companies hadn’t shrunk in response to a sales slump; they had refocused on where the money still was.
Consider Neil Young’s “This Note’s For You” in 1988. The song’s lyrics epitomized the contempt that many artists had for the idea of “selling out.” Because album sales were such a cash cow, artists and labels used to see licensing as more of a mixed bag: what might be gained in additional money and exposure might be lost if the artist’s career is founded on authenticity and creative integrity. Seems almost quaint now. Sure, there are a few hold outs, and the largest artists still command astronomical fees, but the number of artists willing to license their work has greatly increased. The idea has become completely normalized. Fans expect their favorite artists to try to make a living in the era of streaming. Seizing upon this, labels and publishers have invested in people and technological platforms to make finding and clearing a song much easier. They are actively courting ad agencies, playing catered lunchtime showcases, and cozying up to gatekeepers like agency music producers.
On the other side of the budget spectrum, consider stock music libraries. Once thought of as a cheap alternative, libraries have grown exponentially in volume and quality thanks to the same changes in studio gear that opened the doors to original music. The ease of search and moving digital media has also enabled a host of non-exclusive “retitling” libraries to spring up, essentially crowd-sourcing with curation. Some of the top libraries have search features that rival places like Pandora when it comes to tagging music. As metadata and cloud library hosting streamline and standardize, it will be increasingly easier to monetize a piece you own through a music library.
So while it used to be that jingle writers were jingle writers, stock music composers were stock music composers, and artists were artists (and each group of people had a defined purpose and client base), I really think these categories are becoming more and more meaningless. That means that the creative needs of a project and the strength of relationships between collaborators can really drive who works on what and why. Exciting!
The Fourth Wall
Every year or two I am invited to speak to high school music students in West Hartford, Connecticut. One thing I try to drive home to all of these pliable young minds is that from my perspective, you should be willing and able to wear different hats over the course of your career. Just as the distinction between jingle writers, stock music composers, and artists are evaporating, so are other distinctions.
Composer, engineer, musician, singer, producer—these are all hats I’ve worn on various projects. The democratization of studio technology has made it much easier to move between disciplines. I’ve worked with several musicians over the years who started as session players and eventually ended up being composers on projects. As someone looking for composers, I’ve used this strategy when I know an instrument needs to be featured. Similarly, I’ve hired composers simply to sing remotely on other pieces, knowing their voice from hearing it on their own songs, and trusting their performing and engineering skills based on that relationship.
I certainly still believe in the value of focusing on one discipline and the amazing things that happen when you bring a singularly brilliant person onto a project, like a great mix engineer. But I definitely think that having almost everything possible on a laptop computer, we are now free to choose our areas of focus and knowledge, and I see people moonlighting, dabbling, playing, etc., with great results.
The Unbreakable Wall: Relationships, Reputation, and Saying Yes To Anything
I often think (perhaps naively), “How great were those walls for the previous generation! Once you got in the door, you were IN.”
I’ve been describing my industry—music for advertising—as a fluid, open ecosystem, in contrast with the exclusive club it seemed like when I began almost two decades ago. Yet I would still describe this business as extremely competitive, if not cutthroat. So the counterweight to all this freedom is that in addition to being talented and doing great work, building and maintaining relationships and reputation are now essential, ongoing skills that we need to survive as professionals.
Starting my own company was a wake-up call. When I get called with a project, I’m generally operating out of some derivative of fear: Will our freelancers deliver what my client is hoping for and do so on time? Will they pick up their phones when changes are needed? While I regularly receive unsolicited emails from friendly and talented new composers that would like freelance work, in that Blink-like moment, my gut often goes for my most trusted composers, those who have delivered great work with drama-free communication in the past. Trust is perhaps the single asset that has replaced gear and location in this whole equation.
I’d love to hear your reactions, stories, and questions. I’ll be back here next week to talk more about the creative aspects of what I do.
Ravi Krishnaswami is Co-Owner, Creative Director and Lead Composer at COPILOT Music + Sound, a music production company based in NYC, and a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Music Composition MFA program. Krishnaswami also performs regularly as the guitarist in The Sons & Heirs, NYC’s tribute to The Smiths and Morrissey.