A soundtrack to Apple

From its iPod silhouette campaign onwards, Apple’s advertising has had a strong link to music. We talk to Chris Pattinson, Music Supervisor at TBWA\Media Arts Lab, Apple’s ad agency, about the role that music plays for the brand and why being in its ads can be good for artists and the music industry too

It’s hard to remember now what a revelation the Apple iPod was when it launched. For Sony Walkman fans like me, who could not survive without taking upwards of 50 cassettes or CDs on holiday (how could I possibly narrow it down to just a few?), it felt like we’d been waiting for it all our lives. It was a moment of true tech joy, expressed perfectly in its advertising, which simply showed silhouetted figures dancing while holding the small machines.

This wasn’t the first ad for the iPod – that one, which showed a man shifting from listening to music at home on his Apple laptop to grooving out the door with his iPod on, has largely been forgotten. But it was the silhouettes that became iconic, making iPods seem cool, fun and accessible all at the same time. And along the way, they also cemented an integral relationship with music in Apple’s advertising.

This relationship continues today, with Apple’s main advertising agency, TBWA\Media Arts Lab, containing four people whose jobs are centred on finding music for Apple’s ads. Three – Peymon Maskan (Music Director), Josh Marcy and Morgan Thoryk (both Music Supervisors – are based out of MAL’s LA office, while Music Supervisor Chris Pattinson is in London.

Pattinson came to MAL by way of the music industry. He got his first break by “harassing” DJ Gilles Peterson while at college, eventually landing a job with him at Universal. From there he journeyed through the ranks of the independent labels, became a music PR and then a tour manager, before setting up the Black Cab Sessions with a group of friends, which quickly became something of a phenomenon.

The premise of the Black Cab Sessions project was simple: ask musicians to perform a song in the back of a British taxi, whose seating area is far more conducive to fitting in instruments and a band than a normal car. Next year marks the project’s tenth anniversary and over the years musicians from Brian Wilson to Jack White, Bonnie Prince Billy to Lykke Li have taken part.

“It came around at the time when a lot of people didn’t really know what to do with putting music on the internet,” says Pattinson now. “There’s so many of these things out there now…. I think when we started there wasn’t that much and we had a really good run of people just wanting to do it. I was b filtering the artists as opposed to going out and chasing them, so that was a great position to be in.”

The Black Cab Sessions was largely a non-commercial venture, though it’s easy to see the appeal it would have to the ad industry, and it was after a presentation on the project at MAL that Pattinson came to join the London office. His role there is to help bring to bear his vast knowledge of the UK and European music scene to Apple’s ads.

“Apple’s got a very good tradition of breaking music, breaking artists,” he says. “You go back to the silhouettes campaign, all the bands on there did very well from that, in terms of the global reach those ads were able to provide.”

MAL collaborates closely with Apple to find the right music for its advertising. “They very much trust us but are not scared to challenge us. I think we’re not scared to challenge them as well and that’s why we’ve come out with some really interesting and really good work. Music is never an afterthought here. I’ve experienced that in other places … music is always the heartbeat of every creative process here.”

The music team will suggest new bands – Pattinson goes to one or two shows a week – as well as established acts and also, when the need arises, will commission new pieces of music. “It’s entirely down to the feel that the creatives are after, and what the client’s after,” he says. “It never seems to be the same brief musically, it’s always something a little bit different, so that keeps it exciting for all of us.

It’s important to get in early on the creative process. “As a department we try and get involved from as early a stage as possible,” he continues. “Because then we can get a feel of the vibe, the pace, how this thing’s going to be cut, and we can start thinking about it.”

Music provides a strong emotional pull for audiences, and also offers a way for Apple to impact on culture (plus the benefits for the Apple Music streaming channel of the brand being strongly linked to music in audience’s minds is obvious). It is important that the music both suits the brand and the story of the individual ad, while being different enough to be distinctive.

“There was a time when tech companies had a sound and that was the gentle piano,” says Pattinson. “I get sent stuff from people saying ‘hey, you’ll love this, it’s got hand claps and whistles and it sounds perfect for an Apple ad’. I would say that sending that probably isn’t going to get our attention because it’s already been done and we don’t want to go down that route again. There were a lot of companies coming out with that kind of sound and I think that Apple has always managed to stay above that. It’s never going to be the norm with an Apple ad, that’s what we strive for anyway.”

Whereas once upon a time a band’s music being used in a commercial – even for a brand as hip as Apple – would open up the musicians to accusations of ‘selling out’, advertising is now an accepted route to gaining a mainstream audience. As such many record labels actively court brands to use their acts. “I think artists nowadays are extremely smart,” says Pattinson. “They realise that this is a good channel for them to explore. We have a list of artists that we don’t approach, because we know they’re not interested and we totally respect that. But I think for a new band especially, this is a really good opportunity for them to get their music out and heard.”

And Pattinson admits to getting something of a thrill when an act he has championed gets picked to be used in an ad. “I sit in a room with the creatives here and play them stuff, and I’ll be like ‘I love this song’. And if they don’t like it, I’m like [adopts indignant voice], ‘why don’t you like it?’

“But when it works, it can be a really good thing [for artists]. It’s nice to be able to have a hand in that, to use our platform as a way for people to discover them and go and find new music. These ads are ways to discover music for a lot of people.”


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