Discordant: on the state of music in advertising

Free pitching, over-supply and increased competition are all contributing to a growing sense of crisis in the world of composing music for advertising. MassiveMusic managing director (and acting chair of The Society of Producers and Composers In Applied Music) Paul Reynolds offers some suggestions for the restoration of harmony in the business.

The industry of music composition for advertising media is broken, writes Paul Reynolds. The process is a mess. Pitching on adverts is virtually pointless. I can’t deal with pitching on ads any more. The chance of winning an ad is too slim so I don’t do it any more. I’ve had enough of this industry and I’m out.

These exact words have all been said to me by some of the most respected, experienced and successful media composers in the last six months. These aren’t isolated cases, far from it. There is such a prevalent negative feeling towards what can be such an enjoyable and rewarding job and it worries me. I mean, composing music for a living, that’s pretty darn cool right? Well, at the moment, for many, it’s not so darn cool. Let me explain.

Advertising media composers, or as they are still sometimes known, jingle writers, (please don’t call a composer that unless you want them to write your funeral music), have always had quite a tough job. “Here’s our edit, here’s our music brief, come back in 48 hours with the finished track and we’ll consider it”. “Here’s a small fee for doing it”. “You’ll get paid properly if we use it but we are also going to consider three other composers’ ideas”. That has been fairly standard practice for decades. It’s been tough, but fair and if you have been good at your craft you stood a strong chance of doing well. For the composer now though, this is not the case.

So what’s going on? Why are top composers and music production companies packing their bags or diversifying their business away from pitching on ads? Now, this isn’t me moaning about how hard it is out there. Far from it. I’m in a fortunate position, enjoying the business more than ever. These are facts about what is broken and how we can fix things together, to both enjoy ourselves more and help brands sell more stuff.

Over the last 15 years I’ve seen huge changes in our industry that have totally revolutionised the way we work and although many may disagree, I have found these changes to be incredibly positive. The shift to a wide spread of media for us to work with, coupled with a greater ease of access to potential clients, has opened up an almost infinite amount of possibilities for composers in media and advertising. The technological advances have also meant that huge efficiencies can be achieved over what we were able to produce ten years ago.

The industry is seen as highly attractive for those looking for a career in music. The barrier to entry for composers is so much lower as they can now set-up a small home pro-studio operation for a couple of thousand rather than the tens of thousands it would have cost. They can now easily reach out to potential clients and here we have our first major problem. Advertising agencies, production companies, broadcast design houses and anyone who produces moving media, are getting absolutely hammered by composers and music companies seeking business. In the UK there is a huge over-supply of media composers, partly due to the attractiveness of the industry but also due to the countless university courses in music for media. Students are pumped out into the world with little or no training in how to professionally market themselves.

So, understandably, the advertising and creative community (the ‘demand’) is a bit fed up with the constant hassle from composers and music companies (the ‘supply’) who are becoming more aggressive in their attempts to gain new business. The supply is also a bit fed up that they can’t get heard and in an increasing number of cases, have resorted to tactics of offering initial pitch work for free in the hope of future returns.

The basic economies of over-supply and the availability of quality musical work for free critically injured the industry. The desperate move to offer work for free meant it became expected in some cases. Some renowned commissioners of ad music refused to pay for music demos. This drove the risk for the commissioners to almost zero. It has became easy to get multiple music pitches for a single project as a strategy to ensure that someone nails the brief. It also allowed commissioners to get compositions made as a back-up plan for their project, whilst attempting to clear the use of commercial music (eg a famous track).

The composing community really shot itself in the foot.

The result over the last few years is that a large number of top media composers and advertising music production companies left the advertising industry or they entered, tried really hard, and gave up. It can be a good thing in creative industries to clear out the ‘dead wood’, but the necessity of a super-lean music production business left many great talents out in the cold. This has been damaging for the supply and demand side of the industry. There are fewer very experienced, ‘high-end’ composers working today but many, many more less experienced ones, working in an industry that is producing more brand noise than ever before.

For composers there is a great threat to the sustainability of the media composition industry and nobody really seems to be shouting about it. When I ask those composers I mentioned at the start, why they don’t want to pitch on ads, they tell me that it’s not that they don’t want to, it’s that they just can’t afford to as the chance of winning is too remote. “Why don’t you win pitches?” I ask, “Is your music not good enough?” After reviewing what is generally excellent, on-brief work I discover that the reasons they aren’t winning is because the competition is too high, or they lost the job as a commercial or a library track was used.

I can sympathise with this having not long ago worked on a project where my client received 72 individual pitches. 72! Who has time to review 72 pitches? 72 pitches for a 30-second ad will take 36 minutes if played back-to-back. Add a minute to discuss each one, and then you have one hour and 48 minutes to constantly review demos. Then add a cut, a second review, second cut, third review and final choice of, say, three for the client to review and the client team have just spent three hours 30 minutes without any break listening to music all based around one brief. Listening to very similar music tracks is like sampling perfume – after the first three, they all kind of seem the same. A waste of everyone’s time.

This is an extreme example, but if a pitch involves, say, five music companies, who each pitch in three options, that’s already 15 tracks that are all likely to sound very similar. A 1-in-15 chance of winning a project isn’t a good ratio. Couple this with a 50/50 chance that the end project could actually use a commercial or library track then the ratio suddenly gets much worse. The composers have a point.

Commissions offered to the market, if pitched out to multiple sources, can actually create a net loss to the industry even when a final pitch win fee is paid. The time and skill required to create the pitches isn’t cheap. The majority of composers and music companies lose a lot of money pitching. This model isn’t sustainable.

I’ve read countless articles and heard from many advertising industry peers that ‘music is 50% of the ad’ and as it’s so important ‘music shouldn’t be left to the last minute’. It generally is left to the last minute though, and for three valid reasons. Firstly, it can be difficult to talk about music so it often gets left out. You can’t just simply see and comment about music, like you can see a director’s treatment, or a film edit (unless you can read music of course). Secondly, the music is added to the film at the very end of the production process so it’s naturally dealt with at the end. Thirdly, once you have shot an ad and go into the edit, the whole feel can change, demanding a different edit than was planned and a pivot in the emotional direction, therefore the music must change. So timing is often squeezed. Generally, not enough time is available at the sharp end of a production in order to get best-fit music.

A music brief is normally assembled and emailed out to various companies and composers who decipher the brief and respond. When briefing, composers aren’t likely to create the right track based on just a few words or even a huge essay length music brief. Talking about music is like dancing about architecture. You have to do a lot of abstract thinking and some quite random interpretation to get any meaning from it. The written brief is the most commonly practiced method and one that, based on client expectations, can frustratingly deliver below-par results.

So how do we fix these problems? How can the final ad get the best musical treatment it deserves?

There is one main solution to the issues on both the demand and supply sides of the fence face. It seems obvious, but creating strong collaborative project partnerships very early on can be incredibly beneficial for all parties. Some of the most effective, rewarding, fulfilling and trouble-free commercial productions I’ve worked on have had the music carefully planned from the start. For the composer, by working to develop strong relationships based on skill and professionalism, you can achieve great trust, gaining more involvement to help the understanding of creative demands, allowing time to produce the best possible work. All this whilst feeling valued, highly motivated and fairly renumerated.

Like many other parts of the advertising production process, the path to creating the right ad music should be a collaborative one. It makes so much sense for music talent to be involved earlier on in the process. For a composer’s client, there is a chance to develop the musical ideas, discover creative options that hadn’t been thought of, gain invaluable advice as to legality (never do a soundalike!), and be assured that you won’t have a panic at the end of the job and compromise the final creative output. By bringing in the right music specialist or company early, you can save so many headaches and a lot of budget for pitches or seeking last minute alternatives. You can create a beautiful marriage of picture and image by editing the film to the right music, staying on message and on brand. No more scrambles to find a track in 48 hours. Importantly, you’ve also negotiated some of the legal and contractual minefields before the sharp-end of the production approaches.

There’s help and support out there for composers and their clients alike in the form of PCAM (The Society For Producers And Composers Of Applied Music). This voluntary organisation has produced guidelines for best practice, rights, fees and agreements (in conjunction with the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) and aims to uphold the standards and value of the industry.

Creating and using original music should be something quite special and never a headache. It can be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of any production. It can be a highly valuable asset. It’s a brand ‘ownable’, it can tell a story, it can sculpt to a film, it can be edited and adapted, it’s affordable, it’s flexible, and hey, it’s original!

I leave you with an interesting fact: according to an international study by Dr Adrian C North and Dr David J Hargreaves of Leicester University, “businesses with music that fits their brand identity are 96% more likely to be recalled than those with non-fitting music or no music at all”.

Given everything riding on it, music should never be quickly sought at the last minute and never handled by anyone less than a professional.

Paul Reynolds is the Managing Director of MassiveMusic London Ltd, and is Acting Chair Of PCAM, The Society Of Producers And Composers In Applied Music. This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of Creative Review, which is a Music special. More info on the issue is here.

Illustration by Pâté, pateontoast.co.uk

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