Friday, December 01, 2006

When Marketers HEAR Double

In the November 28th issue of the Wall Street Journal, Emily Steel reports in an article titled 'When Marketers See Double', on unwitting overlap by advertisers who coincidently choose the same photo for parallel running campaigns. One notable example given is when Bank of America and Key Bank, the article points out, both chose the same ‘heart warming’ image of father and daughter hanging over a laptop.

Consider this example presented by the Wall Street Journal, and culled from the US BankCorp and Travelers respective Websites:


It occurred to me that this phenomenon is even more prevalent in the music and sound design we hear on TV and Radio commercials, and sometimes embedded into the soundtracks of the productions themselves.

One reason for this is the convenience afforded by MUSIC PRODUCTION LIBRARIES. Production libraries are collections of prerecorded music created specifically for use as audio companions to visual material, such as film and TV. Often cheaper than commissioning an original score, media producers also like production libraries because licensing is a snap. Like stock photo libraries, the contents in a music production library are rarely licensed for exclusive use, meaning someone else can come along and use the same track for their TV show, movie, commercial, et al.

Another source of recycle sound is the increased reliance by composers and sound designers on SAMPLES.

SAMPLES –as is commonly known– are short audio recordings, which are then often used as fodder for composers and sound designers. Sometimes samples are recorded from existing works: That's how The Meters and James Brown became embedded into countless Hip Hop tracks.

But most often samples are recordings of instruments (or ensembles) playing singular notes (or short rhythms) in every style, and then compiled into a 'library'. The samples are typically arranged across a keyboard making it easy for anyone to summon up a string orchestra with the push of a button.

Other common libraries include Loop libraries, which contain a measure or more of a rhythm track. Re-recorded and looped in a composer's computer, the loops become the basis of what one hopes is something otherwise original.

Or as ILIO –makers of the Vienna Strings Library– likes to say: "Virtual Instruments, Sample CDs and CD-ROMs, Loops, Sounds, Software and Tools for the Modern Musician."

Although, I think modern has nothing to do it with it: Samples –notwithstanding the fact that they can be quite effective– are just way cheaper than hiring a sixty piece orchestra for a demo.

As it stands, there are so many sample libraries today, that every instrument, in every configuration has been recorded. Need a Stradivari violin, cello, oboe, didgeridoo? No problem. Need rock guitars? –A techno loop? –A hip hop beat? Simply Add to Cart and proceed to Check Out with a valid Credit Card.

There are also libraries that cover the gamut of sound effects. Everything from car drive-bys (for every model manufactured) to 'ambient' or 'atmospheric' FX that call up specific genres, like, 'scary', for instance.

The result of this trend in using samples for every audio event in a music or sound design track is that we –the audience– are hearing the same sounds over and over again. For those of us with any kind of aural intelligence, an hour watching television can drive you batty as you hear –yet again– the same sound used in a ten year old X-Files episode recycled for the millionth time in a video game or a commercial, and now in the show itself.

It’s as though every soundtrack composer and sound designer on the planet is now drawing from the same pool of pre-recorded stock sounds. –And you know what? My ears tell me that they are.


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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Diplomatic Corps Rock Fest

As it happens, not too long ago (on March 1, 2006) I wrote:

"It bears mentioning that reasons for corporate patronage also include a desire or necessity to curry political favor in another country, as Lorenzo de' Medici is known to have done. By investing or contributing in another nation's arts and artists, one possibly wins favor with its members of government. For American and European interests (seeking foreign industrial contracts), it may seem like good strategy to spend dollars developing tomorrow's Chinese rock stars and East Indian 'gangsta' rappers. Likewise, we may one day witness Asian governments sponsoring indigenous African and mid eastern cultural activities in a bid to compete for those country's petrol resources".


So, it was with no shortage of interest that only two weeks later –in the November 12th issue of the New York Times– I discovered an article titled: The New Ambassadors.

In 'The New Ambassadors', writer Jeff Leeds reports that several foreign governments have begun sponsoring their own local popular artists in an attempt to spread goodwill as they tour abroad –in this case, 'abroad' meaning the United States.

Leeds writes:

"In a global economy that is blurring geographic borders, more and more nations view intellectual property — films, software and the like — as valuable commodities, easily transferred exports that can sell in previously inaccessible markets. That includes intellectual property like pop-punk or death metal... One way or another, between the musicians who are representing their countries abroad and the government officials who are seeking out and signing new talent, the international trend has forced all parties to invent new rules, and new roles, in situations that none of them could have anticipated."


Obviously, I agree –excepting the idea that such a 'situation' could not have been anticipated, for it most certainly was, six hundred years ago by Lorenzo de' Medici.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Series: Audio As Added Value

Click on any link below to read all the articles in the four-part Fall 2006 AUDIO AS ADDED VALUE series exploring exploring new paradigms for Music Distribution:

1. The Compact Disc Is Dead
2. Saving The Music Industry One Brand at a Time
3. Self-Referential Jingles are not Content
4. Synergy = Energy

* * *

Like this topic? Explore the May 2006 ADDED VALUE AUDIO article from the Critical Noise Archive:

ADDED VALUE AUDIO

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Synergy = Energy

Over the years I’ve noted CDs packaged with boxes of cereal and cleaning fluids, among other household items. We have also seen custom CDs distributed by the Gap, Pottery Barn, Starbucks, Victoria's Secret and Williams-Sonoma. Interestingly, a company named LidRock even found a way to turn fountain drink lids into a functional Mini-CD or DVD disc capable of delivering music, video, and games.

In 2003 LidRock launched with a four million unit promotion for Big3 indie label singer Rachel Farris. Rachel Farris is by no means a household name today, but one can hardly call one marketing event a campaign. Also, keep in mind that LidRock wasn't using the technology to promote the artist, but rather using Farris' material to demonstrate proof of concept to potential corporate clients.

I propose such promotions work better when the artist doesn't simply represent available content, but when the advertiser and the entertainer form a synergistic relationship, and each represents one half of a real strategic alliance for the other.

Some people don’t like the idea that artists might attempt to win fans from the back of box of soap or oatmeal, but this concept goes well beyond detergent and oats. I think it could even portend a future music industry where artists are at least in part supported by patronage rather than the deals record companies currently offer them.

* * *

Click on any link below to read all the articles in the four-part Fall 2006 AUDIO AS ADDED VALUE series exploring exploring new paradigms for Music Distribution:

1. The Compact Disc Is Dead
2. Saving The Music Industry One Brand at a Time
3. Self-Referential Jingles are not Content
4. Synergy = Energy

Monday, November 06, 2006

Self-Referential Jingles Are Not Content

In the mid-nineties we saw the idea of music promotions updated and repackaged, in the form of promotional CD–ROMS and DVDs, usually offering electronic games, software and video content. Most of these give-aways went from box to garbage, but some were received with popular interest, as when in 1996 when General Mills inserted a free CD-ROM into each box of Chex cereal, which contained Chex Quest, an electronic game created using ID software’s DOOM engine.

More recently, in 2002, General Mills plastered the cover of eight million boxes of cereal (including: Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Golden Grahams, Honey Nut Chex and Cinnamon Toast Crunch) with promotional DVDs touting Columbia titles "Bear in the Big Blue House" and "The Muppets."

However, the Kellogg/Disney/Pixar Industrial Complex fell short with 'Buzz Lightyear’s Exclusive Music CD', which was packaged in every box of their Buzz Blast cereal concoction. One online writer unfortunately described the promo as “3 awful songs extolling the virtues of Buzz Lightyear.”

The lesson here is that collateral produces sales when advertisers go beyond gimmicks to create truly engaging content.

Self-referential long-play jingles are ads, not content. No one finds them entertaining but the people who make them and kitsch collectors twenty years after the fact.

So why not offer real songs, current hits; or original non-promotional content featuring select artist/s (suitable to collaborative promotional experience with a given product); or even Branded Mixes? At least, then an advertiser can promote the content in the usual media outlets, downplaying its role as added value, up playing its role as a collectible.

One then arrives at the desired result: Built-in authenticity –not to mention guaranteed Word-Of-Mouth buzz you just can't get from any other so-called box prize. Johnny Quest PF Secret Decoder Rings exempted, but of course!

* * *

Click on any link below to read all the articles in the four-part Fall 2006 AUDIO AS ADDED VALUE series exploring exploring new paradigms for Music Distribution:

1. The Compact Disc Is Dead
2. Saving The Music Industry One Brand at a Time
3. Self-Referential Jingles are not Content
4. Synergy = Energy

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Saving The Music Industry One Brand at a Time

From the beginning of my career as a music producer of television and radio commercials, I sometimes received calls from consumers who wanted to purchase an album that contained the music they heard on a given spot. However, album production is not a general compliment to spot production. So, there never was a product to recommend people buy –unless they were referring to a pop track that an ad agency had licensed in lieu of commissioning an original underscore. In fact, most of the time the music one hears on a TV or Radio commercial rarely extends beyond the thirty or sixty seconds specifically created for the ad.

As a result:

1) A given intellectual property is limited from possible secondary use by simple virtue of its length.
2) Resulting inability to leverage music into extended customer experience (away from the TV).
3) Diminished ROI by neglecting opportunity (based on demand) to create a for-sale entertainment unit (or a Point-of-Purchase gift that may generate future sales).

Considering this, I began as early as 1994 pitching the concept of creating entertainment collateral. At the time I initially conceived of this collateral as 'gifts' redeemable upon purchase. For instance, buy a car, and here's a CD you can play on the drive home, et al. The idea would be to produce the music in tandem with the production of our primary commissions (being TV/Radio commercial, web site, theme park or electronic game scores). However –regrettably– at the time I couldn't convince one account to allocate the resources required to test this concept, although all seemed to think it was great idea (for someone else to do).

Regardless, the concept stuck with me. In March of 2001 the online marketer's magazine Clickz published an article I wrote on the subject of Sonic Branding. In it I argued the merit of this concept and other such alliances; and I suggested the following:

If music in a marketing context does its job, it will inform as well as entertain. And if consumers –that is, your audience– call the company switchboard and ask who wrote the music and where they can buy a CD of it, then maybe you and your client should actually produce a promotional CD that consumers can take home and listen to whenever they want...If you've produced a CD, for instance, folks will listen to it while they eat, work out, make love, and your company will be the underscore to their lives. Oats may be oats, but if I'm making babies to your music, then chances are my babies will be eating your oats.

Now, I was by no means the originator of this idea:

In the nineteen-seventies Post –and other cereal companies– packaged singles with their Super Sugar Crisp product. Many such promotions were dreadful (at least to adult ears). However, the Sugar Bears “You Are The One" continues to enjoy happy memories from enduring fans of the song to this day. Why? –Because the song framed an episode in many people’s youth. Their collective recollection has essentially been wrapped in its own soundtrack, brought to you by Post. And that's why kids of all ages still think the Post Super Sugar Crisp Bear IS THE MAN!.

* * *

Click on any link below to read all the articles in the four-part Fall 2006 AUDIO AS ADDED VALUE series exploring exploring new paradigms for Music Distribution:

1. The Compact Disc Is Dead
2. Saving The Music Industry One Brand at a Time
3. Self-Referential Jingles are not Content
4. Synergy = Energy

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Latest Headlines: Entertainment Today

In related news, the Compact Disc was laid to rest this morning at a funeral in Bremerton, Washington, the birthplace of its inventor, James T. Russell.

Meanwhile, on the Velvet Rope, an online music forum known for its contributors from various segments of the entertainment industry, pundits were debating not just how to resurrect the disc itself, but they were also trying to figure out a way to hold the discussion in a medium that did not require the use of any computer technology.

One respondent is said to have suggested meeting at a bar, where they could discuss exactly how much cardboard a new Led Zeppelin Box set would require before consumers considered the package a collectors item. Unfortunately, most were unavailable to attend as they had prior obligations requiring the services of a television set, an iPod, a DVD player, a mobile phone, a PDA or an electronic game. Those who did attend finally found a suitable venue where the music would not overwhelm the urgent conversation.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Compact Disc Is Dead

Digital Music News recently (October/2006) reported that EMI Music chairman and chief executive Alain Levy called the CD "dead.” He said: "The CD as it is now is dead, but a new version with added value will live on… There will always be a need for the physical product. You're not going to give your mother-in-law an iTunes download for Christmas…”

To my mind, it depends how you define 'physical product', 'added value'; and how you contextualize the download. If by 'added value' he means more digital media on the disc itself, then in my opinion neither Mr. Levy nor his team has quite thought the problem completely through. There is no 'added value' in content that one will eventually be able to download from the web (for free). Therefore, moving forward, 'added value' must indicate something other than elements found on the CD. We may as well dispense with the CD altogether, and invest our time defining an entirely different physical medium. Instead, let's think of the audio itself (and any other added content traditionally distributed on the disc) as the added value element, which we only make available with the purchase of Artist Branded Merchandise (created in or from a non-digital medium).

For instance: You might give your mother-in-law a pair of mittens, and they might come with a coupon redeemable for an Elvis Presley Christmas Album download. Even value-added CDs are just so much packaging, and you can't beat the value of a nice warm pair of mittens, especially if Elvis's handsome mug is embroidered on them.

What is unfortunate for the music Industry, is that digital audio technology is a catalog killer. Barring a hardware malfunction, consumers now only have to buy music once in a lifetime, and often they don’t pay for it all. Whereas, twenty years ago I may have duplicated several purchases in different formats in order to have my favorite music available on vinyl, 8-track and cassette –and I actually bought one artist's Double LP vinyl set twice because I wore out the records.

There is still a magnitude of worldwide customers converting to digital audio, notably in the Southern Hemisphere where analog formats are still prevalent. However, in North America and Europe, the days of repeat purchases (in order to accommodate different play back devices or even simple wear-and-tear) are very much over. Not to mention the fact that neither my kids nor yours will ever have to buy much in the way of old catalog recordings because they stand to inherit their parent’s hard drives.

I can already imagine entertainment companies sending lobbyists to Washington to mandate the destruction of media storage devices upon an individual's death under the auspices of simultaneously fighting piracy and protecting privacy.

* * *

Click on any link below to read all the articles in the four-part Fall 2006 AUDIO AS ADDED VALUE series exploring exploring new paradigms for Music Distribution:

1. The Compact Disc Is Dead
2. Saving The Music Industry One Brand at a Time
3. Self-Referential Jingles are not Content
4. Synergy = Energy

Monday, September 11, 2006

Gotham Artists


When the World Trade Event occurred, 911, or whatever you want to call it, we stood on the roof of 21st and Broadway where we owned a music production company. My business partner, Michael, and I had gotten to work early because we had two tasks to get done before the start of the business day. I think we were working on one music project for McCann-Erickson, an ad agency, and another for Sesame Street. Then another early bird neighbor on our floor ran in and told us that one of the towers had been hit. We were far enough away to consider ourselves safe, but after the second tower was hit, it felt like planes might be falling out of the sky at random, and you didn't know if the next one would drop right where you were standing. I recall seeing specks tumble out of the tower, every few seconds it seemed like. I turned to Michael and confirmed what I assumed we were both thinking, "Y'know, those are people.”

I called my parents and a couple of friends for information, because our TV reception was intermittent. It was a couple of hours before we understood that what we had witnessed was a terrorist attack. The first reports we got were that an accident had occurred between a jet and a smaller private plane. And as dramatic as the scene was to behold, no one stayed on the roof very long before going back downstairs to continue working. I think that's what most New Yorkers did, so used to being part of the machine. I even called a messenger service and asked them if they were still delivering packages to midtown (had to get that package to McCann) –and of course they were! It seemed like nothing, short of the world's end, was going to stop our great metropolis from working.

Among others, we shared the floor with an architect who drew a diagram on a piece of paper explaining why the towers, although injured, would not fall, he said. Afterwards I went back up to the roof in a curious attempt to fit what I had just been told with the ominous black cavity that now bore through the top of the north tower.

And as I stood there, the south tower fell. But I didn't see it, because I experienced its disappearance almost like watching a magic trick: First there was a tall building. Then a puff of smoke. And as the smoke dissipated I realized I could not possibly be seeing what I was seeing, so I strained my eyes, looking for the building that was supposed to be, but of course, it was no longer there. Instead in its place, the unimaginable, nothing, and I too, also felt hollow inside.

I ran downstairs and told my everybody within hearing to stop working, that one of the towers had fallen. Amazing, maybe some people were in shock, but it seemed to me that even then, a few were reluctant to push aside the work at hand.

Later, when the second tower fell, the following words peel off my brain and burn themselves into my consciousness:

Two arms
Stretched towards God
They pulled them down
And our spirits with them


My girlfriend and I lived down by Washington Square Park, within the border cordoned off by the military, and well within the sad and acrid smell of the two broken buildings. Our next door neighbor worked for Cantor Fitzgerald & Co. and he lost hundreds of friends and colleagues. Another neighbor who lived across the hall, David Crafa, was not only the owner of The Cutting Room Recording Studio, but also a welder, it turns out. As such, he had been called down to work in Ground Zero in order to assist in the search for survivors. And I, too, like so many others I knew –artists, musicians, singers– wanted to do something to help, but what could we possibly offer?

A song to help heal our souls, and our wounded city, too, perhaps?

So on October 3, 2001, myself, and a few of my friends, all of us session musicians and music production types, assembled at The Cutting Room Recording Studios in order to record a memorial song. It sounds insignificant in retrospect, but when I think back to those times, I realized the writing process was part of working through my own grief. And I think those who participated in the recording also saw in it a way to move through their own pain.

I wrote the following passage in the liner notes of the memorial CD:

Via television broadcasts spanning the globe, the entire world was a witness to the incomprehensible events of September 11th, 2001. A shared feeling of utter senselessness permeated the planet the moment towers fell. Our initial shock was immediately followed by frantic questions: Where are my loved ones? Where are my friends? Did I know anyone who worked at The World Trade Center? Did I know anyone traveling from Boston or Newark that day? Whom do I know in Washington? At the end of it all, another question surfaced: What could we do to help? We are simply musicians, singers, and artists who happened to have made our lives in New York City and the surrounding areas. Understandably, the city needed more rescue workers at Ground Zero than musicians, and more welders than singers. Not being pop stars or famous movie actors, there seemed like little that we could do, except pray. Then, through the sheer effort and good will of so many kind people, a momentum started and we all found ourselves in a recording studio for one long day with an idea that we could help, and that we could do so by using our own modest talents... It’s the least we could do.


And at the time, it's all that I thought we could do.

'911' was originally posted in the old MP3.com site where it found a receptive audience, before CNET bought the domain name and dispensed with the assets circa December 2003.

In the beginning I also wanted to present 911 as a benefit song, and raise money for the American Red Cross. But in those days MP3.com priced all CDs, whether fully loaded or merely singles, at around $8.00 a unit. I tried to promote the music as best I could, but of course it was overpriced, and I was not experienced in other avenues of distribution. I personally bought one for everyone who participated, and I think our engineer's sister actually bought our only real sale. Naturally, for a couple of years after, I felt like our efforts, or rather mine specifically, amounted to little more than a well intentioned failure.

But then an amazing thing happened, around 2005, I started to get email from all over the world from people who wanted to catch up with me and tell me how much our song still continues to resonate for them.

And so today, I do feel believe that the 'Gotham Artists' tribute song actually did succeed in its mission of providing comfort and consolation, and that we did help a number of people get through that time, myself included, as it happens. For many, it turns out, this music served to make some sense of what once was and still is an incomprehensible thing. But then, that is what art does. Art provides context; it comforts the senses, and it puts one's brain and heart back into working order.

After that, a lot of what I was doing –producing music for TV commercials– seemed meaningless. And it took a while to bounce back. But I did, of course. The world didn't stop that day, and the city marches forward.

*

The Original September 11, 2001 Memorial Song '911' can currently be heard by clicking on the following link:

Gotham Artists – 911

*

These are the people who graciously gave their time, talent and resources in order to participate and performed under the auspices of 'Gotham Artists':

Drums: Joe Bonadio
Percussion: Erik Charlston
Electric Bass: Will Lee
Keyboards: Charles Giordano
Electric Guitar: Larry Saltzman
Strings: Sandra Park, Jungsun Yoo, Sarah Seiver, Eileen Moon, Krysztof Kuznik, Ann Kim
Singers: Craig Chang, Tod Cooper, Jo Davidson, Jenny Douglas-McRae, Tabitha Fair, Morley Kamen, Gary Morris, Jenni Muldaur, Jason Paige, Sophia Ramos, Eugene Ruffolo, Stephen Scarpulla
Singers contracted by Valerie W. Morris, Val's Artist Management
Strings and Orchestral Percussion contracted by Sandra Park.
Arranged by Tony Finno.
Engineered & Mixed by Michael Sweet/Blister Media
Asst. Engineer: Steve Schopp
Special Thanks to David Crafa who generously helped us with studio time and resources.

‘911’ was recorded and mixed 10/03/01 at The Cutting Room Recording Studios/NYC
Mastered by Larry Lachmann/Absolute Audio
CD Art & Promo Design by Quiet Man: Amy Taylor: Exec. Prod./Jason Sienkwicz: Designer†

†Special kudos to Design Creative Director, Amy Taylor, and Designer, Jason Sienkwicz, who's powerful design of the song title, '911', uses a sans serif font to create two translucent rectangles that reference the Towers as they once stood, and as I hope that they will continue to stand in our collective memory. The combination of the date, whose numerical result parallels the US emergency telephone number, and the twin tower iconography, all together, creates  a semiotic masterpiece which we are happy to employ as the logo for this music. Thanks Jason and Amy!

Update: The folks at Landor seem to think so, too:

 "Finding a balance between a compelling visual style and the proper tone and mood for the memorial was important. Combining the date with the building silhouettes creates an essential connection in people’s minds."

Thursday, August 03, 2006

AI 03: Aural Stimuli & Influences

Do people 'mellow' as they mature, or are they actually returning to their 'roots' –turning their ears towards music whose melodic content is reminiscent of what they became acquainted with in early childhood –and regardless of whether or not they enjoyed it in their youth? Contrast the way you felt about your parent's music collection when you were young, for one instance, and the way you feel about it now:

Do you think you enjoy Sinatra or Chopin because you've acquired a level of sophistication that only comes with age? Or does this music appeal to you now because you were exposed to it long ago it at an impressionable age, while your parents played it for themselves?

Just what is the underlying impulse that makes you musically you? What’s at the sonic core of your soul? Maybe it’s Sesame Street? Maybe not –or maybe so! Personally, I think it’s whatever you were listening to before you reached your twelfth year.

Actually, I don't want to limit early 'sensory gathering' to mere listening alone. When I was a child I noticed sunlight flicker through trees, and I thought how one day I wanted to write music that sounded the way the light in that moment danced across the branches. So, I experienced a persuasive aural response to visual stimuli which I found not only entertaining, but it thereafter left a residual effect on the way I listen for music when I create it and generate it myself. What the eyes witnessed, the ears wanted to replicate. It was more than an influence, it produced a creative framework.

I once read a magazine article with some young rocker impressing upon the interviewer that his 'major' influences (dude) included Metallica and Nirvana. But I couldn’t help but think to myself: ‘Well, maybe you were influenced by Nirvana –but you got your mojo from Sesame Street.

And 'Metallica is to your soul what edging is to a Mother Goose granite counter top.'

One only has to consider how Carl Stalling's repertoire of Warner Brothers Cartoon Scores has shaped the inner ear of the latest generation of classical composers to realize that this must be at least somewhat true.


To read the complete Aural Intelligence Article, follow the links:

AI 01: Aural Intelligence
AI 02: AI Quotient
AI 03: Aural Stimuli & Influences

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

AI Quotient

When someone asks you to list your musical influences, they usually expect you to identify 'primary sources', that is artists and compositions that you consciously enjoy. After all who is really interested in what nursery rhymes you heard as a child? But, in fact, there's every reason to believe that one's underlying influences are those very same nursery rhymes, and not one's current list of favorite recording artists, for instance.

Of course, Americans who were born in the United States since at least 1980 have grown up listening to pop music from the day they were born. My friend, Andrew Hager, a composer who graduated from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program, noted that for Baby Boomers, the bands of the sixties represented rebellious music, whereas today’s kids are lulled to sleep in their cribs while their mothers play Beatles tunes.

You might even argue that kids growing up today will understand rock’n’roll in an innate way their parents never did, because they grew up with the genre –within the genre– rather than discovered it as the innovators of the medium rolled it out to teenagers.

My own exposure to pop music came a little later than most Americans because not only did we live overseas until I was thirteen, but also at the time the places we lived were considered remote. We were lucky to have any kind of television programming, which when we did was never in English, and this was certainly before the birth of the Internet.

What accounts then for the diminishing interest in the music of early childhood, and the increasing enjoyment for other forms of music, sound, conversation, etc? Human beings by their very nature require variety. And Maturity begets a taste for more sophisticated forms of music than the simple melodies of nursery rhymes. Thus as we evolve, we become more sophisticated creatures, whether we intended to or not –and some would say jaded, as well.

Once exposed to variety, it follows that we will require more and more complex forms of communication/ stimulation to keep our minds engaged.

But I think the substratum upon which all this mental processing is built, the architecture of sound, your personal Aural Intelligence Quotient, if you will – is formed as a child and forever remains the filter through which all subsequent sonic experiences are interpreted.

How could it not be the case?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

AI 01: Aural Intelligence

Scientists studying bird song believe that the process by which birds learn to sing may be relevant to understanding how people process speech.

I believe the reverse is also true in humans. That is, how and what we learn to speak has a direct casual effect on our relationship to music.


When I consider how music may have shaped my own ability to process sound, –whether as a human being, generally speaking, and as a unique individual– the first thing I consider is the music and sounds that I was exposed to in early childhood.

Before I continue let me offer a definition of the term: 'Ability to process sound'. I think of it as the summation of the following several actions:

A) Hearing
B) Listening (Focusing on specific incoming information)
C) Processing/Understanding
D) Executing an appropriate physical and often vocalized response

Early childhood naturally represents a critical period of human cognitive development. Researchers believe that by the time a child is five years old, they will have accumulated a 2,500 to 5,000 word sized vocabulary.

It has occurred to me that not only does this finding exemplify a fact of human language development, but it also indicates a more general and innate ability in all people to comprehend and communicate improvised, sophisticated patterns of sound (conversation), and from a very young age onward. As a skill, this does not strike me as too much unlike what I would describe as basic musicianship.

It follows then, congenital deafness notwithstanding, that as dependent on the ear as learning language is, language may in fact turn out to be a critical component in the development of musicianship.

I’m therefore also inclined to believe that the music I heard and learned as a child had a primary effect on my musical ear, whereas the music that captured my ear as a teenager –rock, for instance– had a secondary or even ternary, and primarily stylistic effect. –Not a negligible effect or influence, but neither a dominating one.

First there is the essential self, and all its birthright gifts, which some believe –I do– contains some fundamental musical information (See Ur-Song ). Then there is Knowledge: What we learn from the environment, and it follows what we hear in it. And then there is Stylistic Choice: How we chose to distribute to others the knowledge we've acquired. However, whether or not a role model presents itself, our brains will figure out their own way to distribute that knowledge, endowing you with a sort of innate style all your own.

And that's why classical musicians playing jazz and European musicians playing Asian melodies sounds wonky to even the least discerning ear. I suspect it may also be why an adult who learns a foreign language can rarely –if ever– completely hide their original accent.

You are what you are: An American in Paris, maybe? Everyone can tell, baby.

The clothes don't make the soul. Nor a new coat of paint change where the kitchen is. You can learn to dance but who taught you to walk like that? –now I'm on a riff, but anyone have a better metaphor?

If it still sounds convoluted, allow me to define yet another term.

I define ‘Influence’ as:

A compelling, but nevertheless indirect persuasion upon one’s behavioral patterns. A shot of vodka and a beautiful woman might influence my behavior, but neither precipitates my core personality.


Although, my father may reasonably disagree with that assessment.


To read the complete Aural Intelligence Article, follow the links:

AI 01: Aural Intelligence
AI 02: AI Quotient
AI 03: Aural Stimuli & Influences

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Strategic Audio Partnerships

I'd like to use this entry to revisit several ideas I’ve mentioned in the past, in separate posts, and perhaps demonstrate their interconnectedness. For although each concept was considered exclusive of the other, they can certainly work in concert. Such a strategy assumed by a wide enough base would have the result of forming a different kind of music industry than the one we see today. Or it might simply form a parallel but different branch of the entertainment industry. I've been calling this new paradigm 'Strategic Audio Partnerships'. These are three components that form the conceptual basis of the business plan:

1. Rock Brands: Rock Brands are artists who forgo traditional celebrity endorsement deals in lieu of strategic partnerships between their own brand/marketing company and a corporate account. They don't just show up for a film shoot, a party or publicity photos. They are active participants in the 'concepting', creation and execution of a marketing strategy that leverages their brand value to yield a return on investment for their clients –at an appropriate price.

Rock Brands will otherwise function as entertainers and audio/music providers, so never confuse their contributions to popular culture and commerce with traditional work-for-hire oriented music and sound production companies.

2. Medici Model Sponsorships: Such sponsorships are akin to those given to Public Television, whereby corporate patrons underwrite artists, with no endorsement expected, except to provide an appropriate and public acknowledgment for the source of the funds (unless otherwise negotiated). One might also consider that in lieu of direct grants made to artists, advertisers who wish to underwrite arts programs might allocate funds to a new kind of (possibly non-profit) record label. In this scenario, the artist is protected from accusations of 'selling out', because they will be producing art funded by an arts organization, not at the bequest of the foundation's contributors.

3. Camelback Collateral & Distribution: Camelback Distribution is a Non-Traditional Digital Audio Distribution method of delivery. It's referred to as Camelback, because something else carries the load. In this case Music is delivered as collateral or added value enhancements for other non-entertainment commodities –meaning the delivery of a music experience or product with every type of goods and services you can think of; whether packaged as a gift or promoted as a combo purchase.

So, for instance, one doesn't give away a free CD with a car purchase. Rather the music is liquid and the car –in this instance– is literally the vehicle for the distribution of music. The car -or any other primary product– replaces the CD case, if you want to think of it like that. One might reasonably expect that in the future the exchange of capital for a car, or any other product, will include a coupon, code or some yet-to-be-implemented technology for redeeming the artist's music at the artist's website, or an online music store; or Branded Mixes at the online space belonging to the product manufacturers.

Independent artists distributing their own works without a formal sponsor's product to package their music in/with, can simply package their music in or with their own branded merchandise, such as T-shirts, for instance. The purchase of a physical product –in this case, a T-shirt– eliminates the need for CD packaging (as the music itself is accessed via the web/ phone/ air –what I call in its 'liquid' form). The result is consumers pay for music but feel as though they are getting it for free.

This says nothing towards the idea of 'renting' music, which is a topic that merits an analysis beyond the scope of this entry.


For other articles in this series:
ROCK BRANDS: Tomorrow's Rock Star Marketing Partners
Branded Mixes
Medici Model Revisited
Artist X Brand X Not Available @ iTunes
Strategic Audio Partnerships
Diplomatic Corps Rock Fest

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Broadband Video Buzz

Broadband Video Buzz & The Interactive DilemmaBy Terry O'Gara
Originally published on Adholes, Wednesday, June 7, 2006

BBDO gives birth to Atmosphere. Mezzina Brown renames itself Agent 16. The Barbarian Group is redefining the very meaning of ‘Production Company’.

It’s no secret that established agencies and migrating talent have spent the last several years re-branding themselves with new mastheads, or by creating distinct interactive divisions. However, many creative suppliers remain entrenched in the traditional broadcast economy and are –perhaps– just starting to dabble with online media. Sure, every broadcast design firm and music house has their own website, but how many have necessarily been commissioned to work on online media pieces? Here in New York, not as many as you might think. (If you can tell me which ad houses are partnering with which post houses to produce killer content, post some links and let’s get a list going. )

A decade after the initial Internet explosion, many post-production houses can be said to have only dabbled in the medium, if at all. –And not for not wanting nor for lack of adventure. Actually, more than a few high-end creative suppliers have confessed new media budgets just don’t pay the bills. One wonders if Interactive work, like banners of every shape and form, really doesn’t lend itself to an external collaborative process, and therefore it’s all produced in-house?

Will Broadband Video Commercials change this? With recent IAB recommendations, and new formats rolling out of companies like Unicast and Forbidden, all of a sudden the future of Internet Advertising looks a lot like, gulp, the :30 TV spot.

Which leads me to this basic question: If every designer today is required to be an HTML whiz, will a director’s job change when hired to shoot expressly for broadband? How will an editor’s? Hey, will anything actually get shot EXPRESSLY for broadband, or will we actually be looking at repurposed :30’s? Are there any new skill sets that post-production staffers will have to demonstrate before the e-crowd believes they ‘get it’? And if audience/consumers are equally happy with content, regardless of screen size, and agencies handle the integration, why would anyone in post have to upgrade their skill set?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Interactive Advertising/Interactive Process

In late spring of 2006, my company Position Management, was commissioned by a Los Angeles production company to produce a State-of-the-Industry market analysis on Interactive Advertising. The report would thereafter serve my client as a reference tool with which to identify clients, contacts and other points of entry suitable for investigation by their associates. It was a project I was quite excited to work on, especially as I had been chasing the broadband video tail since the previous decade.

Obviously the resulting report and its findings are confidential, therefore I won't be divulging its contents here. However, as I carried out my task, I endeavored to conduct parallel research for a story which might end up in one trade magazine or another. Of current interest to me was the fact that eight years after the founding of Blister Media, and fifteen years after my first Interactive job, it was readily apparent that most traditional production companies who worked on broadcast advertising projects still hadn't worked on an interactive project, save their own website. Not only that, but some of these shops, despite their relative inexperience, promised vertical branding solutions. Whoa. Hello, people, that means top to bottom.

Anyway, I was –and I continue to be– intrigued with process. That is, how does a particular medium affect the way creative people work? You know, of course I already have my own ideas about this, but it's important to find out what other people think. Some people will tell you the technology has no bearing on their process. Others will tell you that it changes everything. Despite the fact that everything can be distilled to electro-magnetic waves, I can tell you from personal experience, that I write different music at a piano than I do a synthesizer. The electronic keyboard's layout might be identical to that of the piano, and it might in fact only be triggering a piano sample; but something changes in my brain when I know the possibilities have suddenly become limitless. –Or narrowed, for that matter.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Music As Collateral: Using Audio to Add Value

The music industry complains of being broken. Digital Audio is easy to copy. So, now consumers apparently have no reason to purchase legitimate product. As a result there is much talk regarding how to add further value to physical product in order to sustain a consumer base.

Let me suggest that instead of adding value to the music, let’s consider how to use music to add value to other consumer products. In this way:

A) the producers of a recording can profit;
B) the artists gain a vehicle for distribution; and
C) the consumer can feel like they’ve either earned a reward, or gotten something for free that they would otherwise have to pay for.

For instance:

I would personally be more likely to listen to an album of romantic songs if they were delivered with a premium box of Godiva chocolates. Likewise, the global florist, FTD, has an immense opportunity waiting for them if they are first to deliver music along with their floral arrangements. Long after the flowers wilt, a loved one can listen to the song they were gifted and thereby continue living within an FTD branded experience.

I call this Camelback Distribution (or Collateral) because something else is carrying the load. In this latter example the something else is the flowers, and the load the music.

Any kind of sponsorship may not be the best platform for an unknown artist, for either the artist or the sponsor; but you can surely can see how it could be a profitable one for both current hit makers –(Mariah Carey & FTD, for example)– and for classic catalog recordings, which in effect represents a vast emotional repository for the entire culture.

To the customer the experience won’t feel branded: It will simply feel like a love letter received from one person to the other; or it will be accepted as a token gift of music, accompanying the bouquet. Either way, which florist do you think giver and receiver are going to call the next time either one needs to send a bouquet of flowers?

As a teen my friends and I traded songs or mix tapes. On occasion, the exchange was prefaced with an explanation that the person receiving the material was to pay attention to a particular set of lyrics. Thus, the music became the vehicle for a message attributable not to the songwriter, but to the person who made the mix tape, to be decoded later by the person he or she gave the music to. In a way, the gift which arrived was in fact neither the mix tape nor the music, but rather both mix tape and music provided Russian Doll like packaging for an emotive expression, which was the true gift!

Given this scenario, which continues today with the exchange of mp3s, why not bundle single roses with singles (songs) and market the combo to teen romantics at a price they can afford?

I can imagine that the attached card might read:

"Nothing says 'I Love You' like a rose, except for music. This song says more about how I feel about you than I could ever put into words myself."

The reality is, the music isn't free but  it feels free, because the ostensible purchase is for the rose (or other gift (the 'camel'). So, the music is paid for with each and every product purchase. Alternately, a corporate sponsor can eat the cost entirely, either as a loss leader or because by doing so they hope to profit by factors other than an immediate economic payback (–such as the goodwill and gratitude of their customers, for instance).

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This article is one in series of articles about audio as added value. Read the other entries by following the links:

Music As Collateral: Using Audio to Add Value

The Compact Disc Is Dead
Saving The Music Industry One Brand at a Time
Self-Referential Jingles are not Content
Synergy = Energy

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Artist X Brand X Not Available @ iTunes

There may be a time in the future when the Apple brand is deemed an incompatible venue for one or more artists to distribute their works. It may happen, for instance, that a performer receives underwriting from Microsoft, or another Apple competitor. Apple, is not after all, retail agnostic. How long will Sony want to keep sending their consumers to their biggest competitor for music playback devices?

There’s absolutely no reason or need to send music fans to any specific online store, such as iTunes, whose own branded experience may fall outside any given artist's own brand mandate. Companies that underwrite artists should make downloads available on their own websites. Additionally –and in direct contrast to record label offerings– creative works resulting from corporate underwriting might even be offered without copy protection. Why? Because unlike traditional entertainment units, brands will want as many consumers as possible to share in their brand event/experience.

Assume an artist who receives sponsorship of some sort is satisfied with his or her compensation/funding. It follows that adequately financed, original works of art and music will have a chance of spreading virally as never before. And because the material is underwritten and not work-for-hire, the artist retains the option and opportunity to further profit from the material assuming his or her underwriters are duly credited (ex. 'This recording was made possible as a result of a grant from The Famous Soda Pop Co. Foundation For the Arts').

Underwriters might also negotiate such things as branded tags, keywords and icons so that the material can be located and viewed in iTunes (and other similarly formatted sites or applications) by BAND name and BRAND name. Why not? Doesn’t every movie begin with the producing studio's Logo? I’m not suggesting pre-roll audio commercial announcements be placed before a song or musical composition –although a .25 (quarter second) to 3.0 (three second) fanfare before a multi-song (or music+video) experience may not be too unreasonable for consumers to accept. However, I am advising that Song Info appear in any and all consumer databases fully credited:

‘Artist X’ – ‘Title X’ – courtesy of Brand X


For other articles in this series:
ROCK BRANDS: Tomorrow's Rock Star Marketing Partners
Branded Mixes
Medici Model Revisited
Artist X Brand X Not Available @ iTunes
Strategic Audio Partnerships
Diplomatic Corps Rock Fest

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Medici Model Revisited

There’s a historical precedent for patronage. Mozart, Bach, Beethoven –all the great classical composers– wrote music at the bequest of a variety of benefactors, be it the church, a member or royalty, or another extremely wealthy person. Michelangelo’s masterpieces were all created as commissioned works, and I don’t think anyone ever accused Michelangelo of selling out to the Medicis or the Roman Catholic Church.

As such, I don't understand why today our largest corporations do not commission symphonic works of some substantial length to merit an evening of music. If classical or concert music is dead, I can certainly imagine this kind of patronage changing the whole game, not to mention the potential contributions to the arts and culture such largesse would afford. By the way, I'm accepting such commissions beginning immediately.

As it turns out, some corporations already do employ art buyers: to decorate their lobbies and offices; to contribute to environmental branding needs and to enhance an investment portfolio. So, if a company has an art buyer in their employ, why not also create an artist relations role? Or develop in-house music producers who not only are capable of eliciting world class musical performances from the artists and entertainers they work with, but who also specialize in cultivating, selecting and filtering works of art (i.e. the composition, performance, tonality and recording process) through the lens of a client's brand strategy.

Of course, artists averse to selling out –if they perceive it as such– don't have to participate. And there will certainly be those whose material is so offensive or politicizing that they would be hard pressed to attract mainstream sponsors. But for others, the idea of piggybacking on a pound of Starbucks coffee or a can of Pepsi will be considered a perfectly acceptable means of guaranteed distribution should they choose to accept a corporate commission or grant (certainly, if the result is getting heard by millions of people).

Has any one who loves building cars or driving them ever said, “No, I can’t accept a sponsorship because that would be selling out; and therefore, I will limit all my driving to public roads?”

No, of course not: The best professional drivers want to get behind the wheel of the best-made cars and drive them on the most exclusive, prestigious and challenging tracks in the world. There’s no reason a similarly constructed music industry can’t adopt something from the NASCAR model.

Can you envision a day when consumers make all their music purchases at a grocery store because all the produce they purchase comes with –or provides access to– the music they want? I can: It will either be an economic nightmare or a gilded age.

Perhaps a can of beans is not an ideal stage for a serious composer. Perhaps the public will be turned off by an artist who arrives home with them with their organic carrots. But at the same time, I can't help but think it still is a commercially viable model for the production and distribution of entertainment, given the suitability of artist and corporate partner. I'd be more than happy to bring home the complete remastered works of Duke Ellington with a Lexus, and I wouldn't think less of the man or his art. A market exists for this delivery system right now, and it is probably larger than anyone right now can even imagine.

This may mean that companies such as Proctor & Gamble –to mention one company which is perfectly poised to take advantage of the proposed model– could eventually come head to head with companies like SONY/BMG. No doubt, today’s corporate titans are on the verge of a market shake-up that will define tomorrow’s entertainment behemoths and modern day Medicis. As a result, a company best known for selling soap and detergent today, just may win the upcoming war for consumer loyalty, and do by simply creating connections with artists; by funding music and distributing it with or without explicit tie-ins to their products and services (the music/ entertainment/ art might be made available only at their website, or by via some kind of non-commercial venue).

Proctor & Gamble is an especially formidable player in this regard because they already have a significant, if often overlooked, history as a content producer.

It bears mentioning that reasons for corporate patronage also include a desire or necessity to curry political favor in another country, as Lorenzo de' Medici is known to have done. By investing or contributing in another nation's arts and artists, one possibly wins favor with its members of government. For American and European interests (seeking foreign industrial contracts), it may seem like good strategy to spend dollars developing tomorrow's Chinese rock stars and East Indian gangsta rappers. Likewise, we may one day witness Asian governments sponsoring indigenous African and mid eastern cultural activities in a bid to compete for those country's petrol resources.

It should also be noted that government sponsorship of artist tours abroad are neither new nor even revolutionary. We are reminded by the Heritage Foundation on the Americans for the Arts website, that:

“Cultural exchanges are part of our first line of defense, helping to bridge ideological gaps and policy disagreements with person-to-person contact and close-up views of the United States. Such programs helped end the Cold War and could have reduced costly complications for America in the global war on terror.”

Future artists will greatly benefit from national patronage –or another form of sponsorship– if only for the guarantee of distribution and exposure, and if not always as a result of an association with the underwriter. –Although negative perceptions of artists (for participating in these relationships) by existing fans can largely be avoided if both parties –brand and band– make good public partners. New fans won’t care if patronage, endorsements or sponsorships are in play because that will be how they discovered the artist/s in the first place.


For other articles in this series:
ROCK BRANDS: Tomorrow's Rock Star Marketing Partners
Branded Mixes
Medici Model Revisited
Artist X Brand X Not Available @ iTunes
Strategic Audio Partnerships
Diplomatic Corps Rock Fest

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Auto-Tune™ Goes Public

Auto-Tune™ is digital processing software used to correct the pitch of vocal or instrumental performances. It was introduced to the market in 1997, by Antares Audio Technologies. However, I’ve recently noticed the word/phrase ‘autotune’ being used as a generic term, –regardless of whether the lawyers at Antares, think that's a good thing or not.

Other trademarks have slipped into the public domain: Kleenex, and Xerox, for two examples. Henceforth, when I use the word as a descriptive, I will refer to ‘autotune’ and ‘autotuning’ (no capitalization; no hyphen).

I define autotune, or autotuning as:

Fixing or otherwise enhancing a vocal performance, using modern mojo.

Many point to Cher’s ‘I Believe’ as the first commercial pop song that brought autotuning to the general public’s attention. There are conflicting reports whether the effect on Cher’s voice was the result of an extreme Antares Auto-Tune™ setting (whose effects are usually transparent on minimal fixes), or the sum results of another technology. The British recording magazine Sound-On-Sound does a pretty good job of documenting that the song was in fact produced using Antares technology.

Whatever the technique, the result may be inhumanly perfect pitch, but the sonic artifacts that one hears as the pitch is centered to an absolute setting is not the result of a heavy handed producer, but rather an intentional artistic decision. Quite simply, –and most twelve year olds agree– the heavy-handed effect sounds cool.

What did recording engineers and producers do before Antares made Auto-Tune™ pitch correction available (there are other similar DSP solutions to correcting pitch, such as Melodyne™ (Celemony), which I also include as autotuning software).

Before the advent of either Auto-Tune™ or Melodyne™, producers and engineers might have used digital samplers to fix vocals –a painstaking task. Before samplers they might have ‘comped’ vocal passes (which continues to be a common technique). Comping is the art of splicing (now cutting and pasting) a number of vocal takes together in order to create one perfect master take. Equally common is the art of 'punching' in a new vocal or instrumental take over a pre-recorded take, that is recording a live bit of new performance over a bit of pre-recorded material.

Punching in a word or note here and there may not seem the egregious bit of studio magic that autotuning is, but punching in every single word of a lyric, or note of a solo– certainly is. On the other hand, if the end result sounds great, why not do it? Is the purpose of a commercial recording A) to document a musician's skill set, or B) to document the best performance of the work/song. The answer is invariably –but not always– 'B'.

There are other ways to create perfect vocal. For example, a touch of reverb or chorus has long been a producer’s best friend in this regard. Unlike autotuning, which centers the pitch, reverb, chorus and other similar effects serve to mask a poorly pitched vocal.

Effects aren’t just used to correct a vocal performance. Just as often they are used to enhance a vocal performance. Consider Alvin and the Chipmunks, for instance, and enjoy the technological marvel of slowing the tape down during record, and playing it back at regular speed (thus speeding up the vocals at the same time as raising the pitch).

One device, the Eventide’s H3000™, has long been a staple in recording studios for it’s ability to facilitate ‘Harmonization’ techniques – whereby a recorded performance is doubled and then the replication is re-pitched, and/or delayed, thus creating a harmony, of varying realism.

Vocoding –that robotic effect we sometimes hear, is essentially the sum of a a vocal signal modified by an electronically produced signal.

Some argue people who have no business singing are using autotuning to cover up imperfect performances. However, it is just as often the best musicians and singers who demand autotuning because they want to sound even more perfect than they are.

I sometimes wonder if there is also a racist or sexist component –or a bias against homosexual oriention– that underlies criticisms against autotuning and other similarly creative digital signal processing. I know that sounds patently ridiculous on the surface, but consider the DEATH TO DISCO movement during the nineteen seventies: At the time it was thought an innocent backlash against an overplayed trend. But from our current perspective, we can see that it was propagated by a mostly white, heterosexual American male population upon the collective popular works produced by either gay, European or African American artists.

Similarly, much of the bemoaning over autotuning, vocoding and harmonizing, comes across as a wholesale prejudice against urban, pop and dance music genres. Any armchair pop anthropologist has have to wonder: Is it the technology? Or the people using the technology?

Further, I’ve never once heard any guitarist decry the use of Fuzz or distortion. Yet, guitarists have been hiding sloppy technique behind torn speakers, overdriven amps and stomp box emulations of both since the sixties.

Remember a DC comic book character called Bizarro Superman? Bizarro Superman was Superman’s doppelganger: an Anti-Superman who was everything Superman was not. Thus Bizarro logic dictates black is white, strong is weak, good is evil, etc.

I’ve come to think of rampant distortion as Bizarro autotuning. Instead of centering guitar pitch, it masks it. That’s why it’s called distortion! –And it is the constant friend of many a hammered fingered rocker.

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Friday, January 06, 2006

Sonic Semiotics Series

Click on any link below to read all the articles in the four-part January 2006 SONIC SEMIOTICS series exploring the author's musicological development of a personal branded theory for sound.

1. Say It In 1.25 Seconds
2. Bumps, Bugs, Beats and Brands
3. The Message In Merrill Lynch
4. Packaging Vs. Branding

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Like this topic? Explore these four other articles from the Critical Noise Archive, exploring the relationship between Sound and Symbol and Sonic Branding:

1. This Is Where The Story Ends (March 1, 2003)
2. The Ur-Song (February 1, 2002)
3. Branding With Audio (March 30, 2001)
4. HBO ZONE: Creating a Sonic Identity (October 01, 2000)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Music Packaging Vs. Sonic Branding

In 1996 I was asked to serve as a lead music supervisor on the 1996 NBC Olympics, a project spearhead by Audrey Arbeeny, who turned out to possess a preternatural talent for maximizing the entertainment value of broadcast sporting events. My future business partner, Michael Sweet, also worked on the project programming a precursor to iTunes, which would serve as an onsite digital library for NBC’s location based producers.

My own responsibility was to listen, select and identify music –and edit points– for possible license. In this capacity I personally selected and categorized approximately 3000 pieces of music by sport and mood, so that, for instance, Victorious Track and Field different from a music selection suggestive of defeat, but Victorious Track and Field would be distinct from Victorious Swimming or Victorious Gymnastics. Categorization coupled with the digital interface allowed on-site NBC producers instantaneous access to a music bed suitable for any event or situation.

It was by this process that I soon realized how music could thread connected but different events (the activities), within an overall multi-experiential event (NBC's Olympic Broadcast).

While the Olympic Project taught me a good deal about music identification and selection for a broadcast, it also changed the way I think about branding. In fact, I hesitate to think of this work as 'Branding', which I admit goes against the grain given its use in this manner by many music supervisors I meet.

Heres why:

My personal standard for what is and isn't branding starts with a uniquely identifiable mark.Certainly, branding has evolved beyond the limitations of mere mark, but nevertheless, a distinct mark embedded with symbolic data continues to serve as a valid lens through which we may create branded experiences and other related assets.

As it happens, there's nothing distinct about licensing music from the same pool of work which others do, notwithstanding the argument that the music selection in conjunction with the picture creates a unique experience.

Moreover, a winning athlete doesn't need my jubilant rock selection to brand the event victorious. He or she has defined the occasion by virtue of their own efforts. My music selections for the Olympics,then, provided a utilitarian function to enhance (or focus) mood and maximize the entertainment value of those who are spectators to the event.

One could argue a DJ spinning a uniquely and specifically conceived playlist for a given venue is in fact branding the environment. I agree in the general sense of the term, but I still think some other nomenclature is on order.

Wrapping an in-store experience or hotel lobby up in a bundle of musical works specifically composed for an event or the venue itself reminds me more of producing a score for film and TV.

Is a soundtrack a Branded playlist?

Even I'm guilty of labeling such things BRAND MIXES, which is what I called them (and continue to call them) when I first started pitching them to clients in the mid nineties.

But when my company, Blister Media, was recognized by the television industry with the 2000 Gold Promax award for Best Original Music & Sound Design for Network Packaging (HBO Zone) I realized then that the concept of 'Packaging' film and video entertainment could be applied to any media platform, and even environments, and have made the distinction ever since.

Although, lately I've been thinking of retail and hospitality environments as volumes of space (which they are) and therefore maybe 'packaging' isn't quite right because it's something we apply to the outside, when in fact, we fill a space with music from the inside out.

Regardless, it may sound like an arbitrary distinction, but here's how I distinguish between Branding and Packaging:

Branding is the transmission of uniquely distinctive signification in order to convey a client's position for the purpose of creating a bond with an audience, user or consumer. Branding may thus be said to be: The art and science of composing a semiotic construction for the purpose of business-to-consumer communication.

In contrast, a Packaging assignment implies the utilitarian design and construction of mood enhancers for the benefit of participants or spectators, and which may or may not compel a specific action (or inaction).

For instance, the music provided by a DJ in a hotel lobby is meant either to entertain you or float through the air like a kind of aural wall paper, but nary a single track is necessarily identifiable as representing the hotel. Granted, some venues do make effective use of music to brand an environment, but if entertainment is the client's primary purpose, then any brand statement is going to be compromised, or at the very least suffer from potential dilution, as the message of one piece of music fades into the potentially contrasting content of another.

Audio for devices provides a great opportunity for the production of branded assets, although in practice it is more likely a signature 'tone' will be identified as the logo, and the rest of the sounds, though they belong to the same 'family' or 'palette' simply serve to provide confirmation of physical execution.

Perhaps it is better not lump all applied audio as sonic branding or packaging, but simply to speak of the need for utilizing sonic signification for a specified purpose.

In the meantime, I continue to think of audio branding the commission of an original mark (embedded with a message), and packaging as a curated collection of sounds created for a functional purpose. And that utility may –and often does– include the intent to entertain or inform, as each circumstance requires.

So as Branded Audio is to a single ray of light, Packaged sound is the reflections bouncing off a mirror ball.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Message In Merrill Lynch: A Lesson in Sonic Branding

In 1995, if memory serves correctly, it was Steven Cohen, the senior vice president and management supervisor on the Merrill Lynch account at Bozell Worldwide, who tapped his car keys on the glass coffee table before him and declared:

"This not the sound of Merrill Lynch."

And with that one sentence, our demos were dust.

The specific spot Cohen was referring to was alternately titled 'Privatization' and 'South African Leaders' (Titles change as spots evolve from storyboard to broadcast). And it was produced by Paul Gold and Jean-Claude Kaufmann, who was then the Director of Broadcast Production at the New York office of Bozell Worldwide.

Both Kaufmann and Gold were not only among our most important clients, but their passion for the work, and the humanity they brought to the game, always made them enjoyable to work with. They also both belonged to a group of advertising professionals that I considered role models for best-of-breed creative producers.

And it helped that both men seemed to share a parallel musical aesthetic with the creative direction produced by our music team. So, even though we worked hard, it was generally easy to get on the same page, which is not always the case with every client.

Indeed, the process from demo production through revisions and an eventual narrowing down of selections to two or three suitable options proceeded as efficiently as one can hope for any project.

But only when the New York agency’s creative team were fully satisfied that our music score options fully satisfied the story objectives required by the footage, did they send the music down to the Merrill Lynch account execs, which were based in Princeton. Naturally, we were surprised when word came back that they were definitely not impressed. As head of music production, I was especially none too pleased to see what had at first seemed a finely executed project return to the studio as a full blown crisis. Gold and Kauffman informed us that an emergency meeting was requested and we made the necessary arrangements (i.e., vacuumed the floors and ordered food from a really nice restaurant).

MESSAGE IDENTITY TONALITY

Some days later, a black and gray suited swarm of Bozell and Merrill Lynch representatives filled our studios looking like Federal Agents securing a location, so that the doors were blocked, calls were held and the facility felt like if was on lock-down.

It was only when Cohen arrived that we learned the reason for the Senior VP’s concern. He demanded that not only the soundtrack enhance the story –as was the usual rote instruction for every project– but also that the tonality of the music score itself reflect the Identity of the financial institution. In effect, Cohen demanded that the score, absent of picture, would be identifiable as unique branded audio asset for the company.

In hindsight, it seems like a perfectly reasonable request. But in 1995, most scores for TV commercials in 1995 did not do that. By the way, most commercial scores in 2006 don’t do that either. Then and now, most clients commission music that either works as a bed or simply “supports the story”, exactly in the same manner as a film score enhances a movie cue, but say with a bit of audio pixie dust for a product or logo reveal. The task of creating original music and sound design for TV and Radio commercials did not –or only rarely– require a brand analysis.

We were already familiar with the notion of creating a project specific ‘palette’ of sounds for other classes of projects, such as broadcast network or cable channel packaging, but that was considered a different kind of media animal.

Anyway, Cohen shook his head and played our military snare parts back to us on the table (again using his keys). We were puzzled by his criticism. We felt we had presented a regal fanfare that any financial institution would have been happy to have. And yet, Cohen's arrangement for car keys and glass coffee table, intended to mimic our score (and possibly belittle our intelligence) sounded rather tinny and funereal on playback to me, which was his point.

It did not help matters that a delicate white bowl holding perfectly balanced exotic fruit from Indonesia rattled in sympathetic unison with the rat-a-tat-tats.

'Beyond being symphonic, what was Merrill Lynch supposed to sound like, anyway?'–I wondered.

I know what my colleagues –award winning composers all– were thinking:

'Merrill Lynch be damned, the music works!'

We were frankly befuddled, and Cohen’s departure was followed by internal argument. However, after some discussion, it eventually did click and make sense:

The music we had initially produced supported the narrative just fine, in the cinematic way that a film score enhances a movie experience, however the music did not actually convey anything about the client's Identity or immediate communication objective –the Message– beyond the action and emotion evident in the footage.

When I say 'Message', I mean:

The symbolic transmission of a client's brand attributes.

And if we felt that any financial institution would have been happy to have the track, perhaps it was because our arrangement wasn't specific to any one brand! We had composed symphonic works for other financial institutions before, and it was then that I realized that prior to 'Privatization', melody was the only differentiating element that separated music for one bank from music for another.

We resolved the musical issue and delivered two arrangements that not only ‘enhanced the story’, but were arranged in such a manner that they uniquely conveyed our client’s brand attributes.

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS

I never approached another project again without the knowledge I gained on from that project. In fact, when Kaufmann and Gold would later that year commission us with the the production of another score for the Bahamas Board of Tourism, we certainly approached that campaign with a newfound branded sensibility. At the time we called it 'Identity' and not 'Branding', and in hindsight, I think Identity formation is closer to what we were doing than branding, even if the latter word also includes the other today.

After that however, I can also tell you that out of hundreds of projects before and after Merrill Lynch –with the exception of network packaging and tourism board commissions– McDonald's is the only other client I recall whose every spot arrived with a precise sound schematic (this during the French Fry wars of the mid nineties).

Today, anyone who has been in the business of commercial audio for some time will not be surprised by this revelation. Music often represents the final step in the production process before a campaign goes to air. It is arguably part of the post-production process, although clients will sometimes invite participation during pre-production to discuss storyboards –possibly ten to twelve weeks before the shoot. But the conversation where everyone discusses how to communicate a sales objective within parameters established by brand values? That happened twelve months ago, without you, the composer, present. At that stage, your opinion (as the audio/music vendor) was considered irrelevant (by the client). Too bad, because I think 'branded arrangements’ would serve some clients much better than simply an old fashioned movie score.

For the most part, music production is often squeezed into an absurdly short development period (assuming quality is also to be considered). Did we tell you that you had a two weeks? Well, now you have two days; can we hear demos this afternoon?

There were times when I literally had 24 hours to produce a forty or fifty piece live orchestra performing a fully orchestrated original piece of music (which of course had to be first vetted by several layers at the ad agency) –including revisions. You'd be surprised with all year to prepare, how many Super Bowl spots are still in production right down to the wire, and how often the music is commissioned with only days to go before the big game.

So, when exactly does the sonic brand conscious composer hope to execute his or her brand analysis before beginning work?

The reality is that most of the time, clients afford music teams a fifteen-minute conference call and then you’re off; and it’s a mad dash to get approvals and finish before the air date.

Notwithstanding this circumstance, however, I still believe that if this is how you want to practice your art, then you do need to develop an aptitude for developing marketing, message (brand attributes ) and story objectives into semiotic audio strategies that work on both the micro and macro levels (for the spot at hand AND for the brand).

No one said it was easy.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Bumps, Bugs, Beats and Brands

Between 1994 and 1996 I was lucky enough to be participate in a producer capacity in the development of several network launches or re-launches, –ESPN2, Comedy Central, PBS and SCI FI among them. This work can be summed up as enhancing animation with thematic material. The common commission required everything from three minute themes to three second logo 'bugs'.

Although well experienced producing :30s and :60s for TV commercials, we were all relatively new to the process of creating network packaging and therefore treated each individual promo, bump, etc –whatever the length– as unique asset, requiring that it be composed from scratch. Once we gained experience composing packages for ESPN and ESPN 2, we were able to modify our process by creating long format works from which we might extract a multitude of smaller assets.

Our creative director, Alex Lasarenko, was first to suggest that each five second sting (the memorable end of the track, often used as a sonic logo) should be constructed as an extractable tag from a longer asset, perhaps a :30 or :60.

I was responsible for budget control, and so it fell on me to maximize our profit. And that being the case, I picked up on Lasarenko's idea and expanded on it, suggesting further that it would be exponentially more efficient to produce everything from one long masterwork –when possible.

Understand that in those days we were still dumping Synclavier sub-mixes to 2" tape. It was an arduous task and it fell on production to plan well ahead and make sure every individual asset and version could be accounted for as we went to tape, even within the limitations of of 23 tracks (+1 for Time code), with the core masterwork being the longest version of the theme required by the cable channel or network (a minute to 3 minutes in length).

But as we were wrapping up a package for Comedy Central, Larry Alexander, the engineer famous for mixing everybody, happen to tell me about this new portable ProTools rig he had. He explained to me what he could do with it, and that since it was relatively new, he was pretty excited to use it. So, we hired Larry to mix and edit entire audio portfolios, and it turned out he could do in a day with that rig what it might have once taken us a week to do.

Mind you, his 'portable' rig was not a simple single laptop. The rig arrived by truck and just about doubled the amount of equipment stuffed into her our studios.

Larry's the first person I knew that had what was a full-on Pro Tools set up in those days. So, whenever I specifically hired him to do a session with the rig, it was considered a specialty request only few could accomplish, and we had to have a pretty decent budget to afford it.

But all worth it!

Larry is the type of engineer who will mix down an orchestra with a conductor's score splayed out across the console, like Leonard Bernstein, except instead of holding a baton; he wields massive amounts of technology at his fingertips. I know that all of us who stepped within five feet of Larry's work space would always try to look over his shoulder and pick up a tip or two, compression settings, for instance –always the man's coveted compression settings– that sort of thing.

From the perspective of pure communication, I found the five-second units –the 'bumps'– most interesting because, in practice, a five-second edit generally necessitated the inclusion of a two-second reverb tail and fade, meaning that only three seconds of actual music could be allotted to actual communication of the network logo –the 'sting'.

As it turned out, Larry, who was famous for working the epic song cycles of the some the world's most baroque pop stars, also proved exceptional at whittling the fat off sixty second main themes and carving out terse, tasteful, three-second stings.

The final results provided by producing network packaging impressed upon me the power for audio beyond its ability enhance a story line. In fact, it was with such small deliverables as bumps and bugs that I was beginning to realize, that (in contrast to scoring for film) sound just might be the most efficient means -barring a graphic symbol– to convey a MESSAGE, and so, here I was beginning to evolve my thinking of music production not merely as a means to enhance story, but to deliver a message, and how that philosophy might be applied to the construction of sonified signification and brand asset portfolios.

Say It In 1.25 Seconds

In January of 1994, Hunter Murtaugh, then Music Director for Young & Rubicam, commissioned our company to produce an International Long Distance Connection Tone for telecommunications giant, AT&T –'World Plus', as they then called the short work.

Our mandate was to convey a friendly internationality in less than two seconds. In fact, the length of the tone was to be precisely a second and a quarter in length. We produced multiple variations, and in the end a submission constructed by the company's staff orchestrator, Louis King, was selected the winner.

Louis is a graduate of the Berklee School of Music, and he also studied privately with Danny Troob. No surprise then, that given his immense talent, Louis won against the more experienced composers that he had directly been competing against.

So, what did Louis score exactly?

• A branded audio asset for AT&T: A telephony logo, a Sonic or Tonal ID
• Emotional feedback to the caller: This process is easy
• A message to the consumer: Our technology is friendly
• A confirmation of a task: Your request has been executed

In short, Louis used sound to deliver a MESSAGE. He did this not by composing a miniature score but by creating a bit of sonic signification: a bit of ear candy whose encoded information would be unpacked by the brain's of each caller. No doubt, an intuitive sense of semiotics was as important to the success of this work as was his knowledge of music or production.

However, as it happens, the deployment a connection tone was never motivated by any technological necessity. By 1994, telephony technology allowed for an instantaneous long distance connection. The use of tone to bridge a call was solely conceived as an opportunity for AT&T to remind customers of its presence and service.

After we delivered the final asset to the client, it occurred to me that if story enhancement made up the essential part of the Twentieth Century commercial composer's tool kit, that Twentieth First Century sonic artisans might increasingly abe called upon to also demonstrate expertise with signification processes, a heretofore irrelevant subject (for a musician).

Of course, composer's have long understood the emotive power of music. but why not also employ sound to convey encoded information, as this AT&T project made clear to me was a very real possibility?