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.

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