Sunday, January 01, 2006

Backstory in Audio Branding

Back in 1996, every film editor with stock sound library fancied him or herself a sound designer. In 2000, every kid with a turntable called himself a DJ, and every DJ called himself a producer. 

And today, it seems like every music production team lists 'Sonic Branding' as one of their capabilities. And who knows really.

The first person I ever heard speak about sonic branding was, Scott Elias, in 1991 or 1992, except that he used the phrase ‘Sonic ID’ instead, and later simply, 'Identity'. Scott was not himself a musician, but he was the closest thing to a visionary that I knew of. He was also a poet and a businessman, and along with his brother –record producer and film composer, Jonathan Elias– co-founded Elias Arts. 

In my career I’ve met only two people in advertising that I can unequivocally call futurists, and they were Scott Elias and Robert Greenberg of the acclaimed Interactive production company, R/GA. I was lucky to spend six years working for the former; and produced several audio projects for the latter over the course of a decade. 

For all of Scott’s foresight, however, Elias (then Elias Associates) didn’t win many projects that lent themselves to sonic branding during my tenure ('91-'96). This is by no means a slight against the company, but rather to call attention to the fact that such jobs were few and far between. Nor did there seem to be many commercial composers who actually filtered their assignments through a brand strategy. As a result, I have a pet theory that music production companies didn't start providing sonic branding because advertising agencies and brand consultants asked them for it, but because music production houses sat down with agency heads and brand strategists and said, 'Look, you guys are overlooking something here'

Anyway, as with every other music house up through the nineties, Elias’ bread and butter was composing soundtracks –jingles and underscores– for television and radio commercials. The traditional attitude of marrying music to picture held that first and foremost the sound track should ‘help tell the story’ –Which unless explicitly stated, generally meant,'support the narrative' and punctuate the edit. Since advertisements are often thought of as mini-films, this way of thinking about music for ads, –however limited in retrospect– made complete sense for the time. 

I left Elias before the company made substantial forays into sonic branding, before branding was even really in the popular consciousness the way it is now. However, while I was at Elias, I worked on several projects that would eventually serve to shape my own developing concepts regarding audio as an instrument of marketing, which I categorize as a branch of semiotics (an idea which I'll examine further in subsequent posts). Even before projects got started, there were other tasks required to the preparation for a given job that also shaped my evolving understanding that film scoring and branded audio might be two individual disciplines. 

For instance, pre-ProTools, our composers worked on Synclaviers whose mini-computer cores offered severely limited disc space by today's standards: one composer might transfer 8 to 10 MB of sampled audio from 9 or 10 floppy discs before other composers complained about the hog using up all the hard drive space. The result being that a composer had to decide which specific sounds he or she wanted to use before beginning any project. 

As I gained more experience as a producer, and earned the trust of our senior creatives, I was eventually able to suggest sounds for certain projects, or specific cues, the same way one might suggest using a specific session musician. And as it turns out, performing such mundane tasks such as the selection and categorization of individual sounds into palettes and libraries (for use on a specific project) is not a bad way towards tuning the ear from a purely cinematic skill set to a cognitive filter suitable to the construction of branded audio. 

 * * * 

Click on any link below to read other articles from the five-part January 2006 SONIC SEMIOTICS series exploring the author's musicological development of a personal 'brand mythology' applicable to sonic assets. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i think the blog is really cool. i'd like to hear stories about the whole admosphere at Elias and how much of way we were with the clients created a special envionment. from the rugs on the floor to the paintings on the walls. i remember going shopping with Scott Elias for just the right plate for the fruit when we had clients in. YEAH. Attention to detail and beauty was ALL part of it.,