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?

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. 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 Arts (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.

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