Friday, November 16, 2007

Breaking Into the Ad Music Biz

While browsing the Sound-On-Sound Music Business Forum recently, I came across a conversation regarding the trials and tribulations one might expect attempting a career creating music for advertising. As it happens, I have had to give the subject considerable and repeated thought given five earlier commissions over the last five years by clients seeking to gain entry to the industry, or by established firms seeking to expand services. This as a result of having held the position of Executive Producer for two leading U.S. production companies, and the entrepreneurial experience I later gained as co-founder and Executive Producer of a pioneering interactive music outfit in the late nineties called Blister Media, and whose uniquely combined studio practices the publishers of Mix Magazine, in their April 2001 Internet Audio supplement, suggested was a portent to ‘The Future of Music Production’.

Sound-On-Sound is a British publication and while I'm not deeply familiar with the U.K. scene, I do have a passing familiarity with it as one client I provided consultation services to was and is a U.K. concern interested in setting up shop in the United States. As I'm not currently bound by any non-disclosure agreements, I therefore decided to throw in my two cents and offer some background and advice to the aspiring freelance or newly independent commercial composer or young music producer. As my post to the forum turned out to be a little longer and detailed than I intended, I thought it might make for good reprint here on the CRITICAL NOISE blog.

So with minor alteration and enhancements, and without out any further ado:

Having produced music, sound design and sonic branding projects for two leading US production co.'s., perhaps I can offer some helpful background and advice to those looking to break into this arena:

It's increasingly difficult for an unknown composer to break in to the business of writing music for advertising for at least three reasons:

A) More and more commercials use licensed tracks from recording artists or license libraries. That means fewer commissions for original music.

B) While commissions have diminished (for TV Commercials), competition has increased by an exponential number. When I started my first job for Elias Arts in 1991, ten U.S. music production houses of note were listed in a national industry registry. By the time I left Machine Head in 1998 to start my own shop, Blister Media, there were at least fifty good ones nationwide I could name –and now it seems there are also hundreds of boutiques located in every major production center, such as LA, New York, London, etc.

Moreover, as a result of a strike by the Screen Actors Guild in the late nineties, U.S. agencies began producing more work overseas. Once exposed to talents in Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, South Africa, England and elsewhere, –and receiving top shelf creative at a lower cost–, US vendors in every area of production found themselves having to adjust their bids in order to compete with new overseas competitors. More so than other post production professionals, employees of US music houses suffered especially so because their income was also based (and still is) on performance royalties. As you might imagine, the Internet (and global access to non union talent) has, among other things, made the competition pool that much wider. Not only is the pie smaller, there are more people who want a piece of it.

In an attempt to gain an advantage over the increasing competition, established houses began providing more demos for the buck to their clients, and presenting them nearer to what might call the final stages of completion. What was once an original fee for one semi-produced demo now has to be amortized over several full-up tracks, only it really can't. And what was once the possibility of a profit on demo budgets, now has dwindled to the break even point, and often not even that.

In 1993 the company I worked for produced an average of four or five demos per project. By 2001, it wasn’t unheard of to deliver up to twenty demos per project –from a single house! Multiply that by the three or four other houses and you realize advertising agencies may consider forty, fifty or sixty original tracks in demo stage, before they settle on one.

Fortunately the quality of samples is much higher than it once was, saving the cost conscious composer from having to hire session musicians for demos, (or even finals much of the time). But that circumstance comes with its own set of problems (When Marketers Hear Double). If you think you have a hard time as a composer getting work, be thankful you're not trying to make a living strictly as a studio drummer.

C) Errors and Omissions. Agencies generally now require composers to carry insurance against the odd claim of copyright infringement. E&O is essentially malpractice insurance for musicians. It may be that it was always required of vendors, but when I first started in the business no one ever demanded that I actually produce evidence of holding the policy. Now agencies regularly ask new, prospective vendors to produce a copy before allowing them to participate in the bidding process. In the 'old days' some people I know didn't really carry the policy, but said they did in order to secure work. Rather, they signed the agency's work-for-hire agreement that stipulated they carry the policy, even if they didn't. Then they crossed their fingers and prayed they wouldn't get sued.

Of course, most composers will tell you they are highly original and that they would never plagiarize another musical work, so carrying an E&O policy isn't an issue for them. But as I've mentioned elsewhere in this blog (The Cinematic Reincarnation of Classical Music), composers of music for film and video, –whether they are scoring a two hour movie or a thirty second TV commercial– are frequently asked to use another work as a model and reference. In fact, such temp tracks often arrive with the rough cut, and the expectation is that the commissioned composer's new music will work with picture bearing a substantial degree of similarity to the temp track, without actually infringing.

If you don't want to carry an E&O policy, or can't afford to, remain freelance and solicit work from the big production companies that do carry it.

The good news is that what was bad for the big boys –i.e. union strikes, lower production budgets, non union workers, global competition, etc– actually sometimes works in favor of those trying to break into the business, whether they are local or working over the Internet. And increasingly, the big houses are moving from –if they haven't already– from hosting exclusive staff composers to representing armies of freelance independent talents. Recently SOS published a profile of Amsterdam based music house Massive, describing the company as having relationships with "a worldwide pool of approximately 75 freelance composers".

Ten years ago a company might exercise discretion regarding any use of freelancers, fearing outward perception that the core of the brand lacked the necessary wherewithal to execute a given creative vision internally. It's sort of like hearing your favorite band had to call in a session guitarist to do the leads. But today, that notion has been completely turned on its head, and the stigma (of using freelancers) faded. Music houses have become less like film studios retaining exclusive talent, and more representatives of free agents.

Naturally, this has good and bad aspects for the modern independent composer. It's good, because you now have a better chance of succeeding than you did before: Someone, somewhere is likely to give you a shot, eventually; but the negative is that you're also up against an even greater amount of competition than your predecessors, and everyone is equally and adequately armed with ProTools.

In the April 2001 issue of Shoot Magazine I argued that while the broadcast advertising pie was getting smaller, and the amount of competition increasing, there was still room for everybody (Too Many Notes To Choose From?). I still think this is true, but as I said then, only if your business model allows for multiple streams of income. If you're relying only on thirty second TV advertising commercials for income, then it's likely you have already gone out of business. A music house today, even a freelance composer, needs to be able to solicit work for, and accommodate projects from, across a wide swath of media options: advertising, film, electronic game, interactive media, theme parks, special venues, in store locations and other on site platforms, as well as get into the business of licensing a library of works. It can be a daunting exercise.

By the way, if you think of yourself more as a songwriter who would like to license tracks rather than as a composer who takes on commissions for original music, follow this link to read more about How To License Your Songs.

It bears mentioning that the barrier to entry is indeed lower than it once was, at least when it comes to equipment and building costs. So long as you work as freelancer to other music production companies, no one will care what you made your music on so long as it sounds great, does the job, and you are able to deliver it according to the technical specifications required of you. Additionally, if you've been retained by a music house, your employer is the de facto client liaison, and thus you won't also need to lay out the cash to build out a gorgeous facility for entertaining said clients. One day you might: Tomorrow you could very well be a first call Sonic Branding guru. But for now, let's concentrate on getting your foot in the door.

Regardless of whether you chose to solicit work from music production companies, or directly from agencies, studios and other clients, you will need to build a reel demonstrating your talent. Your 'reel' may not be an actual reel. It may simply be a website with quicktime samples of your work. In all likelihood you will need to create hard copies for distribution as well, in the form of a DVD.

Some question whether it is ethical to build a demo reel by scoring existing TV film, adverts or video footage. I say: Do it, do it, do it. Get on the Internet and find ten to fifteen beautiful or über cool TV commercials to download and score them, and/or add sound design. If you can't mix, have someone else mix them down for you. To be honest, if you want to compose music for advertising, you are going to have to learn how to record and mix. Schedules often move too fast for anyone to wait around for a dedicated engineer to do his or her thing. Your demo reel has to sound ready for broadcast, and you should really be capable of executing such a task. But even if you do mix yourself, get another pair of ears to judge your work. In advertising you will have many people review and criticize your work before it goes final. Get used to accommodating other people's opinions now.

That said, pairing a musician/composer with a musical engineer or creative producer makes for a great team, but no one's going to pay you twice as much to get the job done. You'll have to split the budget between you. Mind you, many established music houses were founded by dynamic duos, so if you do work as a duo, money may be tighter at the beginning but your collective energies may pay off later as you build a business.

As for the reel you build, as you gather video also collect the agency and the director info for each spot. Once you've assembled the credits, note them on the label and/or on your site, along with the title for each spot or project: Each item might be therefore be labeled something like this:

Product/Title/Length/Agency/Director/Demo or Final

For instance:


1) Title: Adidas ‘Sport’ :30
Agency: Harajuku Worldwide
Dir: Ridley Scott (Demo)

But if what happens if you then send your music to the actual music house that produced the actual track that went final, or the ad agency that produced it? Well, they might like it, they might hate, they might ignore it. The music house might even think that your score was a demo the agency had someone else do, which happens all the time as I mentioned above. As for the agency, I suspect they will probably be flattered –if the people who review your work are even the same people who created the original spot. Given the number of people who work at a large multinational advertising agency, and the growing number of freelancers working at these agencies, the creators of the original spot may never come across your reel. In fact, it's unlikely that they will unless i) Someone at the agency recommends they look at your reel or ii) You actually contact them personally and ask them to review the music and/or sound design you composed inspired by their work (this is actually a good way to make a connection as it provides a reason for what is otherwise a cold call).

Anyway, as you weren't formally commissioned, you therefore didn't need to consider any branding issues or need to work around a Voice Over. Ostensibly you were free to treat the video as art. Theoretically then, your composition, in contrast to the final music, is not compromised by any utilitarian marketing function and is therefore creative for its own sake. I suspect agency and production people will undoubtedly appreciate your efforts (assuming you are competent, and if your work is also engaging as an entertainment piece, as it should be).

In fact, if you sent me to your web site and I couldn't help but notice that all the featured work was demos, I wouldn't necessarily know that you weren't formerly commissioned to participate in the demo process. For all I would know, you were one of several participants, and it so happens that this particular work did not go final.

Also, presenting demos doesn't mean you haven't ever produced a final. What do you think plays better on a reel? A demo for a cool car spot or a final for toilet paper? Even established houses will present a demo that didn't go final if the picture is better than anything else that went final. The trick though is to make sure you present the demo music against final picture, not the rough cut. How do you get the final cut? Off the Internet. The companies who produced the spot will often host them on their site, as will the Industry trades. Or you make friends with someone who works in the business and they serve as your connection to quality video. Sounds like a dirty little business, doesn't it?

Another word about not going final when you haven't actually gone final: Not going final is not an indication of quality. It does not mean you or your work is incapable of the task. Assuming you are actually competent at scoring picture and/or experience, it simply means your work did not adequately score the brand or support the story in the way someone at the agency wanted it to, on that particular day. For whatever reason, something else went final.

By the same token, if a track did go final, that in and of itself doesn't mean that everyone who participated in its production is happy with the final music. This happens ALL the time. That's why even the directors who shoot TV commercials, or the editors who cut the spot, or even the advertising agency staff themselves will sometimes have a different composer score the spot for their own reel (the director’s cut, the editor’s cut, the agency cut, even the animator’s or designer’s cut, as opposed to the final version).

In fact, doing director’s cuts is an excellent way to build up a reel, not to mention make contacts. To do this, offer your creative services for free (or for no more than a typical demo budget if it requires live musicians/technical personnel/studio other than yourself and your rig) to produce a full up direction of music that fulfills the director's (or whomever’s) musical vision. You find these people by approaching production companies, 'repping*' firms or agents who represent directors or production and post-production companies and pitch them on your availability to compose treatments for director's cuts. If you find them on MySpace, shoot them an email with a link back to other samples of your work.

*Reps and Repping firms are individuals or companies that represent talent to the advertising agencies. Typically reps represent directors, film production companies, post production companies, editorial firms, and yes, even music and sound design houses.

On your website, or printed label, you would then neither notate ‘Final’ or ‘Demo’, but ‘Directors Cut’ or which ever party you composed the alternate version to. Make no mistake these alternate versions have a bit of caché to them, sometimes even more than the Finals, depending who you did the work for and who is viewing it. Do you think that anyone in the business cares what went final, if Ridley Scott uses something else on his own reel? Only the composer of the former and his or her mother cares about what went final.

But if you really don't want to produce a track that already is final, you can still find killer looking video by working with designers, who now amazingly seem to outnumber musicians these days. Here's a link from Digital Thread that purports to feature the Best of Breed Design firms. If you begin by offering your services for free (or a very nominal cost covering fee) people who to this creative group, in a year or two you may have a show reel that will get you work and launch your career.

By the way, I don't just mean to approach the businesses that you'll find if you follow the link (which span the gamut from one man shops to multimillion dollar operations); but rather in the case of a multimillion dollar shop, try approaching individual creative artisans who work for those businesses and who are likely doing independent work of their own. How do you get the names of individual creative artisans who work at multimillion dollar sites? Well, check out the websites first. You can run searches on major social networking sites, too. Run the name of a business on MySpace for instance and see who comes up. Or simply run a search on your favorite search engine that pairs the name of the design firm your interested in with a likely job title like 'Art Director' or 'Junior Designer', etc. In other words, you need to dig.

Along the way you will make contact, acquire acquaintances and make friends and build your professional network. Don't expect first contact to result in a job unless you are very lucky. Typically the people you want to work for may already have booked other professionals for the jobs on deck for months on out. You will need to keep at it without being annoying. A rep will do this for you, but at this stage you are likely your own rep, as well your own intern, producer, composer, receptionist. The silver lining in this is that the relationships you make will be your own, not your reps. It will feel right when it feels social. It will be feel wrong when it feels like selling. This too takes practice.

One disclaimer before I close: as you might imagine, it is not enough to simply follow the steps outlined here. One must also be talented, and I think immensely so, and in ways that are specific to the nature of the form. You won't possess all the skills when you start out, but you can learn as you go, and you should learn all you can.

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