I’ll Know It When I Hear It

It’s cliché. But we all fear the client who actually says, “I’ll know it when I see it,” to set the expectations of a campaign. And as creatives, we consider anyone uttering such tripe to be absolute cretins.

But when it comes to music, we often set the same bar, even if we don’t use the same words. We listen to track after track, and say we’re not able to put a finger on it, but for some reason, this tune or that tune just isn’t right.

Let’s not be hypocrites.

Learn how to talk about music. Learn how to express the emotion you want your spot to stir. Know the difference between something that sounds organic and something that sounds overproduced. Know when it’s better to use an acoustic guitar, and when to use a full symphony, and be able to articulate why. Don’t expect the music house or the director or your creative director to help you through this. You need to be fluent in music. Because a great track can be the difference between a B spot and an A spot.

For starters, read some of Jim’s “It’s the Music, Stupid” posts here.

The Playlists Trick

Here’s a trick I sometimes use. Not always, but it’s worth trying.

Usually when I sit down to write, I realize I have a range of voices to explore. Say I’m writing headlines for a chocolate company (or playing with layouts, if you’re an art director). Here are three areas off the top of my head that I could explore:

  • Chocolate is an almost sinful indulgence.
  • Chocolate is something I enjoy alone when I’m feeling content.
  • Chocolate is something I share with friends during the good times.

Here are three very different ways of writing about chocolate. And depending on the brand, they could all be valid.

That’s when I make my playlist.

Even if I’m only dealing with print, I’ll take my areas and make a playlist for each area. For the three areas I’ve listed above, maybe I’ll do a Genius playlist on iTunes based on the following:

  • Sinful indulgence = “Justify My Love” by Madonna
  • Alone + feeling content = “Peng!” by Iron & Wine
  • Friends + good times = “Suddenly I See” by KT Tunstall
Then I’ll listen to these playlists as I write. This does two things for me:
  1. It keeps me from falling into a rut of writing a certain way. For years, I would write almost exclusively to jazz. No matter the assignment, I’d break out Miles Davis or Chick Corea. But I’ve learned that if I were writing lines for a motorcycle videogame, “Kind of Blue” might not put me in the same frame of mind as “Wildflower” by the Cult.
  2. It lets me stumble upon (and steal) ideas. While doing this playlist exercise a couple days ago, I was listening to an Iron & Wine song and heard the lyrics “the Pearly Gates have some eloquent graffiti.” I’d never really noticed that line before, and the word “eloquent” fit really well with what I was writing. Not sure I would have stumble upon it if I hadn’t been listening to “The Trapeze Artist.”

It’s the Music, Stupid, Part IV: Music Supervisor

Recently the iTunes Weekly Rewind podcast (Ep. 47) featured a short tribute to John Hughes. Unlike all the other obits, this podcast didn’t talk about him so much as a filmmaker as they did a music supervisor. In fact, they called him the Godfather of Music Supervision.

And it occurs to me that this is a role the best creative teams put themselves in as well.

Hughes didn’t just stick music in to fill space. Or because it sounded cool. He used music to set a scene, develop characters, and tell a story. Sure, the scripts were hilarious, and the stories were good, and Mollie Ringwald always looked cute. But Hughes used the music to bring everything together.

No one had ever heard of Yello’s “Oh Yeah” before they saw Ferris Buehller’s Day Off. Just like no one had ever really heard “Da Da Da” by Trio before VW adopted it. (And both are over a decade old, and they’re still valid examples.)

When you’re putting together a spot, it’s easy to want to use the latest, cool band. Or something goofy and nostalgic. And sometimes that works. But remember Hughes used everything from then-hot bands like Oingo Boingo, to then-obscure bands like Simple Minds, and then-forgotten artists like Ottis Redding.

So try writing a spot that needs a Japanese wedding melody. Or a really obscure Dave Brubeck track. Or something from Tommy Emmanuel. Or Slayer. You can’t tell me you’re not itching to write a script with some Slayer in it.

You might even get the right sound, and end up hiring the actual artist to write an original piece like Dunkin’ Donuts did with They Might Be Giants and Coke did with Jack White.

Become a music supervisor. You might even end up with a spot that wins you some awards and resurrects Mickey Dolenz’s career.

Keep Writing

Three lessons to take away from this great spot:

  1. Music can make even a history lesson dramatic and inspiring. Learn how to use music.
  2. You don’t have to have CGI, punch-lines, scintillating dialogue, a cast of thousands or slick editing techniques to make a killer spot.
  3. Writers, yes, you have to learn to think visually. And sometimes a killer visual with the client logo is the right thing to do. But a real writer, has to write. And write as well as BBH’s Justin Moore did on this spot.

It’s the Music, Stupid, Part III: Demo Love

Jim recently posted a great piece on music. He mentioned the trap of demo love. Here’s a quick story on how very real this molotov cocktail can be.

A couple years ago, we presented a rough cut to our client. We went to great lengths to explain how rough it was. We vigorously explained that the music (ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”) was place-holder.
While the edit was coming together, we found an awesome piece that fit spot perfectly (“Energy” by The Apples in Stereo). The Apples song had everything going for it:
  • The lyrics, theme and feel of the music aligned with the spot. “Mr. Bluesky” sounded good, but had nothing to do with it.
  • The album “New Magnetic Wonder” was barely a fortnight old. “Mr. Bluesky” had already been used in approximately 1,732 commercials.
  • The album was getting great reviews, was a breakthrough work for the band, and the client could have ridden that wave.
  • Most astonishingly, The Apples in Stereo were asking $50,000 for unlimited licensing. Jeff Lynne of ELO wanted $250,000 to use “Mr. Bluesky” for six weeks.

So which one did the client pick? Let’s just say Mr. Lynne probably bought himself a case of new shampoo/conditioner, and we weren’t able to help fund one of my favorite band’s European tour. And yes, after the 6 weeks of ELO licensing expired, the client didn’t have enough to renew and we had to use needledrop.
Resist the siren song of demo love. It is very, very irrational. And very, very real.

It’s the Music, Stupid, Part II

Eureka! After months of looking for this old article I knew I had somewhere, and finally giving up on it, I found it today. It’s an adcritic article from August, 2003, that I printed and filed away because I thought it had some great advice on picking music for spots. It was written by Lance Jensen, who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to picking cool, provocative music that can take a spot to the next level.

He gives 11 great tips, which I’ll paraphrase:

1. Don’t use the words of the songs as your copy points. The lyrics can allude to the meaning, or have the right sentiment, but being too see/say takes all the fun and depth out of it.

2. Lose the voiceover. It ruins the vibe. If you have to include VO, keep it short and at the end.

3. Don’t use the latest hit song. It feels like you’re trying too hard. Find something great that nobody’s heard. There’s plenty out there.

4. Use “geeky” songs. Lance gives the example of his use of the Styx song “Mr. Roboto.” A song he just liked, without irony.

5. Please someone use a Yes or Men Without Hats song in a spot.

6. Don’t overthink it. Your first impulse may be your best. Overthinking takes the emotion out, and music is all emotion.

7. Avoid Demo Love. Demo love is what happens when you play a song in the early presentations and say “We’re thinking of a song that feels like this.” The client, and everyone, will fall in love with that song. If you don’t know what to use, don’t play one yet. It’s not fair to the original musicians or the composers who have to rip off the song the client has fallen for. Give the music company room to do what they do best–create great music.

8. Stay open until the end. Listen to your director, editor, sound engineers. There are a lot of really talented people in this business. Your job will be much easier if you let other people do theirs and keep the process open and collaborative.

9. Try getting artists you love to write songs for you. Check out this great song for a Spike Jonze Adidas spot. The music is by Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Squeak E. Clean. Rumor has it this wasn’t the first choice–they had another song they wanted to get, but the artist wouldn’t license it. Not bad for a plan B.

10. Stay away from lyrics with sex or drug references in them. I’d add that you might want to do a little research about the song meaning too. I laugh whenever I hear Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” on those Royal Carribean Cruise Line spots. First, see #1. Second, I always picture all those old folks on a 7-day heroine bender.

11. Just pick something that moves you on a personal level. This could be said for almost all aspects of what you do. If you love it, odds are other people will too.

When it comes to picking music, Mr. Jensen’s the man, and he gives great advice. The only thing I’d add, is don’t mimic the new popular soundtrack. Once a year, a movie or show with a great score comes out, and you hear 30 commercials copying it. American Beauty. Amelie. Rushmore. You’re trying to stand out. Having the same music as everyone else doesn’t help.

It’s the music, stupid. Part I

Everyone knows how big a difference music can make. The right song can make a movie scene unforgettable, or turn a commercial about two dudes driving around in a car into a classic. Here’s my favorite new example of how radically music can alter the tone and meaning of picture (a tad long, but makes the point):

Traditionally, the music is the responsibility of the copywriter (though I’ve worked with many art directors and producers with encyclopedic music knowledge, which is awesome). But it’s one of those things that you don’t learn about in ad school.

What I’d recommend to any aspiring copywriter (and art director, for that matter), is that if you’re not into music, get into it. Force yourself to listen to types of music you wouldn’t normally listen to. Expand your musical world. There are tons of great resources out there to help you do this. Read Pitchfork. Listen to the podcast of Sound Opinions. Listen to Pandora. Or check out one of my favorite Internet communities, the International Mixtape Project.

The point is that, as Greg pointed out in an earlier post, you need to be able to communicate with your vendors. This includes musicians. Having a decent working knowledge of music types and being able to speak the language makes the process a lot easier. You don’t need to know the difference between an 8- and 12-bar blues, but be able to give direction to a musician in a general sense. Like whether you want Johann Sebastian Bach or just Sebastian Bach.

Those of you who are into music, where do you find new stuff?