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Some Stuff I’ve Learned Writing Music for Advertising: References, Briefs, and Conference Calls

Some Stuff I’ve Learned Writing Music for Advertising: References, Briefs, and Conference Calls

In my previous post I tried to present an overview of the different strategies we use when thinking about music in advertising and marketing media. Being able to look at an underscoring assignment through the lens of theory is a huge head start to writing a piece of music that gets chosen and aired. Yet most clients I’ve worked with don’t have this vocabulary, nor do they often have any vocabulary about the building blocks of music.

So how do we communicate?

References (or “temp score” or “needle-drops”) are pretty much the starting point for about 75% of the conversations I have about the creative direction for a project. By references, I mean existing music sent over with the note “something like this.” They can be sent on their own, or mixed into a piece of video as a placeholder. References can be legally dangerous, creatively soul-crushing, and in some cases red herrings. Yet in the age of YouTube, they have only become more entrenched as creative shorthand for non-musicians working with composers, bolstered by the technical ease of pasting a few links into an email.

I have to imagine that it’s empowering to paste those links in. And in many cases, as a composer, it is a relief to have a concrete starting point to the conversation. Sometimes, following a creative call that seems vague, we even pull our own references to send back to the client to see if we understood the conversation correctly. As a communication tool, they’re invaluable. But not all references lead to great work on their own.


The mistake editors often make is placing a piece of music that is clearly unattainable.

A big red flag appears when only one piece is referenced. That often foretells a bad case of “demo love.” That’s industry lingo for a track that the client can’t get past. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten less judgmental about demo love. When a piece of music is placed against a piece of film, even if it’s not right from a practical or strategic standpoint, a powerful connection is made, and in the minds of those stakeholders that have seen it, nothing else may sound right because it clashes with their expectations, which have been created in that first moment. The mistake editors often make, in the interest of demonstrating their cut, is placing a piece of music that is clearly unattainable. It sets up an irreversible path leading to disappointment, and the composer is usually the one to absorb the brunt of the angst this creates. Often a client who is unaware of demo love as a phenomenon will be convinced that a composer is simply not capable of “nailing it” on an original track. It’s an unfair fight.

The other big red flag is when a client has actually approached the rights holder(s) for one or more of the reference tracks sent over. I’m no lawyer or expert in copyright law, but thanks to common sense and the wise counsel of my Executive Producer Jason, I’ve learned over the years to be very wary of this situation because it establishes an “intent” to infringe, and puts the project on the radar of that artist’s management. When we know someone’s been contacted, we need to take an overly cautious approach to what we will write and subsequently warrant to be original work. Female singer? We’ll use male. Major? We’ll go minor. 4/4 time signature? We’ll do 6/8. No one wants a lawsuit, even if the musicology doesn’t support it. The world of advertising music is littered with lawsuits, so much so that some agencies have, as a matter of corporate policy, prohibited sending rough cuts of spots with reference music placed.

A screen shot of an actual work session showing the waveforms for the reference track and voiceover. The actual music track is currently blank.

A screen shot of an actual work session showing the waveforms for the reference track and voiceover. The actual music track is currently blank.


Moving past those obvious pitfalls, there is so much to learn from references beyond the music itself. How many tracks are sent—three or twenty-three? How wide or narrow is the focus when it comes to genre, mood, energy, and instrumentation? What language is used by clients to describe the references—“we love these and they’re perfect” versus “we haven’t really found a home run but this is the general territory”? Listening carefully and parsing each word at this stage can avert huge misunderstandings. When a number of ideas are sent from multiple stakeholders, stepping back and reading the politics of a situation can be critical. Who’s going to drive the project forward and be the loudest voice in the room: The creative team? Their client, the brand manager? The director or video editor? I can think of a number of times that my role as a composer has been to referee a creative struggle over what role music might play and ultimately try to back the winning horse.

Thinking back to my last post, the different strategies behind music become apparent when looking carefully at references and asking the right questions. If all of the references stay in a narrow stylistic lane—youthful indie-EDM, for instance—it can be surmised that a sympathetic audience is being targeted. On the other hand, if there’s a wide range of genres but a consistent emotional tone, it seems clear the client’s first motivation is to create that emotion with music, no matter what style is used. If the music has been placed to picture, did the video editor intentionally place/edit the music so certain events and sections happened at specific times? Asking about, and understanding which of these moments were particularly successful can really help define what the key scoring moments are.

No matter how reasonable or unreasonable the references might appear at first glance, I try to approach conversations about references respectfully, understanding two things:

  1. Selecting music is probably easier for many than designing a plan for its creation, and just because the strategic thought is happening on a subconscious, rather that conscious level, doesn’t make it any less legitimate.
  1. Mistakes, juxtaposition, and serendipity are creative catalysts, without which much of our media would be dull and predictable. (Side note: advertising creatives understand this so well that they have frequently tried to mandate it—they call it “unexpected.”)

While I often sit back and let my partner Jason lead project kick-off calls, when I do try to drill down on references, I start with open ended questions, like “What do you like about this piece?” When the responses are vague, I narrow down to multiple choice and yes/no questions, like “Do you feel like the pacing is right?” At some point during the call, my gut will tell me to turn off the faucet of information, feeling there’s enough to start writing but not a stifling or confusing amount.

After these calls, as the creative director at COPILOT, I’m often in the position of writing creative briefs for the teams of composers we bring aboard. There’s an art to this task. When a client is looking for a very specific emotional or cultural tone, one misplaced word can send the whole group one degree off, rendering many hours of work futile. A good creative brief isn’t a set of instructions but rather a well-marked space, with a few inventoried tools and materials and a reasonable amount of time to play with them.

This brings me to one of the philosophical challenges of working on commissioned music: How much is your job giving them what they think they want, versus bringing new, more experimental and creative ideas to the table? Ideally when I write demos for a project, I give them one of each approach, and when we create a presentation at COPILOT, we try to cover the brief as written, and then always try to include some options that might have been written in the dark. The demo review process is usually when clients show their risk tolerance and open-mindedness. We experiment because it’s possible that we have insight into what music could bring that surpasses what’s been discussed. We nail the brief because it’s always possible that there’s a level of context to the project that we simply don’t have access to as a late arrival to the team. (Music is usually the last thing on the production schedule, aside from postmix.)

I always assumed the account people were the least relevant voices in the equation, but I’ve learned to listen carefully when they speak.

Early in my career I learned about the basic roles in most advertising agencies: the creative disciplines (art direction and copywriting) employing those who came up with all the ideas; the broadcast production folks who were often gatekeepers and points of contact on budget, schedule, and revisions; and the account people, who we might encounter once or twice on a call or at a final mix, but who were mostly corporate types that dealt with the brands and not the vendors. I always assumed the account people were the least relevant voices in the equation, but I’ve learned to listen carefully when they speak. The broadcast producer rarely tells you that the client hated the last campaign and wanted a complete shift in approach, or that the brand is struggling with sales in the millennial demographic. If the music strategy is the “why” behind what you are executing as a composer, the overall marketing strategy is the “why” behind the music strategy. So when that is not clearly articulated, sometimes the overall context will reveal what the music strategy should be. This kind of information is gold when it comes to being a thinker and problem solver rather than a vendor and widget maker.

Scoring the Voice Over

The final piece of the puzzle is another thing I was never formally taught, but it revealed itself to me over time: the announcer track (a.k.a. voice over) is often a creative brief in itself. Early in my career I took a very literal approach to the idea that I was “scoring” a spot. I took that to always mean that I was scoring the visuals and action. And sure, in numerous cases that was the right approach.

But as the centerpiece of the final mix, and the literal message being amplified by the spot, the voice over cannot be ignored. Everything you want to know about the intended audience for an ad is probably hiding in plain sight within the casting choice, performance, and actual words of the voice over. Just as music must be relatable to the intended audience, a voice must speak to its audience. I think of the casting this way: if the voice actor is on camera and the music is wardrobe, how are we dressing up our hero? What clothes would look appropriate for that person and that context? When it comes to performance, I turn the voice over into the lead singer of the band—Is the band following the energy of the performance? Overpowering it? Underplaying it?

When it comes to the actual words, I have developed the habit of transcribing the script, if I don’t receive one (which is frequently the case). By looking at a voice over, seeing what rhetorical conventions it uses, understanding its flow, its structure, and its cadence, so much of a good underscore—particularly its musical form—can be reverse engineered. It could be as simple as recognizing where a shift from problem to solution happens, and having the music shift from tense verse to euphoric chorus at that moment.

Scraps of Context

Clients make decisions about demos often in a blink.

Beyond these big pieces of communication—references, creative briefs, voice overs, and of course the picture itself—I have learned to sniff around like a hound for any other scraps of context that can give me a hunch about what a client might respond to. When we get involved early on a project, early enough to see a director’s treatment, just the language used to describe how the piece of film will look can give us stylistic clues. Clients make decisions about demos often in a blink, so understanding their motivations by any means short of stalking is sometimes how to get it right.

I’ll be back in a week with one last post. I look forward to hearing from you!

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

One thought on “Some Stuff I’ve Learned Writing Music for Advertising: References, Briefs, and Conference Calls

  1. Milton Menasco

    Great article, thanks for the in sight into how you approach the creative starting point with your clients. Even after 15+ years of professional composing I still feel like I am constantly learning how to be better at reading clients, taking cues (literally and figuratively) and interpreting conveyed directions. I found the biggest role we can take, as you said, is to be a problem solver. Thanks again.

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