Josh Rabinowitz on Led Zeppelin, Beyoncé, and the Real Secret to Artist-Brand Collabs

Plus, recent creative projects he's proud of

Josh Rabinowitz is a global thought leader in the space where music, media, brands and creative content intersect. In more than 20 years in the business, he has produced and or music supervised over 10,000 tracks for brands, cinema, recording labels and television.

He was director of music at Grey Group from 2005 to 2019, when he started a music and sound consultancy called the Brooklyn Music Experience. He has also taught at The New School, NYU and The Crane School of Music, and created a "Music in Advertising" course outside of the traditional university setting this Fall.

We caught up with Josh for our Liner Notes series to learn more about his musical tastes and journey through the years, as well as recent work he's proud of and admired.

Josh, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I grew up in Brooklyn, way before it was cool, and I have raised my family in BK as well, as it trended way cooler. There's something about the pre-cool, old-school Brooklyn era that resonated with the music moguls weaned there, which in turn defined the music industry's pre-digital, glory days. Think David Geffen, Jimmy Iovine, Jay Z, Biggie, Carole King and Barbara Streisand. I like that that was part of my schooling, too.

Your earliest musical memory.

My earliest musical memory is a conflated blur of my mom singing American folk and traditional music to me, merged with me sitting around a campfire with people singing that music. It was Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, black culture spirituals, and the like.

Also, AM pop radio, which was arguably the most compelling deliverer of music to consumers at that time, is tattooed into my frontal cortex, and became deeply seeded into my consciousness. Top 40 DJ Casey Kasem played the hits, and I ate them all up. Think '70s soul, R&B, funk, rock and pop!

Your first concert.

I was brought to lots of kid-oriented concerts by my parents, which I enjoyed. There's nothing like a sing-along moment, nothing.

In terms of my first big rock concert, I saw Led Zep at MSG when I was quite young. I wasn't much of a weed smoker at that point, but it was impossible not to get a contact high. I was really intimidated by the folks in the audience—they seemed angry-tough and rugged, and were quite older and way more "bandana-ed out" than I was. I was totally scared shitless. Then, when the music kicked in, and everyone started bobbing their heads and screaming, I got drawn into the excitement and started to relax.

I noticed that the first song didn't sound exactly like it had on the record—ironically it was "The Song Remains the Same." This genuinely threw me. It took me years to get over and appreciate that live didn't need to sound like the record I was accustomed to hearing. Kinda like demo love in advertising music—just because you hear it over and over to a piece of film doesn't make it better.

Also, guitarist Jimmy Page was great, but uneven. I was used to him playing immaculately. Of course there was more than one guitar track on the album tracks; here it was just him accompanied by John Paul Jones on bass. 

Nonetheless, I was amazed that four dudes could elicit such a powerful sound. It was louder than loud. I later found out, years later, that Jimmy Page was dealing with heroin addiction at the time. Also, sadly, that tour was cut short later in the summer when Robert Plant's son died. The song "All of My Love" was written as a dedication to his son Karac, who passed at age 5.

The band closed their encore with "Stairway to Heaven," "Whole Lotta Love" into "Rock and Roll," and my ticket was $12.50. I would never at that point imagined that the song "Rock and Roll" would be used in a Cadillac commercial!

Your favorite bands/musicians.

Can't say I have a favorite band or musician per se, but I do have an excessive and thorough respect for many legendary artists. Some of my top folks are Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, the Clash, Public Enemy and John Coltrane, to name but a few. Can't forget Beethoven, whose 250th birthday anniversary happens next month. 

What I love about all of these creators is that their music, at times, was either profoundly inspired and/or distinctive for a moment (or two or 10), and that they also influenced culture, society and history so deeply. Legacy instigators to me are the coolest.

How you get your music these days.

I get new music from three places: 

• Word-of-mouth—social or terrestrial. 
• The students' suggestions from my university classes—music is always a sweet spot in the life of a college student! 
• My kids. 

DSP algorithms are cool, and can be excellent, but personal sourcing has never let me down. 

Your favorite place to see a concert.

Tipitina's in New Orleans. The history, the vibe, its location just next to the Mississippi, the city—what a combo, what a feeling!

Your favorite music video.

"Formation," Beyoncé. Not only is the implicit messaging about strong women, social issues such as race, specifically Blackness, and the lame governmental response to Hurricane Katrina powerful, but also, the look and feel is novel, bold and intoxicating. When I had the honor of being chosen to be the inaugural chair of the Cannes Lions Music Jury, we proudly awarded it the Grand Prix in 2016. Arguably it still stands tall in 2020.

Your favorite music-focused TV show and/or podcast.

I would say it wasn't entirely music-focused, but Tremé, which originally aired from 2010-13 on HBO, was nonetheless incredibly musical and interesting to me. Music is such an integral part of New Orleans culture—as is food, history, and race. When music is a palpable and constituent part of a city's essence, that city, to me, is a great city. Tremé utilized local musicians to tell a story, and it felt as real as can be. New Orleans is irrefutably the birthplace of Black American music—our greatest (and most exploited) export ever. This exploitation fuels the paradox as to why the city hasn't ascended to the proper heights and perception in the business and sociology of music. Tremé reproduces and reflects that paradox, as well as so much more.

Podcast-wise, I love a good anecdote, and Hit Parade, part of the Slate offering, always delivers. Although it's been financially challenged by the economic downturn, they continue to delpoy topics surrounding popular music as they relate to the Billboard charts, generally delve into fascinating stories, and even interesting lateral stories, which are well researched and tightly written.

A recent project you're proud of.

Three projects from over the summer and fall have been really creative and captivating for me. A PSA campaign for teenage adoption, soon to be released, where original music was created to tell emotional stories. A jingle-based, yes jingle-based, animated campaign for voting for the Biden campaign featuring a new character named "Votey McVoterson." And a great cover version that I put together with Tank and the Bangas of "What the World Need Now," which brought together several local New Orleans singers, musicians and spoken word artists. It was super-timely, being released in a music video format, as well as a single on Verve Forecast/UMG, just after the George Floyd scenario. The song may be nominated for a Grammy, and the music video got some serious traction on social media.

What the World Needs Now
Someone else's project that you admired recently.

I really dig the new Johnnie Walker ad with Brittany Howard singing, "You'll Never Walk Alone." Nice performance, all music-driven, and produced by one of my former team members at Grey, Ben Dorenfeld, for Anomaly. Proud of him!

Brittany Howard - You'll Never Walk Alone
How musicians should approach working with brands.

My advice is to do what you do and let the brands come to you. Some folks have had successes in creating music with brands in mind, but the best resonances happen when the brands come at you, for what you do. Be sure when they do that you have someone experienced in the music-branding space, either as part of the collaboration, or by your side, because it ain't the same as making a record or a music video! A seasoned partner can really help you make something good, if not great, rather than something awful that you'll always regret.

How brands should approach working with musicians.

My belief is that most of the top branded content, especially ads, happens when music is a constituent part of the creative ideation. When that is the case, the musicians/artists will notice this instinctually and with immediacy, and will thus be enthused about collaborating. Also, be sure to have an experienced music producer or supervisor involved. Music is complex, folks!

What music can do that nothing else can.

Bring people with diametrically opposed points of views together.

What you'd be doing if you weren't in the music world.

What do you call a deer with no eyes? No eye deer.

Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd was editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio from 2018 to 2023.

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