Do Not Make Commercial Music. Produce 'Mini Records' Instead

Making original music for ads doesn't have to be soul-sucking

Most "commercial" music sucks. There's a much better approach.

What's a mini record?

A "mini record" is an original track written for an ad, produced and recorded with the same exacting techniques and attention to detail as records produced for major artists. A successfully executed mini record can prompt legions to seek out the ad online with inquiries such as "song???" and "Where can I find the full track?"—convinced that the brand licensed some fab existing record. 

Some agencies and brands have gotten wise about anticipating this little phenomenon when concepting an original-music-centric campaign. They'll decide early in the process to have their music company of choice ultimately create a full-length version for release (often as a download and/or on Spotify, Apple Music, etc.) alongside the ad. Other times this decision is made after the release of the spot, in reaction to a slew of positive YouTube comments and public outreach to the brand.

What is "commercial" music, and why does most of it suck?

Early in my music career, I had a studio space across the hall from a "commercial" composer. I knew zilch about music for ads at the time. I'd only worked on records at that point, most for big artists. Over time I got to know that composer across the hall, and got a good feel for how he worked. He was utterly miserable. He churned out mostly soulless, formulaic "music" that didn't bear much resemblance to anything that felt real or had any heart or point of view. That, in a nutshell, is how I'd define "commercial" music.

But let's be real here. There are loads of ads that don't call for some edgy, innovative piece of original music that will generate its own fanbase online. That would actually feel pretty inappropriate for a lot of ad projects. I'm a fanatical believer, however, that even if a music brief is unremarkable, the "mini record" approach still rules. In fact, for those of us who developed our production skills in rooms with great recording artists and engineers, there's no choice in the matter—that's just how we were wired. We're always making a major label record or writing a cue for a big feature film, even if we're working on a 15-second diaper spot. True story.

How can agencies and brands avoid "commercial" music?

If you're an agency or brand commissioning original music, learn to hear the difference between original music that's been made with real craft and a good bit of healthy obsession, and that stuff that got churned out. I guarantee that much of your audience can perceive the difference, and will judge you for it one way or the other. This is especially true in this era where more and more ads are using some fab existing record, which is training viewers' ears to expect music that's sonically rich and real.

So be bold with your original music briefs. Empower the music company to really dig in and try some genuinely creative options. Call them out if they're playing it too safe or not putting enough love into the details: the groove of the drums, the authenticity and feel of the instrumentation, the mix, etc. If you struggle to hear that nuance in music, pull in a cohort that has golden ears to help out.

Any "mini records" tips for music creators?

If you're a composer or artist creating bespoke music for advertising, please keep putting heart into everything you write, even though it's a difficult, competitive game. I know you only get two or three days to write for an ad, versus the weeks or months you spend on your artist projects—but dig in hard and learn how to make your ad work drop-dead amazing anyway. No watering it down, and no cutting corners on production value. If you're NOT excited to play the track for your friends (the ones with discerning ears), you've probably created "commercial" music.

The ability to write great chord changes and hooky melodies is a beautiful gift. But those things fall flat without the tweaky attention to the production details that make your track sound like a "mini record." Every sound and part you reach for should be sonically special. Tape up a pic of your favorite artist on your computer monitor while you compose. Do whatever it takes not to drift into "bad library music" territory. That's a soul-sucking wasteland, which is reason enough to only endeavour to create "mini records."

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J Bonilla
J Bonilla is co-founder and creative director of The Elements Music, a music house with studios in Los Angeles and London.

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