'It's Gotta Have Soul.' Bringing the Chaos, in Music and Advertising

The art of crafting, where data is the devil

Music and advertising are a match made in heaven, unless you sell your soul to the devil. And who's the devil in this stretched metaphor? The devil is in the data. 

Without good music, advertising falls on deaf ears. As ECD for music studio Sizzer, I've been making music for advertising for years now. And one thing worries me. I'm seeing more and more reliance on data insights. Companies churning out blueprint ad music based on market research, on what's popular right now, what brainwashes people into buying. 

I say forget the numbers. The best ad music comes from the messy imperfection of good composition, not from striving for perfection. That means focusing on three things: craft, creativity, and most importantly, chaos!

How do I know this? Well, I've been in advertising almost as long as in music. So I've seen how this applies to both worlds. 

I was born and raised in Amsterdam's red light district, part of a really artistic family in the '60s, so there was a lot of art, music, culture, booze, cigarettes and anarchy in my youth. I was in a bunch of bands, went to a conservatory and made a whole lot of far-out music—like Dr. Mindfuck, our ultra-loud gabber distortion music project. 

When I later met my wife and had my first child, I thought maybe it was time to get a little more serious … just a little bit. I really love film, art and music, so I wondered where and how I could do that at a high level. To cut a long story short, I ended up composing ad music for years, and started Sizzer with my partner and founder Sander van Maarschalkerweerd back in 2004.

It was a different industry back then, but what made great music in the early '00s wasn't data and strategy, it was the messy imperfection of composition!

From the beginning, it was all about creativity—and that was what made it a really memorable time. And today, even as we've become the most-awarded Dutch company at Cannes, I still feel the same passion. When I make something that really stands out, I'm still jumping up and down in the studio. Creativity is everything. (I'm sure I don't need to convince you of that!)

Understanding that the creativity brings the joy, and vice versa, is something I learned before I got into advertising—from the world of music.

In my early days improvising as a guitar player, I learned pretty fast that sometimes it's worth doing something just for the fun of it. Taking wrong turns brings real magic and energy to the table. You are pushed out of your comfort zone, a moment of joy, excitement and surprise that carries over into the listener. It really brings that extra creativity. But it's the same in this business. If you kill that excitement, don't expect the music you create to feel alive. Or for your brand, or your sales, to benefit. Certainly don't expect the awards to come in.

Take one example. I was working on a cover of "Born to Be Alive" for a Diesel Denim campaign and was briefed by an agency to create a raw ukulele version of the song, like they'd seen on some YouTube video. But in the studio I suddenly had the feeling this was just not the right vibe for the film. It needed to be spicier: more raw, fun and punk. What would happen if you put the White Stripes and Prince in a room?

I looked at the singer and asked him to sit behind the drumkit and give me a ballsy 130-bpm four-to-the-floor kick drum (a classic disco beat). Then we threw the ukulele out the window and grabbed a Fender Telecaster. And bam! A killer guitar riff was born. It just all came together. We weren't surprised when the campaign got a bunch of awards, including best music—you can often tell when you're onto some gold if it feels golden to make it.

So that's the creativity, but then there's the craft. What I really like about my job is to learn and understand music: what makes it special, to get to the very deep core of it. You have to understand the essence of a piece of music. 

Data can't teach you that. 

For a Hershey's ad set in a diner, we needed to create a song in the sound world of the '30s—think early Andrews Sisters—to create a nostalgic, family feeling. We had to really dig into the era: What was it about the language, the chords, the melodies they used? It's these central ideas, these tiny sparks in the title, the hook: like the lyric "Mr. Sandman." The rest grows out of these, and a good songwriter then knows where to go. A computer could follow the rules, produce decent chords, a familiar song structure, but the idea is to study it and create something original. A fresh new hit from the era, not a carbon copy. Instead of copying the accent, you have to learn how to speak the language—and write poetry in it.

Last but not least, there's the chaos.

I like music that you don't understand, where it's so surprising that you wonder how it's possible. That's really important to everything that we make, that it should somehow sound personal, tasteful, indie. It needs imperfections. Not this shiny, sort of boring, polished music.

G-Star RAW - The Rhythm of Denim

Take our latest work for G Star Raw. This was a slippery one: a trial-and-error project bringing so many disciplines together. The film is a contemporary take on tap dance, where two world-class dancers express themselves in a dialogue of taps. We tried many, many things, including entire music and tap compositions. But this just didn't seem to work for the dancers and choreographer Jack Evans. So in the end we just gave him a very basic idea and let him do his own magic.

Together with his dancers, he created a rough outline for us to use to start our composition. Instead of going modern, we went classical opera. We worked nose-to-nose with the director and production team—music supervisor Rachel, almost every producer in Sizzer had sleepless nights over it, but in the end it was worth it. Could this be done more strategically, step by step? No! In these creative partnerships, taking the wrong turns, trying different things, tearing it up and starting from scratch—that's what it's all about. 

We need chaos to find great music. No data would have come up with something so unique.

Ultimately, of course, not all creatives—and not all studios—work alike. But in my experience, there's so much potential in this business. Consumers are more than statistics, and music is more than a formula for selling products. 

There are so many amazing partnerships, so much talent, and so much outstanding work. If your audience is an algorithm, a dataset, a sales target—that music will fall on deaf ears. If everyone does this, the industry will suffer, but most importantly, so will the work. We need to stop creating for numbers, and keep creating for people.

As Todd Rundgren once told me, it's gotta have soul. So think twice before you sell it to the data devil.

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Michiel Marsman
Michiel Marsman is executive creative director at Sizzer.

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