Why Aren't We Making Better Use of Music in Advertising?

The history of the form, and where we go next

Understandably, during this multi-month Covid era, nearly all of the music used in ads, marketing, interstitials, social and political messaging feels and even sounds the same: Solemn, bittersweet, uplifting, lots of minimal piano with repeated figures, or serious orchestral chords and colors. Very expected, and on the mark emotionally.

Universality, a collective swell, a commonality of feeling is the aim. But it's noticeably not working, as everything now seems the same.

In my opinion, most of the music in ads has been trending this way for several years. There's been a lack of a distinctive trend or musical spirit—as in the semi-recent past with twee tracks (utilizing mandolin, xylophone and hand claps, or gang vocals); or music like the Birdman soundtrack; or Trap; or nuanced EDM; or modern classical, etc. There's been a tendency toward the probable, or even the predictable, rather than an effort to stray or rally behind something new or idiosyncratic, revitalizing or even refreshing.

Even with the outlier tech and entertainment brands, who brilliantly pump out astonishing, top-shelf, amazingly conceived and produced work, with budgets that would easily fund an independent film, almost everything looks and sounds the same in its musical implementation. Where are the ground-breaking and mind-blowing ideas? Where's the beef?

Advertising is irrefutably in turnaround. Isn't it ripe for a shift?

Music has always been an expression of culture, and the advertising space has been capitalizing, commoditizing and annexing this cachet for some time. Ad music certainty hasn't altered in a while, and it should to remain relevant, as it has in the past. Or will it remain derivative, unoriginal and typical?

Remember when the jingle was king? Consumers would involuntarily memorize a ditty in which singers intoned the product's name, and that refrain would tattoo itself in one's frontal cortex and literally brand itself forever, like an earworm or a brain fungus.

Not only would you hear the brand's name or brand purpose sung in the jingle, but the musical style was also something that was popular or recently fashionable. It was the go-to, winning modus operandi for much of the '50s through the '80s. Think Coke, Pepsi, Bud, Miller, Dr Pepper, Oscar Meyer, Alka Seltzer, Ford—this list borders on infinite.

Jingles even became "singles," as with Coke's "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," arguably the greatest jingle of all time, or later, Gatorade's "Be Like Mike," as producers and songwriters from the recording business were able to successfully meld current musical tastes with brand messaging. Consumers drank it up. Billy Davis, who paid his dues in the early Motown era in Detroit and the late soul explorations at Chess Records in Chicago, produced said Coke jingle, as an in-house music producer at McCann, and blew it out into a hit single for not one but two bands concurrently in 1972.

Jingles were super successful. But for the most part, the jingle was cheesy. Although some of the producers, writers and performers from that scene made a great deal of money, and their tracks were heard by millions if not billions of listeners, those listeners were passive, and not fans. The music was anti-art, not creative, a sell-out (rather than a sell-in), and like the composers/writers of TV theme shows, their work was considered strictly commercial and not legit creatively.

The jingle era has haunted the perception of advertising music. Not only was the music clearly a sell-out, a "shill" (if you will) for a brand, but it was not cool. I remember when I was trying to get a job in music, the specter of the advertising music scene, although it included some talented folks, seemed quite lowbrow, literally too "commercial."

But things had changed by the mid-'80s. A shift was happening.

In 1987, Nike used the Beatles track "Revolution," and the execution was indeed revolutionary in so many ways. It not only opened the floodgates for the possibility of using meaningful, historic music, but it also "revolutionized" the cottage industry of music licensing. As it became clear that money could be made by major publishers and recording companies in the ad space, and that the actual use of "Revolution" was fraught with legal and clearance issues (the proper permissions weren't granted, there was a cease-and-desist, complaints from living band members like George Harrison, etc.), the majors started to staff up their music services divisions with people in the know. If this was done right, what a great revenue stream!

Fast-forward to today and these departments are bulked up to the max, not only at the majors but the independents, and now there are even several third parties that handle these rights negotiations, pitches and clearances.

And then it shifted up another gear.

In late 1999, when Volkswagen began its foray into internet advertising, it licensed Nick Drake's "Pink Moon," a quarter-century after the singer took his own life due to severe depression, and the floodgates opened for independent artists that had strongly objected to having their music exploited in ads. The brilliant execution of the spot, which was titled "Milky Way," demonstrated to distrusting artists that a great, cult song which dwelled under the radar, actually worked successfully with an ad in an "artful" way. Indie-minded music folks began to reassess the concept of selling out, and began to sell in.

Brands took notice as well. "Milky Way" won a plethora of awards, sales of the "Pink Moon" track skyrocketed, the album was added to the Rolling Stone Top 500 list, and VW sales jumped up to a new high.

Jaguar used a Sting song, "Desert Rose," in it's advertising. The track had had no traction on the sales side, then all of the sudden it hit the top-of-the-pops. Recording labels began to focus more on licensing of songs to ads, Napster and file sharing were destroying their business model—CD sales were plummeting. Even the Clash licensed "London Calling" to Jaguar, a dystopian song for an elitist car.

Apple began to use music in a different way. Its iPod and iTunes campaigns were breaking bands, and became a major global focus for music discovery. Apple's iTunes also instigated a paradigm shift in the distribution of music, highlighting the music industry's reluctant budge toward digital.

Moby licensed every single song on his album Play to media. The cool, evocative music of the day was now available for licensing. Composers, as a response to this creative shift, at the behest of creative directors craving relevant/buzzy music, were reluctantly ripping off such music, when ad agencies weren't able to procure the budgets to license such en vogue tracks. This hankering to replicate particular songs in culture that were successful in other ads, like the Verve anthem "Bitter Sweet Symphony" that was used by Nike, or Massive Attack's "Teardrop," and later Sigur Rós, for a plethora of executions, was a severe blemish to a creative business. Arguably a downward shift.

Nonetheless, ad music became important—it had developed a halo. The revenue was flowing. There were more jobs in the space, the role of the music supervisor became relevant, and brands began to annex some leverage and amass cultural legitimacy. Famous artists embraced the branded space, particularly the monies that came along with brand partnerships, experiences and sponsorships. Billboard started a column called "With the Brand." Music agencies, experts and curators began to pop up globally. Pearl Jam even did a Target ad.

What happened to the jingle houses and writers of yore? They tried to adapt, tried to shift. Many of them began to create tracks that hopefully reverberated like "real" music, using artists and talent that migrated over from a flailing recording industry that was being decimated by the digital music disruption. They even began to offer music supervision services and diversified by adding post mixing to their offering.

In 2007, the SAG strike happened, and advertisers began to engage in non-union buyouts, which really shifted the utilization of union talent forever: Now brands were accustomed to and expected their agencies not to pay talent residuals to singers and musicians. Music houses that created tracks for ads were getting hammered, licensing increased, music composition stated to devalue, and the licensees actuated a larger escalation of their fees.

At the agencies, in-house music producers who were skilled at fashioning music with musicians, in the studio, to craft musical stories, were now morphing into music supervisors. Like their counterparts in television, they were suggesting songs, via playlists, which were either significant in culture, that thrived with images/concepts/ideas, or were emerging and/or percolating in society.

A popular refrain I heard from music managers during this period, and still to this day, was that it was a "good year" not necessarily if their artist sold units, or had a great tour, but if they got a placement in an ad or two, a film, and especially a cool TV show. It was the Golden Age of TV. Music for gaming began to get attention, and games were selling like wildfire and needed cool, germane music. Big gaming companies now had music supes on staff.

The licensing fees were beginning to skyrocket due to the demand. At the same time, social and digital executions became more and more important, and their budgets were infinitesimal compared to the traditional broadcast costs and fees. Stock and production music concerns, always part of the advertising scenario but generally earmarked for test spots, industrial uses and animatics, became significant. Major publishers began to acquire these libraries, some were selling for 5x-10x multiples of their actual value—investors and VCs were bullish on these inexpensive musical alternatives. Original music was getting crushed.

Every so often, an outlier original piece of music would trend positively during the 2000s and the 2010s, like Honda's "Grrr," done by Amber London, which was voted the best ad of that era; or the Nike "Play" modern classical piano music (much of which you now hear today) by Elias; or Google "Parisian Love," similarly modern classical piano, by Analogue Muse; or "Hello Tomorrow" Adidas by Squeak E. Clean.

Nonetheless, a polarization began to take hold of the music space. There was a "race to the bottom," whereby production music and even a subscription-based music model was offering deals to advertisers, triggering the market value of stock music to a super low price point. On the high end, now that licensing of music had taken hold of the majority of ad music executions, the price point of this non-original music shot up. Custom music budgets got dually depleted into either end of this separation, and that sector of the business was truly maligned.

The recording industry, which didn't embrace the advertising and branding space in the jingle days, now had a stronghold on it and was continuing to raise its licensing fees due to increasing demand.

Super Bowl music licenses were getting as much coverage in the press as the ads themselves, yet few if any uses of music were inspired, or arguably even decent. Billboard began to highlight the Power Players in Branding, celebrating major brand sponsorship executives, label and publishing SVPs and EVPs. The weight of the money earned from music took precedence over the creativity and original messaging—another downward shift.

In the present day environment, successful ad music sadly is perceived either as a quantification of the perception, not the music, of the artist used; the coolness, or perceived hipness of the track licensed; or, if original, for the most part, how cheaply were you able to procure and execute something solid.


What about the most prevalent aspect of all, creativity?

Sound, and particularly music, which is the only sensory input that is permanent (as compared to images and visuals), offers brands the ability to actually BRAND—to be permanent, to be sticky, to be remembered.

Yet this isn't happening. It's quite difficult to remember anything these days.

Advertising is in turnaround. It's never going to be the same. Some of the best ideas come from musical inspiration. Music is the universal language. When used correctly, it resonates like nothing else can.

Embrace music. It can help shape a return of advertising and branding to its precious essence—a creative force whose currency is immeasurable.

Profile picture for user Josh Rabinowitz
Josh Rabinowitz
Josh Rabinowitz is a music consultant and founder of the Brooklyn Music Experience and a professor at The New School in NYC.

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