Marketers: Always Start With the Music

It's often a last consideration. Let's change that

We've all heard the saying, "Music provides the soundtrack of our lives." As a house music DJ turned marketing professional, music has always been vital to me and my work. 

When you're deejaying, every track you play evokes an emotion in the audience. The right song, played at the right time, is rewarded with smiles, hands in the air and an overarching lift in energy. The wrong song will clear the dance floor and send everyone to the bar.

Think about the last time a commercial moved you. What was it that gripped you? The storyline and visuals? Whether or not you consciously knew it, it was most likely the music. Just as in life, music drives and directs the emotion of visual content, whether it's a commercial in the Super Bowl or something on TikTok.

Unlike other platforms, TikTok knows the importance of music and that's why it starts with the sound on. So while the visual content is relatively basic, the music selection is premium, allowing marketers and creators to deliver work that delights the audience visually and audibly. 

But if music is so important, why is it often the last consideration when we dream up our concepts? Too often, music is treated as the last contemplation on projects big and small. Repeatedly I've watched brands and agency teams pour months of work and millions of dollars into concepting and producing work without thinking through the soundtrack. Instead, they send a few thousand dollars to a stock music house and that's that. 

Here's a different take: Always lead with music. 

Like a DJ planning their set before a big gig, spend ample time and money making sure your soundtrack will move the audience the way you intend. 

Here are three steps to achieving this:

Align upfront on the role of music.

As campaigns kick off, brands and agency stakeholders should make a conscious decision to start with music. Somehow when you say it out loud or put it in writing—it solidifies this approach. An experienced creative and production team that kicks off with a thoughtful and strategic brief will know the emotion they want to evoke from the start. The creative team should pair a few songs that match the emotion/energy they are looking for as soon as they have initial ideas. These may change along with the ideas, and that's okay. This process is fluid and almost organic, but the ideas are always rooted in music. As teams present work, they should also play the music examples.

Budget appropriately.

Producers, creatives and clients should agree up front on the percentage of the production budget dedicated to the musical score. Every production and production budget is unique, so using a percentage model can be helpful to decide how much of the total budget will be spent on the soundtrack. For example, 15 percent on the low end and up to 25 percent for a larger score is a great place to start. Remember that music will drive the emotion of your work. There are great resources for music—from solid stock music houses to musical production companies—that can score music specific to your work. You can also work with larger labels and music procurement companies that can help secure a popular piece of music—although this will drive up your cost. 

Not enough money in the budget for that popular track blowing up all over TikTok? Consider some of the off-beaten paths where you have an opportunity to license music before it becomes popular. This even comes with the potential to drive the popularity of a track— like finding independent artists and labels on SoundCloud, Bandcamp and other online resources. These sites let you listen to a sample of a track. If you go this route, make sure you are working closely with your business affairs manager and/or legal team to ensure the work is cleared and licensed properly before using it.

Edit to the music.

Another reason to have music selected before you get into post is that the most powerful work incorporates the music into the video. The editors can take cues from the music to help drive the edit. If you don't do this, you risk having the music serve as just filler or background.

As with anything, this takes practice and experimentation. And before you revert back to old habits, remember that the best productions understand that people connect with a video because the soundtrack evoked the intended emotional response. Your work will be better when you lead with music. 

Profile picture for user Matt Silliman
Matt Silliman
Matt Silliman is head of production at Trade School. He started DJing in '96 and still plays out regularly.

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