Is it me... or should you keep your playlist personal?

Cartoon 9 Feb 2012 Conference Call.jpg

Is it me or…should you keep your playlist personal?

‘So, Carl, have you got any ideas for the soundtrack?

Ah. That question. That question. Now there’s a heavy silence on the line as the thirteen-strong conference call holds its collective breath. Suddenly I feel as if the weight of the commercial’s soundtrack has fallen onto my shoulders. I’m painfully aware that someone, somewhere, has informed the client that the soundtrack will be ‘modern, informative and catchy’. And that’s as far as it’s got.

If I say yes, I’m doomed. If I say no, they’ll all think I don’t care and I’m double doomed. Hardly seems fair. There has to be another way. What are my choices? What’s going to satisfy the musical needs of the great and good on the other end of the line?

One thing’s for sure, I need to avoid the usual pitfalls…

The ‘generic cover song’, compositionally reworked
Music has been an integral part of advertising since the days of soap powder. And when BBH discovered an old style 50’s melody could pump up a pair of Levis, it was game on. Music is now so important that it can ‘be’ the ad – Phil Collins, a gorilla and Cadburys anyone?

Given this heritage, it never ceases to amaze me how many tunes are ‘back fitted’. Tacked onto the ad like an afterthought rather than discovered up front. Is it me or aren’t they quite prominent? Isn’t music a genuine part of any commercial palette? Surely it’s just as important as copy? Don’t get me wrong, there are exceptions to the rule – I was recently asked to pitch on a UK script that had a clear track choice in the first paragraph. Joy.

But back on the line and there was no such luxury. Silence was still reigning and the script in front of me was offering as much musical insight as Louis Walsh. My mind began racing through history. Suddenly I was reminded of an article by David Huron from 1987. (Funny what you think of under pressure, I mused). It listed the reasons to use music in adverts. They range from supporting structure and continuity to providing memorability. All good points, sure, but isn’t it just about being cool? Whatever happened to emotion, escapism and good, honest rock’n’roll? Who needs a reason why a track works, it should just work.

Just ask George Lucas. Apparently he penned Star Wars with a track-list to meet the mood of each scene. If that was the case I’d love to see the inspirational soundtrack behind Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure. Then there’s Vodafone. They’ve struck gold in the past with the Dandy Warhols and The Only Ones. The latter is an ode to heroin – not exactly ideal subject matter for flogging free evening calls, but it did.

Inappropriate lyrics and personal taste
A good friend of mine, for whom English is not the mother tongue, almost fell into another familiar trap. He got hung up on a track by Mr. Williams called Love Box. Although it was heartening to see him championing the more experimental side of Robbie's back catalogue, I think he was totally unaware of the song’s true meaning. Luckily we managed to pull him out of the tail-spin before the client was subjected to the full hip-grinding effect of his musical knowledge.

I’ve been there before too. At a recent meeting, I was about to ‘share’ a track I’d recently fallen for. By eighties Illinois punk rockers, Big Black, it’s entitled: ‘He’s a Whore’. Now before you start getting all righteous on me, it’s actually a very politically-correct track about…you know what, who am I kidding? But it does have a good pedigree if you’re a fan of The Stogies or Cheap Trick…and now I’m really showing my age.

A rock, a hard place and an iPod
That’s the problem when it comes to the soundtrack. Music is very personal and subjective. Suggest something and you’re really showing your hand. Too hip and you’re trying too hard, too honest and you’re a dinosaur.

Luckily I didn’t ‘share’. Ultimately the client went with ‘The Bare Necessities’ from Jungle Book. Good to know we were on the same wavelength then. Ahem.

It’s a good job that our beloved clients always seem to have something up their sleeve. We’ve all heard the immortal line: ‘the client doesn’t have money for music’, only to discover in the edit that said client is now considering the Stones for the opening frames. I don’t care how good the art direction is, I don’t think Mick drops his prices in post-production.

Sympathy for the client
It might look good on a proposal, but ‘modern, informative and catchy’ means very different things to different people. A hundred suggestions later and it can start to feel like a rather cruel joke. Suddenly breaking the bank for Keef and the gang seems like the only escape route.

Of course, sometimes the music is just sprung on you. You finally see your commercial on air and, wait, what’s that in the background!? That wasn’t there in the edit?! Suddenly everyone thinks that choir of small, shrill children gleefully butchering a Led Zep classic was your idea. You were the one who introduced the Lemon Song to a pre-school generation and you were the one who downgraded the status of Rock Gods all across the world. IT WASN’T MY CHOICE. Save it, we’re all deaf ears now, as...

Back on the phone line…

‘So, Carl, have you got any ideas for the soundtrack?’

Yes, actually, I’ve just had an idea…

So here's the ad, here's the soundtrack, and next month I'll upload the agency's choice, which is actually... better!

And Matt, (who draws all the fab cartoons) it's great to have you back.

Carl Prechezer