By David John Farinella
Issue: March 1, 2002

License, Library or Original Score?

For better or for worse, depending on who you ask, there has been a trend toward licensing music for commercials. This year's Super Bowl commercial extravaganza featured a Cadillac advertisement with a Led Zeppelin music bed. And on any given night, music by Moby, Madonna, Sting and a handful of other artists might pop on spots for a variety of products. This trend has left some music houses scratching their heads in amazement.

"There have been some brilliant executions," says Jeff Rosner, composer/owner of Sacred Noise. "Mitsubishi, for one, has been so successful in their approach. That's the upside. The downside is that it's so overwhelming hearing licensed tunes with different products that the products get lost in the shuffle."

Even as clients look toward licensing well-known music for their commercials, music houses are pointing to the simple fact that without original music sometimes the message is missed for the messenger. With no slight intended toward Moby, whose brilliant work has become one of the hottest advertising musical acquisitions out there these days, one has to wonder how many products can feature similar tracks. Sure a vintage music track - think Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Steve Miller Band - recalls great memories for viewers, but will it register when the customer is shopping?

L.A. Post Music's owner Tom Borton takes another angle when he says, "The downside of licensed music, unless you're talking about a famous old tune, would be because you will hear those tracks possibly on another person's commercial. Then all of a sudden it's, 'What's unique about this?' It looks like those people don't have their own unique vision, there's nothing very special about that company, because they're doing the same thing you've heard a thousand times. This is opposed to when you put your heart and soul into it, it really represents an artistic and creative and business philosophy."

Original music, according to many of the composers Post spoke to for this month's look at the competition between licensing music and creating original scores, has the added benefit of being memorable as well as unique. And, for the cost conscious, original music is more affordable by a long shot. One composer estimates that licensed tracks can cost from a mere $1,000 for an unknown band that is looking for television exposure to the $8 to 10 million mark that it would cost for an established piece of music. On the other hand, original music can be acquired for $10,000 to $50,000 per spot, depending on the sophistication of the production.

That said, composer Jeff Koz of Hum Music + Sound Design believes the decision is up to the client. "If your objective as an advertiser is to have something super high profile and recognizable, which means a piece of music that people are going to recognize, that's going to cost you a lot of money. But if an advertiser is saying, 'I'm willing to go for an unknown, but I just like the feeling it creates with my picture, then that's going to be much more affordable.' With original music, if they say it's got to be John Williams and the London Philharmonic, that's going to be expensive. If it's a solo piano with a synth string patch, that's a different level."

Yessian Music takes the fresh approach

Creating their own line of music available for license is one of the ways the staff composers at Detroit's Yessian Music ( are competing against licensed music, explains Brian Yessian. It's Glow CD is filled with the Yessian composers creating songs, rather than commercial music. "We let them go," Yessian says. "We used talent in New York, Nashville, Chicago, Detroit and LA and what we came up with is about 15 tracks on the CD. Basically we've made these songs available for licensing or buyout, so we can get into that game - instead of people going to license a popular band's music. That's one of the ways that we've taken to the field to combat the whole licensing popular music thing."

The Yessian team has also added a music search site to its Web site to help agencies while they are conceptualizing a spot. "Oftentimes agencies will go to a piece of popular music that's out there and throw that against their concept," he explains. "A lot of the time the client will fall in love with the piece of music and they end up wanting to license [it], where it was never really planned that way from the get go. So, by the time we come into the picture, if they still want to go with original music, they're wanting us to get as close as possible to that piece of music without any legal issues happening." That's not the easiest thing to do and that's where the music - which often comes from demos on other projects - on the Yessian Web site comes in handy. There are currently over 1,000 tracks available for search.

Yessian believes clients should pick original over licensed for unique brand identity. "When you hear popular music on commercials, sometimes it can work really great. I can't deny that, but I think when you employ a piece of original music on a spot it makes that spot unique," he says. "I think people are more interested in being original instead of copying each other all the time. Moby has done a great job of getting his name out on a lot of commercials and sometimes it gets a little confusing, because his music will be used on two or three different products. I'm really not associating it with any particular brand, because it gets used so much." Original music, he adds, that takes a fresh approach is more memorable. "I think it brings that brand to life, because ultimately when you look at the entire spot music is pretty much half of it - because you see it and hear it. Obviously, music is an integral part of the entire process."

Tip: "I think keeping the process creative instead of being technical will make the music more creative," reports Brian Yessian. "Let's not break things down to the note and getting so technical. You should let the whole thing breathe a little bit and make it creative."

Nightingale: original music creates a brand

Caron Nightingale, owner of Toronto's Nightingale Music Production (, comes from the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" department when it comes to competing against licensed music. In addition to creating original music for commercials, Nightingale represents 12 music and sound effects libraries (including its own), provides music supervision and clearance services and helps clients make decisions about when to use original or stock music. Nightingale does see the benefit of using original music. "First of all, I guess everybody knows that original music will allow for the greatest control or finessing of putting music to picture," she states. "It's great to have when you've got the budget. You have the potential to get exactly what you want - marrying music to picture."

There's also the risk of not getting the exact piece of music that clients are after, but Nightingale believes original music is vital for station IDs, branding themes and commercials. "If you're looking to do any kind of branding that sticks with people, then you'll find if you do stock music or a network theme or a diaper commercial you might be singing along to the same piece of music being used for a condom commercial. You have to be really careful with that."

As for a recent project, Nightingale points to a spot they worked on for the Aboriginal Network in Canada. It was a tough musical balancing act between the branding company looking for hip music versus the spiritual nature of Native American music. To bridge part of that gap the company brought a composer onboard who is well known in the Aboriginal community. "This has been a tug of war," she says. "In almost any other genre in this world, you could take any style of music, whether it is African or Celtic, and you can have the slow version and the fast version. Well, what we were being told is with the Aboriginals, particularly in Canada, there's no such thing as energetic music, unless they're chanting very loudly, which we couldn't do because that doesn't work with people talking over top."

The company created five :30 spots with Aboriginals telling their stories as well as a handful of promo spots. The composers came up with two different styles: a fusion style to satisfy the branding company and a slower version to make sure not to alienate the Aboriginals. "We were actually trying to create an atmosphere where the Aboriginal Network was not just a network for Aboriginals, but was something that would encourage everyone else to watch and find it all fascinating," she says.

Tip: After meeting with the client, Nightingale will spend a couple of days researching a variety of music and then send the client a CD with a handful of musical styles. "We'll sit down with them and listen to every piece," Nightingale explains. "By the time we're finished with that listening session we usually have an extremely accurate idea of what they want. We'll do that rather than having a composer sit down for three days and work on one piece."

Hum works music to picture

"It's not necessarily trying to sell a client on something original, but I think certain types of spots dictate certain types of creative solutions," explains composer Jeff Koz of Hum ( in Santa Monica. "With licensed music, part of the trend is that a brand or a client can have something that they can attach themselves to that's visible, understood and known, and there isn't as much work to be done for a consumer to digest that piece of music with the spot. The downside of a licensed piece of music is that it doesn't necessarily work with the picture. One of the main criteria that I would think of when trying to figure out a solution for music to picture, is the editorial aspect of the picture, and if there's a story that needs to be told visually, music and sound tremendously help that."

Koz also points out that any client thinking of licensing a track should be able to find a composer to get them close. "If they really like a Moby track, a capable composer would be able to evoke those kinds of emotions in an original piece of music as well," he says. As an example of that, Koz details a recent Microsoft project where the director put an ambient track against the picture that intrigued the clients. "It kind of hung there like a mood, but it really didn't do anything," Koz explains. "We had [the director] in and we looked at one of the spots - there's four - and what I normally do is start to brainstorm and throw out ideas spontaneously based on what I'm seeing and what I think it might be. In this case I thought that direction of being ambient was really cool, but I thought that it needed to be much more dramatic." There was no tension and release, Koz figured, so he added some dramatic elements for a build and then a musical breath for release. "So, the music builds to a crescendo, releases and when the graphics come in it resumes and there's a little bit more of a melody. That melody turned into a thematic melody for the whole campaign."

In addition to the Hum philosophy of providing original music, the company launched SubZero that is dedicated to representing up-and-coming artists as well as established artists for licensing. "We were looking at the changing landscape of the advertising music business and seeing where things were going, and we wanted to be there," Koz explains. "It's sort of a hybrid between a music house and working with artists, because one of our main things that we offer our clients is for a band to create something original. We can do that is because we have the experience and I've been in this business for a lot of years, so I understand how to communicate with musicians and clients. We're, in a sense, shepherding the project all the way through."

Tip: It's all about trusting your first instinct for Jeff Koz. "I usually run with my first idea and trust that it's a good one," he says. "It can wind up changing from there, and often does, because there's generally a lot of people involved and a lot of layers involved. So, creating a piece of music by committee isn't always fun, but there's also a lot of good ideas that emerge from other people and their perspectives as well."

Fearless's music tells the story

Jamie Lamm, owner/composer of NYC's Fearless Music (, has seen a number of scenarios when clients are deciding on music for a spot. "One is that they've picked a piece of music and they're going to shoot and edit the commercial around that and it's a record that they've already negotiated to own the rights. So, that doesn't involve us at all," he explains. Then there's the situation where the client doesn't have the sync rights so they have to have a composer perform an arrangement of an already existing song. "Then it would be a scenario where we're going to do original music and we'd like the music written before we create the commercial - meaning they may have the storyboard, but they haven't gone into any production. So, they'll have us create some music and then they'll shoot and edit to that. The other possible scenario, which is probably more frequent, is that they shot the commercial and edited it, sometimes to another piece of music, and they'll ask us to do a post score of that," he adds.

Of all the scenarios, Lamm prefers creating music to storyboards before anything has been shot. "I think it's really effective when music comes first," he says. "If there is live action being shot they'll play that music on the shoot and people will respond to it. If there's dancing, they'll dance to it. If there's action, they may act to it. It will be smooth and the tone of music will be considered in the production, as well as the post production because the editor will get that piece of music they've already decided on and he'll lay images on top of it."

As for the competition between original and licensed, Lamm is philosophical. "Well, I think there's enough work to go around for everybody. I do think that it is effective for some advertisers to buy a piece of music that [already exists and] that we all have heard before, and spend the bulk of the production money on that," he explains. "Things flow in cycles. That seems to be a trend that has been in play for the past four or five years, so my feeling is the people are less and less going to pre-recorded music and are looking for something original. I don't see it as a competition, I think they are two different things and they serve two different purposes, and they fit in two different price categories."

Lamm concurs that original music enables clients to have a fresh approach to their spot that will match the emotion of the images that will be created. "Usually, rather than people being interested in finding a record of somebody famous, I find they'll be deciding on the lower end whether to use library music versus original music," he says. "That's a pretty easy sell, because the price of just researching some library music might be several thousand dollars and it still might not be right and might have to be edited and probably sweetened to fit their picture. For maybe two or three times more you'd get a custom piece of music that is edited to fit their picture, that maybe has some sound design elements and some musical design elements that fit exactly what they are looking for."

Tip: For Jamie Lamm there are a number of important factors while working on a commercial underscore. "Compose a piece of music that helps tell the story, stays out of the way of the voiceover and punctuates the voiceover where it needs to be punctuated," he says. "If it's not a voiceover-driven spot and it's more of a music-driven spot, make sure the music is unusual enough that the viewer who is not interested in watching a commercial watches."

Sacred Noise uses its instincts

"For me, the good part of a music company is that they go into a situation where there are no handcuffs and they are asked to do what they do best, which is look at film and come up with an idea that would capture or evoke the emotions the client is looking for," explains Jeff Rosner, composer/owner of NYC's Sacred Noise (

"We've done it many times, and that piece becomes immediately associated to only that campaign and only that commercial. It doesn't live anywhere else. It becomes much more of a marketing tool for a client to have something he can call his own."

For Rosner the only way to get that done is to get involved in the project early, perhaps even before they go out and shoot the video. Otherwise, he almost prefers to never see the video before the company gets to work. As an example he points to a recent spot the company worked on for McCoy's, which is a regional Home Depot. The Austin-based advertising agency called and asked for some blues demos, which Sacred Noise sent over. "Then they told us what they were looking for with a brief job description," he explains. "They wanted it to feel like you were out on the back porch and that it had come off of a CD. So, we did four or five different tracks for them. They heard it, they had some comments about it and they went off and shot the film. They came back and wanted us to make it even more back porch, and we did that." After the editor worked on the spot the agency called to ask if they wanted to see the spot in case the composers wanted to do any tweaking. "I said no, I never want to see the picture. The whole concept is that you want it to feel like it came off a CD. Our guys score sometimes and they can't help themselves but follow picture. I don't want anything to step in the way of what this is, so the only time we saw the picture was when they sent it to us married to our music after they had put it on the air."

It boils down to this simple fact, says Rosner: "The real key for a music company and the way to get the best out of a music company is using their instincts."

Tip: "The best thing we can do is get as much information from the client in terms of what they are looking for, of what emotions they need and musically get a landscape in our head as far as what they are feeling," explains Rosner.