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Issue: December 1, 2012

Open House: Copilot Strategic Music + Sound

NEW YORK — It was a SunnyD commercial back in 2000 that would set the wheels in motion for Jason Menkes and Ravi Krishnaswami to join forces and form Copilot Strategic Music + Sound (http://Copilot.Copilotmusic.com) eight years later.

At the time, Menkes was an agency music producer at Saatchi & Saatchi and Krishnaswami a young composer at music house Sacred Noise. In 2003, the two reconnected and worked together when Menkes joined Sacred Noise. 

This successful working relationship eventually led to the founding of Copilot, which provides music and sound design for advertising, TV, interactive and corporations. Menkes and Krishnaswami take a genre-agnostic approach to their projects, working in nearly every musical style. They’re adept at channeling their different musical backgrounds, tastes and skill sets into finding new and innovative ways to bring more impact to the work. 

Menkes is a self-described "a cappella geek," providing a deep understanding of vocal casting and arranging while Krishnaswami’s years spent producing indie-rock records and scoring long-form documentaries, means he brings a perspective and skillset that can only be learned outside of advertising. 

(Copilot's Ravi Krishnaswami and Jason Menkes are pictured, right; Credit: Bill Lane ).

“I had worked for several music houses and ad agencies, each with their own model for producing music for advertising campaigns,” explains Menkes. "You see what works and what doesn't, and at some point to you want try your hand steering the ship. More importantly, Ravi and I share a vision for what music can bring to a project and what a good collaboration looks like. Our discussions are always about what’s best aligned with our client's goals for a campaign. 

“We saw marketers shifting away from the traditional models of advertising communication,” he continues. “We also saw smaller, interactive agencies starting to look beyond the limitations of stock music. All of these companies were doing really interesting work that could benefit from original music, but we knew from experience that traditional music houses couldn’t thrive in this environment. We created a new consultancy model that puts the focus back on strategy and creativity.” 

The company’s namesake can be explained in two parts. “Copilot” was inspired by the two’s collaborative approach to working with clients. Their clients are the pilots, but Copilot has the skills and tools to sit side by side with them and help them navigate towards their goal.

“Strategic Music + Sound” differentiates the work they produce as serving a purpose beyond its own creativity. It exists to help clients tell their story, to embody their brand, or to score their picture. 

Creative Process

Clients looking for true musical partners will find exactly that in Menkes and Krishnaswami who personally work on each and every project. They say the advantage of a company like Copilot is that they can be selective about what they work on, but always offer the full attention of the principals from creative call to final mix. 

“Music can be an intimidating thing to talk about,” says Menkes. “Our clients are often music fans, but are trained in telling stories with words and images rather than sound. 
 
“We bring a willingness to see the demo and revision process as a creative journey rather than a series of client-created obstacles,” adds Krishnaswami. “We see our job during the creative exploration period as being two-fold: listening to and translating our client's instincts and references, and presenting at least one new way to approach a project that the client hadn't thought of.”

With music production changing so radically over the years, Copilot has fully embraced the new ways of working. High quality recording has been democratized and broadband has proliferated, so it is possible to collaborate with composers, singers, musicians, and engineers in far-flung locations, and receive the results in minutes. 

Copilot assembles a completely unique and specialized team for each project, finding the right mix of talents, rather than having a factory floor that cranks out pieces of music written and recorded in the exact same way, by the exact same people. These changes, and changes in the music business, have also allowed recording and performing artists to work in this space. This means that Menkes and Krishnaswami go wherever a client and an idea take them -- creatively and geographically. 

“Rather than tie ourselves to a one-size-fits-all studio facility, we have chosen to see the world's menu of large and small recording facilities as our workspace, and can therefore figure out with a client exactly what is needed for a specific track's production needs and budget,” explains Krishnaswami. “We certainly have our favorite spots, with relationships that ensure trust, but we're always ready to build new relationships.”

Copilot practices what its preaches and preaches what it practices. Its approach to creative music strategy has been taught at NYU, where Menkes was a full-time professor of Music Business, and at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where Krishnaswami is a founding faculty member in the Music Composition MFA program.

Recent Projects

Copilot’s recent work includes a chilling rendition of the “The Drunken Sailor” sea shanty featured in the first gameplay trailer for Dishonored, the first-person assassination action video game published by Bethesda Softworks and developed by Arkane Studios. 
 
Menkes and Krishnaswami’s challenge was to come up with a sound that would help define an entirely new property, and also capture gamers’ imaginations. The new lyrics for “The Drunken Whaler” are darker than the original song, so Copilot used the voices of ordinary children — rather than a professional youth choir — to achieve a dark, haunting quality to the music. This created an interesting juxtaposition between the innocence of the voices and the brutality in the gameplay footage.

Since the trailer's debut on Spike TV's “GameTrailers,” it has received more than 1 million views on its YouTube page. Due to the popularity of the trailer's music, Copilot and Bethesda also made the full-length track available for free via download. In addition, they launched an official Remix Competition for “The Drunken Whaler,” where users downloaded the stems and submitted their own remix for a chance to win a copy of the game.

Another project is BBDO’s recent campaign for AT&T, which puts the focus on the ease and connectivity of the client’s global network. For the campaign's debut, Copilot was brought in to create a musical score that felt at home in the various global settings while avoiding World Music stereotypes. 
 
Krishnaswami found the right balance with an ensemble of hand-played string and percussion instruments, such as Kora, Bazouki, and Marimba that carry you through the story without sounding too self-important.

“One of the biggest challenges in scoring AT&T's campaign launch was how the spot tightly wove together the various global stories, and how to address that within the score,” concludes Krishnaswami. “As someone who studied ethnomusicology and scored documentary films set in India and the Middle East, I was excited to explore this aspect in a thoughtful way. By mixing plucked and hammered string instruments from different regions, and bringing them into a minimalism context, I was able to create a texture that felt international without pandering to one specific tradition or getting into the realm of cliché.”