Uncommon’s Nils Leonard and a selection of music supervisors tell Alex Reeves about the parts of the musical landscape that advertising unfairly ignores
Nothing has the power to make you sit up and pay attention to something you were otherwise ignoring like music. Anyone who experienced OVO Energy’s 2018 TV commercial as part of an ad break can attest to this. Even if you’d got up from the sofa to make a cup of tea you were forced to pay attention, thanks to the track that Uncommon Creative Studio and Wake the Town synced to it - ‘Raining Blood’, a thrash metal ripper taken from Slayer’s 1986 album ‘Reign in Blood’. It’s one of the most remarkable pieces of music ever paired with a brand and, on paper, it sounds like a strange idea for an energy brand.
Dominic Bastyra, founder of Wake the Town, had a lot of fun licensing that track. “The rights holders I was dealing with laughed,” he remembers. “They were like: ‘Slayer on a TV ad? No way.’ They wouldn’t even know where to start because they would never be requested for a commercial.”
He knows that pairings like that are the exception. And there are many barriers to such brilliance making it through to the final cut of a commercial. “There are so many people involved that all of these incredible ideas that brilliant minds have, they’re so often just shot down,” he says.
Dominic’s used to it. “There are so many smart brains going into analysing what a brand should be doing, how they’re doing it, taking that information and distilling it into a campaign. But then none of that thought or thinking process is transferred to music. It’s just an intuition at the very end. There’s such a lack of trying to objectify the subjective in it.”
“You feel music or you don’t,” says Uncommon co-founder Nils Leonard (the man whose idea it was to put Slayer on an ad). “There isn’t a theory as to why it should work. I can’t explain why one track is better than another but I tried. You have to listen to two things side by side and ask yourself what makes you feel more. Usually the track will be the difference.
“It’s a real shame when people choose the track with half the emotion in, it makes me believe they want to affect people half as much, which is a depressing place to be. As a creative you want to impact, to affect people and move them.”
But because it’s all so subjective, it’s so often left up to “what a creative wants or what someone is randomly feeling,” says Dominic. “And it feels a bit weird.”
This is a barrier to lots of great music getting anywhere near an ad. “I’m a bit surprised sometimes at how little music knowledge people in creative agencies have,” says Marcel Wiebenga, partner, strategy director and music supervisor at Sizzer Amsterdam. “In general I think people in in the ‘creative industry’ are advertising makers and advertising is very self referencing, more so than referencing independent art or the broader creative industry. If one campaign does well you see a couple of copies showing up soon. And the same goes for the music.”
As a creative Nils agrees with Marcel: “There’s something about a love of music. No one would put their hand up and say they didn’t love music. But the truth is some people listen to music and some people love music. You see a lot of creatives talking mechanically about it - ‘we’ll get into an edit then we’ll find the track’ - it doesn’t work that way at Uncommon. We find tracks way before we’ve got into production. We had Slayer on a mood film for OVO and had a very hard Chase & Status remix on the Habito ad [which came out last month with an abrasive track from Dutch electronic trio Noisia on it] before we got into production.”
The truth is that plenty of creatives don’t love music, says Nils. “They say they do. They go ‘that’s an amazing track’ and they’re on the latest release blogs. I don’t think they feel it. I don’t think they wake up thinking ‘I know how this ad should feel’.
“People aren’t enriched enough. I mostly mean people in agencies because it’s our job to be the conduit to the culture. Clients come to us for this and I’m disappointed by clients but mainly by creatives who might have a very cool playlist on Spotify but go into an edit suite and revert to some advertising personality, selecting something really conventional and inoffensive. I don’t want to offend people literally, but tracks that slide by like wallpaper.”
But music is a vital key to unlocking emotions. That much is obvious. “Great music is supposed to do a lot of the heavy lifting that the script can’t do,” says Nils. “So what it should be doing is shocking you the way it would in a movie or on a new album. There’s this temptation ad creatives talk themselves into. I don’t think they know they’re doing it. But [they choose] the track that feels comfortable on the film, as opposed to the track that lifts it and makes it something else. I’ve always tried to get metal into a variety of experiences because it has this ability to do that.”
Most people working in music sync, as well as the creatives like Nils who really care about the power it holds, believe that it’s worth ‘pushing’ against this impulse for safety and comfort. Jumi Akinfenwa, music supervisor at Pitch & Sync, has an analogy she likes to illustrate this with: “It’s almost as if there’s a tightrope and on one side you have the safe, familiar option and on the other, you have something completely brand new, to the point that it doesn’t fit with the brand image. In the middle, there’s the rope and there are few campaigns that have managed to stay there, that have managed to push it to the edge, if you will.”
It’s hard to convince a client that they should slap a thrash metal track on their TV commercial, but as Nils proved earlier this year it can be done. As Dominic recounts, he was determined to make it work. His strategy was to show OVO that metal isn’t as niche as they think. If you look on YouTube the track ‘Raining Blood’ has tens of millions of views spread over various videos (and that’s not including one man’s incredible banjo cover that has over 8 million views). “There’s this belief that if it isn’t Coldplay or the latest Labrinth track, you’re basically dealing with something that 80% of people are going to hate,” says Nils. “Hang on a minute, that isn’t true. What we saw with OVO is all these people coming out the woodwork saying: ‘Oh my fucking god, that’s the best riff ever!’ Slayer garnered a new audience they never thought they had. This stuff isn’t niche. [Sheffield metalcore band] Bring Me the Horizon are one of the most downloaded bands of the last three years. There’s a bit of me that wants to push at that.”
Nils finds the narrow band of musical styles that advertising makes use of frustrating. “There are some styles and tracks that people keep using. And it immediately relegates the ad and makes it normal. That’s what music has the power to do: make whatever you’re making less normal. And I think that’s what we should all be doing.”
One genre that’s plaguing the industry at present is classic rock from the ‘80s and ‘90s, as Jumi points out. “There’s so much of it on adverts,” she says. “I think that it's more of a reflection of the people working on it though, and this is no fault of their own. I think that because target consumers for a lot of brands are largely familiar with these genres as well.”
Then there are the endless cover versions, as Woodwork Music’s Sam Phillips knows too well. “Obviously there are amazing examples of interesting covers being created for spots but the standard folky cover version is such an easy choice to make and rarely results in interesting, striking content.”
“Metal is unfairly neglected,” says Sam, “especially at a time when ‘swagger’ and ‘rebellion’ are so frequently used as key words in music briefs. It generally feels like the pool of emotional music which advertising uses is relatively small and rather than take risks with more challenging or interesting music choices, it’s locked into a pattern of reusing tracks which have worked on other spots.”
Metal is one particularly extreme example of a genre that’s considered out-of-bounds for advertisers. Dominic recognises why: “It’s cacophonous. It can be very divisive. It can be painful and headache-inducing. It’s a specific niche. But the wonderful thing is it cuts through. The most amazing thing about OVO is that it cut through the rest of the TV commercials in those breaks. Just stood out. It was so simple but so clever.”
Loudness is one way to stand out and cut through, but metal isn’t the only genre with that ability. Dominic suggests that jungle could have immense potential as a genre. “Not liquid, relaxed, soulful, jazzy jungle. I’m talking about hard jungle. Or Aphex Twin - non-specific, genreless music but music to make your ears bleed. You cannot ignore it.”
Marcel jokes that he’d love to sync his own band, who he used to play drums in, the thrashcore outfit Das Oath
. “It’s unlistenable. You should check it out,” he chuckles. Still a punk at heart, he always wondered why nobody has used Gang Green’s ‘Alcohol’ in a beer ad. “I would love to use that for a Budweiser ad.”
More seriously, Marcel talks about the music supervisor’s role in helping take clients and agencies into more interesting sonic territory. “When a client says they want such and such, or they’ve seen a performance by Beyoncé, for example, we dive into that and try to find out in a conversation what it is that they actually want to achieve and what other options there are to achieve it.”
Outsider genres have slowly proven themselves to be safe for advertisers. Grime used to be considered outside of the mainstream, or too ‘raw’ for brands to associate themselves with. You need only look at the success of Nike’s ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’, featuring Skepta or the many other dynamic sports brand campaigns targeting a youth audience, to realise that it’s broken that barrier as a genre.
There are vast tracts of musical ground left untouched by the ad industry, and it’s not just the stuff that makes people’s ears bleed. Reggae and dancehall are, Sam considers, “the most off limit genres,” speculating that it might be due to their perceived connections with drugs and Rastafarianism. “It feels like the industry is slightly behind the curve in embracing genres like dancehall which have been incorporated fairly thoroughly now into mainstream pop,” he says. “There are other examples of genres like metal, which has certain connotations meaning it is rarely embraced despite the emotional content of much of the genre. Dance music has traditionally also been avoided (especially 4/4 clubby dance music) for the same reasons.”
It’s not just generic barriers that keep brands away from great music though. “I don’t know if you could call it niche but a lot of electronica stuff is really underused,” says Nils. “I really like George Fitzgerald
, that guy does some brilliant stuff, just layering synths. If you were making a film that would usually use a classical piece on it, I bet you 20 quid that if you put George Fitzgerald on it it would be twice as good and have the same feel.”
Nils would also love to hear more “genuine leftfield folk” used in ads. “I don’t mean Bon Iver. I mean the sort of stuff you see down the Barbican. Orchestras of people playing really interesting instruments.”
Jumi lists more areas that deserve exploration: “Personally, I think that contemporary alternative/indie music is having a real moment in terms of what’s out there, both for UK bands and groups from abroad, however, I rarely see this reflected in sync. Perhaps its because it’s a world that I have found myself wholly immersed in due to my personal taste but I find adverts with that sort of music quite few and far between.
“I also love a lot of house and disco and it seems that adverts that utilise this sort of music tend to go for the commercially recognisable and borderline cheesy tracks, like Village People and Black Box. There’s nothing wrong with either of those but there’s so much brilliant rare groove out there for people to discover.”
Who are the rare heroes doing it right then? One worth noting, says Jumi, is giffgaff’s ‘Small Vs. Big’ ad using Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Hong Kong Garden’. “Whilst tracks from the ‘70s get used quite a lot, I feel that this an unexpected track from the era and for the brand, as it seems to be targeted to a younger demographic,” she says. “The use of the track in the advert is also worth noting, as it builds steadily in the background and yet doesn’t reach full volume. It just sits there quietly in the background without sounding like background music and getting lost behind the dialogue.”
The opposite of in-your-face thrash metal can be a powerful tool as well, as ENVY Advertising sound designer and mixer Marcin Pawlik notes. “I’d like to see more commercials with atmospheric, ambient and minimal-like genres,” he says. “Commercials with catchy, attention grabbing, busy, melody driven music are ubiquitous but non-intrusive music tracks which don't tell us what to feel but allow us to feel are rare. Good examples of that are the scores of Trent Reznor and his composing partner Atticus Ross (e.g. Gone Girl, Social Network, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). Their music creates a desired mood without taking over the scene but effectively communicating an idea. All the emotional clues are still there but done in a much subtler way. Music of this kind facilities more space for other sounds to thrive. There’s less conflict fighting for a space in the mix - less is more. The Guinness commercial ‘Compton Cowboys’ is a good example of that.”
The two brands that Uncommon have delivered their most shocking music projects with have been challenger brands that define themselves in opposition to something. “We attract a certain kind of brand here,” admits Nils. “I think [because of] our positioning and our take on the world, we’re not really for brands who want incremental growth. We tend to appeal to people who want wholesale change or to really step up or be noticed.”
But you don’t have to be a challenger brand to use interesting music. “I’m not trying to drag mainstream brands and say everything should be metal, but music and playing with how surprising it can be can do so much for a brand,” says Nils. And if you look at how brands like Nike are positioning themselves in opposition to structures like racism, even big clients can define themselves through alternative culture.
“I don’t think one genre should get more exposure,” says Marcel. “I think in general it would be good if advertising takes it upon itself to feel a sense of social responsibility, take a stand on social issues and not only because it should but to make it part of the conversation every day and the brands’ DNA. And what comes after, what kind of music accompanies that, we’ll figure that out later. But it would create a more diverse cultural landscape. I think that would be my goal as a guy who runs a music agency.”