How Agencies Use Music in 30-Second National Ads

music for advertising

30-SECOND STORIES is a collection of musical backgrounds that are crafted specifically for the conceptual image and retail TV spots produced by ad agencies for major brands.

A Little Background: What the Agency Wants

When they are creating and producing TV spots, the ad agency’s goal is to present their client’s message in subtle ways, whether it’s clever, funny, situational or emotional. Sometimes the product name isn’t revealed until the very end. Even when the spot is based solely around an offer, the agency tries to present it in the most creative way possible. It’s less “hard sell” and more “gentle persuasion”, aiming to leave the viewer with an “in” idea or feeing to take away. And they’re given just 30 seconds to tell their story. Sometimes they only get fifteen seconds.

In addition to music, there are many tools in their arsenal to help convey ideas: (a) high end visual or graphic treatment, (b) dialog and action delivered by on-camera actors, or (c) Voice-over (VO) that conveys an emotion rather than delivering a hard sell.

Music for advertising is about creativity and construction. In any music collection, it’s impossible for one-size to fit all. But when TV spots contain a mixture of creative concept and retail sell (which is the great majority of them), there are some common patterns. So our goal was to create a collection where “one-size fits most” or at least “many,” whether that use is immediate or perhaps after a little crafty editing in post.

The Common Thread: Constructing the Perfect Ad

For most (or all) of the spot, any spot, the music is used to help tell a story or evoke an emotion. Sometimes the creative will set up a scene to convey a “problem” and will then offer their product as the “solution”. You’ll also see similarly constructed themes like “life is good and this is why” or “our product helps people from all walks of life and this is how”. In the case of a spot focused solely on brand image and identity, the message is usually: “this is our spirit and philosophy”. The story continually builds throughout the spot and ultimately leads to some kind of payoff, turn-around or reveal.

Within the story line, these can be: (a) some kind of product reveal, (b) a VO containing a sell or offer, (c) an important line of copy that acts as a turning point or adds poignancy (d) a change in the scenery, emotion or tone, (e) the punch line to a joke, (f) key moments of the story, or (g) the solution to a problem.

There may be more than one of these moments per spot, with varying degrees of subtlety. Or a spot can consist of a single payoff, where the product or brand may not be revealed until the very end.

Sometimes music drives the spot and sometimes it provides unobtrusive support for the visual. The spot may contain an “offer” portion, delivered graphically, with a voice-over (VO), or a combination of the two. For higher end advertising, it’s unusual to have a spot consist solely of offer material. The spot can revolve around an offer, but it’s always delivered with a conceptual creative set-up.

You may see and hear the music starting and stopping, or breaking down at moments, but it’s done in a subtle way that matches the action or acts as support for a payoff, turn-around” or reveal. The track might follow one simple, static musical idea for the entire spot and it may not enter at the beginning. Some cuts get to the point or sell very quickly, but more often they build to that pay-off moment. The musical approach to dialog or VO is to treat it as though it were another instrument, making sure to leave space for the final audio mix to breathe.

The Musical Approach: Telling the Story

Most of the time, the ad agency prefers the track to fade out, rather than having a cold ending. In their view, fading out makes it sound more like “real” music. They may even choose to end the track abruptly, foregoing a proper musical or natural ending altogether. Most tracks in the collection are delivered long, roughly :32- :35 seconds, so the audio post engineer can pull a fade during the final mix. This also gives him editing and placement flexibility.

Many spots are “pre-scored” before the commercial is shot. Rather than working to the picture, the composer will work to the storyboard or script. He’ll imagine what the picture will look like and where the builds, payoffs and turnarounds might be. Using musical devices that are common to most TV spots, he’ll build an audio “roadmap” to help convey the message, feeling and flow. Pre-scores seem to work well because the video editors like editing to tracks; it gives them inspiration and sets a pace for them to follow. And because the tracks fit that particular mold, they’ll often work for other commercials, not just the ones they were originally written for.

In many cases, an ad agency will ask for a track that slowly builds throughout the spot. An establishing intro will be crafted, and the track will build from that idea to keep the script moving. Music for a payoff or turn-around will be some kind of change to the track that keeps the viewer interested and conveys whatever information or feeling the agency hopes they will take away. Sometimes it’s accomplished with musical fills/hits/breakdowns, higher energy, a different emotion, or a completely different musical style. Silence is used often too. A track may not come in for the first 10 seconds; entering only after a payoff or an important turn-around in the message. You may also hear a silent :02-:05 second breakdown during a key moment in the spot. After the musical break, a fill might act as a lead-in to something with a higher energy level.

The Collection: Delivering the soundtracks

30-Second Stories consists of two albums containing 29 tracks each. Each of the main 30 second tracks will have a 30 second alternate mix and a 15 version as well. Note that the 30-second alternate mix will not necessarily fit the definition of a “reduced mix”. The alternate mix is a creative exploration of the main track, and may even be fuller in instrumentation. Most of the music fades out based on the construction of the track.

Because it’s impossible to predict the needs for every TV spot, we employed a loose approach to the structure of each pre-score, with the goal being to cover as many of the common bases as possible. Rather than trying to pursue a strict regimen of categorized musical styles, we focus more upon how the tracks are constructed. So we’ve delivered a creative compendium of styles most requested by ad agencies. To provide focus, we designed the tracks around possible uses: automotive, packaged goods, sports drinks, clothing, healthcare, etc. And naturally there’s a lot of crossover.

We’ve also delivered some tracks with endings. Endings for spots are usually written to match specific visuals or VO, so the timing of the last chord is never consistent from spot to spot. Much of the time, the agency wants their ending VO tag line to be delivered almost “in the clear” at the very end of the spot. In that case, you may hear the post happen around: 27-28 seconds. In other cases, you’ll see a final chord being struck at around 25 seconds, where the groove stops to punctuate an important line of copy. After that break in the action, the main groove can be edited to enter again and then ride out until the end of the spot.

Jon Slott – Executive Producer/Breed Music


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