Head of Music at BBH London and The Most Radicalist Black Sheep on the anthropology of music, the laddism of the ‘90s indie scene and the beauty of silence
Music has always played a huge part in Ayla Owen’s life. From her pre-school fixation with the violin to kicking about with the indie kids of Britpop-era London, to stints in TV, music has been a driving force behind many of her adventures. A native of Washington DC in the US, she was lured to Europe (and specifically London) by noisy, scruffy sounds of acid house and indie. She ended up carving out a niche for herself in music supervision and, in 2004, found herself entering the weird world of advertising. Looking back, she reckons she was pretty naïve, forging her career with a combination of blind faith and hard work – but it’s an approach that has taken her places she never would have imagined.
As well as founding BBH’s music division Black Sheep Music with Frances Royle, Ayla also set up The Most Radicalist, a consumer-facing site that tracks down and curates exciting emerging artists. Of course, music has always been a key part of the BBH brand and culture – just think of some of their most iconic ads, like Levi’s Launderette or Flat Eric – so it’s a natural home for Ayla and somewhere she’s been able to push things even further.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Ayla to find out about her career, pick her brains about the importance of getting music supervisors involved early in the creative process and, yes, to ask her for her ‘desert island discs’.
LBB> Music plays such a big role in your life – where do you think this love of music stems from?
AO>When I was four years old, my parents took me to a see a school orchestra concert and I developed an instant, inexplicable obsession with the violin. I adored the sound, the smell and the glossy shine of the instrument - it reminded me of hot buttered toast. My mother thought I was just going through another one of my weirdo kid phases, but after several months of begging her she found the only violin teacher that would take a four-year-old. I would go on to spend the next 14 years in the legendary Grace Powell’s ashtray-filled parlour. Classical music was my first love - and inhaling second hand cigarette smoke became my weekly ritual.
LBB> What was the first single you ever bought with your own money?
AO> ‘Stray Cats Strut’ by The Stray Cats - a questionable choice for a 10-year-old, to be fair. I fancied (the lead singer) Brian Setzer and daydreamed of being his rockabilly wife.
LBB> And what was the point in your life when you realised ‘wow, I can make my living with music’?
AO> I was astonishingly naive about work when I first started out - I think I figured that things would just magically fall into place if I just tried hard enough. Turns out making money in the music business is actually really fucking tricky, particularly if you’re going down the indie route.
It wasn’t until I started working on (Channel 4 breakfast show) RI:SE that I realised that I could make a living out of music supervision. This definitely wasn’t something my guidance counsellor had suggested as a career path. I’m still not sure if my parents understand what I do, but I’m sure they’re proud that I do what I love.
LBB> What triggered the move to London from Washington?
AO> Ever since I can remember I fantasised about moving away from the US to somewhere more exotic and less American. I spent many summers in Europe as a kid and became obsessed with learning foreign languages, so I ended up doing part of my uni degree in the south of France and in ‘95 I started making regular trips to London. This was at the height of the Britpop era and although acid house and rave scene had already peaked, it was still seductive enough to convince me to move to London as soon as I had my diploma in hand.
LBB> Being involved in the London indie music scene in the ‘90s must have been incredible – what are the stand out memories of that experience?
AO> It’s easy to look back on those years with rose-tinted glasses. Don’t get me wrong, it was incredible and thrilling and dangerous and anarchic - and I was beyond pleased with myself that my job featured late night soundchecks and illegal raves instead of stuffy board meetings and spreadsheets - but it was also a far less inclusive time for minorities and women. Those were the years of ‘laddism’ and the area of the business that I was most interested in at the time (A&R) was largely male-dominated and seemed impenetrable, so I started to explore an enigmatic part of the industry that would allow me to do something that even the most creative A&Rs didn’t do - marrying sound with picture...music supervision.
LBB> How did you get involved with TV music supervision?
AO> One thing that has become abundantly clear to me throughout my career is how fortunate I’ve been to have such amazing friends, without whom I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. My first lucky break into TV supervision came through my friend Jack, who was producing Jonathan Ross’ documentary series Japanorama for (now BBC3) BBC Choice. Jack knew that because of my previous record label job I was familiar with J-pop and Japanese electronica, so he brought me on as a music consultant for the show - a classic case of being in the right place at the right time.
My second lucky break came through my best friend Tara, who happened to be working at Princess Productions around the same time that they were looking for a new music supervisor for their Channel 4 breakfast show, RI:SE. Tara’s tip off led to me contacting Princess, getting an interview and subsequently getting the job (which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t supervised the Japanorama series), proof that basically I owe most of my success in life to my family, Jack, Tara and so many other friends along the way.
LBB> You moved into advertising when you joined BBH - what prompted that move? And when you first moved over, what were the biggest changes or differences you had to adapt to?
AO> When I learned that RI:SE wasn’t being commissioned for a new series, I started looking for other supervision opportunities and learned about BBH’s new joint venture Leap Music.
I knew bugger all about advertising but I figured that it couldn’t be that different than supervising music for TV (NB: it is VERY VERY DIFFERENT) so I asked my lovely director’s rep friend Kate if she knew how I could get my CV to BBH/Leap Music. Kate handed me the email address of the legendary Frances Royle, BBH’s ex Head of Production and co-founder of Leap Music, who miraculously forwarded my CV to Leap’s MD.
I was shortly thereafter offered a job, spent the following six years at Leap, and when Leap’s MD left in 2010, I co-founded (with Frances Royle) BBH’s current music division, Black Sheep Music. I think the biggest change I had to adapt to when I entered advertising were the long working hours. Up until then, I generally left my work at the office. But that’s not possible for an advertising music supervisor, particularly with multiple air dates always around the corner. Deadlines are deadlines, and I am pretty much switched on to my emails around the clock. It’s the part of my job that I like the least, but (unless I can convince LA to switch their eight-hour time difference to Greenwich Mean Time) I figure it’s just the way the cookie crumbles. I try to focus on the areas of my job that I can control instead of sweating stuff that I can’t.
LBB> Music is such a subjective topic – as a music supervisor, is it hard to separate your personal favourites/likes/dislikes from what is the right choice for the project?
AO> It used to be difficult, but I have learned (the hard way!) that part of what makes a music supervisor valuable is their ability to consider the opinions of all the stakeholders in the process - the creative director, the director, the creative team client (and the various client stakeholders within their company, as well the most senior client’s seven-year-old daughter who thinks we should ditch our lovely, bespoke piano composition for Ariana Grande). All I can do is try to guide everyone towards the most powerful, creative and commercially viable music selection - naturally, this involves my personal taste in music (would be weird if it didn’t) but I try not to become too attached to outcomes.
LBB> At BBH you are at an agency that’s always had a heritage of amazing musical choices (a couple of weeks ago we were on a bit of a Flat Eric kick in the office!) – how does that filter into the wider agency culture and practices?
AO> Music has always been such a core part of the BBH brand. Our founders understood the power of music to move, to transform, to tell a story. Having an in-house music offering is just a natural extension of the agency’s core beliefs. Black Sheep Music is much more than a music supervision arm; we are involved at the earliest stages of creative development, we develop music strategies for our brand clients, and crucially, we create a music-centric culture within the agency through hosting live showcases, free gig tickets giveaways, launching music discovery email groups, etc.
LBB> One gripe I often hear from music supervisors and composers is how often music is treated as an afterthought – I’m curious about whether that’s something you’ve come up against and at what stage in the creative and production process people should start thinking and talking about music?
AO> This is definitely an industry-wide issue for supervisors (including myself), but I must say it has improved within BBH over the past few years. Producers and account teams tend to get us involved a lot earlier in the process now, occasionally before the scripts are even written if it’s a concept that’s heavily music-driven.
It’s always best to include music supervisors as early as possible, particularly if the campaign idea lives or dies on a specific track or artist. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been presented with a script that had already been approved by client, only for me to have to break the bad news to the creative director that the track written into the script isn’t actually available for advertising.
LBB> What was the idea that led to you setting up themostradicalist.com? And did you anticipate it becoming quite such a beast in its own right?
AO> Haha - ‘beast’ - love it, can I nick that quote?
The Most Radicalist (TMR) came about in a very natural, organic way. A few years ago, our music researcher Dan (who also happened to be the new music editor at influential UK music blog The Line of Best Fit) started to post emerging artist track reviews on Black Sheep Music’s Tumblr page. Dan’s curation and writing skills are top notch, so when we started to get a positive buzz on our Tumblr, I convinced BBH that we should invest in building a proper consumer-facing website, which we christened The Most Radicalist (long story of how we got the name...perhaps another time!)
What started out as a humble Tumblr page has evolved into a respected platform for emerging artists, with our two brilliant co-editors (Karl & Tom) and a dedicated team of leading music writers/journalists who post daily track reviews, interviews, listicles and other features, always focusing on the freshest music from the most promising new artists from around the world.
LBB> How has curating and editing the site sharpened or changed your practice or perspective on the day job?
AO> Absolutely. It requires you to use a totally different part of the brain, and although TMR is a music editorial site completely separate from the advertising part of BBH, it’s still a potential launching pad for emerging artists into the world of synch. Just recently, I brought two emerging artists that we’d featured on TMR onto a pitch for Audi, and on both occasions they ended up being chosen vocalists for the campaigns (Audi Going Home with South African singer/songwriter Gina Kushka and Audi Snow with UK artist Robyn Sherwell.)
It’s certainly not the rationale for TMR’s existence, but it’s a happy by-product and demonstrates BBH’s credibility and uniqueness in the creative agency space.
LBB> When you’re looking to bring someone into the fold as an aspiring music supervisor, what traits do you look for? Is it about the encyclopaedic music knowledge, an attitude or something else?
AO> For me it’s all about the attitude, passion and the willingness to learn. We all start out life as a blank slate - just because I have encyclopaedic music knowledge now (by the way, I don’t - nobody really does completely, everyone has gaps) doesn’t mean that I began my career that way.
I was fortunate enough to meet lots of people along the way who were hugely influential in shaping my musical world-view, so as long as an aspiring music supervisor has humility, a rock solid work ethic and a megaton of love (obsession) for music, then I’m good. I’m also eternally grateful for industry experts who offered their wisdom and guidance when I was just starting out in the field, such as the inspirational Maggie Rodford of Air Edel, who’s now a fellow board member of the UK & European Guild of Music Supervisors.
LBB> In some ways, music supervision seems a bit like being an anthropologist, digging into different scenes and cultures and identities… how do you feel about that aspect of your job?
AO> It’s one of my favourite parts of the job, as I’m interested in so many musical genres and subgenres - it’s a bit like being an actor trying on different parts or a linguist immersing themselves in a specific culture for a brief but intense visit. Because my role is so integrated into the broader agency process and culture, I’m not only part anthropologist but also part private detective, researcher, producer, strategist, creative, paralegal, entrepreneur, office paranoiac and den mother.
LBB> Gotta ask – what are your desert island discs?
AO> This question is my worst nightmare. I guess if I were stranded on a desert island I’d want songs that complement as many of my moods as possible, so in no particular order:
1) Prince: The Hits / The B-Sides 56 tracks included in this embarrassment of riches from His Royal Purple Badness.
2 & 3) Leonard Cohen I couldn’t choose just one album for Lenny so it’s got to be The Future and The Best of Leonard Cohen (compilation of his older work). I think I could make all my Desert Island Discs Leonard Cohen but then that would be a real snoozefest for your readers.
4) David Bowie: The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
5) Depeche Mode: Violator
6) Faure: Requiem
7) Pixies: Doolittle
8) Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here
LBB> And in terms of live music, what’s your top ever gig?
AO> Another impossible question! Depeche Mode (my first ever gig, the Music For The Masses tour in 1987, when I was a tiny prepubescent fledgling goth) or Kate Bush’s big comeback tour in 2014, Before The Dawn.
LBB> Music is such a big part of your life… I’m curious… how do you feel about silence?
AO> I spend my days surrounded by a wall of sound and come home to a noisy, enthusiastic brood of three young kids, so silence is absolutely essential to my sanity and survival. I carve out time early every morning to meditate (Transcendental Meditation...lifesaver) and I spend bedtime quietly reading (OK and surfing Twitter, I blame Trump). Silence is like food and air and water - a non-negotiable ingredient for health and wellbeing.
LBB> And outside of music – what else inspires you?
AO> I’ve long been obsessed with astronomy, cosmology and the field of quantum physics, so I read a lot of pop science books (just like my Deputy Head of Music and partner in crime, Julz Baldwin, who brings in pictures she’s snapped of Saturn on her telescope - respect).
I’m also fascinated by/terrified of the rapidly shifting global socio-political landscape and am in awe of the brave individuals and groups of people who are battling for positive, meaningful change. The Parkland students’ and Moms Demand campaigns for gun reform, Black Lives Matter, US comedian/writer Rob Delaney’s tireless campaigning for the NHS, women in the #MeToo movement holding men accountable for systematic abuse - basically I find anyone who is bold enough to put their head above the parapet (to make the world a better place for my kids) powerful and inspirational.