Tim Lincoln, Director of Creative at Music Dealers, on how to choose the right music for your ad
As the son of two musicians, you could say life handed me a pair of headphones and a metronome as soon as I popped into this world – that, and a brother in the advertising industry.
Adland can be one of the most artistic spaces in the world (for one, it’s the only place where the word “creative” can be used as a noun), but when I first considered the world of commercials, brands, and advertising, I thought it was a crock of shit.
A pair of shoes and a song taught me otherwise.
About a decade ago, my brother, a director at a production/post house in NYC, asked for my input on one of his projects, the AND1 Mixtape. In the early 2000s, the AND1 Mixtapes became widely popular because of the dope intersection of hip-hop and streetball that defined the project. I was lucky enough to be a part of that project, as it opened my eyes to a new world of possibilities.
That first project marrying the music industry with the brand and advertising industries got me hooked, and since then it’s been nothing but hustling and learning, syncing and growing.
In 2008, I joined Music Dealers
– now a global music agency and licensing company; then just a fledgling team of four friends and a laptop. Ever since, I’ve been the liaison between brands and artists for thousands of projects, including Coca-Cola’s recent campaign “Taste the Feeling
,” which I worked on with the music production team Space Camp. I’ve dedicated my life to two things these past eight years: blurring the line between the advertising industry and the music industry, and translating the wants and needs of brands and adland into a language that songwriters, bands, and composers can interpret with killer music.
This double life I live has led to the following five lessons that brands, creatives, and music execs on the other side of the creative aisle can learn from to get the best music for the same effort for their projects.
1. Music Supervisors as Music Liaisons
I love commercials. I work on as many as twenty a day, in some capacity or another, and a lot of my friends work either at an agency or at a brand. Despite that love, I will never profess to be an expert on commercials – at least not in the way an EP at McCann or a CMO at Converse is. I know what I do and I do what I know: putting music to commercials. That’s my forte, that’s what I’ve come up on, and that’s what I’m an expert in.
But I’ve seen what happens when a brand, agency, or filmmaker tries to bypass that expertise and hit up an artist directly to shave some dollars off the budget. Music Supervisors see it all the time, especially in Los Angeles and in the TV/Film industries for lower-budget productions or independent movies. I definitely get that money’s always tight, but it’s only going to get tighter once you get into union fees, rights clearance, and (god forbid) non-cleared samples. Trust me, there’s a lot that goes into music licensing that’s not often communicated to people.
So, please, for your own sake, always call an expert to personally handle the music for your ad campaign. Whether that’s me or someone else, it doesn’t matter, because the cost of screwing up a license will always overshadow any music agency’s fees.
2. Ask Thoroughly, Answer Thoroughly
Sometimes we only get one shot to create a perfect song for an ad, so the more I know about what my clients want upfront, the better.
It’s paramount to completely understand the wants and needs of the client before any creative heavy-lifting begins, so I ask tons and tons of questions during the creative meeting until their wants and needs become my wants and needs.
In the perfect world, thorough questions are met with thorough answers. As a brand exec or agency creative, you know your product, service, or story better than anyone – no one else can answer these questions as well as you, so you’re encouraged to elaborate long-winded responses to those queries.
The opposite scenario is just as true as well.
As the one buying or licensing the music, you should definitely feel free (if not obligated) to ask the music agency as many questions as you can think of. First of all, that helps you know for sure that this particular agency or music supervisor is the right one for your project. If the music rep is worth her salt, she’ll respond to your questions just as elaborately as you did hers. Most importantly, this reciprocal Q&A helps ensure the songs that come back to you will be exactly what the project needs.
Fewer questions and leaner answers generally result in less than desirable relationships, so don’t be shy about asking “dumb” questions. In music and marketing, the only dumb question is the one not asked.
3. Translating (and Retranslating)
I may not have taken the four recommended years of Spanish in college, but that didn’t stop me from becoming bilingual.
The most important part of being the creative director at a music agency is translating the wants and needs of the client into the language that composers, bands, and artists understand. And then, once the songs are completed or submitted, the creative director then takes those songs and retranslates their musical characteristics back into the original language of ad- / brand-land.
If your brand is taking the time and money to invest in custom music, it’s crucial you work with a music agency whose creative teams are completely fluent in both languages and have had extensive experience in both worlds. Just like when visiting a foreign country, you’ll want a guide who can speak the native tongue as well as your own language as you journey into the world of custom music.
4. The Bridge Between the Heart and the Song
Knowing each other’s wants and needs is an important catalyst in every relationship – music in marketing is no different.
For any given spot, there are the emotional needs that must be communicated, which music can support; however, typically, there are specific music needs that must be met too. Finding the magic middle ground between those two needs is the art of marketing with music.
The spot might be all about overcoming challenges, the campaign might push diversity, or the brand’s overall message might promote family values. Whatever it is your brand wants to convey, the music’s core role is to support those feelings, emotions, and values. This is why working with a music agency fluent in all things advertising and music is so important. They have to know how to translate prompts like “anthemic” and “staying strong” into music cues so they can compose, produce, or curate songs that actually support those emotional needs.
Then, there are also the specific music needs of the project, which could include any number of requirements. The song must feature a female lead, the artist must be Canadian, the song can’t have too many vocals – these are just a few of the music requisites clients often request. A strong agency will never treat these music specifics as trivial, knowing that they help drive the story of the spot, campaign, or overall brand in a really powerful way.
Finding the intersection of emotional and musical needs isn’t always easy. You won’t find an Advertising-to-Music Dictionary on any public library shelf to help you become an expert translator on music and marketing. But there are certainly tools of the trade that can put you on the right path to fluency.
If they offer an online catalog, most music agencies will also provide a search functionality that clients can use to search by moods, emotions, and themes. You could simply search “female lead” or “Canada” or “minimal vocals” (or all three), and all the songs that had been accordingly tagged by the music review team will be filtered. In fact, I helped build Music Dealers’ search functionality with these things in mind, and it’s still my go-to discovery tool every time a brand asks for my help in finding the perfect song to license.
5. Describe Music with Music
Here’s something I’ve heard a lot from freelance designers, writers, and other creative types: their clients never know what they want until they have it, and they don’t know what they don’t want until they’re given that, too.
This happens a lot in music and marketing, too, but it’s a speed bump that can be avoided.
It sounds obvious, and I think clients will often just do this naturally, but trying to describe music with music can be the best way to find out exactly what you want in a song. For example, early on in my career I would be given briefs that called for “energetic” or “touching” music, without much else to go off of. “Energetic” could be a glitchy trap hip-hop track, or it could be an up-tempo country song with foot stomps. “Uplifting” could be a piano instrumental with sweeping melodies, or it could be a breathy re-record of “Auld Lang Syne.”
If I deliver songs so totally different, clients typically get pissed, and with good reason. What could be interpreted as completely on-brief could, in actuality, be so far-off that a potentially fruitful relationship is ruined.
Describing music with music helps big-time in avoiding those hurdles. As you’re thinking of those emotional and musical needs for the project, also choose some well-known songs and bands that you think fit what you’re looking for. So, if when you say “energetic” you think Kanye, or when you say “touching” you think Adele, share those reference tracks with the music agency to hone in on exactly the type of music you’re looking for – even if you don’t exactly know how to describe it.
You know your story, your brand, and, most importantly, your consumers. I’ll never tell you I know them better than you, and that’s not what this conversation tries to front. My expertise is in the artists and the music. Take these five tips to heart and let my expertise help you maximize yours.
Tim Lincoln is Director of Creative at Music Dealers