Something to Strive for: the Perfect Moment

New Blogger Sutter Madell Explains Why a Song Needs to Be More Than Good

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Please welcome music supervisor Dawn Sutter Madell, who has helped pick the right music for brands big and small. She'll be contributing whenever she's got something on her mind or in her ears.

Dawn Sutter Madell
Dawn Sutter Madell

People ask a lot of questions when they find out I'm a music supervisor: How did you start doing that? Is there any music you could never put in an ad? Do bands ever refuse? And, what are the spots you enjoy working on the most? To be honest, I love working on all spots. Every job comes with its own set of challenges, and I like challenges.

That said, there is a rare occurrence that I hope for -- a perfect moment. It's the one where the song combines with an amazing concept and images to create a sum even better than the individual parts. Sure, you can easily place a good song on any average spot, and it will be better. But as a music supervisor, I live for those moments where the song actually transforms the spot from just a head-turner to a piece that draws you in and makes you wish you were a part of it. I know, it's obvious, the idea of pairing just-right music with a great concept and images in a way to create something stupendous. But when I stop to think about it, I feel like it happens so rarely.

What kind of songs make perfect moments? One of the first times I witnessed a perfect moment was when I saw Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" in the Volkswagen Cabrio spot. Sure, any sweet, soft song could have been used to effect; but that song, relatively unknown at the time, with its beautiful, simple instrumentation dripping with hope and yearning, made you want to be in that ad. Then there was the well-known, bright bounce of ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" that perfectly cheered the beautiful-yet-mundane images of life in another VW spot. It was impossible to not want to be a part of it.

However, the relative recognizability of the song is not a factor in creating a perfect moment. Neither is whether the music might be an obvious choice. At Agoraphone, we were slightly wary of suggesting such a lyrically obvious track as The Kinks "Picture Book" for an HP ad for cameras and photo printing, but the clear lyrics of that song made Francois Vogel's unique images unforgettable.

Sometimes it's a song that you couldn't imagine with a product, like poet Saul William's "List of Demands," which most people view as an anti-poverty anthem. Nike paired it with just the right images, and this in-your-face poetry became an anthem for personal athletic achievement.

Then there are the times when a song comes out of left field and knocks the wind out of you, such as was the case with Shirley Temple's gospel tune "Get On Board" for PlayStation 2's "Mountain" spot (above). The bright, old-timey song, along with Frank Budgen's gray visuals, draws you in and keeps you there.

So how do you find that song that creates a perfect moment? I firmly believe there is no formula. It's not about simply adding a great song. Too often a great song can just overwhelm a spot and you're left with a song you remember but not an experience. It's about finding the song that complements that particular spot. It is elusive for sure. But I'd say the surest way to get there is to concept your music. Spend as much time, thought, effort and money on your music as you do the rest of the spot. Don't slap something on a spot temporarily.

Put aside money for your music budget and be realistic about what you can accomplish with that budget. Smart choices can be made even with a small budget. Start thinking about music early, but don't be married to a certain direction. A licensed piece might be what you want, but someone might be able to create an original piece that works even better. Be open to the recognizable, the unrecognizable, the obvious and the esoteric equally. It's in that open-minded, prepared space that perfect moments can happen, and spots can become more awesome than their individual parts.

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Dawn Sutter Madell is a co-owner of Agoraphone, a music supervision company that finds and creates music for all sorts of projects, including ads, film, and television. She remains first and foremost, a music fan.

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