2006 Music Special Report: Tiny Tunes

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Thanks to technology and their nimble natures, mini music shops are making big commercials noise.
Music Beast's Alfred Hochstrasser
Music Beast's Alfred Hochstrasser

Several years ago, Alfred Hochstrasser—the proprietor and sole composer at New York's Music Beast—found himself working in a studio next to mega-producer Timbaland. "We were chatting a little bit," he recalls, "We use exactly the same tools, exactly the same setup, the same computers, the same drum machines." Hochstrasser and Timbaland aren't alone. With advances in digital recording technology, almost everyone has access to the same tools, and commercials music—like pop music—has become a producer's game.

"It's a very natural progression," says Hochstrasser, who was behind a recent string of tracks for Grey/N.Y. and Tanqueray, one of which earned an AICP award for music. "First, there were samples and MIDI that made a big change in the whole studio scene, where people were using fewer and fewer musicians. Then, the next generation was the guys like me, who were using the computer and ProTools setups to get the sound of live players synthetically. When that happened, I could actually finish a whole project in my own studio." Ultimately, that led many composers, including Hochstrasser—who left Crushing Music to set up his own shop two years ago—to wonder why they needed a music house at all.

"I think technology, without a doubt, has played a part in how the business has changed over the last several years," says Rani Vaz, director of music and radio production at BBDO/N.Y. "It's quite a bit cheaper for somebody to set up their own facility, and people have realized that it's hard to maintain a huge facility. It's much more difficult to keep enough business coming in, now that the business is much more competitive and people are pinching pennies everywhere on the agency and client end." This has led to a proliferation of one man bands, music shops—like Hochstrasser's—that are built around a single composer.

Composer Mitch Davis and executive producer Scott Brittingham were actually ahead of this streamlining trend when they left tomandandy five years ago to form New York's Pull, which has provided songs for advertisers like Cingular and Absolut. "When we left, we thought we needed this big staff, this big infrastructure, but we realized that we didn't," says Brittingham. "Being small is very efficient. We work very quickly. Coming from a bigger company, I feel like we are so much faster now. There was a lot of stress in the past, trying to feed a lot of mouths, and with that gone, it's a lot more relaxed environment and it's a lot more fun." The duo even has the freedom to work on an equally significant extra-commercials pursuit in the recording industry, with their own label Res-Freq (see res-freq.com), and as individual composers/producers out of Universal Music.

"It's so much more practical," says composer Mike Pandolfo of Wonderful, which he launched after leaving music shop Native. "You can have a smaller company that's fully functional without a staff of twenty people running around, and you can market yourself so much faster and more successfully using the internet and all the tools that are out there for that. It's just a little easier the get the product out there." Since opening early last year, Pandolfo has created tracks for Converse via Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners and Reebok via McGarry Bowen, as well as work for the Hispanic market via the Bravo Group and the Vidal Partnership.

He also says "experience and relationships" are key. While smaller shops are often asked to present demos and compete against each other and against larger shops, Pandolfo says 99 percent of his business is single bid, a by-product of years in the industry. Another challenge for small shops, according to Brittingham, is the perception that a one-composer operation offers fewer stylistic options. As Josh Rabinowitz, director of music at Grey/N.Y. says, "The real specialty in the ad music business is diversity—you need to be able to execute in many genres effectively in this biz, and you need to be able to do it fast." The little guys stand by their reels on this point—Pandolfo, for example, says he's worked with the "same clients in four or five different genres of music"—but it's a battle they have to fight.

A New Stage

Just as technological advances have allowed music house composers to become independent artists, it has allowed independent artists to become commercials composers. Lee Wall (whose brother is director and former Wieden + Kennedy creative director Stacy Wall) went from being the drummer in cult indie band Luna to composing full-time for commercials and television (clients include Levi's [see p. 32], ESPN, Sega and Viacom network The N) from his Los Angeles studio. "People can make records in their home now, which certainly affects this whole trend of ad agencies looking elsewhere for music," he says. "You can do it in your living room on your laptop. Having the band credit has certainly been a plus for people who have wanted something outside of your typical film and television composer credit."

Another band veteran, Jeff Derringer—formerly of the New York group PS—also found freedom through technology. "It's very liberating," he says. "As I started to get exposed to this and see how easy it was to set up your own place and make music—real music that sounds great—it was very eye-opening." Derringer, who has composed music for Adidas and Fox Sports via TBWA/Chiat/Day/ San Francisco, has taken the convergence of commercials music and pop music to another level with his company/band Hired Goons. He has made a record, which includes guest appearances by members of such New York groups as Stellastarr*, titled Songs You Can Sell Out To, which will be released as a CD and made available for licensing. "It's a different game now," he says. "It's a different beast and it favors the smaller guy."

So much so that some independent artists are beginning to look a lot like, well, music houses. Sam Spiegel, aka Squeak E. Clean, got advertisers' attention with the music he made for commercials directed by his brother, Spike Jonze, including last year's "Hello Tomorrow" for Adidas and TBWA/Chiat/Day, featuring Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O. Now he's so busy that Squeak E. Clean Productions has added three staff composers. "I think because we don't come from a commercial or jingle background, and we do records here also, we don't sound like canned music," Spiegel says. "I think one thing that agency people really like about our sound is that it sounds like records."

Which, according to Music Beast's Hochstrasser, is a reality that all composers—large or small, and whether they started in bands or in music houses—have to face. "There's no difference anymore between records and jingles," he says. "In the old days, there was a big difference, but now everything has to sound like a record. I don't even use the word advertising or commercial or jingle in any form whatsoever. If I mention that word to a creative at an agency, they'll be like, 'Oh this is the wrong guy.'"
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