Choosing Minneapolis as the site of your music house puts you just about as far away from New York and Los Angeles as you can get in the continental U.S. Yet, thanks in part to the internet, many Minneapolis music houses are thriving on work from the coasts. But even for those that haven't mounted an all-out campaign for national work, Minneapolis agencies are still churning out some of the best creative in the business and commissioning trusted local musical talent to complement it. The Minneapolis music houses featured here-each with distinct business and musical styles-had a strong 2003. Goals for the coming year range from diversifying clients to enhancing business models with new ventures, but all expect another year of growth.
Hest & Kramer Not since Prince sauntered out of Minneapolis to share his funky R&B sound has it been so easy for Minneapolis music to go nationwide. Minneapolis-based Hest & Kramer learned this year that small changes in approach drastically changed their business. "We had been doing a crappy job with out of town sales," explains partner/co-founder Bob Hest. "We hired Christy Vanhouse full time to represent us, moved her to California and it changed everything." Hest says that almost all of his work currently comes from Los Angeles, New York, Miami or Chicago and that location is often the last thing on anybody's mind. "Clients don't know where we are," he says. "I'll get jobs from people, and as an afterthought they'll ask, 'So where are you guys located?' "
Hest attributes part of the company's success outside Minneapolis to the internet. "Three or four years ago we would hear, 'We'd like to hire you but you're not in the city,' " Hest says. "But now, just being able to post work on our website for clients to approve has changed the attitudes about place."
Hest also notes a difference in how agency creatives work and expect delivery. "Creatives are working really hard and don't have the time to drive two hours and sit for another four hours watching the creative process." The welcome side effect for music houses is the freedom to experiment and stumble across happy accidents. "Because the client isn't here, we make a lot more changes, but ultimately we get a better product."
Hest and partner Steve Kramer were both involved with the '80s band the Wallets, with Hest managing and Kramer performing. Both men have noticed more requests for very contemporary music and fewer "classic" references. "When we started 15 years ago, the references were really old," says Hest. "There were a lot of requests for R&B and things like that. Now the references are 10 minutes old." He also sees younger and younger agency creatives calling the shots, thus making for more contemporary music tracks. "Whatever the creatives are listening to, that's the reference. They're really just reacting to their own personal tastes, which are very current. As a result, the music we are writing right now is way better than what we were doing 10 years ago."
ASCHE & Spencer Thad Spencer is another former rocker; most notably as drummer for the Jayhawks in the late '80s and early '90s. But in 1988, he says he was "sick of being impoverished," so he opened Asche & Spencer with partner Mark Asche, who has since left the business. Now, Asche & Spencer has offices in California and Minnesota and national clients for spots and features, including the acclaimed Monster's Ball.
It was Miller Lite's "Product Tested" spot, in the mid-'90s, that put Asche & Spencer on the big time creative map and hooked them up with the directors of Traktor for many a fruitful collaboration; "We already had a facility in Santa Monica when the Miller thing exploded, and that campaign got us into agencies like Wieden, Chiat and Goodby," recalls Spencer. "Soon, we were doing Nike and 'Got Milk?' and the Taco Bell Chihuahua spots." Asche & Spencer takes an unusual sort of Method approach to commercials music: "The first question we ask on a project is, 'Who is the person who would create that type of music?' Then we create that character, and from that character comes the music. We spend a lot of time working with creatives to establish who is the 'musician.' " For Lite beer's "Big Production" spot, out of Fallon/Minneapolis, "we created a Broadway hack composer who had a very limited view of what is good," Spencer continues. "He had a dowdy New York office and hadn't had a hit in 15 years. That's a really important step in making something valid-you have to use the right kinds of microphones and instruments and know the way things were recorded at certain periods in time and why. We work to figure out their perspective. Does this character know this is ironic or is he giving it his heart and soul?"
Spencer has also put his heart and soul into roughly 13 hours of music on a 12-CD box set that he gives to his customers. The set features a broad range of musical genres and styles-and everything is licensable. "Over the past two years, we noticed more people asking us for music that was 'lying around' to put against work that was already shot and edited. So I came up with the idea of writing a bunch of music for a collection. You'll hear a lot of people bitching about licensing, but I think it's fine, it's just another solution. And now you can license from us, too."
In The Groove While 2001 was a bad year for nearly everybody, In The Groove principals Darren Drew and Brian Reidinger were considering laying tile as an alternate profession. "A tile-and-grout guy we sometimes paly golf with gave us a standing offer to work for him if things didn't pick up," recalls Drew. "We considered it, but 2001 was actually the turning point for us."
After five years of pressing the Minneapolis agencies for work, Drew and Reidinger changed strategies, hitting on out-of-state agencies, including hot shops like Wieden + Kennedy and Chiat/Day. With some persistence, they eventually booked ESPN's X Games and rewrote the SportsCenter theme to put themselves on the map.
Similar to Hest & Kramer, In The Groove found success using outside sales assistance. "In 2002, we hired a business consultant and she showed us strengths we didn't know about," says Reidinger. "Our growth since then represents the ability to utilize the resources at our disposal: a new business consultant; other composers to help us in areas where we're not so strong; and the internet, which allows us to work with anybody anywhere. None of this is groundbreaking news, but for us it was a business revelation." According to Reidinger, In The Groove increased business by 120 percent last year; currently, 90 to 95 percent of their work originates from out of town.
Reidinger and Drew admit they're sometimes thought of as the "rock guys" by clients. And while some of their higher-profile clients, like ESPN and Toyota, aim at the testosterone market, In The Groove also diversifies with things like an accurate simulation of a '70s blaxploitation TV cop show theme in a recent Buddy Lee spot entitled "The Chase." They also composed an Olympics-type theme for the Tour de France broadcast. The latter "was a huge home run for us, because we were up against people who did orchestral work," says Drew. "We didn't have anything to show for a real Olympics feel. But the client was looking for 'orchestral meets the X Games.' We took elements of that 45-piece orchestra and put in heavy loops and guitar and really made it a hybrid. It was a really cool challenge."
Modern Music On the other side of the coin, Rick Meyer, Modern Music's creative director, is perfectly happy with the Minneapolis-based work that accounts for 90 percent of his clients. But of course, clients like BMW, Nikon and Target don't necessarily warrant scouting the nation for new business. Working regionally, however, doesn't insulate Modern Music from the outside world. They too have seen changes in how business is done.
"Two years ago, we were asked to do a lot of mimic work," Meyer recounts. "People wanted music to sound like another band. Now, especially with the Target work, the creatives like to convey a certain vibe-like 'summery, breezy and fun'-and we're sent off to make it. Working like that is a dream come true. And we're getting that more and more across the board."
For Modern Music, that freedom does come with other demands. "When Target jumps on a concept, it's done in less than a month," says Meyer. "That fast pace has radiated out to all our other clients. Now, we tend to jump a lot faster when we get a call. We get meetings done immediately and the demo done quickly.". Another great challenge "is when Target buys a song," adds Meyer. "I get the original multitrack recording session in its entirety and I'm instructed to make another song out of it. We use the original vocal track and drums but add new beats and instruments"
For the last six months, Modern Music has been tinkering with versions of Roy Orbison's "You Got It." "The first one aired was just Roy's version," Meyer explains. "Then we got all the tracks from the label and stripped them out. We're on the third one now, where the only thing that stays is Roy's voice. We do these really moody changes and the agency builds a new spot out of it." Although not without aspirations of one day scoring for features, Meyer believes in Minneapolis' history and appears committed to the town. Led by the likes of Prince and the Replacements, "Minneapolis has always had a really good music scene, and I think a lot of the music houses reflect that."