The First Commission (Part 1)
Part 1. Regular contributor Tony Hastings recounts a personal tale of how a lucky break resulted in his first commission in the lucrative world of advertising jingles and soundtracks.
Have you ever wondered how to make a living from all that gear you own, or considered what our equipment reviewers get up to when they're not writing for Sound On Sound? Read on and all will be revealed...
Like most people who read this magazine I am an equipment 'junkie'. All my spare lolly goes on the latest musical toys and gimmicks. In fact, Sound On Sound is probably to blame for keeping me only one step ahead of bankruptcy by letting me review products that I have to go out and buy afterwards 'cos they are so good. After a while it gets difficult to justify to the girlfriend that I actually need all the equipment I've got!
OK, so as a musician I've paid a certain amount of dues with bands and sessions (even some 'name' ones - gasp!) but so far fame and fortune has managed to elude me all the way to the bank. What I want is a way of actually earning money from music without the need to compete with Zig Zag Telstar for funny haircuts or hoping that Radio 1 will choose to play my single out of 2000 others released in the last ten minutes. Believe it or not, there is a lucrative market for music that pays real money with none of that "Sign on the dotted line, sonny, and I'll make you a star..." nonsense. You does your job and you gets your dough. It's called Jingle and Library music.
Now I'm sure that you've all heard of jingles and library music but, like me, had either never tried it or found that you couldn't break into the field. Well, this two-part series is called 'The First Commission' because it tells you all about the first job I got from an advertising agency and what I had to do to get it and complete the assignment.
Towards the end of last year, a friend came round for a cup of tea and a chat and we ended up in my music room. I showed him my set-up (stop sniggering at the back!) and played him some demos I had done for different projects. He was suitably impressed and after a while turned to me and said:
"Why don't you try doing film music?"
"Oh, it's too difficult to get into that scene," I glibly replied. "After all, it's all down to who you know isn't it?"
I left the conversation at that and we went back to watching East Enders and drinking more tea. After he left, I thought about what he had said. Why not film music? As Del boy says, "Ee who dares wins," and this time last year I had never written an article for a magazine before - yet here I am the veteran of over twelve months of journalism. I know I'm hardly eligible for Editor of The Times but, nevertheless, I have achieved what I set out to do.
It seems to me that the most initially important quality you can sell is personality and perseverance; so what I'm going to describe won't necessarily work for everyone. However, the basic principles involved actually apply to nearly everyone in life.
Why is it that Wogan is on the telly three times a week (at least) yet my next door neighbour isn't? The answer is obvious really. Contrary to popular belief, Terry Wogan is not stupid. He works very hard at making himself popular by cultivating that amiable and slightly disoriented image that endears him to most of the population. It is his job and, like him or not, he does it extremely professionally. We all know the importance of presenting ourselves well at interviews and it's second nature to be extra 'nice' when we want to get something out of someone. All these qualities of personality are important weapons in the fight to establish yourself in the world of advertising.
When was the last time you saw an advert for jingle writers? The chances are that you have never seen an ad like that because all the work is sewn up by a few large companies and a number of individuals who are called up by word of mouth. Agencies have vast sums of money at their disposal but they are always working on incredibly tight schedules, so they can't risk commissioning someone to do the music for an exclusive advert if they have no track record - they might be no good and that would be awfully embarrassing for all concerned.
There's an old cliche that goes, 'You have to be in the right place at the right time'. Like all cliches, there is more than an element of truth in it. But being in the right place at the right time isn't enough. You have to recognise the fact that the right place and time has arrived and be able to deal with it. Here, the story starts...
After a couple of weeks the notion of jingle writing took a back seat in my mind and other things occupied it - such as Christmas shopping and other mundane activities like trying to earn some money. Come New Year's Eve I found myself propping up the bar of a Covent Garden wine emporium and still surprisingly sober as Big Ben struggled to be heard above the smell of the crowd and the roar of the grease paint (I think I was a little confused...).
Standing next to me was an old acquaintance of my girlfriend. We started talking and, out of the blue, I discovered that she was an Art Director for a major advertising agency. I nearly choked on my maracino cherry - the right place and time had arrived, but was I man enough to deal with it?
"Oh," I mused. "And what does an Art Director do?"
"Well," she replied. "It's my job to think up an advert and then see it through to the finished product."
"Does that involve the music as well?" I asked as nonchalantly as possible.
"Normally I leave that for the Producer to organise but I can do it as well if I want."
"I write jingles and library music." The words seemed to flood out on their own, embroidering the truth ever so slightly (after all, I do write music, it's just that nobody has ever used it before). "Why don't I drop my showreel into you one day?"
That was the piece de resistance... Showreel, the professional advertising term for a demo tape. She was convinced I knew what I was talking about.
"OK," she said. "Here's my number. Give me a ring before you come, to make sure that I'm in."
Somebody once said that if you are going to tell a lie, tell a big one! The theory being that if the lie you tell is convincing enough it sometimes creates a situation where the lie itself becomes fact. I had casually said that I would drop my showreel into a major agency yet I had no showreel and no experience of writing music for commercial purposes. Stage One had been successfully negotiated and a firm 'in' had been established, next I had to 'produce the goods'. The thing to bear in mind is that you should always be able to back the bull**** up with something. If I didn't honestly believe that I could write advertising music to the necessary level of professionalism, I would never have tried it in the first place. The foot in the door is essential - but who wants it slammed in their face when the truth quickly becomes apparent? Not I.
So the first thing I did was turn the telly on to ITV and get hold of a stopwatch. I timed every advert for the whole evening and tried to analyse what was going on musically. To my pleasant surprise, I found that many of the adverts were really bad. The sort of thing that would self-destruct if you tried to record it on any self-respecting tape recorder for serious use! I also tried listening to the music with my eyes closed and guessing what the product was. This is quite a revealing exercise as the good adverts can truly create a sense of visuals through the music alone. Most TV adverts are 30 seconds long with some being 40-45 seconds. Here again is a real discipline - trying to create a sense of a complete song or tune in only 30 seconds is not easy.
I went downstairs and locked myself into my music room; time to produce an instant showreel!
It might be of interest at this point to tell you a bit about the equipment I regularly use.
In the instrument department I have an Ensoniq ESQ-1 and Mirage sampler, a Roland JX8P, a Yamaha TX7, a TR707 drum machine and an Ensoniq digital piano. All these units go through a Seek 12-2 mixer, into an MM power amp and, finally, out through a pair of Yamaha NS10 monitors.
For outboard processing I have an Aphex Aural Exciter Type C, an Alesis MIDIVERB, a Yamaha GC2020 compressor/limiter, a Boss DE200 digital delay, and an MTR jack patchbay. I record onto a Teac 244 Portastudio and master onto a Revox A77 reel-to-reel.
Everything is controlled by my Steinberg Pro-24 sequencer which runs on an Atari 1040ST computer, and the instruments are all set up so that at a flick of the mains switch I'm ready to go.
Just before Christmas I was asked to appear on the BBC's Micro Live programme to demonstrate the Pro-24 system on behalf of Steinberg Research. As it was the last edition of 1986, they asked me to re-arrange the Micro Live theme music using the Pro-24. This was actually a good example of a 30 second piece of music and so I decided to use it to open my showreel. Even though I hadn't written the original theme, the fact that I had recorded and broadcast my version of it on national television must add some weight of credibility to my tape.
The next step was to plan what sort of music to record. For inspiration, I went into my kitchen and collected together half a dozen different items (washing-up liquid, dog food, etc) and pretended that I was really being asked to write music for them.
The most important thing a showreel should present (I assumed) was variety. I needed to be able to convince a Producer that whatever music he asked for I would be able to supply. I eventually decided to record some 'Cointreau' music first. To me, that meant something slightly French - maybe a slow waltz feel with piano and strings.
The Steinberg Pro-24 is a wonderful bit of software, not only is it a powerful sequencer but it also has a real-time clock display which is essential for this sort of jingle writing. Lo and behold, 16 bars of music at 128 beats per minute lasts exactly 30 seconds. So I decided to build up the song in 4 bar sections.
If you have never worked with a sequencer before then go out and try it immediately - you'll never lookback.
Not only am I able to quantise (auto-correct) my notes so that everything is perfectly in time, but I can also try out different parts with each other without the need to multitrack. In fact, I never need to record to tape until I'm finished. The equipment I use is equivalent to having 45 different sound sources available at any one time. That takes into account the 16 multisamples available from the Mirage, the different drum voices on the TR707, and the multitimbral ability of the ESQ-1 keyboard (9 separate sounds).
After about an hour of experimenting I had the first piece of 30 second music finished. I recorded it directly to the Revox A77 and cleared the memory of the sequencer ready for the next song (saving the original piece first, of course). By the end of that evening I had 14 different bits of music recorded on the Revox, all of which had a completely different feel.
The Mirage sampler is an ideal instrument in this situation because it has a wealth of original samples that let me create the impression of real instruments. One of the show pieces I recorded was meant to be like an advert for babies nappies. I arranged it as a sort of happy lullaby with the sampled piano playing the melody and the Mirage providing 'pizzicato strings' to give it a dainty and almost comic effect.
Some of my pieces used aggressive sounding drum samples and synth sounds to produce a very 'hi-tech' feel— just like those adverts for certain shampoo and hair care products. Some were slow, some fast. In fact, I tried to cover as much musical ground as possible in 14 lots of 30 seconds.
At last I was finished and had run off the first cassette copy. I took it upstairs to my bedroom and played it on the old machine that props up the video to give it that 'Does it sound great on any old equipment?' test. Satisfied it did I went to bed, ready to do battle the next day and make an appointment to play my tape to the contact I had at the advertising agency.
Next month, I'll tell you how the meeting went and whether or not I eventually got my first commission!
Feature by Tony Hastings
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