Véronique Vienne | Essays

When the Soundtrack is the Message

Last January, Universal Music Group, the powerful, French-owned, multinational music-publishing corporation announced an initiative to transfer from humans to computers the job of casting musicians in commercials. In a joint venture with Havas Media, UMG proposes to use big data collated from the listening habits of music fans to “scientifically” pair music groups with potential advertisers who are in search of a soundtrack with which to brand their products. Gone are the days of the catchy jingles. Nowadays, the value of a song is its stats.

Up until now, matching bands to brands was entrusted to music supervisors, people who know the music scene through and through and can pick the right sound to go with a specific visual sequence. “When I see moving images, I can imagine music immediately,” says music supervisor Beth Urdang, principal of The Selfsame Organization. “But when I listen to music, I only hear music.” 

Urdang, who works on films (Search Party, 2014), television series (Playing House, 2014), and commercials (Heineken’s Open Your World, 2011), is probably as much of an artist as the musicians and composers whose songs and orchestrations she pitches to her clients. To filmmakers she is an ear, the equivalent of a perfumer’s nose. She listens to sounds the way typographers scrutinize letterforms. She tunes in to musicians and clients, aware of every nuance in their expectations. “For me, it’s just a question of the music manifesting itself,” she says to explain her relationship to sounds.  

But before the music can manifest itself, it is Urdang’s job to make it happen. Negotiations involve a delicate balance between cash and cachet. Luckily, today, musicians who license their tracks are no longer stigmatized. Smaller music groups, she says, have more to gain from being associated with advertisers than famous ones for whom a million-dollar compensation may not make such a big difference. Lesser-known artists have become savvy self-promoters who understand the branding issues at stakes.  Though rife with logistics, the professional relationships between admen, musicians and filmmakers can be very satisfying for all parties involved.

Most gratifying for Urdang, perhaps, was “The Entrance,” a Heineken commercial she developed in collaboration with Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam. For the video, first released on YouTube in 2011, she booked the Danish band The Asteroids Galaxy Tour. She was able to secure the band’s on-camera presence, as part of the script. The resulting three-minute serenade is mesmerizing, weaving the visual and audio tracks in a series of over-the-top syncopated counterpoints, evidence that almost a century after the invention of talking motion pictures, the synergy between sound and images can still be the source of startling creative innovations. 

Already, in the late 1920s, Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein had advocated a disjunction rather than a synchronization of sounds and images. Although theoretical, (his most famous films were silent masterpieces), his approach, a counterintuitive montage of contrasting effects, is the editing principle that still gives many contemporary videos their gumption.    

For Urdang, the juxtaposition of sounds and images is key. The goal, she says, is for “the music as music to work with the film as a film.”  She suggests that sounds have the same effect on images as words do. “Music is a cue. It tells you how you should interpret what you are seeing,” she says. But, like words on layouts, sounds work best when they anticipate the impact of images rather than accompany it. In “The Entrance,” for example, the pace of the song often ebbs at the very moment frantic images fill the screen. Half a second later, the action slows down but the beat drives on.  

For Eisenstein, the goal was to “recreate that delightful moment of becoming … when two preceding moments have been overcome, and the world falls back into a whole… and presents to a stunned consciousness the perceived fullness of a synthesized world.”

Music doesn’t have to be in synch with what's happening on camera. “A willful lack of verisimilitude is very compelling,” says Urdang. “Years ago I music-supervised an HP/iPOD ad for Goodby Silverstein & Partners that had a series of songs playing with dancers on camera doing a completely different kind of dance—polka dancing to booty bass or breakdancing to country music.”

Potentially, UMG’s Global Music Data Alliance initiative will be good for musicians. More brands are sure to sign up artists to perform in commercials, creating new revenue opportunities for all.  But there is a danger. A danger for the brands, that is. Case in point: the recent performance of “You Are The One That I Want” by Lo-Fang for the extravagant Chanel No. 5 commercial. Sometimes the soundtrack is more memorable than the message it is supposed to convey to fans. 

Never mind the coolness factor, claims Urdang. When it comes to matching bands with brands, marketing is actually counterproductive. Echoing Eisenstein, she explains that “the quest for ‘cool’ seldom creates that delightful and special moment that only happens when the particulars of the music interact with that of the film.”

This article was originally posted on April 22, 2015. 

Posted in: Music

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