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Grayson Matthews’s song Toast This Life written for an Alexander Keith’s ad is selling well on iTunes.
Grayson Matthews’s song Toast This Life written for an Alexander Keith’s ad is selling well on iTunes.

Taking notes: TV ads tune into made-to-order indie music Add to ...

Grayson Matthews knew they had a hit. The problem was, it was only 30 seconds long.

The track, with its quick-strummed guitar, rich folk singing and just a hint of mandolin, has a catchy, rootsy sound reminiscent of the hit band Mumford & Sons. The Toronto music licensing and production company could tell that once the Alexander Keith’s ad it was written for started airing this spring, viewers would want to know where to find the song. So they recorded a full version, and Toast This Life has been selling respectably on iTunes ever since.

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Many music houses regularly hear about people trying to hunt down a song they wrote for an ad – the way people used to search for a single they heard on the radio. As marketers strive for an image of authenticity, the classic jingle has fallen out of favour.

With the music industry changing, indie bands have become more willing to lend some credibility by licensing snippets of their songs for advertising use. And the bespoke music written specifically for ads has started sounding more like good music, turning your average commercial break into a Sisyphean game of Name that Tune.

“I can’t tell you how many times I get a brief where I’m told, ‘We’re sort of looking for that indie sound,’” said Toronto-based composer Ari Posner. “I have been told, literally, ‘This is great but can you make it sound crappier? Can you grit it up, make it sound more indie – like it was done in a garage with a bunch of teenagers?’”

The phenomenon has been growing for years now. In 2005, Capital One Canada released an ad with a song called Hands in My Pocket. After viewers took to the MuchMusic message boards wondering about the name of the song, composer Jim Guthrie cut a full track.

While it is not new, the trend has gotten to a point where the indie sound has become the norm in advertising; the jingle is the anomaly.

“It used to be, I’m going to put on my advertising composer hat on and write something for an ad, and then go write the music I want to write,” said Dave Sorbara, co-creative director at Grayson Matthews. “We don’t do that any more. We make real music, we just happen to put it in commercials.”

Some people in the industry refer to this style as a “needle drop” – the idea that ad music should sound like dropping in on a bona fide musician’s record, even if it does not exist outside of that 30-second spot.

When advertising agency MacLaren McCann created a spot late last year about a little girl on vacation who loses her monkey doll, it asked the company RMW Music specifically for something that sounded like a real song. The advertiser, MasterCard Canada, uses commissioned music like this in its advertising almost exclusively. Nicole Avery, vice-president and business leader of consumer and digital marketing for the company, says she can only recall one spot in the past seven years that has not used a bespoke track.

“A lot of marketers are doing this because [they] want to sell their story,” she said. “…We want to make sure that it emotionally connects.”

That is crucial in an age when people’s attentions are more divided than ever. Viewers are keen to skip the pre-roll ad before the video they want to watch online unless something compels them to sit through it; and when the TV set is on, people are frequently glancing at a smartphone or tablet as well. According to the latest Media Technology Monitor report released last week by CBC/Radio-Canada, about 7 in 10 online Canadians will occasionally multitask by accessing the Internet while watching TV; just under a third will do so “always” or “often.”

“I’ve heard clients say more and more, they like music that is going to break through,” said Judy John, CEO of ad agency Leo Burnett Canada. “So if you’re not in the room, or you’re on your phone or doing something else, the music draws you in and makes you look up at the TV. When people start saying, ‘I love that spot and I love the music,’ that’s the feedback that we love to hear and clients love to hear. Because you know they’re connecting.”

There are practical reasons for it as well: With only 30 or 60 seconds of space, sometimes an existing song clip does not hit the right emotional arc, does not have the exact BPM (beats per minute) to match the pace of the ad, or won’t match certain moments in the commercial with a sonic hit. And not much can be done if a marketing vice-president decides there are a couple of words she does not like. With a custom track, all of that can be adjusted.

Budgets also play a role. While relatively obscure indie bands will happily license a song for a few thousand dollars, or sometimes even for free to get the exposure, well-known artists will charge tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. (The Beatles will run you around a million.)

“I was up against Alicia Keys’ Girl on Fire,” said Nashville-based singer-songwriter Greta Gaines of her work writing the song for the ad that launched the new espnW brand in July. “But if the entire budget is $100,000 for this commercial, we don’t have another $100,000 to license that song.”

Occasionally, advertisers will solve that problem by simply asking a music production house to write something that sounds very similar to a popular track. NPR examined this phenomenon more than 10 years ago. Recently, hit band The Black Keys has filed lawsuits accusing advertisers of using music “substantially similar” to their songs without permission.

In Ms. Gaines’ case, however, espnW got a totally new song written with their brand in mind. Ms. Gaines was paid about $2,000 (U.S.) for writing Girls Like Us. It went through about seven versions, from punk to orchestral, before the client was happy with it. But since the ad came out, it has been so well-received that she decided to record a full version. But unlike many other artists who get a boost from having their song in an ad, she did not toss it on to iTunes; she sold the longer track to the company for $20,000. ESPN is now free to use that track as it pleases, whether in giveaways of song downloads to fans, or to play at greater length during televised events such as the WNBA championships. Their plans for the song are now in discussion, Ms. Gaines said.

“Musicians are basically doing couture with their sound,” she said. “...You’ve got to be a little more subtle. People are sophisticated. You’re fooling the consumer into thinking they’re hearing a piece of contemporary music that’s already popular, but at the same time they’re telling you what’s popular.”

People across the industry agree that the right piece of music can create a halo effect for an advertiser. Still, there can be too much of a good thing.

“The irony is, as independent music becomes more commodified and packaged, a lot of the qualities that made it feel special to begin with are now in jeopardy,” said Darren Hollowell, president and co-founder of Black Iris, a firm based in Los Angeles and Richmond, Va.

“When is the last time Apple’s done a really music-centric commercial? As soon as you see the trailblazers not doing that ... I think you’ll see the number of ads with songs that sell their brand, go down,” said Marco DiFelice of Toronto company Indie Joe (its other division, Silent Joe, licenses existing tracks.) “What you might start seeing is songs being used – and they might not be as generic sounding. I’d like to see it widen the scope so that we’re not in the same sonic area. I hope you’ll start seeing braver takes on it.”

The indie sound has become so popular now that some advertisers have begun pushing back, asking for a unique, “ownable” sound, Mr. Sorbara said. “In the last year, we’ve got clients saying, ‘We don’t want to do what everyone’s doing.’”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the firm Black Iris was based in New York. This version has been corrected.

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