I get a lot of questions about writing music for commercials, how I became a jingle writer, and how it’s possible to have a career as a songwriter and a career as a composer. Everyone that writes for ads has a different story of how they landed into the world of writing a :30 film score. Here’s mine.
My Journey To Writing Music For Commercials
To start, I have two up front confessions:
1) I only have one career: I create music while sharing my process. The whole kit’n’caboodle (composing, songwriting, touring, speaking, writing e-courses and articles, hosting apprentice programs) is what I do to make a living, to stay creative and wake up excited about my day of work ahead of me.
2) I’ve never really written a typical “jingle”, you know, like Folger’s “The Best Part Of Waking Up” or “The Joy Of Pepsi” or McDonald’s “ba da ba ba ba”. I write what I’d call music underscores – the kind of music that you can maybe hum along to, but usually doesn’t have lyrics and is often specific to a certain commercial (versus an entire campaign) like this Honey Nut Cheerios ad.
Write Music For Anything
After a lifetime of playing the piano, a double major in Biology and Music, and dabbling in writing piano music and a few lyrics (mostly about rainbows and unicorns), I always thought music was a hobby. So after college, I landed a job as a SCUBA diver for the USGS doing water quality research (in the Delaware River- not as glamorous as it sounds). After six months, I realized I missed music. So I started looking to write music for anything I could get my hands on, including a friend’s website’s landing page and several [terrible] low budget indie films. Through a connection of my sister, I ended up getting a job as a messenger for a post production company in New York City- the folks that edit the video content, mostly for ads. I became fascinated with how the whole process of creating a commercial worked, especially where the music comes from.
I started to think that if I had my own music recorded, I could ask the editors to slide my songs under their edits of the ads, in hopes that the clients would fall in love with them! So I started writing songs, putting together a band, doing a few gigs, and finally recording my first record. Yet even with a mastered record in hand and a full-time position at a post production house, it turned out that placing my songs in ads was harder than it sounded… After a year, I transitioned to a job as the assistant tech at a composing studio, also known as a “jingle house”. I had caught the gigging bug and performed around New England every weekend, and did longer tours all over the USA and Europe on my two week vacations. Luckily, I was able to take extra time off for touring sine the company I was working for was run by musicians and past performers.
While I was at the jingle house and not on the road, I started staying late, using the empty composers’ studios to write on whatever jobs were in house. The next morning, I would present my tracks to the bosses, and they started to include my compositions in the batch of tracks they sent to the clients. And pretty soon I started “winning” jobs.
Unfortunately, my “winnings” came at the same time my touring was becoming slightly more profitable and exceedingly more addicting. My second pop record was about to be released and I saw myself on the songwriting artist path more than I saw myself as a jingle composer. This realization hit me when I was sitting in the composer studio, coming up with a musical theme for the cartoon germs that were infesting a cartoon toilet, for a cleaning supply commercial. I thought “is this what I want to be doing, creatively, forever?”
Be A “Music Creator” And Avoid Labels
Three years into the job, I left the jingle house and continued touring for another two years, until producing my third record. At this time, I was missing the consistency of working at a full time job (read: money was TIGHT!), and tired of the logistics of booking my own tours. I was at a crossroads: take on the artist lifestyle, or establish myself as a freelance composer, or get another day-job? I decided to do the first two. And soon as I made the decision to “do both” – be an artist and compose, I was signed on to score two documentary films and compose original scores and remix songs for CollegeHumor.com web series and parodies. I knew this was the direction for me… to be a “music creator” and not stuff myself into a single bottle labeled “Performer”, “Songwriter” or “Composer”. I decided to reach out to all the jingle houses and ad agencies I had met over the years working in the ad industry to see if I could get on their freelance call lists. I put together a great looking reel. I looked up film productions that were still in pre-production (the time when they are choosing their team) and looked up film auditions on Craigslist to see which directors were in the early stages of creating their films. I hired an intern. And I kept writing songs, booking small tours, and moving forward.
Enjoy The Creative Diversity
My favorite part about writing for jingles is that the fast turnaround (usually the whole process goes down under two weeks) caters to my need for creative diversity. I get bored… fast (this may or may not have anything to do with why I married a mountain guide). Working on creating a whole musical story in :30 is ideal for me. Yet I’m not going to ever quit writing songs, as there’s a level of personal expression in a song that could never be captured in a jingle. So, for now, I’ll do both.
Now, my benchmark for accepting a composing job is whether or not I get to help someone (or brand or company or film director) express themselves and tell their story through creating music. The partnership and creativity that results in self expression is now the reason why I write for commercials, films and co-write with other artists for their new records. Ask me in another 6 months and I’m sure there will be different iterations of this, but it all comes down to self expression, creativity and partnership!