Workin' For MCA | The Marketing Soundtrack To Your Brand Identity

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When George Lucas began thinking about the music that would backtrack his 1973 film American Graffiti he knew he needed tunes that would evoke the spirit of his boyhood years in Montero, California particularly during the summer of 1962.  At the time prior to the film’s release, the industry standard to hire a scorer and an orchestra to create music specific to a film, but Lucas didn’t think that the spirit he was looking to recreate could be emulated in orchestral music, so instead he approached record labels to see if he could license existing tracks from specific artists to form the entire soundtrack of his film. Because it was so uncommon for a director to use existing music for his film, the record labels, overwhelmed by flattery, agreed to a flat, meager fee of $90,000 for an astounding 41 tracks. In the months after the film’s release, the American Graffiti soundtrack went on to garner triple platinum fame in the United States and maintained its place at the top of the Billboard charts for several weeks. Red-faced, MCA Records and its competitors went on to become far more miserly.

Very often in my career as a marketing professional, I have had clients approach me about incorporating music tracks into their websites or advertisements. I’ve never been staunchly opposed to this idea, but I’ve never been a huge proponent of it either. The fact is that audio, when used correctly, can enhance the effectiveness of a project or campaign, but if it’s going to be done, it needs to be done carefully. Inbound marketing is about attracting people with GOOD content, not poorly created videos. 

The modern constraints of Intellectual Property Law are a far cry from the idyllic Lucas-induced haze of 1973. In today’s world, licensing a popular tune for your website or advertisement could cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars in publisher permissions alone. If you are caught using the track without a license, it could cost you up to ten times that much. And the inconvenient truth of the matter is that detection software is making it much harder to get away with a crime that most people don’t even realize they are committing.  

Appropriately licensing a popular track means obtaining permission from a publisher (in this case the word, ‘publisher’ is a term that refers to whoever represents the composer).  Apart from the hefty price tag, this process also comes with lengthy waiting periods that can range anywhere from a few weeks to six months. Before embarking on the slog to music licensing, consider the following:

Is Music Necessary?

When you set out to tell the story of your brand or product, it is important to understand just how many mediums are available to you. The use of captivating visual imagery, whether be photography or graphic design is a great way to narrate history and intention without using words, but words are important, too. Consumer testimonials, and especially blogs, are essential to build credibility and trust among potential buyers, and they all these things don’t cost nearly as much as licensing a music track. Sure, music can set a particular tone for your brand, or move a narrative visual narrative along in a compelling way, and if you feel that either one of those things is essential to your brand, ask yourself the following questions:

Who is your target audience? Who are your products or services intended for?

In a previous blog post, I wrote about a client of mine who worked as an interior designer and wanted a website revamp that included a tune to match the sensibility and culture of her brand.  She’d settled on ‘Home, This Must Be the Place’, written by David Byrne and performed by the Talking Heads.  The long and the short of it is that we sought the rights to an alternative version and waited three months only to have the publisher reject our request. At the time, not fully aware of the other options available to us, the project was killed. I’ve since learned of the alternatives to this scenario, and if you’re a business owner who is looking to add a backtrack to your website, you should be aware of them, too. 

Use a Music Library

Companies like APM Music exist and have sustained success as places where people can go to find tunes for their projects that cost a lot less than popular songs, but still provide the same creative effect. Let’s say you are a producer at a big ad agency who is working on a television spot for a car manufacturing company.  Your client wants to use Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, but doing so would cost them something like, say, $700,000 for a single use. A company like APM would call upon one of their musicologists to analyze the Dylan tune and then find something comparable within their database of stock music, which they could in turn license to you for a minuscule fee of $250 for a year’s worth of use. This drastically reduced price tag comes with the knowledge that other companies are entitled the same access to APM’s stock music database, and would be allowed to use that tune for a spot as well.

In the event you wanted a track that was exclusive to you, you could work with APM’s production arm, or other music houses like Comma, TK, to compose a ‘sound-alike’ (which is exactly what it sounds like) that only you would have the rights too. This would be a slightly more expensive route, but would still cost far less than the alternative.

If you are a smaller business, and you don’t have the budget, consider hiring a friend to compose a tune for you. Many independent musicians are often open to this idea because it affords them a different kind of exposure while putting money in their pocket, too. 

Consider using other forms of audio

Okay, so you want to use a back track, but does it have to be a tune? Maybe sound-effects or voiceovers would be the way to go. Why not consider putting a human voice to a consumer testimonial, and then adding that as the back track on your website? The simplicity and subsequent intimacy that that creates could be an innovative way of achieving reach while telling the story of your brand.