Striking a chord with ad agencies


Commercial-music licensing is a booming business, as advertisers, filmmakers, TV producers and others use pop songs to gloss their products.

Recent ad spots include Texas blues star Gary Clark Jr.’s soulful number “Next Door Neighbor Blues” as the soundtrack to a recent J.C. Penney Co. swimwear ad, British folk singer Jake Bugg’s “Lightning Bolt” selling Gatorade, and Seattle’s breakout hip-hop team Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us” hawking Microsoft Corp.

But licensing pop songs can be quite costly. So an increasing number of ad agencies are looking for original compositions for their commercials.


That has meant songwriting jobs for Los Angeles musicians and composers who are writing jingles while waiting for fate to turn them into rock stars.

“It used to be that you got called a sellout. But times have changed,” said Casey Gibson, a musician who has been paid to write jingles for Purina dog food and Columbia Sportswear commercials. “I’m actually proud of the fact that I’m able to make a living being a creative person.”

Now 25, Gibson has played keyboards in the alt-rock group Filligar since high school. The band opened recently for Counting Crows, has finished a new album, and has recently signed with Red Light Management and Windish Agency, two of rock music’s top management and booking agencies, respectively.

But when Filligar goes on tour, Gibson brings a mobile recording setup with him so he can write and submit new material for commercials from the road. It’s better part-time work than busing tables or tending bar. Besides, there is a long-standing tradition of jingle writers crossing over into mainstream music -- and successful musicians writing jingles too.

Grammy-winning songwriter Barry Manilow started his career writing music for State Farm Insurance and McDonald’s ads, among many others. (State Farm’s anthem “Like a good neighbor...” was his, as was McDonald’s “You deserve a break today ...”) In the 1970s, already well into his career, Randy Newman helped write Dr. Pepper’s “Be a Pepper” jingle.

More recently, the sport shoe company Converse has engaged artists Best Coast, Andre 3000 and others to write original, sponsored songs for the brand.


Gibson works for the boutique commercial composition company Mophonics, where he started as an intern and now is called an “artist in residence.” It’s a small music factory in a boxy Venice building housing four studios stocked with instruments and recording gear.

Mophonics executive producer Michael Frick and creative director Stephan Altman started the company in 2002. They soon saw that commercial licensing was crowded with labels and bands looking to make some money. So, rather than pitching existing material, they determined Mophonics would offer tailored original compositions at a quick pace.

Now, Mophonics employs four composers in-house and at least 20 freelancers working from home studios. The company is responsible for scoring hundreds of television and Web ads by major companies such as Apple, Mitsubishi and Bacardi.

The company makes as much as $180,000 for single songs. Those that receive repeat licensing, much as a hit song would, return more than $500,000.

Creative assignments vary drastically, Frick said, but usually include a video clip of the commercial and a text brief, broadly describing the client’s wishes.

One recent brief sent to Gibson said: “Think Williamsburg indie rock. Start simple, build organically. Look for nice scoring moments that you can accentuate and take advantage of within the track.” Gibson recorded a synthesized marimba over a building drum beat and arcing guitar chords, bass, tambourine and soft vocal melodies.


Though exceptions come through, most direction is typically the same, said Charlie Wadhams, a Los Angeles musician who supports himself primarily as a freelance commercial composer. The emails he receives are comically generic, he says.

“If it’s a 30-second commercial there are certain things that they pretty much always want: In the first 20 seconds of the commercial they want the energy to build, and then the last 10 seconds will be the big climax. And usually they’ll use words like ‘epic,’” Wadhams said.

Otherwise, it’s a matter of interpreting the company’s preferences from the unfinished commercial video clip, past ads and emails from ad agencies, Wadhams said.

“I’ve had some emails where the person is trying to be creative with how they describe what they want,” he said. “‘We need this to be sort of coffee shop sounding but not too soy chai latte.’ And I’m like, ‘OK ... basically they want it to sound like Jack Johnson but not too cheesy.’”

A standard commercial composition can pay handsomely if it’s selected for a big campaign. A job for the insurance company Progressive had Gibson writing nearly 100 tracks over six months, but it earned him a five-figure paycheck.

Freelancer Wadhams said writing commercials makes it possible “to survive as a musician and not have to flip burgers at McDonald’s or something.” Last year, when he landed four commercials in a row, he said, he “was living like the king of Silver Lake for a little bit.”


The rewards are not just financial.

In the Mophonics office lobby there is a platinum record hanging on a wall for the Foster the People song “Pumped Up Kicks.”

The band’s leader, Mark Foster, wrote and recorded that song in a single afternoon -- while on the job at Mophonics as an in-house composer. The song became a huge hit, and Foster’s band became one of 2011’s bestselling rock artists and landed a deal with Columbia Records.

Mophonics’ Altman says he’s happy to have fostered Foster’s songwriting abilities.

“We saw this raw talent that [Foster] had, and after a few months his abilities really skyrocketed,” Altman said. “Foster and Casey [Gibson] and all these guys think that they’re learning to make jingles or beats. It turns out they are actually honing these incredible skills.”