01 November - 2016
Writing and Pitching Music for Sync to Moving Picture – Part 3 By: Nikki Halliwell, 2 Comments

Writing Music for Adverts, Corporate Video and Video Games

Music for adverts covers every possible genre. There are no rules, and the types of sync vary from a simple musical ‘ident’ to a full-on bombastic orchestral piece. Also read part one and two before you go further into this article, it might overlap.

If I were to say ‘McDonalds’ you can instantly hear the five note whistled theme. That’s right – just five notes! Consider also ‘We Buy Any Car dot com’, which originally was a sung phrase, which then became just a series of seven identical notes in a rhythm of the original song. Un-mistakable now that it has been ingrained in our minds. Another even simpler musical jingle for a product would be the four-note (with harmony this time) ‘Intel’ theme. We all know it.

These are all still musical compositions, no matter how simple.

Now compare these to, for instance, your average action film or game trailer, which is after all, also an advert. Often, trailers will be incredibly complicated and HUGE in terms of sound and musical content.

While the type of music required is varied, the reasons why a particular piece of music makes the cut can be just as complicated and varied.

Take, for instance, a brief I pitched some music to a while back. This was for a well-known furniture retailer. The ad agency (also the ad production company) sent out a brief including the following types of phrases: ‘Yummy Mummy’, ‘Sophisticated’, ‘Grown Up’, ‘Chillout’, ‘Zero 7 – type instrumental’, ‘cool laid-back vibe’… etc. The idea was that this would form a backdrop for a smooth voice-over throughout the entire ad. When the ad was broadcast, the sync chosen was what can only be described as a gospel choir type cover (not instrumental) version of a 1970s classic rock song. The music chosen was very different to the original brief, which is in the advertising world, very common.

This can be because there are many more decision makers involved in an advert than a film or TV sync placement. Think ‘Chinese Whispers’. The client may be totally non-musical, and conveys their idea to the ad agency, who interpret this in a certain way, and send out a brief. When music pitches come in and they are auditioned, there may be ten people who are all acting as ‘music supervisor’ along the way – even the client’s wife or neighbour’s cousin may have a say. Who can say which of these opinions really matter..?

These are the phrases you will hear constantly (also sometimes in the TV world):

‘We will know it when we hear it’,

‘Just come up with something catchy’,

and, my favourite:

‘There’s no budget for the music’.

The first two are simply a non-musical person unable to really put across an idea to a musician or composer, which is forgivable. In these cases ask for references, maybe, so you can narrow it down. Try to show willing to get to the kind of thing needed. Most people know the difference between Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, so communicate in terms they understand.

The last quote (‘There’s no budget for the music’) is simply not true. It is so important that we all stand firm in the idea that music is crucial for the effectiveness of the media it is synced to, and therefore has a value. ‘There’s no budget for the music’ means ‘It has no value’ which is quite simply not the case.

I recently visited a wedding industry event, which had a ‘cat walk’ fashion show, showcasing wedding dresses. This was very professional, slick and impressive to watch. The lights bounced off a million gems and sequins, the choreography was beautiful, and jaws were dropping at the incredible ‘loveliness’ of it all. The music was a compilation of very emotive songs and instrumental syncs. One thing is for absolute certain, though. Without the music, the impact would be less than 10% of what it was. I mean, imagine models walking up and down a catwalk to silence. That would be a joke.

General Hints for Writing Music for Adverts

If this was 2005, I’d say ‘Learn to play the Ukulele!!’

It’s amazing that simple Ukulele strums combined with non-lyrical phrases like whistles or ‘Hey’, or claps and snaps are still being used for adverts for banks, washing powders, whatever.

This is to do with the mood that this type of music portrays. In a nutshell, products or brands want to be associated with feeling of happiness, positivity, confidence, strength and well-being. We will not buy into a product which gives us the feeling of mistrust or unease. Adverts are selling a lifestyle or a dream usually, along with the actual product. The general pitch is ‘buy this product and your life will be better’.

For the more ‘cool’ campaigns, such as aftershave or the more ‘thinking person’s bank account’ type ads, the use of COVER VERSIONS are very effective. These are those dark, moody, emotive stripped-back covers of previously massive hits. Here’s a good example:

The current Lloyds Bank ‘For Your Next Step’ Advert.

We hear it, and some of us know the music already and it resonates with us. This is no coincidence. This is a song that the over 40s will recognise as ‘Mad World’ by Tears for Fears from 1982. For the younger ones, it’s the song ‘Mad World’ by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews from the 2001 film ‘Donnie Darko’. Or perhaps, it’s the song ‘Mad World’ that Adam Lambert performed so amazingly on ‘American Idol’.

Obviously, it’s all of them. Written by Roland Orzabal (one half of ‘Tears for Fears’). Lucky old Roland, eh?

The Lloyds Bank advert is a piano instrumental version by Jennifer Ann.

On the face of it, it’s a recognisable tune under a bank advert, but the whole point goes much deeper. The advert has the voiceover ‘This is real life, but none of us are standing still. We are all about to take the next step’. It features the iconic black horse galloping through the various ‘next steps’ taking place in the foreground. You could say that the horse is steadily guiding us through this ‘Mad World’ so we needn’t be afraid. Hopefully this demonstrates to you the thought and attention that goes into the process of choosing music for adverts. When you are advertising a multi billion dollar industry, and paying this much attention, therefore, to the details, you better believe that THERE IS BUDGET FOR THE MUSIC!

An important thing to think about is that publishers are aggressively pitching to sync opportunities with their back-catalogue. These catalogues often include well-known songs. They are most likely, therefore, happy to get their catalogue synced, even if it’s a cover version of one of their songs. I’ve recently had cover versions requested by publishers. There’s obviously no worries when it comes to getting the publisher’s permission to allow a song to be synced if it’s the publisher who is doing the pitching for you. The down side is that they would probably want to ‘buy-out’ the master rights to your version.

Just as a footnote to the cover versions market, I’d just remind readers that a cover version means that you would receive no PRO (PRS) royalties form this type of sync, but hopefully you own some or all of the ‘Master Rights’ to your version, or will received a buy-out fee you are happy with from the publisher.

All that said, obviously there is a place for a very sad or emotive piece of music for adverts for, say, charities, and that is just not my area of experience, and cannot advise on that at all.

Writing for Corporate Video

This should prove to be an altogether simpler deal.

Usually, you will be liaising with just one or two people who will have a more definite idea of what is needed to enhance the video or web presentation etc.

The great thing about corporate video is that there are video production companies all over the place, and as I’ve mentioned previously, it’s amazing how film-makers are happy just to find someone who can give them the music they want with no copyright issues. Always offer your services for a simple fee, and keep 100% of the music (unless they are willing to pay a substantial amount). Make it clear that you are licensing your music to them non-exclusively for a specific use, and you retain 100% ownership of the music, and will collect all performance royalties and also are free to pitch the music or license the music elsewhere. Generally, video makers, especially small independent ones, will be happy with that. They just want music with no complications.

Writing for Trailers

As with music for adverts, film trailer music, especially lately, is becoming more song based. Trailers are often in three or four ‘movements’ or ‘chapters’, so they will need a few different songs or pieces of music. There are no rules.

Action film and game trailers are usually orchestral hybrid pieces. The key words here are ‘Authentic’ and ‘Bombastic’. This is a notoriously difficult niche to get success at. It is a business where it seems a few of the top composers are getting most of the syncs.

This is down to a few things:

If you are going to pitch these big orchestral hybrid trailer pieces, you MUST be able to make your music sound like a real orchestral in every possible way. People choosing these sync know their music, and they know what an authentic sounding orchestral piece sounds like. They can sometimes even recognise the various orchestral sample libraries used just by listening. Your music has to be as good, if not better than those pieces already out there in this market. Your ‘hybrid’ elements should be interesting and unique. The same old slamming drums are sounding tired now. Throw in some risers, synths, pulses, whatever, but make it different.

I met a very successful trailer composer a few weeks ago at a networking event. We talked a lot of ‘techie stuff’ about sample libraries and DAWs, but his simple answer as to why his music gets used is that he can ‘do what no-one else can do’. That is probably the most important piece of advice to anyone pitching music. If your music is the same as everyone else’s, then it’s a lottery. If it rises above else’s because it has that extra 10 or 15%, the odds are at least looking better.

(Just as an aside, he doesn’t use Logic, Cubase, Protools, Studio One, or Ableton Live, but favours a much less popular DAW just because it works for him. He does, however, spend at least 100 hours on a composition to make sure it is head and shoulders above the competition.)

Trailer music will come under a different agreement to syncs for the actual film or game, since it is advertising. This is why the music in a trailer will usually be different from that in the film. If a piece from the film is used in a trailer, there will be a separate sync fee for each – and usually a higher fee for the trailer.

Keep in Mind

In general, Trailers and Adverts will require a much faster turnaround than film and television. You may submit music to a brief and the advert is broadcast 48 hours later. I’ve recently recorded a vocal for an advert, which was broadcast before any paperwork was signed – within a couple of days of sending over the vocal stems. It can be that fast.

Whatever you’re pitching to, keep listening to what is out there. Listen, listen and listen again to music for adverts, TV and film. Don’t seek to emulate, but seek to take it to the next level. Imagine what the syncs will be 6 months from now.

Lastly, remember all music has a real value. We’re in a difficult stage in the business where the industry is desperately trying to keep up with and keep track of technology, which is running away with and running down the value of music if we let it.

Just because our music is sometimes stolen, that’s no reason to give it away. It’s your music. Value it and keep it safe.


Gary White is an Independent Music Producer, Composer and Songwriter 1994-present. He plays guitar, bass, keys, drums, whistle, banjo.gary white music sync tank
For the ‘Techies’, I use Protools, Studio One 3, Logic Pro X, and Cubase 8 – depending on the client’s preferences, Studio One 3 being my ‘go-to’ DAW.

Producer and Writer (Mainstream Pop) credits include Cheryl Cole, Emma Bunton, Gareth Gates, S Club 8.
Production and Composing (Film, TV and Music Library) credits include BBC, Renegade Pictures, Countdown Media, Aston Martin, Red Slate Pictures, Red 90, Hens Teeth.
BAFTA nominated for ‘Best Original Music’ (BBC Documentary)