Below is an excerpt of music producer/composer Wendell Hanes' book, The 30-30 Career: Making 30 Grand in 30 Seconds (AuthorHouse, 2007). With his sound-for-pictures company Volition (www.volitionsound.com), the producer/composer has created music for a ton of commercials, including GMC trucks, Lipton tea, Corona beer and CoverGirl. In this condensed, edited version of the second chapter of his book, Hanes goes into detail about a few of the most important attributes any music composer must have to succeed. For more in the chapter about flexibility and passion, as well as many other solid chapters of advice on making music for TV commercials, pick up The 30-30 Career, scheduled for release (as of this writing) this month.
I recall working on a commercial where I made a track that I thought was great, but the client thought it had too many synthesizer sounds in it. So I made a version without synthesizers, and the client said that the music didn't sound youthful enough. So I added hip-hop drums to the track. Then the client said it sounded too “urban.” So I eliminated the hip-hop drums and added some guitar to the track, which made it very pop and mainstream. The client said that the track was too “vanilla.”
At this point, the agency told me that they didn't want to hassle me anymore and were going to ask another composer to make music for the commercial instead. They politely told me I could do another if I liked, but that it would probably be a waste of time because of the client's very subjective taste. The agency told me to invoice them for $250 and thanked me for trying. I said, “Okay,” and sent the invoice in immediately.
Later that night, I couldn't get the taste of not satisfying the client out of my mouth, so I made a piece of music that wasn't based on any opinion from the client. This music came from my own gut feelings and natural instincts. I listened to my inner voice and stopped thinking of how to impress the client and worked solely on impressing myself. I sent the CD over with my music the next morning and followed up with a phone call to let the agency know that I was inspired to create a sixth demo for them. They told me over the phone that they had just listened to my track and thought it was phenomenal. Two hours later, they played it for the client, who bought it for $30,000! From that point on, I became determined to trust my own instincts and never bow out of a challenge.
I received a phone call at 9 p.m. just as I was getting ready to get on a three-hour train to Boston for the weekend. The call was from an agency on Friday night that had a GMC commercial; they wanted me to have music for them by 10 a.m. the next morning. To make things tougher, they wanted to hear a work-in-progress later that night. I canceled my train ticket and plans to be in Boston for the weekend with the possibility of winning a national spot that could lead to more work and more money. I had a serious case of writer's block that night but stayed in the studio all night. I scrapped version after version. It took me until 4 a.m. just to catch a vibe that I liked. I worked until 7 in the morning without sleep.
A couple hours later, the agency called and said they liked what I did but wanted me to make a couple revisions. I had to catch a taxi back down to the studio with only 30 minutes of sleep. Monday morning, the agency called and said the client loved it and they had another two commercials for me to do in another week. All in all, I was happy that I had the discipline to cancel my plans and hustle extra hard to win the agency's trust by coming through in a bind. I won the next two commercials for them and created a relationship with the agency that has lasted ever since.
One of the major differences between commercials and records is that you often do not have time to wait for a moment of inspiration. Deadlines and the pressure to create something great to solidify your reputation in the business can teach you to find new ways to be inspired. My best music comes from inside me. In sports, we call it getting in a zone. I try to find my zone by looking for inspiration wherever I can find it. For instance, I can recall a GMC commercial where I felt that the picture was not engaging enough for me to get into a zone. I knew that I just needed to get a great groove started before I arranged the music to picture. Instead of watching the picture for the commercial, I stared at a blown-up photo of a dark-green rocket ship with jet propulsion. I immediately start imagining what that image would sound like. I created a guitar riff in my head that I quickly had my guitarist Tony Aliperti play to a beat — distorted and with energy. I added a bass line and included some BREAKbeats and drum rolls. I listened to the groove as I watched the photo of the rocket ship and imagined it traveling into space playing this music.
I played the new groove with the commercial picture and was pleasantly surprised that the music really made the truck come alive. It felt fresh. It felt authentic. Best of all, it worked perfectly with the picture. Getting inspired is half the battle when creating music. Stay inspired, and you will stay creative in anything you do.
You gotta love music enough to do it for free. Most beatmaker/composers who love to make music do it all day, every day. That passion is essential to have. Success is one of the biggest career-killers out there because oftentimes once musicians, singers or actors reach a certain amount of success, they lose the hunger to maintain that success. For producers, it's about making music that impresses you. When was the last time you created a piece of music, listened back, and thought, “I can't believe I made that!”? You need that passion to experiment, take risks and do something left of center just to see how it works. Continuing to impress yourself, as well as others, is key to a successful musical career.