If you're skilled at composing, arranging, and producing, there's money to be made writing music for advertising. As with television and film scoring, the field is highly competitive, and only the most talented make a consistent living at it.
There are three basic ways to work as an ad-music composer-arranger. You can freelance; be a staff writer at a music-production company, or music house; or run your own music house.
Free, Not Easy
Ad-music writers often start out as freelancers. Although it's best to live in a major market area such as New York or Los Angeles to get that work, people can now work from anywhere given the ability of broadband Internet to transfer large audio and video files.
Here's a typical freelance scenario: An ad agency contacts one or more music houses and asks them to submit demos for a national commercial. Each music house typically submits four to six demos, some of which may be written by staff composers and some by freelancers.
Freelancers generally make $200 to $500 for such jobs, and are expected to turn in polished, finished-sounding tracks. Once all the demos have been submitted, the ad agency and its client listen and pick a winner.
The winning music house and the winning composer make any revisions required by the agency; the house then submits its final version. Several months later (agencies are notorious for being slow payers), the music house gets paid a creative fee from the agency, of which the writer typically gets somewhere between 30 and 40 percent. (It's up to the freelancer to negotiate that.) Depending on the size of the creative fee and the percentage the composer negotiated, his or her cut is typically around $1,000 to $2,000.
On commercials produced with union talent (which most national spots in the major markets are), you can make good money from the session and, especially, from the residual payments for singing on the track. You can also make decent money, although considerably less, from session fees and residuals earned for playing an instrument or instruments (see the sidebar “Residual Benefits”).
The Reel Thing
The best way to get your foot in the door with freelance work is to put together a demo reel, which consists of an audio CD featuring tightly edited musical pieces that show off your composition and production skills. If you've worked primarily on album projects, you can use song excerpts — but keep them short.
If you've composed music for picture, you might have enough material to make a DVD video reel. If you don't, consider recording commercials off the air and writing new music for them as a way to get more video-reel material. Whatever format your reel is in, it's crucial to put your best stuff first.
Once you have your reel together, start calling music houses and ask if you can submit it to them. Follow up with phone calls or emails, and be polite but persistent.
On the Payroll
If a music house is particularly impressed with your skills, it's possible to get a job as a staff composer. Those positions, however, are less common than they once were. I spoke with Fritz Doddy of Elias Arts (www.eliasarts.com), a major music house in New York. He told me that the staff writers there receive a salary and benefits, and they get residuals for the commercials they write, sing, and play on. Other music houses may have different types of compensation arrangements for their regular composers, such as paying them as independent contractors.
Those who have been successful as freelancers or staff writers often decide to form their own music companies. A case in point is Doug Hall, now the co-owner of and chief writer for Propeller Music and Sound Design in New York City (www.propellermusic.com). He got his start in ad music working as a studio assistant at one of New York's larger music houses. He says that to succeed with your own music company, you have to present the right image; that is, you need a slick Web site and a nice office. Marketing is key: get a list of possible clients, figure out what your strengths are and who to target, and then hit the phones.
If you don't have a talent for marketing, get a partner who does. It's common for music companies to have one person who specializes in the business side and another in the music.
The smaller music houses or one-person shops are less likely to use freelancers or staff writers. The local and regional ads that they compose for are typically nonunion “buyouts,” for which a creative fee is paid but residual fees are not. To get that type of work, you'll have to function as your own music house, marketing yourself directly to the agencies or clients.
What You Need
To compose and produce music, you'll need a professional-level, computer-based DAW system (Digidesign Pro Tools, Apple Logic Pro, Cakewalk Sonar, Steinberg Nuendo, MOTU Digital Performer, and so on). Because you'll frequently be working to picture, a standalone personal digital studio won't do. You will also need a wide variety of high-quality sounds; your competition will have all the cool sounds, so you'll need them, too. Make sure to keep up with the current trends in pop music.
If you're starting your own music house, set yourself up in a nice space. Ad agency personnel won't want to come to a dumpy studio, no matter how expensive your gear is. If possible, reserve an area for people to hang out in that has food, coffee, a TV, and so on.
Whether you're freelancing or starting your own company, you'll be competing with some of the finest talent in the country, and you'll need considerable chops in composing, playing, programming, arranging, and mixing. “Try to have a unique angle so that you can stand out from everyone else,” says Hall. “Your writing needs to be both unusual and on a very high level.”
Your ability to work with people is critical. You must be flexible. The best thing visually might not be the best thing musically. You won't always agree with the representatives from the agency, the client, or the music house about what is musically appropriate. Remember — this is work for hire; it's not about you as an artist. “Do your best work,” advises Hall, “then don't be too attached to it.”
Learning how ad agencies function also helps. Interning at an agency is an ideal first step. At a minimum, pick the brain of any ad person you know. Once you understand the process that the music goes through at an agency, and the many levels of approval it must pass through (creative director, producer, music producer, and client), you'll be better equipped to compose in the ad arena.
Just Do It
Commercial composers are often given very short turnaround times. You might have the weekend to compose and produce your demo, or you might be asked to do it overnight.
The reference materials you're provided with vary from job to job. If it's a jingle, you're usually given lyrics. You might also get a QuickTime video if it's a TV spot. However, you might get only a storyboard (preliminary drawings depicting the commercial) if the picture hasn't been shot yet. For a radio spot, you frequently get a copy of the script.
In almost all cases, you'll be given a description of the musical direction you're expected to follow. Adjectives like edgy, upbeat, positive, warm, and organic are typically used. Although those words are vague from a musical standpoint, you're often provided with a piece of reference music, which can help you figure out the direction the agency wants to go. If you're a freelancer, pay careful attention to the instructions given to you by your contact from the music house.
You can make a lot of money in the ad-music business, but it's not easy. To do it well, you must love your work, have the right instincts, and be prepared to work hard. If you do, then one of these days, you might just turn on the TV or the radio and hear your own music between the shows.
Steve Skinner has worked as an arranger-programmer for Bette Midler, Jewel, Celine Dion, R. Kelly, the Bee Gees, and Chaka Khan. He has been composing ad music for 20 years.
The real money in the ad-music business is in residuals. These are payments made to the talent that plays and sings on commercials produced with union musicians.
As the composer, you've presumably played instruments on the track, so you're entitled to receive union session payments and any residuals that are generated. The latter are a percentage of your initial session fee, paid every 13 weeks that the spot runs (also paid if it's reused later). Musician residuals are paid through your local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians (which you'll need to join to receive the payments) and can be a nice addition to your income. But unless you play on a huge number of spots, you won't be able to make a living from residuals alone.
The highest-paying residuals go to those who sing on commercials. Those payments are made through the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), and can earn singers significant amounts of money.
If you sing on a network commercial, you get a healthy payment for every two weeks the spot runs — and you get health insurance. Those payments are in the same pay range as the ones that go to the actors who perform on the spots. Ad-music people always try to sing on their spots, even if just on the background vocals.
In the '60s and '70s, there were big vocal groups on almost every jingle, and a lot of singers and composers got rich from those residuals. Subsequently, agencies cut costs by limiting the opportunities for group vocals. You still hear spots with group vocals, but not nearly as often.