Learn Composing | Jingle Jockeys

DON'T CALL IT A SELLOUT—WRITING FOR COMMERCIALS CAN BE CHALLENGING, REWARDING, AND INTENSELY COMPETITIVE
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Jimmy Harned at tonefarmer

It''s been driving you crazy—that song you just can''t get out of your head. No, we''re not talking about Jay-Z''s “Empire State of Mind” or Lady Gaga''s “Poker Face,” but something more along the lines of “You deserve a break today,” “I am stuck on Band-Aid,” or simply, “Meow meow meow meow.” Whatever your preconceptions about commercial jingles, it''s probably true that the best ones are designed to make you sing along like a mindless drone until you''re ready to jump in front of a bus to make it stop. Like it or not, that''s gold for a composer or producer who creates custom music for advertisers. But is it easy? No way.

“I remember coming up and writing songs in a band, and I held my nose whenever I thought about commercial music,” says Jimmy Harned, one of six in-house composers and sound designers at tonefarmer in New York City. “But one thing I realized after doing this work for a while is that you get really good at music production once you''ve paid your dues. It can raise your production value and help your songwriting, so if you''re not able to make it by selling CDs and t-shirts, but you still want to write music, this is a great way to support your artistic pursuits.”

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A close-up of Harned''s workstation.

Harned got his start as an intern at the boutique Manhattan Beach Recording Studios, working his way up to assistant engineer based on his knowledge of Pro Tools—at the time still a fledgling program in the era of 2-inch tape. Eventually he was hired to engineer and mix sessions at a jingle house called JSM Music; when a mass exodus of writers left a composer''s chair open, he filled in and quickly made his mark with a hip-hop remix of the Spinners'' “I''ll Be Around” for Chevrolet.

Since its founding in 2001 by Ray Loewy and Tiffany Senft, tonefarmer has built a reputation as one of the premier—and more eclectic—music houses in the business, with clients ranging from Target to Campbell''s Soup. These days, Harned works with a 64-bit Logic-based setup, Euphonix MC Control and a CME UF7 MIDI controller/keyboard, and he''s equipped to record everything from a full band to a sound bed of layered synths in Spectrasonics. But a state-of-the-art studio will only give you headaches if you don''t constantly remind yourself of the most important rule of thumb in jingle composing: simplicity.

“There''s always a trade-off between what you think sounds cool and what the client wants,” Harned says. “You can run into the dilemma of trying to be too cool or do too much, when what you really want to do is distill what the client needs. You have to process the information, the direction or the music references you''re given, and figure out what''s gonna work in the time you have. Most of it''s about creating the right vibe for the message they''re trying to convey, and usually if the vibe is simple, it''s probably right.”

Harned takes one of his most well-known spots, Subway''s near-ubiquitous “Five-Dollar Foot-Long” campaign, as an example. “I think I did that in an afternoon,” he reveals. “It started here in the studio with just an acoustic guitar and a simple beat, and I sang on it with some of the people in the office. If you think about the commercial jingles that really drove you nuts in the ''70s and ''80s, they always had these big harmonies that were oversung and super emotive, and I guess I was just trying to do something more indie-sounding, where the delivery was dry, with some vocal harmonies that were atypical. Subway picked it up, and it was only supposed to run for 12 weeks. Here we are more than three years later, and it''s still running.”

Depending on the terms of the contract, a spot like this can generate a tidy sum in residual royalties for the composer, on top of the original production fee. But aside from the additional income, what really floats Harned''s boat is that he''s constantly pushing his abilities in different genres of music, from hip-hop to techno to indie rock and beyond. It takes wide-open ears and a lot of time and commitment to reach that level of versatility, but perhaps most importantly, you really have to love music.

“I''d say very often, our clients are looking for something that they''d call ‘unexpected,''” Harned observes, “which means that the track is a little more noticeable as the character of the spot. When you look at these spots without music, you realize how much the music is actually driving it. I mean, commercials are manipulative, for sure, but what''s interesting is that you''re helping people feel the way that somebody wants them to feel. I think you can always get an emotional response—the one you intended—if the music is done the right way.”