Music And Strategy: Inside A Music Service Agency With a 360 Spin on Branding

Sometimes strange bedfellows are actually a perfect match.

MAS puts every aspect of music and branding together.

MAS puts together every aspect of music and branding.

For example, a set of words that pair up surprisingly well together are “Music And Strategy“. It’s the plain-spoken name of a highly flexible music service agency, and now that you’ve been introduced – you’ve got a good idea of what they do.

Operating out of Los Angeles and New York City, Music And Strategy (MAS) is all about sound and branding, reinforcing their clients’ message through music by any means necessary. The roots lay in the diverse background of their accomplished founders, whose strengths have been cultivated in music supervision/licensing/branding for advertising, film, TV, and publishing.

It’s a dream team that includes James Alvich (Draft FCB, BBDO), Jim Black (Black Swan, The Wrestler, Kissing Jessica Stein), and Gabe Hilfer (BMG, “Entourage”). With MAS, their portfolio includes Vidal Sassoon, Aerie, Yoplait, Advil, Smirnoff Ice, Aetna and many more. Get it? The A-list brands have caught on.

If you’re wondering how the art of, well, music and strategy goes beyond simply licensing a killer track, you’ve come to the right interview. Below, Alvich and Hilfer explain just how far things have come – and where they’re going next – in the music business’ fastest-moving sector.

What is MAS’ founding philosophy? How does your name “say it all,” and how does your mindset and approach differentiate you from other agencies in their field offering similar services?

We founded MAS three years ago as a full service music company that would provide creative and strategic solutions for brands and agencies who wanted to enhance their messaging through music.

What makes us different are our one-stop-shop capabilities. We can write an original composition for a :30, while simultaneously executing an artist partnership with a brand, while also doing music supervision for the next Super Bowl campaign.

We truly offer full-service capabilities in the music space, but with a much more intimate approach than our competitors, per the clients we’ve worked with.

How is the role of music for brands evolving? Put another way, what is different about the way brands are viewing the use of music in communicating their message, that’s different than one year ago, two years ago, five years ago?

Brands consider music much more a part of their overall identity now. They view artists as brand influencers collaborating with them in ways they never used to before.

Brands now seek out specific artists that they feel best represent them to create various types of campaigns (TV, digital, Social) that leave a longer lasting impression with their consumer. Music evokes emotion and that emotion can result in a stronger connection to a brand.

So how do you expect this dynamic to be different a year from now? Two years from now?

James Alvich is Founding Partner/Executive Producer of MAS.

James Alvich is Founding Partner/Executive Producer of MAS.

 We are probably going to see even further artist integration.

Instead of just using a piece of music on a :30 second TV spot, we are going to see more artist partnerships stretching across multiple platforms – broadcast, digital, and live events. Brands are going to find more ways to connect fans directly with the artists they love.

To play Devil’s advocate, why does the brand or advertising agency need an outside consultant to help them? Shouldn’t they know the sound of their own brand better than anybody else?

The music industry is a constantly evolving world. When a brand or advertising agency approaches, it’s obviously our job to deliver what they want to the very best of our abilities.

The real crux of this issue is how we do this. On the creative side, we live and breathe music 24/7. We usually use ideas generated internally by agencies and brands as a jumping off point to start a conversation – but that works both ways. We learn about great music from our clients all the time, just as, hopefully, they do from us.

When it comes time to handling the logistics of actually procuring the music, our expertise with copyright practices and negotiations with record labels is an invaluable tool, and the relationships we’ve cultivated over the years throughout the music industry at large can be used to the client’s advantage.

MAS has renowned film music supervisors like Gabe Hilfer as part of their founding team. How does his experience in the film world inform his ability to match music with brands? In what way are these formats — film and branding — similar, and in what ways are they very different?

Working on branding is in the same wheelhouse as working creatively on a film. On a film or television show we’re looking to help highlight the mood and tone of a particular scene or moment.

You can easily translate that over to a brand, where concrete ideas/themes are being conveyed to the viewer. Some of the most pronounced differences lie in the more bookish, legalese aspects of the sync world, however at the end of the day we hope to put great music with great visuals.

Would you say it’s all simply about matching the right music to a brand/product and its message, or is the “brand” of the artist or composer themselves also an increasing part of the equation? What do you wish artists and composers understood better about how they brand and market themselves, if their objective is to be involved in more branding campaigns?

That depends on the extent of the partnership. If it is just about finding the right track for a spot, it’s usually less of an issue.

Where it can become more of a problem is when the artist’s face and personality become integral to the campaign. As musicians, our instinct is to protect the authenticity of who these people are as artists, but when representing a brand you have to consider what’s in the best interest of the brand and sometimes artists act out in ways that can hinder a brand partnership deal.

At the end of the day a brand will always be held accountable for who they align themselves with.

Following the recently concluded SXSW conference, many people wondered if the music/brand connection went too far, articulated by articles like David Carr’s in the NY Times: How did you feel about the way music, brands and bands interacted at this year’s SXSW? What should we expect at other music festivals this year?

MAS Founder Gabe Hilfer

MAS Founder Gabe Hilfer

We think that the confluence of brands and music is, like discussed in the NY times article, a byproduct of evaporating CD sales.

There was a time when an artist had a bad opening week at 20-30k units scanned, and now that would be a great start.  Brands have been the backbone of entertainment for years. Brands like Bell Telephone and Texaco were some of the earliest sponsors of radio shows, and in modern times corporate brands have long sponsored tours, helping underwrite the large costs associated with bringing shows on the road.

While it may seem like a rapid changeover at a festival like SXSW where only 5-6 years ago artists would go to get discovered, it is the new reality.  It’s kind of like a race car driver putting a sponsor’s logo on their car, knowing that they work in a world that requires money in order to achieve their goals.

There seems to be a great deal of M&A activity right now between publishers — catalogs are being snapped up and changing hands at a fast pace. How does this affect MAS’ ability to synch license a track for an ad or other piece of media?

At this point, keeping track of the ownership of copyrights is kind of a fools’ errand – things just move too quickly to keep pace. Media companies have been consolidating for years, and the ripples have hit all facets of the entertainment industry – advertising, film, television, new media – no one is left unaffected.

That said, we strive to maintain strong relationships with enough publishers and labels that we can navigate these choppy waters with a high degree of confidence. It is of the utmost importance to make sure that while we’re dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s – that everyone else is as well.

It’s unfortunate that in this day and age we all have to be on guard about the ownership of intellectual property, and our integrity and thoroughness is something in which we take pride, and which we believe differentiates us from a lot of other people in this world.

Can you outline a typical scenario when you’re approached by a brand to provide them with music. What are the questions you ask the client to hone in on the right tracks or composers? From there, what is the process you then go through internally at MAS to arrive at a solution?

For original composition, tempo is important. We want to get a sense of the personal style of the people whose vision we are trying to get a score, and the people who will be making the decisions. Often they are working with a temp track before coming to us, so will ask them how they arrived at that track.

Music supervision is much more open-ended, there is just so much music to pull from. Genre is probably the first thing we’ll ask about, but really it is budget that is going to open or close a lot of doors.

How do you know when you’re on the right track? Conversely, how do you know when you’re on the wrong track?

It’s hard to say because everything is so subjective. It is usually about figuring out the personal style of the team you’re working with at the agency. There are a lot of opinions involved, so it can require a lot of conversations.

We try to do our best to hone in on that before getting started or before getting too deeply into the writing process. Ideally, we have a good enough sense of what the client is looking for right from that first call.

Our job as producers is to understand what we need to deliver, and guide our composers to that end.

Can you name specific examples from a couple of recent projects where this process played out successfully? Let us know why both you and the client were excited about the results.

We recently had a ton of fun scoring “Making Your Mark”, a documentary by director David Tinsdale about Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris’ road to the Olympics. We shared the director’s affinity for anthemic, synth-based music that really builds with a story, so that was a great start.

But probably more important was that we knew we were really partners in this project and that if something wasn’t working, we would find a way to fix it. Oftentimes in the commercial world, agencies feel like they have so many places to get music from that we are either competing with another house, or they can take the job elsewhere if they don’t like where a track is at. Sometimes they even end up licensing whatever they were using as a temp track.

But knowing that we were in it together with the director really helped the way we approached the job. It is a healthier creative process.

What’s a recent music + branding campaign or two which MAS had nothing to do with, that you admire? Why was it inspirational to you?

Weiden + Kennedy recently used a unique and memorable track on a Heineken spot that really enhanced the creative. Justin Timberlake’s partnership with Mastercard has been executed brilliantly because they not only utilized him for music, but they also leveraged his star power by creating a fully integrated marketing campaign that also drove consumer engagement. Creating that entire experience around Justin reinforced MasterCard’s messaging of “Priceless.”

Some music agencies like MAS rely heavily on metrics once the campaign has run to judge whether or not they were successful with the project, while others leave it all up to intuition. Where would you say MAS falls on that scale?

We run on intuition. What music lends to advertising is feeling, so if we aren’t getting the feelings we need to from a track, it isn’t going to work. That said, there are way too many variables involved to lend success or lack thereof just to the music.

One of the most interesting things about music and branding seems to be how new, previously unthought of convergences between music, brands, platforms, and experiences are being created. If money were no barrier, what would be the ultimate music + branding play you’d like to put together right now?

We’d love to work with J.Crew to Warby Parker. What we would do with them, we’ll leave to the pitching process!

Time to close out — anything else about the concepts of music and strategy that you’d like to add?

As it’s becoming increasingly difficult to break through the clutter of advertisement, music is becoming more of an integral marketing tool. Brands realize that there is a necessity to have a sonic identity, and if they don’t, they should call MAS.

– David Weiss is Co-Founder/Co-Editor of SonicScoop, and co-author of “Music Supervision: Selecting Music for Movies, TV, Games & New Media.”