Future Sounds: Music's Evolving Role In Advertising

The following post was previously published in an earlier edition of Online Spin:

“You are the music, while the music lasts.” -- T.S. Eliot

Of all the art forms, few have the power to stir strong emotions as music. And few have had such an easy and fruitful relationship with advertising.

It all began with the jingle, of course, whose birth in the 1940s was due to several factors: the rise of small local radio stations after the war, the lower expense of using disc jockeys versus live bands, and a man named Martin Block. As Bob Stanley tells it in “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!,” his seminal history of pop music, Block played his record collection and ad-libbed commercials to his four million WNEW listeners, which eventually became a significant source of revenue. By the late forties, the popularity of Block’s show had sparked a whole industry -- radio advertising -- exemplified by the jingle.

Beginning in the ‘70s, the jingle was displaced by music licensed directly for use in TV advertising, such as Nike’s use of the Beatles’ “Revolution” in 1987, and countless examples since. Many artists, however -- Bruce Springsteen most famously -- dismissed commercial licensing as selling out.



Then the Internet happened. Digital distribution replaced the CD, the bottom fell out of the traditional recorded music industry (for which the CD was a major profit engine) and, after a painful era of litigious Neo-Luddism, the labels eventually struck deals with services like iTunes and (later) Spotify. Today, streaming is mainstream and music is everywhere -- and, since most of it is digital, so is music data. And this has important implications for brands.

The disappearance of the CD partially wiped out an artistic middle class that had come to depend on it for income. Commercial licensing became a desirable alternative, and the old attitudes of licensing as selling out disappeared.

In some cases, brands have emerged as the new underwriters of music creation. But for brands, working with established (not to mention A-list) artists can be expensive, while the undiscovered up-and-comers can be a risky bet. How to choose which music to use?

Traditionally, that role has been played by the music supervisor, an individual with the preternatural curatorial gifts, able to pick exactly the right piece of music from an endless sea of options. However, the process can be subjective, difficult to scale, and not exactly cheap.

Enter the entrepreneur. Veritonic, a New York-area startup with an already impressive track record, uses real-time user data to help ensure that the $2.2 billion spent on music licensing each year is spent as wisely as possible. The company’s technology, which I think of as Optimizely for audio, monitors the real-time emotional responses of consumers in order to identify the audio content that best resonates with a brand’s audience. It’s freedom from the tyranny of individual taste.

Streaming platforms like Spotify and Pandora, though not exactly startups, have large audiences and data sets that can be effectively leveraged for advertising. The holy grail for any recommendation engine (whether Netflix, Amazon or Spotify) is to understand how taste -- yours and that of others just like you -- translates to product affinity. Both Pandora and Spotify are extremely focused on this. Spotify’s work on individualized recommendation systems has resulted in Discover Weekly, a customized playlist of 30 songs, refreshed each week.

The experience, at least for this listener, is uncannily accurate. How did Spotify know I would like Father John Misty and Little Dragon and Wild Belle -- none of whom I had heard before -- all in the same playlist?

Perhaps the apotheosis of all this music-meets-data-meets-advertising stuff is Jukedeck, which uses artificial intelligence to create original music that can be licensed affordably, no humans involved.

But against that example, I’d offer the words of David Byrne: “Far from being merely entertainment, music…is a part of what of makes us human.”

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