This Note's for You

Ad agencies shoot spots; local "music houses" score

These days, Madison Avenue scoops up cutting-edge music faster than it took Biggie Smalls to rhyme "Sprite" with "Ah-ite." Today, Volvos speeding through stretches of Western wilderness to the strains of breakbeats have become the latest equivalent of the Marlboro Man--a confused, anachronistic totem for an accelerated, mindless age. If anything new comes along music-wise, you can bet that local ad giant Fallon McElligott is already way ahead of you. They will get there before you do.

Still, it's a strange sign of advertising's cultural power that the one way local musicians can find an instant international audience is through TV ads. One particular Volvo spot, yet to be released, was scored by local producer Jason Heinrichs, who earlier this year released a debut album of moody sample-funk and collaborative Twin Town rap under the name Anomaly. Heinrichs, 27, also plays bass in Brother Sun Sister Moon, the much-hyped trip-pop ensemble whose new disc is in the can--shelved while Virgin resolves a corporate shake-up. While he waits to resume his Brotherly duties, Heinrichs pays the bills by freelancing for Asche & Spencer, one of the many local "music houses" that produce soundtracks for commercials.

"In the end, it's just film-scoring," Heinrichs says, relaxing in his basement studio, surrounded by an embankment of electronics. "With commercials, your music's just there to sell a product. It's a nameless thing." Even so, Heinrichs's current Saab commercial may already be the most widely heard Minneapolis techno--outside of the award-winning BMW ads scored by his bandmate, Brother Sun bandleader Paul Robb. Like Robb and other rockers-cum-ad-men, though, Heinrichs is more bemused than beside himself over his anonymous brand of fame. "I haven't seen the Saab spot yet," he confesses with a laugh. "I don't watch much TV."

Over at Asche & Spencer, several floors above the Fine Line Music Cafe, owner and creative director Thad Spencer takes a break from the roundtable meeting he's called in one of the office's many big, modern rooms to explain a sophisticated linkup his office has with a client in London. "Because we're in what most of the world thinks of as a cornfield on an iceberg, we had to figure out a way to respond immediately to people around the world," he says. "And this product that came out about three or four years ago, ISDN--" Spencer pauses and turns to producer Joel Smith, who manages Asche & Spencer's communications with the outside world. "What the fuck does ISDN stand for?"

"Integrated Services Digital Net," Smith says.

"They're very fast phone lines, basically" Spencer continues. "And what we need to do is send some tracks we're doing for Volvo over to London, and they'll hear them in perfect fidelity and full bandwidth. Which is pretty fucking cool."

Five years ago, Spencer left the Jayhawks after a three-year stint as their drummer, and he still sort of looks like a Jayhawk, sporting longish red hair and a soul patch under his lower lip. "I think the anonymous aspect is refreshing," he says of the 10-year-old business that lured him out of the rock life. "When I left the Jayhawks and they were getting MTV videos, part of me sort of went, 'Fuck!' But only for about 3.2 seconds. And then the rest of me said, 'Hey, I'm not on the road anymore. I have children and a home, and I get to hang out with fun people all day long.' And within our industry, we're very visible."

It's only natural that Minneapolis, land of 10,000 bands and 10,000 more ad reps, should produce nationally recognized music houses such as Asche & Spencer, Echo Boys, and Wow & Flutter. And it's just as natural that longtime session and road musicians like Spencer, who are looking to settle down, would find advertising the perfect transition job. Two of Asche's house composers--Tom Scott and Tommy Barbarella (the latter formerly of Prince's New Power Generation)--are members of local glam-funk gods Greazy Meal, and are out on tour the day of my visit.

But the other employees fit the domestic mold: Composer Richard Werbowenko, who's produced such local bands as February, fled the studio world the first chance he could, while Chris Beaty, who was in Beat the Clock, finds himself just as happy in this peculiar market niche. Each is starting a family, loves Minneapolis, doesn't want to leave, and would rather not tour again.

Never something to be underrated, the security of a 9-to-5 job is a godsend for musicians accustomed to erratic and/or nonexistent pay schedules. But if there's a trade-off, it's in daily stress. Writing and recording soundtracks to commercials is usually the last step of a long process for the contracting ad agency, so pressure to "fix" crappy ads is often brought to bear on composers.

Spencer grimaces when he explains that the most difficult part of pleasing a client is understanding what he or she wants in the first place. "We ask a series of questions that get to the root of it. We say, 'Don't talk about music, just tell us the emotion you want to convey.' But I swear to God, a client asked me once, 'What would silence sound like?'"

"I've had clients ask for the music to be faster," adds Beaty, "and I'll cut the tempo in half and they'll go, 'Yes!' because slower music makes the images go faster. We have to do a lot of guessing."

As a consequence of the business's time constraints, everything is recorded straight onto a digital hard drive, where music can be manipulated through a lot of last-minute tampering, from chord changes to major rearranging. "We live in hyper-speed here, compared to when you make an album," observes Beaty. "We work too fast to become too attached to a project."

"Sometimes," adds Werbowenko with a laugh, "you forget it exists until you see it on TV. We do 200 commercials a year, on average."

That noted, speed and variety are constants here, and the anonymity of the work encourages its creators to don different musical identities, as if they were channeling musical past lives. They play everything from '50s lounge to '40s orchestral cartoon music to '70s funk, often within the same commercial. (For future lives they call on techno-crats like Heinrichs.)

Sometimes the visuals are even equal to the sonic crazy-quilt, as was the case with Miller Lite's acclaimed meta-mercial series "Produced by Dick." "We had to figure out why 1980s heavy metal was so cool for that one," says Spencer. "So we listened to the way they structured those dumb chords, and the way those chords were so proudly dumb."

"And we had to get proudly dumb to do it," adds Werbowenko.

But how do these musicians feel about working on an art form--commercials--which, though lavishly constructed, ultimately serves the sole purpose of moving product? "I look at them as a kind of entertainment," says Spencer. "Commercials during the Super Bowl are the most watched event of the game. It's an American fascination.

"I was at a bar recently, and one of the Miller Lite spots that we did came on. And we wrote this little intro that goes 'doodle-a-doodle-a-doo' to start off each of the commercials. The idea of that was to sort of get people to pay attention, and that's exactly what happened.

"I was in the bar having a drink, I heard that melody, and everybody's head went up to the TV. That to me was more exciting than seeing my own stuff on TV, because I saw that it actually worked. Everybody watched, they laughed, and then they went back to drinking. They all looked up for this fricking commercial; it's gotten into the culture."

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming...

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