A very short piece of music can earn a very large amount of money if it’s the soundtrack to a TV ad, but competition for these spots is fierce. The founders of Massive Music, specialists in sourcing music for the advertising industry, explain what it takes to succeed.
A great advert with stunning visuals and a compulsive score can break a brand worldwide and win millions of sales, so artists and composers who can produce the goods are in demand. The financial rewards can be sizeable, but competition is fierce and there are only really a few companies who regularly get asked to pitch for a job.
Massive Music, based in Amsterdam, have created the music for some of the best–known television and film commercials of recent years, for brands such as Volvo, Nike, Orange, Grolsch, Volkswagen, Motorola, Seat and Adidas.
Established in 2000 by industry veteran Hans Brouwer, Massive now employ 15 people in Amsterdam, a further four in their New York division, and a number of sales reps operating in territories around the world. Also vital to the company’s success is a worldwide pool of approximately 75 freelance composers who provide Massive with the ability to serve just about any musical style that is required. While Hans takes care of business matters, Auke Riemersma runs the two in–house studios, where he is either recording music from scratch or editing material freelancers have created in their own home studios.
Before starting Massive, Hans already knew the music industry pretty well, having worked as a musician and performer, and in a marketing role for a similar production company. Massive’s first commission was Lufthansa’s ‘Hobbies’ ad, which subsequently won an important award for music and sound design, establishing Massive as a leading music production company. “It’s all about winning awards in the advertising industry,” insists Hans. “In the beginning you have to chase people and convince them that they have to work with you, and if you are good enough they might chase you! You start by doing as much work as you can for hardly anything, to build your showreel. Then you hope that people will see your showreel, and in advertising you get it seen by making appointments with agencies, film production companies and directors associated with film companies. They are our direct clients.”
Several years on, Massive have major campaigns under their belt and are well known enough for the leading ad agencies to call them when they have suitable jobs. “The advertising agency will invite a bunch of companies to pitch for a spot,” explains Auke, “so we simply receive a call or email from them asking us to join in.”
“We are in the top 10 of leading music houses worldwide,” continues Hans, “and maybe in the top five, and in that position we even get spots without having to pitch against other people. But it varies throughout the world and in England, for example, it is incredibly difficult. It’s maybe not even that difficult to get the chance to pitch but then you are frequently pitching with 15 others, and lots of times there are also publishers and record companies offering tracks that they want to license to that campaign. You don’t get a demo fee, so only one of the 15 gets their money back, but the end rewards can be quite good in England. It’s usually somewhere between £10,000 and £30,000 pounds, but you have to do 10 pitches before you win one — if you ever win one! So the competition is incredibly strong. That is the English situation, but we work all over the world.”
According to Hans, pitch requirements vary enormously, but the agencies usually ask Massive to either search out a suitable selection of existing tracks, or come up with a set of original music ideas, cut roughly to fit whatever edit or brief has been provided at that stage.
“What happens next depends on the relationship you have with them and what they called you for,” explains Hans. “A music search could include any music ever made: it could be an old demo track that we have on file or a track by Madonna. We’ll deliver 15 or more tracks that potentially fit their brief and they then pick whatever they like from the stuff we provide. The brief itself come to us in different stages and there are a thousand different possibilities for how detailed it can be. They might only have a storyboard or a written synopsis. Even if there is an off–line edit available they usually still have to finish editing the picture, but it still helps us to see whether or not the music fits the picture.
“And the sort of brief we get also depends on what the agency people know about music. They sometimes don’t have a clue, even though they make very good campaigns. They might say something like ‘I definitely want a sort of Coldplay–style direction,’ for example. Other times they might say ‘I’ve found a song I like but the lyrics don’t fit so I want stuff in this style.’ But once we’ve done the music research they have the tools to develop the brief, so they are usually telling us that they like track two, and the energy of track six and so on.”
For each ad, several different versions of the finished track are usually required, depending on what the agency are planning to broadcast. Ad campaigns usually kick off with a 45–second version, followed by an airtime–saving 30–second one, which is shown once the story is familiar to most viewers. A third version is reduced to about 10 seconds as a brief reminder.
Massive are also frequently asked to provide stylistic variations on the same composition, so that the agencies have contingency options. “Music is last in the production chain, so there’s always a heavy deadline but not necessarily time to start again if something is wrong,” explains Hans. “For this reason we are often asked to do the job in three different styles in case the first doesn’t work.”
Ads shown in different territories also require more than one version to cater for cultural variations in taste. “Music history and taste is completely different in Asia than in South America, not to mention North America,” continues Hans. “For one recent worldwide campaign we did five different arrangements.”
But perhaps the biggest challenge facing anyone making music for picture is coping with frequent changes that are made to the picture during production, all of which require corresponding edits to the music. “It happens a lot,” laughs Hans. “Some jobs you have to do 15 adjustments or sometimes even start all over again with a new direction and track, several times during the same project — it all happens!”
“Everybody thinks you can earn loads of money in advertising,” says Hans, “but that was a while ago. The budgets are still good but it is not like it used to be. These days, companies tend to be ruled by accountants rather than creative individuals, so there are fixed budgets for everything and you just have to deal with it. You are always aiming for quality in advertising, so whenever there are supposed to be real strings, but you can tell that it is programmed, then you have to hire an orchestra or extra musicians. Normally there is enough money for that and sometimes you can charge a little more if you need a small orchestra or lots of singers. Ten years ago, if we decided we needed an orchestra and it cost twice as much, then we got twice as much, but now they just put a budget in beforehand and say ‘We have 10,000 Euros for the music, can you do it for that?’ Lots of times we have to include a back-door construction in our quote accounting for extra costs, or saying that the quote starts new if we have to begin all over again.”
Even when all the hard work is done and the ad music is complete in all its versions, there is still a chance that the work can get rejected, as Auke reveals. “It can happen that we lose the job right at the end. Sometimes the agency is happy with all the work and the client seems happy, but the boss of the client wipes the whole campaign off the table, and there goes all the work! On the other hand, the same thing can happen to another music company and it is us who receive the job at the end.”
The way Massive are organised means that they depend very much on the talents and reliability of their composers, so finding the right people has been imperative right from day one. “I’ve been in the music industry my whole life,” says Hans, “so in the beginning we used the people from my network and those that are in the networks of the Massive staff. We’ve never put an ad in the paper. At the moment the freelancers are mainly located in the Netherlands, UK and US, but they could be anywhere.
“We do get sent lots of demos and we listen carefully to every one because we need every style, whether it’s death metal, punk, classical, sound design or whatever. Everyone has their own style. For example, there is only one guy we know of in Holland doing Dick Dale–style surf music and he’s in our pool. He gets maybe two jobs a year but if we get a surf track in as a brief we have the right guy. So we are constantly updating our pool and looking for new talent.”
Having done the initial music research to get the spot, Massive have a clear idea how the track should sound, and they can decide who from their composer pool is most suitable and brief them comprehensively. Hans explains the process. “We brief the composer, saying ‘We need a 30-second track for a spot, here are some style guides and reference tracks, and we need it day after tomorrow at 9am on our FTP server.’ So, although they compose the track, we tell them exactly what to do in which style and we organise everything around it. They need to have their own studio or it doesn’t work. We have a couple of composers not working in Pro Tools but the other 95 percent are. And they normally need to be able to turn it around quickly.
“Of course, we check first to see if they are available. We might get a composer who sends us a really good demo and we decide we want to work with him, but if we call him five times and every time he’s on tour or in the studio, we stop calling, because that doesn’t work. At the moment we have around 20 guys who more or less work full–time for us.”
So that they can respond to last–minute changes, Massive have to make sure their relationship with the pool of composers is structured in a certain way, particularly as most only work for Massive part–time and have other musical commitments. “If a client wants changes in a recording we sometimes call the freelance composer and ask them to do it,” Auke explains, “but we’ve usually already asked them to send the split files, or the whole Pro Tools Session, so we have the option of doing the changes ourselves. Occasionally, due to time restrictions, I record and mix the whole thing, but sometimes the composers really want to mix it — it depends a bit on the job. On some occasions the job is finished in two or three changes, on others it takes 15 or 20, so if we give it back to a composer and they don’t mix it exactly the way we want then it is always easier to do it ourselves.”
“If the clients come over to our studio then we definitely have to have either the composer in-house or the whole Pro Tools Session,” adds Hans.
Massive not only have to be able to produce new music, they also need the skills to re–produce old records, or ape a particular band or style. As one would expect, Massive have experienced every scenario over the years. “One situation,” says Hans, “is when the agency don’t want to pay for the rights, so you compose something new that resembles the old track and then there is no copyright infringement. In Holland people call that a soundalike. Actually, we hardly ever do those any more because they are not currently seen as cool enough. More frequently we’re asked to do a style–a–like, which is where our track is made to sound a bit like a band or a genre. They might say ‘I like Coldplay,’ for example, but instead of being asked to rip off ‘Clocks’ you record a guitar band that sounds like Coldplay.
“The other thing that we do a lot is make new versions of existing tracks where the agency licenses the composition publishing rights, but we make a new master. It’s done for many different reasons. Sometimes the clients want a contemporary arrangement, different lyrics or altered tempo, or perhaps they just require a more romantic version. Other times they have a £30,000 budget but the composition and master recording costs £25,000 each. They don’t have 50, so they pay 25 for the publishing and ask if we can make the recording for £5000.”
When recreating old tracks, Hans and Auke prefer to use software rather than seeking out vintage amps and processors. “You can do a very good job with modern plug–ins,” insists Hans. “We do a lot of new arrangements of old songs, and also make one–on–one covers, and find that it’s all doable. The most difficult and important thing is finding the right voices — the right singing talent.”
Massive inevitably spend a lot of time searching for vocalists who either sound like a particular artist or have the ability to impersonate several. Hans: “If you find one that is close then you can coach them and use processing to get the rest of the way. We have specialised session singers in every day, so we know who is good at certain things and we also have a huge network of singers and musicians. Our composers also often know the right people. For example, a couple of years ago we had to remake the Bill Withers track ‘Just The Two Of Us’ and the composer we used in LA found us a singer.”
Ironically, Massive began by asking Bill Withers himself to do a new version, but found that his voice had changed so much over the years that the session singer was able to get closer to the original! Indeed, the tendency for a singer’s voice to drop in pitch with age was an issue the team encountered when working with George Baker, as Hans recalls. “We were re–recording his song ‘Little Green Bag’, which is a track used in Reservoir Dogs, and he told us to record it one note lower and then pitch it up, as that was exactly how much older his voice had got!”
Undeterred by the potential problems of getting a vocalist to reproduce a vintage performance, Massive more recently contacted Roger Hodgson when they needed to make a re–recording of Supertramp’s ‘Give A Little Bit’. “It was very cool,” says Auke. “I was actually quite amazed with the tonal quality of his voice, but the problem was that he put in some extra ad–libs and words here and there. It took me some time in editing to get it exactly the way it used to be!”
Having survived so many years in what is an extremely tough business, Massive know very well exactly what it takes to stay at the top. Hans and Auke reveal what they consider to be the secret of success. “It sounds like a cliché but it’s about producing high–quality work and delivering it on time,” say Hans. “You can’t deliver the wrong track because the day after, it is on air, and if you mess up then they won’t call you again. That’s not good because there are, for example, in Holland only about 25 agencies that do spots, and word gets around really fast.
“And, of course, being able to do as many musical styles as you can, with the best in those styles,” concludes Auke. “You should be able to make any style that exists on this planet!”
As far as payment is concerned, Massive give their composers both a production and a daily fee, but retain the right to the recorded material. The composition rights are split half and half, so Massive in effect act as a publisher. Unlike with a typical publisher, however, the composers are not signed to the company, so each job is a one–off deal.
Gathering the actual publishing royalties is a bit of a sore point for Hans, who has found that extracting money from the relevant collection agencies isn’t easy, even with two full–time employees doing copyright administration. “It’s extremely difficult to get copyright money in from commercials,” he admits, “and takes a lot of time and effort to get a little bit in. In my experience, there are only a few well-organised countries, and they are the UK, Holland and Germany. There is a ‘B’ category where it is more difficult, like France and Belgium, a ‘C’ category where it is almost impossible and a ‘D’ one where you don’t even bother. And unfortunately that last one is three–quarters of the world!
“We’ve been struggling with it for years. All the organisations ask for airing copies of the spot, and getting those from the agencies is really difficult. That’s just where the problems start. I don’t want to tell you all the bad stories but I’ve hardly got any money from the copyright agencies outside of Holland since 2000. The money is somewhere, but a big part of it is not in our bank account! I’m even considering moving to the PRS in the UK or GEMA in Germany, because the Dutch organisation is not used to a company that does so much work worldwide.”
The two studios at Massive are based around Pro Tools HD3 Accel systems with 192I/O interfaces and Control 24 fader surfaces. The first is fitted with Genelec 1031 and Yamaha NS10 monitors and the second with PSI 21–2s, plus a set of Auratones, which Auke says are necessary for emulating the output of a mediocre television set.
“The hardware is quite basic,” insists Auke, “but I need to be able to work on 15 or 20 sessions at the same time, so I don’t want to muck about with patch cables and spend ages finding EQ settings. That’s why almost everything is done in the computer. That includes synthesizers, although we do have a Moog and a Yamaha DX7. In terms of outboard processing, we have just a few very good preamps and compressors. I use the Focusrite ISA220 for vocals because it has the EQ, preamp and compressor inside. Also for vocals we have a TL Audio C1 compressor and a Focusrite ISA428 which has four preamps. Besides that there are 16 preamps in each of the Control 24s.
“Our two live rooms are pretty spacious but not too big. One is more of a vocal booth, which we also use for instrumentalists. The other room contains the drum kit. If we are recording drums we sometimes point overhead and room mics towards reflective surfaces to get a little bit more out of it, but if we still need a bigger drum sound we hire a bigger studio. Again, we need to be as flexible as possible, so if we can’t do it in software we find another way. But we try to do as much as we can in software, so that, if necessary, I’m able to quickly recall a particular Pro Tools Session, change it, bounce it and send it to the client for approval. Sometimes they want to completely change the way it sounds or the type of instrument used and I need to be able to do that very quickly.”
When it comes to simulating the right acoustic space with reverb, Auke’s favourite processor is Audio Ease’s Altiverb plug–in. “It’s one of the best ambience creators on the planet. You can create any space from the inside of a toilet or car right up to famous recording halls and recording studios. It’s a fantastic tool for that and I use it all day in both studios.
“We also have a collection of about 20 guitars that includes a Gibson Les Paul, Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster, Guild, Martin and so on. We need to be able to get every style and flavour. We DI them and use [Line 6’s] Amp Farm as a starting point, so if a client wants it cleaner, brighter, or whatever, we can easily switch from a Marshall amp to a Fender. “The good thing about Amp Farm is that the latency is low compared to some other plug–ins. It is a good, yet mediocre, tool in the sense that it is not too amazing but it has some very good starting sounds! If I need more I use Native Instruments Guitar Rig but that has a huge latency. I don’t know how many samples but you feel it, playing live. For bass we have a Fender Jazzbass, Fender Telecaster Bass, Musicman Stingray and a semi–acoustic Framus bass. We also have a good piano, a drum kit, a nice microphone collection — stuff like that.”
Slightly surprisingly, Auke never needs to record more than 10 inputs simultaneously in the Massive studios. “Most of the time it is between two and 10, and never more than a whole drum kit. The composers make the basic tracks and I tend to do the vocal recordings or the complete mixdown. If we are recording a small orchestra it is done in MIDI first by the composer and then we invite over our best horn players, or whoever we need.
“For composing you need Native Instruments Komplete 4 collection. I use a lot of Battery, FM7, FM8 and [Access] Virus, which was included in the Pro Tools bundle. Also for composing we use GMedia ImpOSCar and M–Tron synths, FXpansion BFD, Propellerheads Reason and Pro Tools Xpand!. And of course the Waves bundle for mixing.
“Garritan Personal Orchestra, which is based on the Kontakt player, is excellent and only about 250 Euros. When you just need a little string part inside a pop song it is easier and faster to do it with something like Garritan or the Vienna Symphonic Library, but for some TV programme themes the brief specifies classical instruments only, so you have to hire an orchestra.
“In TV everything has to be loud, so you need a good maximiser and limiter combination. I have Waves L3 as my main tool, in combination with a compressor. I also use the Massey bundle, which includes the very good L2007 mastering limiter. I adore the Pultech bundle too, which can be really subtle or very harsh.
“If you are re–making ’60s or ’70s tracks you need all kinds of distortion and overdrives, particularly to simulate drums. For that, Amp Farm on a drum kit can be amazing. In fact, Amp Farm on a whole mix can sometimes work! Massey Tape Head saturation, THC distortion and izotope’s Vinyl record simulator are all excellent plug–ins for recreating old-sounding recordings.”