You don't need to have Top 40 hits to make a living from your music. Just ask Kent Brainerd, who has made a tidy sum by composing music for company training and presentation videos. Find out how...
When musicians talk about their burning desire to write 'music for picture', what they generally mean is movies or broadcast TV: big, high‑budget media with kudos and glitz attached. Or perhaps, these days, they might be thinking of scoring computer games: a worldwide cutting‑edge industry with tech‑cred galore.
One industry, however, is unlikely to figure highly in the aspiring David Arnold's list of target clients: the world of corporate video. And why is this? Well, I have my own, pretty straightforward theory: because so much corporate video is crap.
Think about the last training film, or motivational video you saw in the workplace. Remember the cheesy acting, the wooden dialogue? And how about the music? Did you cringe as some managerial bigwig spelt out the company's goals over the next year, while atrocious '80s library music blared away in the background? Especially when, as a studio boffin yourself, you knew you could have done so much better. Why should any credible composer associate themselves with a format best typified by Alan Partridge flogging boating holidays?
Actually, there are two good reasons why. The first is that a growing number of large companies are realising that it doesn't have to be this way: today's media‑literate audiences won't put up with watching presentations that look and sound like something off the bottom of broadcast TV's shoe. Companies increasingly want high‑quality, entertaining content which can gain an audience's attention as completely and effectively as — for want of a better word — 'proper' telly. And that means good music, as well as good scripts and visuals.
The second reason is that the corporate field is far, far bigger than most of us imagine. The UK corporate communications industry has an annual turnover in excess of £2.5 billion — larger than Europe's entire film production slate. And, programme for programme, the sector's output equals that of the BBC. The opportunities, in other words, are there — and the very fact that most of us don't give corporate video a second thought can only improve the chances for any budding composers seeking to break in.
That's the theory, at least. So what about the practice? There can't be many people better positioned to explain the corporate music scene than US‑born UK resident Kent Brainerd. A practitioner in the field for ten years, Kent was recently given 2001's Best Music accolade by the IVCA (Britain's corporate communications trade body). His offbeat work has attracted blue‑chip clients ranging from Cable & Wireless to Legal & General. And he keeps the corporates coming while also maintaining a healthy line in ad music, TV scores and good old‑fashioned pop production.
Brainerd began his professional music endeavours in Drum Theatre, early‑'80s CBS signees who achieved moderate success with their debut album before calling it a day in 1986. Planning his next step in the music industry, he opted for a familiar, if risky, route, creating his own commercial studio (Jamestown, in London's Whitechapel).
"Effectively I was a builder for a year, not really doing that much music until the studio was complete," Brainerd recalls. "Then I got into doing programming for other people — largely DJs who couldn't make their own music. It was great experience, but I found it very difficult to make any headway with the record companies in my own right. I remember going in to see them, telling them who I'd worked with and offering to do some remix work for them free of charge, if they'd copy off one of their multitracks for me. But not one of them would agree to."
Fortunately, luck then intervened. "My studio was almost going bankrupt, so I started letting out spaces within the building. One of the guys who moved in was a musician who also directed corporate videos: he was working for The Body Shop, but got another job from Coca‑Cola, and asked me if I'd be able to do the music for it. Naturally, I said yes. Then he asked if I'd had any experience of doing that sort of work — and of course I said yes to that, too! And that was it — the break I needed."
Brainerd's first corporate video soundtrack gave him a fair indication of the frequently bizarre projects he would soon be contending with. "The Coke video was designed to go out to lots of pubs in Britain — I don't recall the precise message, but it explained how to serve Coke with ice and a slice. And it was like a mini‑vampire film. So I immediately got to grips with making instant horror soundtracks — you take all your fingers, put 'em together in a fist, and hit the top of the keyboard. And you have to include a menacing low drone in there somewhere...
"That director went on to make quite a few videos, so I did maybe five or six with him. And I found the work pretty satisfying: the budgets were bigger than they were for making a remix, I'd largely be left alone to work on it, and it was interesting to discover what music went best with different scenes. I started out by watching a film and listening to a whole set of different CDs over the top, which is something I still do occasionally. What you quickly learn is that there are definitely certain musical formulas, for want of a better word, which produce emotive responses in people, whether they like it or not — and those formulas become your stock in trade."
Contrary to most people's perceptions, the corporates field is an extremely wide one. Simply in terms of formats, corporate composers can be asked to turn their hands to one‑off films designed to be played at conferences, regular weekly 'internal' programmes distributed via VHS or satellite, CD‑ROM or internet/intranet‑based presentations, digital TV broadcasts, and now content‑rich DVD productions featuring multiple audio tracks as well.
There's also the videos' multifarious purposes to consider. Corporate videos can instruct, inform, or simply try to engender a sense of 'company‑wide well‑being'. And the corporate composer must capture these moods as accurately as possible — or, more specifically, capture how the client perceives these moods. It's a tricky balance to strike.
Brainerd elaborates. "In the beginning I worked on a lot of 'talking heads' videos, where the chairman gets up and talks about his 'vision for the future'. In itself, that's fairly uninspiring, so you have to discuss with the client — and the video's director — how the client sees themselves. Do they see opera as representing their company? Or do they want to move into a new, youth culture field? Does the chairman want to develop a trendier image than he currently has?
"For example, I've done stuff for several alcohol companies which are trying to reposition themselves in young markets. They're pulling out old brands that they haven't looked at in a while, and so they want something contemporary — but to them, 'contemporary' might mean rock music circa 1982. So I've done big, guitar‑based things, I've done hi‑tech computer and synthesizer things. In fact, I've done just about every musical style you can imagine. I've even done ambient soundscapes for live presentations, where the staff have to sit and just listen to this music all day. If it's too in‑your‑face, they go absolutely crazy after about 10 hours. Once I did a really upbeat one, and I was called back in the middle of the conference and asked to rework it — they said it was driving them up the wall."
So how does Kent go about putting together a corporate video soundtrack? "In most cases, the video has been shot and put together before you receive it — the sections have been edited according to what works visually, and you have to follow that with your score. This sounds fair enough, but in reality it can be super‑frustrating when you're trying to fit an even number of beats and bars into a section. Sometimes you say, 'if you just gave me one more second of this, it really would make a difference to the music', but they rarely listen to you. You're secondary, and you have to accept that.
"The real keys to pulling off one of these soundtracks successfully are flexibility and organisation. Although it's tempting, when you first get the videotape, to just sit down with a piano sound and compose, you have to be aware that elements in the video are bound to change over time. So what I generally do is map things out on paper — 'section A, from zero to one minute, needs this kind of approach, section B runs to here and needs this' and so on. You might have to do a bit of opera one minute, then straight into some hard‑hitting dance music with lots of drums and percussive elements, then into a big, broad congratulatory payoff. And even within a specific section, your music often has to follow, directly to‑picture, quick changes in thought and mood. Stylistically, the only constant is change!"
When Brainerd was first thrown into the corporates field in the early '90s, he had to swiftly develop a working sound‑to‑picture setup within his existing 24‑track studio. These days, his system has been honed by years of active service — though some elements haven't changed. "Generally speaking, I still work off an antiquated Sony U‑Matic video player. The client sends me a U‑Matic tape, with a SMPTE code on track 1 which correlates to a burnt‑in timecode in picture, and my Mac synchronises to that via a Digidesign SSD Slave Driver. Then, on track 2, they'll have put any set sounds they've recorded — sync sounds and voiceovers, which have generally been done by the director.
"These main difference today is that I do almost everything within Emagic Logic Platinum [using Digidesign 888 interfaces as I/O], and I can't tell you how much it improves things to have all my effects and relative levels stored in the computer. In video work, you frequently don't finish a job in one burst — you have to give it back to the client for review, and meanwhile you're working on another job the following day. With Logic, and my Roland JV2080s [Kent's main sound workhorses] I can instantly recall something I did four months ago, and it'll sound pretty much the same. Which is crucial where time is of the essence."
Brainerd is firm in his view that an ever‑expanding choice of sounds shouldn't disrupt the creative process. "To be honest," he says, "the best pieces of music I've ever produced have taken time and experimentation, but you just don't have that option if you've got three days to turn around a 10‑minute soundtrack. The best way to approach that kind of work quickly is to create what I call 'sound sets' — groups of instruments and sounds which always work in a particular genre, and combine well together. So you'll have your latin sound set, your rock set, your classical set and so on. Then, when you're mapping out the video, you can select the sections which call out for a particular genre — say, sections A, G and K — and work on those all at the same time." (see the 'Speed Of Sound' box above for more on this).
Once a rough version of the music is assembled, Brainerd then takes care to get the director's approval before continuing. "It's a bit like looking at your bank statement every once in a while — sometimes it's hard to do, but you have to do it. You have to avoid being precious about your work: there's no point calling the client in once you're done, when everything's sounding beautiful, because apart from anything else, sooner or later you're going to be told, 'Oh, by the way, that section's been cut — and we've added a whole new bit there.' Just get it sounding reasonable, then call the client."
There are tangible benefits to this approach, too. "The client is less likely to change things if you can establish some kind of rapport with them. Playing stuff down the phone can be useful too, but you should be aware of how different the track will sound at the other end — in particular, the bass will suffer hugely. I've had clients get worried when they've heard stuff down the phone, only to visit the studio and be delighted."
Once approval has been gained, and the film's structure and editing are finalised, Brainerd sets to work polishing the finished product. "Here it's a question of joining the discrete sections together and punctuating the action on‑screen, now that you know exactly where it will occur. And in corporate video, the composer and sound design roles often overlap — you'll write a four‑minute song, they'll shoot it, and you'll then discover there's a fight included in the middle of the scene, or a door shutting, so you have to incorporate that too. After that, I mix each section down, normally by itself."
Kent has one piece of specific advice when it comes to mixing audio for corporates: think small. "There's absolutely no point in monitoring on large speakers, unless you're writing for some huge presentation where the music will be played in a theatre. Certain very subtle and low‑frequency sounds are unlikely to come through at all when the finished product is being played on a domestic video player, and watched on an ordinary TV. And expansive reverbs, which rely on phase techniques, are often reduced when they're summed down to mono — so if you want to use them, you'll generally find you have to add much more than you'd expect.
"I always mix listening to the voiceover, which is on the U‑Matic, taking care that the music complements it. Sometimes that's a tricky task to accomplish — it depends very much on the calibre of the director. Younger directors tend to be afraid of silence during the initial process of making their film, because there's no music to cover the gaps. When they play it to their client, if there's a long section where nothing much seems to happen, the client will get really nervous and start looking at his watch. It takes a good director to leave nice gaps where the music can 'speak' — and to reassure the client, 'just wait 'til the music's on there!'"
With each individual section complete, Brainerd compiles them in Logic, adding any last‑minute touches over the top. This composite is then bounced down to one final mix. And that's it — except for the final dubbing process.
"Dubbing is done in a different studio — it involves balancing the level of the music with the voices and sync sounds which were recorded when the programme was shot." Brainerd smiles. "I don't always attend this stage, because having spent days and days working on some great mixes, it can be painful to hear your music squashed down to the level of a background sound which you can hardly make out."
Such is Brainerd's reputation in the corporate music field that he's frequently been asked to provide the storyline, and even script, for promotional films. This mode of working began with a 1993 video for Heathrow Airport, where a self‑penned rap track became an unlikely vehicle for encouraging employees to be more aware of crime. "That was the first purely song‑based video I'd done, I think," recalls Brainerd, "but it was so well received that since then I've done around 15 of them. What happens is that you're given a message in a brief beforehand, and you have to incorporate that in some kind of song — there's frequently a checklist of points which have to be included. Then the actors mime to the singers you've recorded, so the whole process is more like a pop video."
"It's a very effective and accessible means of communication, particularly if you inject some humour into the songs, which I try to. And it's a sort of calling card for me, because I would say that most corporate composers don't really have a strong pop background — they're not used to working with singers, writing lyrics and harmonies, and crafting pop songs. That's where my strengths lie." Idle talk? Hardly — see the 'Corporate Chartbusters' box elsewhere in this article.
So having made the transition himself, from pop to corporates and back, how would Kent suggest any budding corporate composer go about breaking into the industry?
"Well, there are probably about 20 production companies that make these things all year long. so I'd find out their names, and go and see them. Don't write them a letter — go to their offices and pester them. Tell them that you'd like the opportunity to score one of their videos for free — if they use it, then maybe they'll give you some money. You can do as many demos as you want, but it's going to be irrelevant to them unless they see it synchronised to picture. And that's really the only way to get in — apart from having a friend in the industry, of course. Nepotism is always helpful..."
Kent has also worked extensively in the broadcast TV field. Is this something he'd like to do more of? "Undoubtedly. But a lot of people would be surprised — corporates actually pay much better money than TV, because so many people are after the kudos and exposure of producing something their friends, colleagues and family can see. So you can end up doing an hour‑long TV show for the same amount of money as a 30‑second ad. Your mates will be impressed, but your bank manager may not be!
"Granted, there are some big UK TV shows. Generally speaking, though, the starting point of any conversation, if they're calling up to commission you, is this: 'First of all, I have to say that we don't have a lot of money on this project.'"
Now there's something all musicians can relate to.
When writing music for corporate videos, does the composer often come under pressure from a nervous client or production company to 'play it safe' musically? "Yes," agrees Brainerd, "but viewers have become so sophisticated today that what often works best is presenting a complete musical contrast from what you would expect. So you might have an action‑packed film featuring a new car, but score it with very slow classical music — or take serious, bureaucratic imagery and put a zany '60s score over the top.
"The off‑the‑wall approach is more common in ads than corporate videos — ads in Britain are certainly more groundbreaking than they are in any other country I've ever visited. Working on a commercial, you're generally dealing with a group of 24‑year‑olds in Soho who want you to do something trendy — something similar to the latest, coolest group — even if it has nothing to do with the product they're selling."
Kent has been responsible for soundtracking dozens of ads, for clients ranging from Renault and Ford, to Bacardi and Cadbury's (for Creme Eggs). Does the task differ hugely from work for corporate video? "There are two main differences — you get a much bigger budget and more time." Brainerd pauses, ponders and laughs. "Actually, you don't really get much more time. It's usually the same old situation — they give it to you on Friday night, and they need it finished by Monday morning."
If proof were needed that promotional music can be cool, Kent Brainerd's two hit singles with disco diva Jocelyn Brown are surely more than adequate evidence.
"The first time I worked with Jocelyn was in the early '90s," Kent explains. "I don't even remember how I knew her, but I called her up to work on an ad I was doing for Sol beer. The theme for the campaign was limes, and the ad company had dug out a piece of music called the 'Harry Lime Theme' from an Orson Welles film, The Third Man. It's a simple little zither melody, but they wanted me to turn it into a cool piece of pop music.
"With Jocelyn's vocals over the top, and an added rap, the new version [entitled 'She's Got Soul' — Ed] worked so well that A&M Records picked it up as a single — it reached about number nine in the dance charts."
A few years later, Kent was putting together an "inspirational" song for a video to be shown at the end of a Legal & General conference. "I was approaching it from a pop sensibility — I wanted a strong chorus, with lyrics that expressed what the company wanted to say. Fortunately, they were also quite ambiguous, so that later on, when people were listening to the song on the radio, they didn't have a clue that it had been written for an insurance company!
"I got Jocelyn Brown in again, as I wanted something that sounded like a pop hit for Legal & General," recalls Kent. "Once it was done, it made complete sense to revamp it and actually put it out for release." The result, 'I Believe' by Jamestown featuring Jocelyn Brown, went on to become a dance hit across Europe.
As his reliance on tried‑and‑tested 'sound sets' would suggest, Kent is not an instrument snob. "I refuse to do any editing of sounds unless it's absolutely necessary. More power to those who have the time to sit around and design patches — my view is, 'OK, you do the editing, then sell me your sounds, thank you very much'.
"My Roland JV2080s are loaded with different kinds of Sound Expansion cards, and I find them invaluable. For percussive sounds, so the 2080s don't get overwhelmed with doing too much, I use my S3000s: all they have on them is drums, program after program of drums."
Perhaps the most surprising part of Kent's studio armoury is one special sampling device — taking pride of place in all its '80s‑style glory.
"Ah, the Fairlight Series III," smiles Kent. "It's getting old now, it's a bit of a dinosaur — but it still sounds great to me. I've got a huge library on it — loads of stereo ambient things that I spent time creating years ago — but it's difficult to transfer those sounds elsewhere, because they're in an obscure format. So it just sits there and receives: there are no sequencing functions, or anything like that. It's just a dedicated sampler. And I'd say that on every single composition that I do, I use something from the Fairlight.
"Every time you change systems, or change computers, you have to spend an age learning how to use them: there's so much to be said for sticking with an old favourite and knowing it inside out. Because speed allows you to realise your imaginative ideas instantly. If you can't do that, you lose track — you end up thinking, 'why was I doing that?' And then you disappear up your own ass...
"Working quickly is good: that's one of the hardest things to learn in the music business. It's so easy to slip into the old trap: 'hey, that sounds great; let's improve it!'. If something's working, roll with it and move on to the next thing."
- Royal Bank of Scotland.
- General Motors.
- Benson & Hedges.
- Abbey National.
- Coopers & Lybrand.
- Stansted Airport.
- Nationwide Building Society.
- Bacardi Spice.
- Cussons Pearl.
- French Bicentennial Parade.
- Official theme music for Euro 2000.
- Theme music for Channel 4 Cricket.
- Breath of Life for Channel 4 — BAFTA nominated for Best Soundtrack.