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Tena Clark: Music Branding

DMI Music By Tom Flint
Published August 2007

Businesses are using music in ever more sophisticated ways to promote their products and reinforce their identities. Tena Clark’s DMI Music leads the field in finding original ways to integrate music into marketing campaigns.

Tena Clark of DMI Music.Tena Clark of DMI Music.

“I think now is the most exciting time there has ever been in the music industry,” Tena Clark proclaims enthusiastically, sounding as if she’s never doubted it in her life. “You can try anything. Yes, content is king, but let’s not forget that also consumer is king, and they are going to decide where they are going to get it, how they are going to get it, and you’ve just got to be there to give it to them.”

Tena, for one, is right there, and her company DMI Music has demonstrated exactly how it is possible to expand rapidly in an industry which appears to be shrinking. Her LA-based business, which now employs over 70 staff and has five different divisions, was set up in 1996, just as the record industry first began to recognise that changes were afoot.

“The industry started paying a little bit of attention to the Internet, but not seriously,” remembers Tena. “Half of my friends were going ‘Oh, the music industry’s over with, run for the hills,’ and the other half were in total denial, saying ‘This is not going to affect us at all.’ I was kind of in the middle. I’ve always been an entrepreneur, so I thought ‘You know what? I don’t think the record industry is over right now, but I don’t think it’s not going to affect us.’ I had this germ of an idea to connect consumers to brands through music, and decided to start DMI.”

‘Music branding’ is the general term the company use to describe their activities, but within that are a number of sub–divisions, one of which — a music library called 5 Alarm Music — is the largest in the US and even incorporates its own record label. Much of DMI’s work is for commercial corporations such as McDonalds, AARP, Build-A-Bear and United Airlines, providing bespoke radio stations for use in shops, and on aircraft and web sites. Some clients hire DMI to sort out music for all their marketing activities, and to deal with that there is a digital media team who create disc marketing CD-ROMs, web sites, games and other products that involve music in some way. Finally, backing up all the divisions is a huge Pro Tools–based recording studio complex.

As one would expect, DMI’s varied activities provide a wide range of opportunities for artists, writers and producers to get their work heard, almost all of which differ from the traditional media channels, such as CD sales, terrestrial radio broadcasting and TV music programs.

The Real Deal

Tena probably wouldn’t have done so well if she didn’t know how to speak the language understood by corporate PR and marketing executives, but it is a skill she has acquired during a long and impressive career in the music industry, where she overcame widespread prejudice against women writers and producers (see the ‘Behind The Glass Ceiling’ box) to write hits for Dionne Warwick and produce the soundtracks for a number of Hollywood movies.

Not one to put all her eggs in one basket, while establishing her pop writing and production career, Tena was also creating a sideline working on various advertising contracts. She set up a music production house for Leo Burnett Worldwide, an advertising agency well known for creating strong brand identities. At the same time, she also found work with McDonalds, writing for their ‘Have you had your break today?’ campaign. “I did a lot of McDonalds work, as well as many other brands, and that gave me just enough knowledge to be dangerous,” she laughs.

Significantly, Tena saw that ad work offered liberating ways to promote and sell music beyond the stultifying and prejudiced record industry system. “It gave me the germ of the idea for this company. I was tired of worrying about Billboard, R&R [Radio & Records] and radio. I wanted to reach consumers wherever they were and sell CDs wherever they were not being sold, so if that was through United Airlines or Victoria’s Secret — any place that did not sell music — that was where I wanted to be. Everything grew organically from that idea.” The live area at DMI Music’s Firehouse Studios.The live area at DMI Music’s Firehouse Studios.

First Flight

DMI’s first account was with United Airlines, who initially asked the company to programme all the music that passengers would be able to hear on headphones when taking a flight. The last thing Tena wanted her new company to be doing was what she describes as ‘muzak’ so she made them a proposition. “I knew that there were millions of people flying around in these cans that we could market to. I said to them that if we could create something valuable and exciting it would be something we’d want to do. Rather than just passing content from one airline to another we created something that was exclusive to United so, for example, if you heard Tom Petty or Martina McBride on the station, it was because we’d done an exclusive interview with them. Also, to do the programming we hired experts in every field of music, just like a real radio station. If it was a country channel we had the top drive-time DJ out of Nashville presenting the program. We raised the bar, so even though United were initially getting no revenue from it, the labels started lining up to have their artists played.”

To solve the revenue problem, labels were given the opportunity to buy special feature slots to promote an artist when they were releasing a new album or single. The system could easily have compromised the programming work of the specialist DJs, so room was set aside for non-sponsored tracks. “Not everything was sponsored,” explains Tena. “OK, if Christina’s got a new record coming out and the label wants to sponsor it we’ll put it on there, but only as long as it goes along with the strategy and the demographic of that brand, and there’s still as much music on there that is not sponsored as there is sponsored.” The control room at Firehouse Studios, complete with monster Pro Tools-based mixing setup.The control room at Firehouse Studios, complete with monster Pro Tools-based mixing setup.

Strategy Games

The ‘strategy’ and ‘demographic’ of which Tena speaks are the two fundamental concepts on which DMI’s branding work is based. Firstly, in order to pick music to go with a particular brand, DMI have to work out what sort of music the core customers will want to hear. Those customers can be defined as belonging to groups of a particular age, ethnicity or social class, and that forms the brand’s ‘demographic’. Tena elaborates: “Their demographic tells us if their customers are, say, 14 to 18 year olds, if they are only in a certain region, if they tend to be more African American or Hispanic and so on. We take that, along with the brand’s objectives — where they are going and where they want to be — and then we create the music, or style of music, that is going to be the most relevant and consistent with that particular demographic.”

With the demographic and brand objectives in mind, DMI then arrive at a strategy. “If you look at every brand, there are these random choices of promotion music: a flash here, a flash there, and they’re spending gazillions of dollars, but really there is no brand equity being built. Maybe there’s a sexy moment for a minute, but no strategy or thought put into it other than ‘Oh, this is really cool.’ I think a lot of time it’s the personal preference of someone who works for the brand or the agency, rather than coming from a strategy standpoint.

“All these brands spend so much time on their logo, colours and feel, but sound has always been the bastard child. Even in film, when they’re spending 100 million dollars, they decide they need a great score with two weeks to go and no money left. It’s the same thing with ads too. So I feel that brands need to spend as much attention to the audio corridor as the visual one.

“The first retail brand we went into was one of the biggest in the US called AARP. It’s for the baby boomer market, which comprises people 50 and over, and has 38 million members. Knowing that the boomers are coming down the pike really fast — there’s going to be 50 million by 2010 — it seemed an incredible place to connect music with consumers, especially as I’m a boomer growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, and I know just how important music is to everybody my age. Every label and their mother was going to AARP and saying ‘Let’s do a deal,’ so we went in and said, ‘Look, you’ve got all these labels and artists coming to you, but each one has an agenda. We are totally music agnostic; we don’t care where it comes from as long as it is the right music.’ They hired us to do their branding strategy, and we now manage all music programmes coming in and out of that brand and make sure they stay on strategy.”

That strategy is not just to source original tracks and artists from the ‘golden age’: there is also a place for new music, too. “Research doesn’t show that the boomers are not interested in new music,” insists Tena. “They are just as much as ever, they just don’t know where to go to get it, so we’re into discovery too. For example, we might be saying ‘If you liked this, then you might also like John Legend,’ so the boomer, to whom music is so important, can keep relevant.” The Firehouse machine room.The Firehouse machine room.


One particular area of music branding close to Tena’s heart is the creation of music logos (or what DMI have labelled ‘sound DNA’), which are short musical themes designed to be used over and over again so that they eventually come to represent the product or company. Tina’s first big success in this field was for United Airlines, for whom she chose a few notes from George Gershwin’s composition ‘Rhapsody In Blue’. The theme was played so often and consistently that it eventually became synonymous with United Airlines, in the same way that the first few seconds of Bach’s ‘Air On A G String’ was appropriated by the old Hamlet cigar ads. “With United Airlines, if you hear ‘bah dah dah dah’, you don’t think Gershwin or ‘Rhapsody’, you think United Airlines,” argues Tena. “There is not enough money in the world to buy that kind of branding, so that’s what we’re creating for major Fortune 500 companies.”

There are numerous other examples of famous tunes being cheekily lifted for use in connection with a particular product, but Tena’s preference is for new compositions. “Most of the time I prefer fresh because something that is already known is coming with a perception or with baggage, good or bad. In rare cases a well–known song can work, but I lean towards having something that’s totally brand new.

“If I create a new six-note logo for a particular brand they sometimes start asking ‘Is this us?’ and talk about changing the note at the end, or whatever, but I always say that if somebody walked into United Airlines 20 years ago and said ‘OK, this is your audio logo,’ and sang ‘bah dah dah dah’ from ‘Rhapsody’, they would have gone ‘Have you lost your mind? What does that mean?’ But it works because of familiarity and consistency. For example, you can hear a song on the radio and, after it’s been drilled in your head 50 times a day, you find yourself singing it.

“We put a lot of research, marketing and music expertise into it, but at the end of the day, it’s only going to be as successful as the company is consistent in using it. Some brands want to use it in the same genre over and over again, but others, like McDonalds or United, cut it a million different ways. When I did McDonalds’ ‘Have you had your break today?’ and United’s ‘Rhapsody’, I cut the tunes in 50 different versions.

“In fact McDonald’s have recently done that with ‘I’m Lovin’ It’ and are on the road to being pretty successful with it. That was actually created as an ad piece, not an audio logo, but they decided to stick with it, and that’s when it becomes really important.

“I’m in the middle of doing the logos for five or six brands at the moment. To do that we dive in to find out what that brand is from the marketing and research side, and then we go work on it in the studio until we feel like we’ve nailed their sound DNA.”

Libraries & Labels

Rescue Recordings: a very unusual record label.Rescue Recordings: a very unusual record label.One of the by-products of DMI’s various music branding activities, collected over several years, is a pretty sizeable private sound library, which the company was naturally keen to exploit. To take advantage of the material, 5 Alarm Music was created. Unusually, 5 Alarm Music includes its own record label, Rescue Records, representing a wide variety of categorised music styles, rather than any specific genre, and over 150 independent artists. What’s most interesting about Rescue Records, however, is the way in which they promote and sell their artists’ music. “We don’t service them in the normal way a record label would,” explains Tena. “In other words, we’re not breaking them on radio. What we do is service them in film, television and ads. Let’s say, for example, AT&T contact the library and say they want a particular kind of music, a new and upcoming artist or whatever, then we would pitch to them whatever music was appropriate from the artists that we have.”

As DMI’s methods of using music are so varied, it’s unsurprising to learn that there are just as many different licensing and royalty deals available. “There are 50 different ways it can be structured but it really depends on the artist or piece of music,” says Tena. “With brands it’s often a complete buyout or as an advance with royalties paid. Sometimes the writer keeps the copyright and the brand keeps the publishing, but it varies.”

For budding artists, writers and producers interested in getting involved, Tena is nothing if not encouraging, ready to hear from anyone with musical ideas to offer. “We work with over 100 composers and producers, and we are always looking for fresh and new stuff, new artists, new producers and new writers,” she says.

The New Dawn

To those with idealised notions of how creativity should be independent from commercial influences, DMI Music’s brand-led approach may not seem very palatable. Nevertheless, it could be argued that even the most radical contemporary music has never been more than a label-directed commercial enterprise. For someone like Tena, who has had to negotiate her way through various barriers over the years, using music in partnership with commercial organisations actually opens doors, and in fact offers relative freedom for the artist. “As long as I can remember, in the music industry it was always ‘This is the way it works, this is the way you go to radio, this is the way a record has to be released,’ and so on. When you asked ‘Why?’ the reply was ‘That’s just the way it is.’ It was tightly managed, whether for good or for bad, but now there are so many opportunities. With all the different deals that we do with brands, whether it is live events, on-line, creating new music, there is not an artist we don’t touch somewhere in some way. If you can dream it then you can pretty much do it. Now I think artists are totally on board, managers are on board and labels are getting there. Everybody’s just trying to keep it real and live, and nobody’s shutting any doors any more.”

Private Label Radio

DMI’s Private Label Radio division was established for the purpose of creating customised stations. Having had success with United Airlines early on, Tena decided to take a look at retail environments to see if the quality of in-store music was just as low. It quickly became apparent that it was, and so the same principles used to improve United’s music were applied to in-store radio for the likes of Build-A-Bear Workshop and others. The success of in-store stations has now led DMI to look at transferring the service across to on-line shops. “We are getting more and more into creating on-line radio stations for brands,” says Tena. “The idea is all to do with consistency, so the experience people have in the bricks and mortar store is carried through to the one they get on-line. We have a lot of brands that go ‘Oh man, our customers love our music and want to know where else they can listen to it,’ so we make it so they can listen to it on-line.

“There needs to be consistency in that brand across all the platforms that exist, so that whether you are in that brand’s real-world shop, or visiting their web site, or whatever, you are going to get that same experience across the board. I think it has to be consistent because there are too many choices out there and customers need to recognise what they are going to get from a particular thing.”

Behind The Glass Ceiling

Growing up in a small rural town in Mississippi, Tena was never more than a car ride from New Orleans, where her mother worked as a writer during the big band era. By the age of 10 she’d decided that music was to be her career too, and began drum lessons. “I went to college with a music scholarship and then on the road as a drummer with various bands. I was playing six nights a week, six hours a night. I’d studied drums under Hal Blaine and was always told I was really good for a girl, but I wanted to be really good, not just for a girl, and I knew there was a glass ceiling, so when I was about 28 I decided to hang up my drums and focus on writing.”

Eventually, Hal David convinced her to relocate to LA, where she immediately landed a job producing the title song for the hit film Police Academy. “For Police Academy II I wrote most of the music and produced it, and then had a lot of success in TV and film. The money was incredible and I became well-known, but I’d gone to LA to get into the record business, so I tried focusing on songwriting.”

Although Tena now had an impressive production and writing CV, she found that moving from film and TV into the music industry was fraught with difficulties. “The funny thing is that in TV and film I produced everything I did and nobody ever questioned it,” she observes. “It wasn’t about gender. In the record industry, on the other hand, every time I’d go for an interview they’d say ‘That’s great, who did the demo?’ I’d go ‘I did’, and it was like ‘Oh you’re a girl, well, we’ve got this great guy who’s going to produce it’, even though they loved the demo! So I ran into another glass ceiling: girls don’t produce, right? It’s better now but how many female producers can you think of? So I kept playing that game for a while.”

Eventually Tena’s perseverance paid off, when she scored a hit with A&M artist Vesta Williams, who stubbornly insisted Tena produced her 1988 album Vesta4U. “The label didn’t want me, so Vesta said ‘I’m going to have laryngitis until you let Tena produce.’ After a few months the A&R guys said ‘OK, you girls go play, cut your little song and after that we’ll get back to the real recording.’ I’m paraphrasing but that’s the way he talked to her, so our necks were really on the line. Luckily I had my first production number one with ‘Congratulations’. It was a big moment because, all of a sudden, guess what? I was a producer, even though I always had been. That’s when other artists started asking me to produce and write. So I did that whole thing; had production companies with Motown, Miles Copeland started managing me, he and I had a label with EMI and I was always signed to publishing companies.”