Crash Course: Writing Songs for Commercial Use


When it comes to making music that not only fulfills an artist’s creative mission while dually serving as a licensable asset, there’s a lot to navigate. Speaking on this topic at the annual Hawai’i Songwriting Festival, Marmoset’s founder Ryan Wines, Dear Nora’s Katy Davidson and music composer Jeff Brodsky challenged a crowded room, asking songwriters what they think it takes to write a song for a Super Bowl commercial.

Respecting the art of creating original music, let’s start with this disclaimer: it’s not possible to force one’s music into a Super Bowl ad campaign — or any type of commercial for that matter. This isn’t clickbait, there isn’t an quick one trick solution to jumpstarting one’s success in sync licensing. But look close enough and there’s a pattern for music successfully landing big creative campaigns.

An Energy Kick

Think back to some Super Bowl ad campaigns from past years, the ratio of upbeat to music of lesser enthusiasm couldn’t be greater. There’s a reason for this — according to a study by Microsoft, the average person has an attention span of roughly eight seconds; so if Nike wants viewers to stay invested their creative campaign in just doing it, it’ll take more than just compelling visuals.

Considering the average commercial is around the 15 second mark, it doesn’t hurt to feature music that delivers momentum, the fuel to help move along the picture. Look to these songs as examples for a pumped up pulse:

“In most cases, our clients want a song that features some kind of ascending arch, meaning you come out of the gate with more energy but there’s still room to grow and layer instruments,” says Katy. “Then typically by the end of the ad, video or whatever video project it is, you’ll be at peak energy level.”

X Factor

Not exclusive to the music industry, the golden grail is that special something setting apart one’s work from the rest. It’s the head-turning (or ear-opening) quality that makes a song leap out, grabs and engages

“By definition, it’s hard to define,” says Katy. “But I think it has something to do with letting your voice come through the recording. To not just sort of write the lowest common denominator type of song that technically checks all the boxes, but also has its own unique personality.”

It’s a common mistake music supervisors and music producers see musicians fall into at times, writing music with a sellable intentionality — rather than making music that speaks at a deeper level. The mistake in this is most creative agencies want music that amplifies their message in a unique and genuine way. Meaning, they’re going to pass on something that feels a dime a dozen.

Stuck on what to make of this defining set-you-apart characteristic? Look to strengthening a song’s emotional tone. It’s a tried and true method for creating content that feels relatable and human. To answer if the song meets this criteria, it’s a matter of stepping back to ask if the music is supporting or driving the video’s emotive purpose.

Exemplifying this sentiment, look to Bumble’s Serena William’s campaign featuring “Soul Survivor” by Rita Ora.

To be Technical

There’s no beating around the bush, there are some distinguishing technical factors between a song made for leisurely Spotify listening and one that lands a spot during Super Bowl airtime. Elements like a slow dragging tempo can eliminate a song from being used for commercial use.

“Somewhere like 95% of the time, if a song is mid tempo or slower, it’s almost always not going to work,” says Katy. “There’s always exceptions to every rule but most of the time, the song needs to be pretty upbeat. The dynamics are crucial. If it’s just wall to wall sound the entire time, it doesn’t leave anything fun for the video editors to edit to, the song is probably not going to do so well.”

This leads into how a song delivers rhythmically and melodically. Creating a song featuring thoughtful percussions can also increase a song’s licensability.

“As long as it's not too cluttered, anything rhythmic — even if it's a melodic instrument played in a rhythmic way — tends to help music license,” says Katy. “A guitar for example, but like with really staccato notes being played, so it sounds like a rhythm instrument.”

Lastly, a golden rule to follow when creating licensable music: be sure to present the music licensing platform with an instrumental version of your work.

“Especially when it comes to broadcast TV, there’s a lot of union rules,” says Katy. “A lot of agencies need to follow those rules and so vocals can sometimes make the spot more expensive. Sometimes they can pay for it, great, but if can’t, they’re often going to ask for they instrumental version.”

Posted on July 5, 2019 and filed under Music, Marmoset, Spotlight: Marmoset, Music Licensing.