You cannot escape advertising.
An entire industry has arisen to try and help us do just that—ad blockers, DVRs, ad-free premium subscription services—but sooner or later, the commercials catch up with us.
So ubiquitous are sponsored messages that they often seem to fade into the background noise of our lives. Indiscernible static, melted into an aural puddle of barking dogs, honking horns, and coffeeshop banter.
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But every ad has the same goal: break through the noise and make you feel something.
Happiness. Curiosity. Nostalgia. Fear.
Beneath the words and images of TV commercials and YouTube pre-roll is an emotional glue that drives those feelings home and—when done right—plays our hearts like a violin.
That glue is music.
Don’t let the business facade fool you—creating the perfect music for an advertisement is an art form. Teams of producers, composers, and musicians work incredibly hard to create an authentic, human sound that evokes just the right emotion for the commercial message. Pulling that off effectively takes a dedication to craft and emotional attunement that not every musician is cut out for.
That’s the challenge that Dennis Culp has taken on for the last 16 years as an Executive Producer for Singing Serpent, a music and sound design studio.
“It’s an emotional thing to generate art on command,” says Culp. “And it’s really draining for a lot of people. There’s a cost to it, it’s not as flippant as I think people view it.”
Culp and his team of musicians and sound designers put their talents to work creating music for ad agencies along Madison Avenue and beyond with an uncompromising dedication to auditory craftsmanship. Singing Serpent has wracked up an impressive sizzle reel of work featuring big name brands, from Target, to Nike, to Dunkin’ Donuts.
But you don’t build that kind of resumė by doing things the quick and easy way; you build it by taking creative risks and resisting the urge to do what’s expected.
“It may result in rejection or failure, but at least you’re making something that has a point of view,” says Culp. “I’d rather do that than spend a lifetime churning out vanilla.”
Inside the Studio
To understand what makes Singing Serpent special, it helps to know how commercial music is made.
Ad agencies come to Singing Serpent in need of an underscore (that is, music that plays underneath the dialogue) for work they’re producing for a brand. Typically, they present some visuals—a storyboard or rough cut of the spot—along with some notes on the type of atmosphere and emotion they want to set. They’ll also include a few timing notes: where the emotional climax is, when the mood shifts, things of this nature.
“I get excited when it’s ironic, like a comedic spot,” says Culp. “I know that’s something that we ‘get’ and will have a lot of fun with.”
The requests from agencies are as varied as the products they’re selling. Culp’s team has to be ready to deliver a huge variety of musical styles at a moment’s notice. While touring bands often find success producing work within a specific genre, it’d be hard to succeed as a commercial music studio if all you can provide are Rhythm and Blues tracks.
“We’re able to, on very short notice , make anything from metal, to orchestral, to ambient, to synth-pop,” Culp states wryly. “It’s kind of fun in that regard.”
With instructions in hand, the composers at Singing Serpent go to work, drawing from a well of licks, riffs, and moods they’ve filed away during moments of creative inspiration.
“It starts taking shape based on what the perimeters (of the brief) are, so it’s a process of elimination.”
Composers use harmonies, tempo, and instrumentation to reflect the mood outlined by the brief. A somber atmosphere might call for minor chords and a slow, plodding tempo. A humorous spot may need something quick and light.
Once the music is written, tracks can be recorded and the idea comes to life.
Lee Jeans ‘The Lee Woman’ from Singing Serpent on Vimeo.
There’s a temptation at this point to take the easy route. Advances in technology allow musicians to program digital instruments to create any timbre imaginable, writing the notes like code to be perfectly aligned, in tune, and free of any mistake—all in a matter of hours with one single musician and a laptop.
When you’re under the kind of tight deadlines that Singing Serpent faces, that’s a very appealing solution. Yet, this sacrifices the human touch that makes their work special—something that can’t be found anywhere else and isn’t so much acknowledged but felt.
“We have this ability to perfectly tune vocals, perfectly retouch drums, we can make everything sound perfect if we want,” says Culp. “Now that that’s been done, I feel like there’s been a huge backlash against that, where people want things to sound real.”
Their SoHo-based studio, built in 1973, has all the trappings of a classic recording studio, but with a modern twist. Old recording tools (still in working order) sit adjacent to digital equipment, guitars, horns, and other (real) instruments abound, and the whole space has a warm, home-like feel to the decor. Whenever possible, they prefer to hire real musicians, playing real instruments, to record a piece of music. Doing so adds a human element to the sound that can’t be replicated by perfectly programed software instruments.
“There’s a real sterile kind of thing that can happen when you do that,” Culp cautions. “There’s no room noise, there’s no breath, there’s no sound of fingers hitting the keys.”
It’s what Culp calls “Old School Studio Magic.” These tiny little imperfections that let us know that there’s a person behind that sound. And when you’re tasked with eliciting an emotion in a 30-second spot, that subtle difference matters.
Himself a seasoned performer, Culp spent several decades writing for and touring with various bands, most notably with the band Five Iron Frenzy. That band took a decade hiatus starting in 2003 before launching a Kickstarter campaign to return to the scene with a brand new album—a campaign that raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars from their fiercely loyal fanbase.
He joined Singing Serpent back in 2000 while still touring with the band. It was a departure from the type of musical career he had thus far experienced, but one that allowed him to take more artistic risks with the band.
“I decided that art would be pure art and commerce would be pure commerce, and that’s okay,” he explains. “Whereas before that, I had toured with a band for 8 years and there’s always this notion of trying to write music that you think people want to hear so you can sell records, so you’re kind of in the middle. This solves that problem.”
Still, writing commercial music provided a special kind of satisfaction—hearing your work play on an ad unexpectedly while you’re watching TV.
“I’ll never forget the first time, it was amazing,” he recalls. “It’s sort of a vernacular that’s really special, it was really exciting.”
There’s a tendency to categorize movies and television shows in one bucket as artistic and commercials into another bucket as boorish.
We see a famous actor doing commercial work and think “Is that what they’ve been reduced to?”
But doing so overlooks the craftsmanship that goes into making a successful advertisement. When a big brand spends big bucks to make a commercial, every aspect is meticulously planned and executed. Ads have but a fleeting moment to make a viewer feel something, and to pull that off, you must be emotionally invested in your craft.
For the crew at Singing Serpent, that means being comfortable taking creative risks—even if it means failing a few times.
“Given the fact that you’re trying to appeal to a lot of different people… there’s a tendency to go to the lowest common denominator, and that usually turns out vanilla,” says Culp.
Nike ‘The Evolution is Here’ :30 from Singing Serpent on Vimeo.
Counterintuitively, it’s this comfort with not being for everyone that has allowed them to amass such an impressive body of work. A strong ethos and dedication to mission have helped them stand out from the crowd and attract more work.
Yet this artistic dedication is not without cost. Creating music the Singing Serpent way is highly emotional—and personal. Composers and performers dig through personal experiences—love and loss—as they write and play music to reach the right emotional space. The result is an expression of their soul, laid bare for all to see. But then, they must give that up and hand it over to the message of the project.
That can be tough to handle as an artist.
“If you have a musical idea that you think is really special, giving that idea over to a toilet paper commercial might be difficult, and I can relate to that.”
Culp takes this a step further, using an example of a pharmaceutical ad. These ads deal with a wide range of powerful emotions: fear, worry, loss, and hope. To reach that headspace, the composer must dig deep into their emotional experience as they write—perhaps recalling the memory of a grandparent that passed away.
The next thing she knows, her music is being played behind horrendous side effect warnings for a product she may well have moral reservations about.
Such is the struggle for commercial musicians.
Dunkin Donuts ‘Refresh Girl’ from Singing Serpent on Vimeo.
Creating a great musical accompaniment to advertising requires the musician to take a backseat to the message. The music must support the emotional context of the ad, but without distracting from it. It must be felt, not noticed.
“A lot of spots, I feel like, the music is fighting for attention. Or it makes such a provocative statement that it’s almost in the way,” Culp says. “Although the music might be amazing, it totally distracts from the original intention of the spot.”
Tension and Release
Like many creative careers, the work of a musician is often misunderstood. Outsiders often view the work as magic—an innate skill that practitioners are simply born with and can spit out at the drop of a hat.
“I think in general musicians are just viewed as clowns,” says Culp. “All of the portrayals of musicians in the advertising world, they must think we have it made, like we don’t have to work and we make all this money, but in truth it’s a lifetime of study to get to a place where you can understand music and how to make it.”
Writing commercial music is both an art and a science, one that requires a deep knowledge of musical conventions and a keen ability to communicate emotions without words. They’ve got 30-seconds—just a few bars of chords and melody—to make you feel something. There’s no shortcut to making an emotional connection.
That craft and dedication often goes unnoticed by the average consumer. Commercial messages are woven into the fabric of the daily grind. Ads play on, blending into the soundtrack of life, subtly accompanied by a track that a nameless musician poured their heart and soul into. Tension and release, major chord and minor chord.
Felt, but not noticed.