by David Safran
It’s Thursday afternoon in late August. I am recording a dismal power-metal jingle for CBS Sports and the NFL. Football: a sport that should have died 65 million years ago. To record this jingle, I am using my iPhone’s GarageBand app. This isn’t composing; this is clicking. I am assembling a loop of sludgy, charmless instrumental samples. “Dark and Heavy Riff 06.” “Indie Rock Riffing 02.” “Double Punk Drumset 01.” I am 30 years old, and a songwriter. A singer-songwriter. Multi-hyphenate. But since my music is virtually unknown outside a narrow circle of Chicagoans and South American women, and since there’s about five thousand dollars left in the entire music industry, I’m also a composer for advertising.
I freelance for three agencies. Every week or so, I get an email from a music supervisor. It will start with: “we have been tapped to find the just-right song” or “we have a new spot that needs some rad music.” It will end with: “we need this in two days.” There will be a brief description of the commercial or, if I’m lucky, an attached script. Sometimes the client or advertising agency will be named. Occasionally the client will be ambiguous. A “big box retailer.” An “automotive company.” In the early stages of an advertising campaign, either the brand, the ad agency, or, more often, the director will become eye-wateringly fixated on a pop song. This song will be used temporarily while filming. However, usually for budgetary or ego reasons, it will be unlicensable. So, a knockoff version is requested. That’s when a music agency is contacted, and I receive an email. I’m often told the music should be “almost exact to the references.” At best, this is a creative process lacking creativity. At worst, it’s plagiarism.
I’m not always asked to steal melodies from contemporary songs. Sometimes a music supervisor will indicate light creative freedom. It’s like finding a few inches of space in a feedlot. In these rare moments, the music brief will say: “looking for songs that are heartwarming in a folk/pop way” or “looking for something upbeat and happy.” Empty descriptions. Once these original, or orginalish, songs are submitted, the client will request changes. “Good start, but we dig this new Black Keys song. Can we get something almost similar to that?” For Redd’s Apple Ale, I submitted several songs from my own record, Delicate Parts. My lyrics were “too challenging.” The client also wanted the word “Red” in the lyrical hook. So my words and voice–everything essential and human and exclamatory–were removed from the mix. Throwaway lines jammed with “red” were dashed off. The songs were edited into 30-second clips and a female singer recorded over them. My music became part karaoke, part evisceration. And I permitted it.
How did this happen? How did I become a jingle man?
In 2012, I self-released a single called “Woman Astride, Facing Away.” It was almost a sleeper-hit. Almost. But not quite. Instead, it was a breakthrough song for maybe two or three weeks. I occasionally still hear it. Recently, on the Brown Line, a teenaged girl near me was listening — loudly–to “Woman Astride.” I got her attention. She unstuffed an earbud. I mentioned I wrote the song she was playing. She corrected me: “Huh? This is Company of Thieves.”
But those few weeks of breakthroughing allowed me some maneuverability in the music business. To find some life in a plague pit. As a result, Delicate Parts was shopped around for a record label. I stopped counting after 35 labels rejected it. The stated cause for rejection had nothing to do with my music. I was told repeatedly: “We don’t sign any singer-songwriters, just full bands.” Rejection of a very high order. Ready for any type of rediscovery, I moved quickly through New York and Los Angeles to dialogue with licensing companies. Overall, I met with 17 of them. Every licensing company discussed the “commercial appeal” of my album, and then rejected it.
No record label. No licensing company. Yet I had a small, passionate following–an “expanding audience” to use biz-speak–and tickets were selling to my Chicago shows. I began meeting with several booking agencies. All turned me down. One agency, Windish, vetted and rejected me twice. Windishly fitting. Finally, I signed with a “boutique” booking agency headquartered in Chicago. My agent enthusiastically said it would take four months to schedule a national tour. He suggested I hold off getting my wisdom teeth removed lest recovery time took longer than expected. Seven weeks later, my agent dropped me. “I have to release you from the roster. I thought it would be easier to book you.” That was all he said.
Determined to be heard, I began asking various music friends, the ones more accomplished in their careers, about international agencies. I was introduced to PapaMusic, located in Buenos Aires. Papa’s co-owner heard my album and was eager to have a phone chat. I assumed we would discuss licensing my songs. But what he really wanted was my voice. One of the agency’s projects was an Adidas campaign. The commercial’s temp track was Jarvis Cocker’s “Black Magic”–a song that sampled from “Crimson and Clover.” Adidas couldn’t get “Black Magic.” PapaMusic was hired to write a similar song. To reiterate: Jarvis Cocker very deliberately borrowed another tune’s chords for his own composition. Now advertisers wanted a blatant imitation of a blatant imitation–to sell shoes. The lyrics were in English, but English as written by a team of advertising people from Argentina. It was lyrical dandelion fluff.
International viral ads, I was told, favor American accents. For this campaign, they specifically wanted a Jarvis Cockerish voice but a bit deeper and with more Yank. PapaMusic thought mine was right for it and asked if I would sing. A job I both reluctantly and gladly accepted. I recorded my vocal part in Chicago. I was thanked and paid. Then nothing happened until the Adidas ad appeared on YouTube and linked on my official Facebook page. The ad, and the story behind it, began to draw attention. Within a few days, I started getting requests for interviews. It took me singing brand-focused filler lyrics–lyrics written by Argentines half-fluent in English–to be considered a Serious American Songwriter.
When you have been pretty well ignored for a decade; when you have been repeatedly called “difficult” and your music described, or dismissed, as “unclassifiable”; when your two greatest commercial achievements are a novelty duet with a shrewd pop vocalist and a voiceover in a shoe commercial on YouTube, getting a burst of publicity is exhilarating for a second. And then, abruptly, you feel old and regional–like, say, a cast iron pissoir or Mars’ Cheese Castle.
Still, I did interviews with morning news programs and “luxury lifestyle” magazines. I re-submitted my album, along with the Adidas link, to a few labels that had rejected me. This time, there was more interest. The president of a top music publishing company made an offer to rep my catalog and then, upon learning I didn’t write the Adidas song, rescinded that offer a day later. I did my professional duty as a 21st-century artist and played a showcase for an advertising agency. I sang my tunes about aging and failure and personal relationships while pretending I wasn’t standing against a giant Corona backdrop. It was late afternoon in an office building. The audience was the agency’s creative department. Good clothes and low empathy all around. This wasn’t a show; this was a daytime company meeting.
Since brands and advertising are bankrolling the music industry, bands will agree to a showcase hoping to slap our hot tracks on a commercial. Any one will do. The agencies, in return, get a photo-op, a free show, and, I was told, “cranium stimulation.” My showcase must not have stimulated skulls because, after the performance, the agency’s executive producer suggested we get drinks later in the week. He never showed up.
The buzz diminished after a few months. I was not lifted out of obscurity. But, from the Adidas spot, I started freelancing for a music agency. Again, I wasn’t licensing my own songs, just composing ad music. In April, a year after Adidas, PapaMusic unexpectedly emailed me. They were working on a Coca-Cola commercial — a campaign targeted all over the UK–and asked me to sing their lyrics.
Soon after my April voiceover, I let slip I had just recorded Coke vocals. I told this to a few record labels and that cranium-stimulating ad agency. Everyone agreed the Coke spot would boost my profile. More disturbingly, each label said they would sign me. But first they wanted to view the TV ad. The advertising agency wanted to schedule a meeting, a real one, to discuss which projects could use my songs. But they too wanted to see the commercial.
For six weeks, my entire music career was riding on a soft drink. The value and uniqueness and durability of my music: all secondary to whether I sang gibberish in a Coke commercial.
I assumed PapaMusic’s deal was secure. It wasn’t. They were just pitching. In mid-May, Papa informed me that Coke went with another song. And, accordingly, the labels rejected my album again. The ad agency never scheduled that meeting. Since losing Coke, I remain a public songwriter nowhere to be seen, freelancing for additional music agencies — sloppily clicking away at weekly jingles on my iPhone.
When I was 18 years old and beginning to take songwriting seriously, I went looking for a mentor. I discovered a musician who lived nearby and had a lengthy career writing songs for celebrities and jingles for advertising. I’ll call him “T.” He’s still local: I just spotted him eating alone in Evanston, haute-dining on subs and cigs at Jimmy John’s. (Or, if you are a local celebrity, “The James John’s.”) T was about my father’s age. He seemed approachable and, in the press, encouraging of younger players. I found T’s number and phoned him in the middle of the day. He answered. I gave my name. I asked if he would listen to my demo. Without any small-talk or screening, he invited me over. I got in the car and drove down Sheridan Road through the North Shore.
T’s house was utterly empty, except for a basement recording studio and a shrine to Bob Dylan. He handed me an acoustic guitar and insisted I play something. I strummed. I sang. I did my best to perform. T seemed bored and blank. I asked what he thought of my music. He said I should play more guitar riffs. He then asked if I wanted to hear one of his songs. Before I could answer, he put a CD into his sprawling recording equipment and started blasting a fully produced track. He closed his eyes. He swayed proudly to his music. “I wrote this one for Mavis!” he shouted over the song. When it was over, he put a second CD into the machine and cranked another T original. He resumed his davening. Midway through, he shouted: “I wrote this one for Annie Lennox!” This went on for 45 minutes.
As I left his grand, empty home, without a mentor but with a new neurosis about my guitar playing, I looked at this lonely, aging, jingley songwriter and thought about a passage from The Wind in the Willows in which the vigorously haughty Mr. Toad, a kind of amphibian Felix Dennis, triumphantly sings to an “enraptured audience that his imagination so clearly saw.” Earlier, Toad had been blocked from singing in public — “a sort of turning-point in [his] career.” And so, alone in his Toad Hall bedroom, Toad performs his “last little song” in front of empty chairs. He sings this twice, “letting himself go, with uplifted voice.” Then he breaks down a bit, “heav[ing] a deep sigh; a long, long, long sigh.” But arrogance and vanity always win: Mr. Toad snaps out of his meltdown and fixes his hair.
For twelve years I associated this scene with T. But I’m a 30-year-old songwriter. My audience is enraptured and imaginary. And I am alone in the afternoon somewhere on the North Shore recording a football jingle.
I will heave a deep sigh; a long, long, long sigh. And then I will fix my hair.