Music in Advertising: Here’s How Industry Pros Select Songs for Placement

A recent advertisement for Ford's 2021 Bronco
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A recent advertisement for Ford's 2021 Bronco
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A recent advertisement for Ford’s 2021 Bronco — with a cinematic musical backdrop to complete the pitch.

During a recent Songtradr ‘Happy Hour’ livestream event, two longtime music industry professionals discussed the process they employ when selecting songs for adverts – and explained how creators can best capitalize upon the growing role of music in advertising.

The following was created with the support of Songtradr, part of a broader partnership focused on the sync licensing space.  Be sure to check our ongoing coverage of this fast-growing sector here.

The remote panel’s first guest, Joe Belliotti, served as Coca-Cola’s global head of music for eight years and currently leads The Music Division, an “outsourced music department.” Michael Szumowski, a veteran music supervisor and producer who also possesses a wealth of experience on the creative side of the industry, joined Belliotti and host Victoria Wiltshire to analyze the nuances of music in advertising.

Before diving into the technical characteristics that they look for when pairing songs with ads, the livestream participants emphasized the significant part that professional relationships play in the selection process. Building upon a point that several other Happy Hour panelists have mentioned, Belliotti and Szumowski relayed that networking is an essential precursor to getting your music into the right hands (and ears).

“I think in order to get your song heard, you need to build a relationship with somebody, right? You need to build a relationship so someone’s welcoming that song in and listening to it with friendly ears,” said Belliotti. “A brand manager who isn’t really a music person might be thinking about music one, two times the entire year. So you have to stay on people’s radar in the right way.”

Similarly, despite their varied experiences and different career paths — the Australian Szumowski co-founded Indecent Obsession, while Belliotti has long been a marketing mainstay in the States — the experts reiterated that selecting songs for ads centers chiefly on the brief, particularly in today’s quick-moving and high-volume promotional landscape.

“The brief is, that’s probably the most important part of the process. That dictates, ultimately, the direction you’re going when you’re looking for music,” said the former Alberts Head of A&R Szumowski.

More broadly, client preferences and requirements factor directly into the way that Szumowski and Belliotti determine which artists to work with and which tracks to feature in ad spots.

“Most of the time, a brand that’s selling you something wants you to feel a certain way, and it’s generally positive about what they’re trying to kind of communicate or sell,” said Szumowski. “What role is the music playing? Is it just there to provide an underscore – is there a lot of voiceover, for example? Is it there to kind of highlight certain parts of the vision? Is it there to kind of support a call to action? This is where the brief comes in,” he continued.

Bearing these points and the visual media’s specifics in mind, the supervisor then takes steps to pair the ad with songs that are likely to leave a lasting impression on listeners. “So you can put two different tracks against a vision and create a completely different emotional response from a viewer,” stated Szumowski. “Understanding what the emotion of the communication is, and is to be conveyed, is really vital.”

Belliotti likened his song-selection duties to those of a translator, describing clients’ wishes to creators as part of a larger effort to guarantee the end advert’s quality and suitability for the target audience.

“It’s like acting as a translator, and the more inputs we can get from the brand, and the agency if there is one, or whoever the team is around the project. The more inputs we get the better, and it starts to form sort of a clearer picture,” said the former Maverick talent-development exec.

Interestingly, the longtime Coca-Cola higher-up also specified that pitching musicians stand to benefit from explaining the suitability and appeal of their works in detail.

“In brands and agencies, we like to hear the obvious, right? I think that artists and whoever’s pitching should take each song and tell me exactly why you think this is perfect, right? Break it down for me,” he encouraged. “Just tell me the obvious – what is obvious to you, tell it to me again. Because then I can use that to sell them the song.”

And ultimately, in terms of who has the final say in the songs, Belliotti bluntly relayed: “Everybody and nobody. I’m kind of joking, but I’m not. I mean, I think it really is everybody and nobody.

“When you’re talking about getting your songs placed or getting something that’s a little more of a brand partnership type of thing, that’s where you really have to, you know, build yourself and sell your story and get people to fall in love with you through the way you present yourself, the way you describe yourself.”

Szumowski took the idea a step further, indicating that even if an ad agency approves of a track, the brands themselves have the last word – and the (often-utilized) right to request revisions.

“The brand may say, ‘You know what? We’re not liking this or that.’ And at that point, it’s having to kind of rework – it could be the vision, it could be the edit, or it could be the music. So you’re kind of not out of the woods even if your agencies love the track.”

The multifaceted process of creating music in advertising encompasses making contacts, nurturing relationships, and speaking to listeners. With these and other moving pieces in place, results are likely to arrive sooner rather than later, per the panelists.

“There is so much music out there, I think the mistake that most artists and composers make is settling for something that is kind of good enough. You have to be extraordinary,” said Szumowski. “Great music has a weird way of finding its way to people who make decisions.”