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Using Music in Radio Commercials – Radio Share

Music in Radio Commercials!

Today I want to talk about using music in radio commercials, something dear to my heart because I’m a musician, and I know how effective music used in commercials can be when it’s used right. When you and I to have a conversation, does one of us say, “Wait a minute! I need to put on some music!” Well. if we don’t have to put on music before we can talk to one another, why must there be music in commercials?

The main reason there’s music in commercials is that everybody does it, so everybody who produces commercials thinks it should be there! Bad logic, Batman.

There actually are some good reasons to have that music there. The right music can enhance the impact of a brand. It can act like an afterburner to increase the force of a message. A musical phrase can greatly aid in making a point.

But Dan O’Day, the highest-paid freelance commercial writer in the world, says “As one who sells high-quality production music libraries, I have to say that seventy percent of the music I hear in commercials is either the wrong music or that there shouldn’t be any music in the commercial at all.”

Why this dichotomy?

Easy. Most commercials are written by people who are not trained to write them (and that includes radio stations, where commercials are written by sales people, who are trained to sell air time but not to write advertising). The music for these commercials is chosen by deejays, who know and understand hits — but music for commercials has nothing to do with hits, which are played by themselves for their own sake, and not written (or even recorded, and there’s a difference) to enhance sales messages.

Look at it this way — knowing how to drive a car does not mean one can drive a NASCAR vehicle at 180-plus mph. Gotta be trained, have experience, and have a natural knack for knowing what music should go behind what type of sales message.

Most people who choose the music behind commercials use one criterion: tempo. Fast read = fast music. But music is a language, with all the subtle shadings and nuances that a spoken language has. Most of the music I hear used in commercials doesn’t just not help the message, it actually gets in the way of the message.

But oh boy, when the music is carefully chosen by someone who knows what he or she is doing! It can lock a message in your mind!

To find the right music for a project, one must have access to a music library with tens of thousands of themes. If that sounds like overkill, it isn’t. To find the right theme to get across a certain idea or feeling can take a while. If your choices are limited, the chances are excellent you’ll have to settle for something that kind of does it but not as well as you know it can be done.

Radio stations choose production music libraries whose themes mirror the kind of hits they play. That limits the heck out of what you can say with that music, like having a guitar with one string on it. Or if the station has a library with several kinds of music, you’ll find that they use only that one kind of music the station plays. They don’t look at music as an agency or producer does. For them, music is something that continues the rate of flow of the programming. In other words, it’s designed with the station’s programming in mind — not the message an advertiser wishes to make.

Legal Dept: You can’t use hits in commercials, or any other music that’s not contained in a licensed productions music library. You can find yourself being told you owe the copyright owner a substantial amount of money if you don’t follow the law. You can use original music — music you’ve written and produced. Plenty of agencies write music or have it written, but generally you find that at the national level. And plenty of national commercials use music from production music libraries, because a great deal of it is excellent. But production music libraries can stink, too. I know examples of each kind.

The best music library I’ve ever found, in terms of variety, level of quality of production, excellent melody writing, is Audio Network, a UK-based company with offices in NYC. They record at Abbey Road studios and much of their orchestral stuff is performed by the London Symphony. They’re a leased library, as opposed to a “buy-out” library (which is still a lease but the lease is for 99 years). Generally, a leased library has a significantly better quality of music.

-Mike Holmes