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A Q&A with Dunk Murphy of Sunken Foal

Back in 2008, I stumbled on an LP called Fallen Arches by an artist named Sunken Foal while searching through Planet Mu’s excellent catalog. I was immediately fascinated by the album’s organic instrumentation combined with glitchy percussion and decidedly progressive song structures that made for an outstanding and important LP. After a little investigation, I learned the man behind the project was Dunk Murphy, an accomplished Irish producer and musician, who also has released music as part of the groups Ambulance and Natural History Museum, among others. There were only two EPs (Fermented Condiments on Mu Records and Mother of God on Acroplane Recordings) from Sunken Foal since the debut, so it’s little wonder that I was highly anticipating his newest release, Friday Syndrome Volume 1, which is available as a free download at his website, www.counstersunk.org. Dunk was kind enough to answer a few questions from me via e-mail about his music, label, and artistic approach:

First of all, as a composer and producer myself, I love the way you went about producing the material on Friday Syndrome Volume 1. What was the catalyst behind the method, and did it result in any new or exciting revelations for you?

DM: Every tune is always different – I spent a little less effort at the time of inception with this collection of tunes – my stuff in the past has been far more “composed” working with lots of chord progressions and harmonies on guitars and pianos etc. – this time out I gave myself a few hours each Friday evening to compose some short rhythmic tracks and send them on to some friends as soon as they were done – the idea was to take advantage of that thirst for studio work I get every Friday evening when I know everyone else is getting ready to go out and socialise (knowing that I should to be getting ready too but at the same time getting all annoyed that I hadn’t worked hard enough that week) 

 

On your website, it seems that the recording itself is free for download, and what you’re actually selling is merchandise to promote the record. What made you take this approach?

DM: I tried my best in the past to make a living purely from music whether it be composing for film, performing or releasing music – it all seems to be in this huge state of flux as a business now and I’m starting to think that this state of flux will continue and no one ubiquitous medium for music distribution will be settled upon – so in the meantime I wasn’t really bothered investing in one of the new distribution methods as I wanted to get the music out ASAP – it seemed to me that there was a lot of negativity from one side from people complaining about the kids pirating music, and then a lot of negativity from another side where people are attacking established record companies for selling music through the same old methods – I was thinking it could be nice for the artist to come up with a slightly different way of collecting revenue for their works and accept that it is not “business as usual”

 

There also doesn’t appear to be a label involved. Is there any specific reason why you’re self releasing this recording, are there any added benefits, and do you foresee releasing music on labels ever again?

DM: Yeah, I’d love to release music on other labels again – my last album came out on planet-mu – I think that they prefer a different side to what I do so I thought releasing this myself might be a little challenge – I’m viewing countersunk as a label and there is music to come out from other artists through the site at a later date – I’m still not sure if we’ll venture into vinyl yet – it’s all still a bit new – by self releasing, perhaps the benefits are that you get to engage with the audience in a more immediate fashion

 

How important do you find a physical object à la a CD or LP these days, and do you see yourself releasing Friday Syndrome Volume 1 this way in the future?

DM: The physical object to me is really important: hence the generative prints that we have on sale to support the release – it occurred to me that with vinyl, 250 individual sleeves could not be printed with unique artwork without a huge amount of work so the idea of the 50cm x 70cm prints came and I decided to go with it – there are a couple more volumes to the “Friday Syndrome” project to come so there might be a ‘best of’ vinyl release if there is call for it

 

I think your work is extremely textured and diverse, therefore potentially lending itself to film music. Have you ever considered doing music for film, and if an advertiser approached you about using one of your songs in a large campaign, would do it?

DM: I’ve done loads of that shit!! – ads have paid the bills indeed in the past but they take a lot of work and you really have to be dedicated – not just in terms of composition but you have to think in a business minded way – films are even more work and you really have to be involved with the team at hand – the “Friday Syndrome” stuff started out of a period where I was finishing off a couple of art film sound pieces – One of them was called “Rialto Twirlers” by director Anne Marie Barry  – I was all ‘droney-textured’ out and I needed to write some beats … sort of as a method of self therapy : )

 

The “business minded” approach you speak of seems to be a difficult trait to take on for artists such as myself, especially in today’s fluctuating and seemingly oversaturated market. Do you have any advice for composers struggling to adapt this mindset who are looking to get their music in productions such as advertising or films?

DM: Shed any kind of pride or dignity that you might still be holding on to – be prepared to “believe” in things that you otherwise wouldn’t : ) whore yourself with all your might

 

Sunken Foal’s Friday Syndrome Volume 1 is now available for free download on countersunk. Share the link, and while you’re there, buy something and support the artist.

 

Opportunities Behind the Music

I read a fairly interesting New York Times article on the “vocal producer to the stars” Kuk Harrell, who is behind some of today’s most successful pop stars. The article went on to describe his varied history in the industry, his demeanor, and exactly how he became what he is today. The most interesting part of the article, however, was about highly specialized producers, and how sounds are generated, encouraged, copied, cut, and then pasted in today’s modern recording studio.

Depending on your background, this article might be a revelation to you in many respects. I really wasn’t aware that people thought that today’s vocalists just went in to the studio and belted out a full rendition of a song, but this is apparently so. Technology gives recordists and producers the power to cut and paste the tiniest of segments from a plethora of takes into what you hear on the master. This can have a sterilizing effect on the recording, depending on the music (and you’re opinion), but it also provides a world of possibilities at the click of a mouse. It also makes recordings like this one seem even more incredible, given they all had one shot to get the whole thing right. Pretty unbelievable.

It’s very interesting to me to think of highly specialized producers in the studio getting just the right sound out of the performers, their music, or their instruments. As an artist, my recording studio experiences relied on the musicians having their material ready to go, and the engineer using his or her expertise and knowledge of their gear and studio to get the best sounds out of the instruments. In this way, I can see these types of producers being a good and bad thing. The concept takes away a lot of the artistry from the engineer, and makes the job almost purely technical, but it also provides a lot of new and exciting opportunities for individuals with very specific talents and/or training that may have been marginalized previously. So road dogs, and creative visionaries, take note. There may be a (lucrative) place for you in the studio.

Ukulele Overload

When I first started seriously composing stock audio on AudioJungle last summer, many of the highest selling songs on the site featured the ukulele. Fast forward a year, and this really hasn’t changed. What once seemed like a trend has become something different…and I’m not sure what. Even this current national advertisement features a song from AudioJungle that’s over 2 years old, and has been sold over 1600 times (!). To say that the ukulele is played out and overused is an understatement, particularly in advertising. The fact it persists as the musical focal point of so many of today’s commercials either speaks to the public’s insatiable love for the runty instrument, or of a severe lack of creativity in advertising.

I found a great New York Times article on the ukulele’s popularity from over a year ago, and even then the article spoke of the instrument’s over-saturation in advertising. It also pointed out the possible origin for this craze: Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole’s cringe-inducing version of “Over the Rainbow”, a song I heard at virtually every wedding I did sound for while living in California (so we’re talking 50+, maybe?). The article goes on to tout the ukulele as the instrument for the non-musician, and while I’m not sure I’d go there, I will say that at this point it’s kitsch. Period.

While people may love the uke because of the warm feelings it helps generate, there is more than one way to skin a cat. A different approach will likely yield the same results, and will alleviate the risk of people tuning out at the first strum. So, please, if you have to use a ukulele, please do so in moderation.

 

Compromise and Leverage

Compromise plays a role in everyone’s life. Whether it’s with fairly small scale day to day things, or large life altering decisions, compromise has a way of shaping and changing things in a substantial way. With artists, it’s an even bigger deal. And as it becomes increasingly possible as a musician to gain widespread exposure on a grassroots level via today’s burgeoning technology, the option of “selling out” has become less tempting. The reliance the musician once had on the all-powerful record label is falling by the wayside, and with that goes their willingness to compromise their music, and with that comes leverage. The musical artist, increasingly empowered, holds the cards. You need them more than they need you. The Best Cinematic and Motivational Royalty Free Audio

This seems like a strange game marketing agencies seem to like to play. In a previous blog post it was discussed that licensing music has become far more prevalent in advertising than hiring a composer, at least according to one industry source. However, with things moving in the direction they currently are in the “music industry”, I can only imagine it’s going to become increasingly difficult to wrangle a song away from an artist for an ad campaign. As a composer and producer of music, I see this as an opportunity to showcase what original music can do for a production. Music that’s created to support original visuals and highlight their emotional content, not songs created for their own sake, to sell records, or to pack clubs. There is a fundamental difference here which just reinforces my feeling that the true power of music is rarely utilized in association with visual media. That’s why in the rare instances you see it, you know.

Why “MIDI” Isn’t a Bad Thing

Public understanding of the term “MIDI” hasn’t progressed as far as the technology has in the last few years, and that’s a blessing and a curse. I, for one, got heavily into composing when I realized how realistic-sounding some of these new programs were, and the illusion of having used real instruments is a very important element of my work. At the same time, though, I think a little further information on what exactly you’re hearing only makes the total package that much more spectacular. 

What most excited me about advances in MIDI technology was the ability to finally be able to get realistic sounds out of orchestral samples. Most modern libraries contain samples that are performed by some of today’s top musicians at some of the finest studios, stages, and halls in the world. The amount of recorded detail is remarkable, and the fact you can alter things like mic placement is truly astounding. Throw in some high quality reverb, and you have a set of sounds that, when used correctly, will make even the most seasoned aficionado think they’re listening to a real orchestra. While these sample libraries do come at a hefty price, the things they enable a composer to do are well worth the cost.

It doesn’t stop with orchestral samples, of course. You’d be hard pressed not to find a high quality sample library either built around or including a specific set of instruments that’s professionally recorded, and exhaustively performed to include every realism-adding detail. With this in mind, it continually pays as a composer to look outside the box, and find the smaller companies that are on the cutting edge.

So, the next time you hear “MIDI” hopefully your mind won’t go directly to Nintendo theme songs or ringtones. You’d be surprised how much music you hear, specifically on television, is MIDI derived, and the technology is only getting better. However, it is important to remember that these sounds are just tools. The art is found in knowing how to use them.

Here is a Stink Bug, common to Maryland, on my M-Audio Axiom 25

Here is a Stink Bug, common to Maryland, on my M-Audio Axiom 25

 

Of Shazam and Credibility

I read a very interesting interview (which I found thanks to John Presley at musiccomposerblog.com) with Ryan Fitch, an accomplished music supervisor at a seemingly large advertising agency. In addition to giving some great links and advice, he also spoke a lot about the appeal of using licensed music almost to how I’d hear an A&R rep talk about their job. In his experience, because there is just so much music that’s already created and therefore able to be licensed, the situation that requires something original from a composer doesn’t present itself nearly as much as it used to. Sigh.

The Best Cinematic and Motivational Royalty Free Audio

Most interesting to me was a recent campaign he was involved with in which he professes to have spent hours trying to shoehorn a licensed track into a commercial, and could only successfully do so after cleverly disguising an odd time signature with sound design. After watching the commercial, I was really confused about why the track in question absolutely had to be “the one”. The music itself is a pretty nondescript repetition of a single phrase with minimal vocals, slightly modified towards the end. The song apparently didn’t naturally work, and had to be modified considerably, thus taking the time that licensed music was supposed to save. In other words, this was an easily replicable piece a qualified composer would have no problem scoring to the existing footage in a few hours. Why they didn’t go this route didn’t make sense to me. There must be something else at work here. That’s when I saw the Shazam logo.

I figured there was no better way to understand their angle than by “Shazamming” the commercial and seeing the results for myself.  After dow

nloading the app (and skipping Shazam’s many attempts to get up in my bidness), I played the commercial. To my surprise, the only thing I discovered about the song itself  was the artist and title. No link to listen to it, no link to buy it, no link to the artist’s website. Nada. There was, however, a contest I could enter in addition to other links I could follow to product related social marketing.

Get Royalty Free Music from ProgressNotesLet me state that I do not see any issue at all here with the way the music was used in this advertisement. Consent was obviously given, and I’m sure everything was above board. I do, however, understand why some artists seem to be apprehensive about licensing their music to advertising campaigns. In addition to the all-important credibility the song adds to the product, the sound of of the music itself is now tied to the product in a way that almost supersedes that simple association licensed music usually provides. The notes the artist wrote on their guitar, in this particular case, now directly link to a product they didn’t create. That’s pretty heavy.

The interview reinforced, but also shed some new light on, my view regarding why ad agencies so actively license music as opposed to having something original tailored specifically for their campaign. It’s not just credibility they’re after, but an additional way of presenting the consumer with their product. This opens up new avenues while also creating new dilemmas for the artist, some of which I’ve witnessed first hand. Ultimately, it’s good to see the power of music taken seriously, and hopefully that aspect won’t change in a constantly changing industry.

 

Audio Branding: What Does Your Company Sound Like?

Let me guess…you spent a lot of money on a snazzy logo for your brand. You hired a great designer to make your website. You invested a good chunk of cash in gear to produce your commercials, podcasts and/or web videos. Maybe you’ve even made some branded clothing. But what does your brand sound like?

Audio branding is not a new technique by any means. We’ve all been subjected to this type of marketing for years. Theme music for a particular television program or network is a given. But even simpler than that is their brand’s audio logo or indent. To me, the most obvious is the NBC Chimes, which have quite a history. Despite their hip new ad campaigns, the main thing that sticks with me after a State Farm commercial is their tried-and-true 4 second audio logo (apparently derived from a theme song of year’s past). Too musical for you? Try HBO’s audio logo.

Just because your brand isn’t quite ready for primetime television ads doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore audio branding. The Audio Branding Academy asserts that  ” the emerging of new media…expands the opportunities for audio branding”.  This includes everything from podcasts , YouTube videos, iPhone and Android apps, to independent video games. As this article from the Music Composer BLOG explains, “brands are just beginning to understand the benefits of a marketing strategy that includes strategy-driven audio“, and these include big names that advertise on television.

How often does your logo appear in some form of non-static visual media? If your website or company produces a lot of video content, and/or your logo is featured at the beginning of mobile phone apps or games, an audio logo is a necessity. The successful incorporation of sound in defining your brand is not just for huge companies anymore, and it’s a lot easier than you’d think. Just ask your friendly neighborhood composer.

What are some of your favorite audio logos, indents, or themes? Which ones bring you to a certain time or place whenever you hear them?