Of Spaceships and Astronauts

This article was first published in 1981 in Creativity, a specialty supplementary of Marketing Magazine.

In 1981 PCs were in their MS-DOS infancy, there was no internet, neither digital samplers nor synthesizers were available.

At the time, I had been a full time ad music writer for about two years, trying to establish a foothold in the ad business. Old school recording and thinking was still prevalent in the boardrooms of the big ad agencies, and most agencies were unwilling to consider synthesizer driven tracks; they were the domain of the low budget clients who couldn’t afford ‘the real thing’.

I wrote this article in hopes of changing a few minds.

What I like about revisiting this article is seeing references to then non-existent entities such as the Internet, which I referred to as a ‘TV infosystem’ or sampling which I referred to as ‘imitative reproductive and interfacing capabilities’. I was right on with predicting the merging of the creative and production processes as well as with the transmission of digital recordings “via telephone line”.

In retrospect, I feel very fortunate to have come up in the old school while being on the front lines of the new school. Possessing both of these skill sets continues to serve me and my clients.

Of Spaceships and Astronauts
By Asher Ettinger
(Published in Creativity, Fall 1981, a supplement to Marketing Magazine)

It’s 9 a.m. in Calgary, an advertiser needs a rush music job done. Its agency contacts and briefs a music producer in Toronto, who in turn contacts an associate in New York. By 11 a.m. a demo is completed and approved.

Via TV infosystem, the Toronto producer scans for available production facilities and talent. A recording studio and musicians in Los Angeles are booked, as well a vocalist Montreal. The arrangement is programmed into a music transcriber by means of a voltage-controlled keyboard.

By 12:30 p.m., the recording session begins. The Toronto and New York creative team conducts the Los Angeles musicians via TV screen. By 2 pm, the music is rehearsed, recorded, mixed and approved. Digital dubs are transmitted via telephone to specified broadcast stations. The assignment is completed.

Futuristic? Perhaps. However this scenario is not abstract sci-fi. Aspects of the initial briefing and strategy sessions by means of the telephone are common practice today. Two way television is in its infancy.

Music recording through digital technology, a system of enormous potential, is currently available. Access to information is developing at an astounding rate and commercial satellites are around the corner. Just as two way telephone changed communications, so too will two-way and conference television. It’s only a matter of time before cost efficiency makes this consolidation of information, communication, creation and realization a daily routine.

But let’s leave this scenario for a moment and examine the overall directions we are taking and how they will affect advertising music.

Perhaps the most significant event to which we will have to adapt is the fragmentation of our broadcast media (therefore our target groups). Futurist John Naisbett, publisher of Trend report,Washington DC, has predicted a 50% reduction of national network reach by 1990. Cable, satellite & special interest networks will pick up lost network share, as well as cultivate totally new markets.

Over the past 20 years, technology has dramatically altered the face of music. The single fact that the music/recording industry has become the biggest money making arm of the entertainment industry underscores the point that music has adapted to technology extremely well.

The advent of multi-track recording studios has opened new creative doors. They enabled producers to layer (overdub) music parts, allowing for flexibility that never before existed. Add to this the arsenal of sound effect devices to the multi track studios and you have astonishing music and sound recording capabilities. In fact, the studio has become a musical instrument in itself in that it is an active participant in the creative process. Advertising music producers have, in general, successfully capitalized on the technology, and the advertiser has been served very well.

Music recording, as with most technologies, has decreased in real costs over the years. This has opened the floodgates for smaller budget advertisers, suddenly able to buy high quality music production. There is, and will continue to be, a proliferation of music producers entering the ad music field.

With all of this technology, how will ad music adapt and change? Let’s first look at those who create the music (after all, a spaceship is just a spaceship without an astronaut).

The mass of information that will soon be universally available will enable musicians to not only master specific fields such as composing or performing, but will expand territorial knowledge to encompass all parameters of music and sound production. The creative and production processes are being condensed into a single element. Currently, there are a small number of music producers possessing these multiple capabilities. However, as production and reproduction hardware increases in sophistication, and as the demand increases for more and varied music to meet the demographic fragmentations, we will see an increase in ‘jack-of-all-trade’ musicians producing soundtracks for advertising.

The development of a new type of advertisement called ‘infommercials’ is not far away from reality. These spots are not of 30 or 60 second duration, but rather are extended programs to be broadcast on special interest stations. (Currently, infomercials are seen in department stores explaining product instruction on in-store video and single screen projections). As this advertising music becomes more sophisticated, music will play both foreground and background roles.

The growth and development of electronic synthesizers in ad music over the past decade has been tremendous. The stereotype use of synths is to provide futuristic outer space ambiances with lots of zaps and whooshes. These instruments, however, possess an incredible pallet of sound and color, and will rapidly become as commonplace as the pianoforte has been (and will continue to be).

Synthesizers are enormously flexible, and are a big asset to speed obsessed advertisers requiring instant instrumentations and vocalizations. They can be computer programmed and are capable of extraordinary sound effects and processing. Recent innovations have enabled synths to produce full chords (polyphonic) which are grabbing an increased share of the work that a few years ago could only be produced by large orchestras. As production time continues to decrease, and as imitative reproductive and interfacing capabilities of electronic instruments are perfected, synthesizers will become an even more integral part of ad music production.

These developments neither herald the demise of acoustic instruments nor are they capitulations of human creativity to high technology. A creative idea, the seed of any ad campaign, is intrinsically human. However, the communication process is changing and adapting to the advances of technology. The breakdown of the strict division between the creator and producer into one indivisible unit is an example of the kind of adaptation we’ve been forced to make.

Music is keeping steady pace with these advances and it will continue to be a significant format in advertising. However, those who wish future success in the ad music industry must stay on the crest of this new wave if they are to remain contemporary.