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August 15, 2012

How Commercials Can Help You Make Better Music

By Gabe Sokoloff

Gabe Sokoloff

Gabe Sokoloff in performance. Photo by Agnes May.

Even having long emerged from its jingle-based history to become a legitimate space for musical expression, composing for advertising is one of the least written-about facets of the industry and consequently one of the least understood. Certain notable stories like that of Mark Foster (Foster the People) have shone a bit more light onto the field recently but, by and large, even the young aspiring composer's understanding of this world is somewhat nebulous.

By the time I began my commercial composing career in earnest, I was already occupied with several projects: my band Names of Stars was on its way toward releasing a debut LP, my work as an electronic producer and remixer was getting more serious, and in my few remaining moments I dabbled in independent film scoring.




But the prospect of writing for commercials appealed to me, and in more and more ways as I learned more about it. Some of the composers I knew and respected most were working primarily in this area, and I was particularly impressed by the versatility and creative stamina it demanded of them. Moreover, while many musicians describe their careers as "no two days being the same," to me that idea seemed more true of the commercial music world than any other.

Despite these draws, I did have a wariness about it that I think many composers might share: does success in the commercial realm require repressing a more artistic side? Would my instinct for inspired experimentation—that critical ability to get weird that good art thrives upon—drown in a sea of colorless music "beds" supporting images of flying bar food?

If you’re setting out to dominate the Applebee's niche alone, then perhaps there's cause for concern. But looking back with several years of varied commercial work under my belt, I'm pleased to find that it has actually accelerated my artistic growth. Seeing a symbiosis unfold between commercial composition and my other pursuits has been downright thrilling.


Jack in the Box commercial featuring a Gabe Sokoloff original song


For starters, writing for a (typically) thirty-second format reinforces principles that are best kept front-of-mind generally, like drawing the listener in early and being sensitive to the mood and pace of the narrative (in songwriting, the lyrics). Commercial assignments also often require delving into unfamiliar genres, the benefits of which are obvious. And the fast-paced timetables of commercial projects promote making final decisions without excessive second-guessing. Finally, the mental gymnastics required to shift through wildly disparate musical worlds—one spot may require a thirty-second comical country tune, the next a cinematic suspense-builder—keep you agile and prime your mind for the fate most successful people eventually suffer: having to juggle lots of things at once.

Though the degree to which commercial music occupies my time varies greatly, it's a line of work that I'm pleased to always have a foot in. Whether it's a good fit for one's musical métier depends of course on what one is seeking from a life and career in music. But, in my own case, it has fostered a life of diverse musical stimulation and, for all the reasons above, advanced my other musical pursuits in the process.

*****

Gabe Sokoloff is a songwriter, producer, composer, singer and electronic musician (under the name Thrice Noble). He began his music career scoring independent films and working under legendary DJ and electronic composer B.T. Gabe has composed music for hundreds of national advertising campaigns and a variety of television shows including American Idol. As a songwriter for collaborative projects, Gabe has earned acclaim from KCRW and critics at SPIN and The FADER. Gabe continues to compose for picture while writing and producing for emerging pop talent in Los Angeles.

Visit Gabe Sokoloff on the web at thricenoble.com.

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