As the severity of the coronavirus became apparent, Madison Avenue reacted swiftly. Commercials with hard sells were out, while soft sells with uplifting messages were in. Song publishers quickly pivoted to meet the musical needs of their clients’ changing messages.
“The shift happened pretty quickly,” says Brian Monaco, Sony/ATV Music Publishing’s president/global chief marketing officer. Brands began looking for “songs of hope, unity, togetherness.”
They also began looking for deals. With some brands asking for free usages, publishers are having to exercise extra scrutiny. “We have been overwhelmed by brands looking for gratis uses of songs from our catalog, so we do a lot of research to make sure the use is related to COVID-19 and hopefully raising money for people on the front lines of the pandemic rather than their trying to sell their product or use COVID-19 to sell their services,” Monaco says. “We’ve been reviewing all of them on a case-by-case basis and when we — the publisher and writer/artist — agree to gratis, we often try to agree to no more than a three-month term.”
Regardless of the price point, the briefs “tended to lean more heavily on what I think of as [musical] comfort food,” agrees BMG senior vp of creative synch Jonathan Palmer, who placed Andra Day‘s “Rise Up” in an Amazon spot, as well as Black Eyed Peas‘ “One Tribe” for Facebook’s new Messenger Desk Top. “Themes of warmth and togetherness and confidence and making it through” the pandemic are popular, he says.
Within days of people sheltering in place, Walmart rolled out ads featuring essential workers singing Bill Withers‘ “Lean on Me,” as well as the company’s CEO heralding the employees as David Bowie‘s “Heroes” played in the background. Both songs are part of Universal Music Publishing Group’s catalog. (UMPG represents “Heroes” co-writer Brian Eno, while RZO Music and Sony/ATV represent Bowie’s share of the song).
While much of the landscape is dominated with commercials featuring seemingly interchangeable, solemn piano-based instrumentals with soothing narration — so much so that there’s a YouTube supercut highlighting the similar ads — many advertisers want songs that stand out instead of blend in. “Brands want to pass on messages of hope and optimism,” says Tom Eaton, UMPG’s senior vp of advertising and TV music. “Recognizable songs can immediately create that emotion in the viewers. Music can be used as a shorthand and brands are looking for that right now.”
Few songs are as recognizable as those by The Beatles and Sony/ATV saw multiple requests for Fab Four tunes, including “All You Need Is Love,” an acoustic cover of which began airing on a Facebook Portal ad in late April. The deal was closed on a Wednesday and the spot started airing the following Monday. “We’re seeing the ads completed in a faster fashion,” Monaco says. “There’s an urgency, plus there are no shoots,” which means ad agencies are building spots around existing stock, news footage or newly computer generated images.
Even with songs with lyrics, advertisers are often looking for a softer tone. For a Samsung ad using Marc Scibilia‘s “How Bad We Need Each Other,” the brand opted for the stripped-down demo for the 2016 tune instead of the much poppier, slicker finished version, Monaco says. T-Mobile used an acoustic instrumental bed of Muse‘s “Something Human,” according to Warner Chappell’s senior vp, synch and creative services Keith D’Arcy.
Pricing has also become a major talking point, including many companies asking publishers to reduce or totally waive licensing fees given the extraordinary times. “Brands and agencies are having to find a budget to put together a brand-new and unexpected message due to our current circumstances. However, musically speaking they tend to want or need songs that appeal to the widest audience and those tend to be well-known songs that command high fees,” says Julie Hurwitz, Kobalt Music’s co-head of synch and brand partnerships. “As a publisher, I want to do deals on behalf of my writers but also don’t want to undervalue their copyrights, so that’s been an interesting negotiation.” She adds that to get around the lack of ability to shoot, agencies and brands have asked to renew licenses from previously run commercials, “in order to re-run these campaigns.”
Certain brands, mainly those involving tourism, entertainment and sports events, are shelving ads for now, while brands that connect people, such as telecommunications companies and Facebook, are strong, Eaton says.
Business is holding relatively steady despite the pullback by some companies because “a lot of the big brands understand the worth of long-term brand building and how to engage their customers, so they’re not going away,” Monaco says. “It really just feels like business as usual, but with this shift in types of songs that people are asking for,” agrees Tom Foster, UMPG’s London-based European head of film and TV.
Publishers are already anticipating the needs for brands when the country turns the corner on the pandemic. “Hopefully, at some point down the road when we get into the next phase where people can start to go outside more and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, I predict there will be a new round of messaging, about cautiously celebrating,” Hurwitz says. “The team and I are in the process now of anticipating the need for those types of songs. Who knows when that will be. At some point, people are going to be able to share a beer together or go on vacation on an airplane or visit relatives at Thanksgiving again, so brands are going to be re-messaging again.”
Assistance preparing this story provided by Steve Knopper and Chris Eggertsen.