great minds on music : an interview with josh rabinowitz

In this edition of our “Great Minds on Music” series, we’re picking the brain of Josh Rabinowitz, Senior Vice President/Director of Music for the Grey Group. “Great Minds on Music” is a series of conversations with some of the top names in the business of advertising and Uli Reese, President of iV2. If you’d like to read more from these innovative thinkers, selecting this link will aggregate all the interviews for easy viewing.


Reese: I like to use these interviews to address a question that I think many brands and agencies ask, though the answer seems elusive. It’s this: can the right choice of music by a brand change consumer behavior?

Rabinowitz: I think it can. Science proves that sound, and particularly music, stays with us longer than anything else. If you think about jingles, they plant seeds in your brain that are difficult to remove – they lock themselves in there. Whereas with images and concepts, it’s more fleeting. They can have an effect, but it’s shorter term.

“…the problem is that music isn’t often done right when it comes to branding. There have been very few effective executions over the years…Unfortunately, what happens is that somebody finds a piece of music they think is cool, they put it on [the spot], and often it overshadows the concept.” – Josh Rabinowitz

Reese: I always say we’re in the “remembering business.” But do you think a music can help us love a brand more? It seems we don’t buy brands because they’re better or cheaper, we buy them because we fall in love with them. Can we accomplish that with music?

Rabinowitz: If it’s done right…the problem is that music isn’t often done right when it comes to branding. There have been very few effective executions over the years. But memory is an important part of our behavior, so you can definitely use it to plant ideas inside people. It reminds me of the movie Inception, which is about planting ideas in peoples’ minds. I think music is able to do that. And if it’s done right, there can be a lot of love. Unfortunately, what happens is that somebody finds a piece of music they think is cool, they put it on [the spot], and often it overshadows the concept.

Reese: But when is it done right?

Rabinowitz: When the music resonates perfectly with the idea, or when the idea resonates perfectly with the music. Ideally, it’s the seed of the idea. I find that when music is the inspiration for a commercial, or a branding initiative, that’s when it’s the most effective. That’s not just a bias because I work in music. I’ve just seen, over the years, that really effective branding campaigns occur, for the most part, when music leads the creative execution.

Reese: You’re saying campaigns that start with the music are the strongest?

Rabinowitz: Or the music is the inspiration. That’s why the jingle era was very effective. Was it cool? In fact it was pretty cheesy. But jingles were memorable and they worked, right up to the point when movies began using contemporary music – starting with movies like Easy Rider and the Scorsese films – and advertising followed suit.

Reese: It’s true that you can remember a jingle you heard 30 years ago. But it’s less clear whether that made the brand more loved – or more successful.

Rabinowitz: More successful, I would say, yes. The love thing is harder to measure. But one of the brands that’s the most loved today – or at least that people are passionate about – is Apple. That’s irrefutable. A lot of that came from design, of course. But they really hit the mainstream when they started to do great things with music. It just resonated with so many people.

Reese: I like the way Apple uses music. If you put all the songs next to each other, they clearly have an audio branding strategy. What are your favorite brands in terms of how they use music?

Rabinowitz: Historically, Volkswagen has been able to break through with music. Did the music inspire their work? I’m not sure, but the use of music was really powerful…a few years ago they used the Nick Drake piece “Pink Moon” for a beautiful commercial that was an example of one of the best uses of music ever…Another brand that’s had a lot of success through music is Target. It’s actually just a cheap store, but through music they’ve elevated it to this cool place…That’s the ultimate goal of advertising: to create something cool. Or loved. Or even to make people afraid: if you don’t come here, you’re going to be left behind.

Reese: Do you think it’s important for a brand to have an audio style guide, or at least to make a commitment to how they sound?

Rabinowitz: I certainly do, unequivocally. I think the reason most brands don’t do that – or haven’t been successful in it – is that they don’t work with an expert. It would make sense for them to have somebody within the brand, even if it’s a consultant, who’s consistent. One of the things brands suffer from the most is a lack of consistency. You can have a good run for a year or two, and then if the market share shrinks a little bit, they decide to re-evaluate. I worked on Fisher Price toys when they decided to use the song “Walking On Sunshine.” They used it for two or three years, but I think they should have stuck with it for ten years, even more. A lot of music in commercials perpetrates a vibe, an aura – but what really sticks is a riff, or a motif.

Reese: Has audio branding ever been a part of your pitch for new business?

Rabinowitz: It depends on the client. One recent pitch, we were asked to pitch for a very aggressive, confident client. I think the reason we won was that he’s passionate about music, and we were able to challenge him to like something a little different to what he normally likes. Overall, I think there’s been a lot of discourse and press about audio branding, so clients are more open to it – but I still feel like they’re not quite convinced.

Reese: Let’s talk about the process of choosing the music you use for brands. What happens when someone comes to you and says: “We’ve got a series of three commercials – can you help us?”

Rabinowitz: There are three points of entry for us, and I’ll take them backwards. Point C is when they’ve shot a commercial and they say, “We need a piece of music that sounds like this.” That’s the most common scenario. It doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Point B, which happens much less often, is: “We’re about to shoot a commercial, and we need a piece of music that can guide and inspire us.” Point A is when there’s only an inkling of an idea, or even only a strategy, and they say: “Have you got any music-driven ideas for us?” And we say: “Yes, we have some great ideas for you.” And that’s when the really good stuff happens.

Reese: When it comes to creative briefing, people find it hard to talk about music. How do you do communicate your ideas? Are there things that have worked well for you when you’re briefing people?

Rabinowitz: I really trust my instincts, so I’ll just gather a whole bunch of things from different sources, music that already exists, and share that with them. I have an instinctual sense of what might work with the pictures, even if it’s the opposite of what they think they want. That’s not to say that what ends up on a commercial is what I like. That only happens about 25 percent of the time. It’s a collaborative process – a lot of people have to put their personal spice in there. I also find that a lot of creative people in music have ADD [attention deficit disorder] – they just can’t concentrate. So when I’m briefing them, I often repeat myself. If you say it over and over again, and you’re very clear about it, that can be very helpful.

Reese: Goethe said, “Feeling is everything. The name is sound and smoke.” If music is feeling, how do you judge the value of it in monetary terms? How do you put a price tag to that?

Rabinowitz: There was a price tag, for years. It was a thousand dollars a second for original music – before the licensed music craze came into play. It’s not that way any more: it’s so arbitrary it borders on ridiculous. It’s the whole digital thing, basically. When MP3s became freely available it took the value out of music – it became like water. Now you often just have to take what you can get. We might have four thousand dollars for a campaign – and you’d be surprised how many people will take it.

Reese: It used to be that you had to have a studio to produce broadcast-quality material, and only a few companies could do that. But now you can produce music that’s perfectly suitable for broadcasting on your laptop – the potential for finding/creating content has grown exponentially. How do you choose who you work with?

Rabinowitz: Technology has certainly created a huge supply. But there are still people who are more skilled than others. For certain accounts we’ll rely on specific music companies because we know that the level of quality, creativity and service will be of a certain standard. That doesn’t mean other people can’t do it – but these are people we trust. They understand our needs and how to service us. Service is a big part of this business. We’re dealing with enough stress and craziness; we don’t need any more of it. I’m open to using different people, but often I have a gun to my head. It’s hard for me to go to someone and ask them to jump through hoops unless I feel I’m allowed to. Relationships are important: personally I’ve always tried hard to be as respectful as I can.

Reese: How did you get this gig, by the way?

Rabinowitz: I always wanted to do something in music. I’m a trombone player by trade; I went to a music high school: the one in the movie Fame, actually. But when I got out of college I had no clue what to do. I played in bands…did anything I could do, musically. And then someone said, “Look into the world of advertising music – they have budgets.” At first I frowned on it a bit, but when I got into it I thought, “This is actually pretty cool.” And then the perception of it shifted. It’s considered legit. Aspiring musicians and artists have no problem dealing with advertising – cause how else are they gonna get their work out there?

Reese: Last question, which I always ask: When you have a great idea, how does it feel in the moment it comes to you?

Rabinowitz: I had one I thought was going to be a hit song – in fact it was a cover of a song by Crosby Stills Nash & Young called “Carry On” for a Sony Electronics commercial. We got Alana Davis to record it. We convinced the client to synergize with Sony Music and make a full length version, so at the end of the Super Bowl spot you’d see the name of the song with the super “available at”. It charted as a CD single. The trouble was that the spot featured a guy in a spaceship. Then one of the space shuttles crashed and they took the spot off air. But I still feel that could have been a huge hit.

Reese: It’s like being a producer you’re getting to be part of the band.

Rabinowitz: Yeah…It may not always be an influential band, or a band that’s gonna have a number one, but when it comes to communicating with an audience, getting them dancing…That’s why I got into music in the first place, to communicate with people…Today I live in a neighborhood with lots of sensible grown-ups and they often say, “Hey, you’re in a band, that’s so cool.” I try to tell them it isn’t, but actually I kinda think it is…I know people who are richer than me, but there aren’t many of them who love what they do as I much as I do.

Josh Rabinowitz, Senior Vice President/Director of Music for the Grey Group, has worked on many of the top campaigns for a list of brands that includes Cover Girl, Pantene, Dr. Pepper, Sony Electronics and many more.  In the course of his brand work, he’s collaborated with major artists, from Rihanna, the Black Eyed Peas, Natasha Bedingfield, Queen Latifah, Cyndi Lauper and Macy Gray to Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Smokey Robinson, LeAnn Rimes,  and Anastacia. He began his climb to becoming leading music producer in the late ’90s, when he was an Executive Producer of Music at Young & Rubicam. In 2005, he moved to Grey, where he has helmed their music department ever since. Rabinowitz has been the recipient of many awards for music in advertising. Also, he has been a bi-weekly contributor to Billboard magazine, and he has been quoted or cited in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Adweek, Ad Age, Fast Company, Creativity, the Boston Globe and the New York Post.

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