Jingles With Hair

Musicians for Hire: A Career in Advertising

illustration by John Keen

Dale Watson and his brand of country music may be a lot of things, but Top 40 radio isn't one of them. Or so you thought. Nationwide, a scan of the dial reveals that Watson is indeed sharing the airwaves with the likes of Hanson, the Spice Girls, and Sheryl Crow. So what's the catch? Only this: They're not playing his songs, they're playing the Penzoil commercial in which Watson sings.

As it turns out, Watson is just one of a couple dozen high-profile local musicians finding work in Austin's small but rapidly growing "jingle" market, wherein local musicians lend their talents to advertisers in exchange for what's typically regarded as quick and fairly easy money. "It's more profitable than any other type of recording, and far less pressure," says Watson. "Plus, there's something about driving into Pennsylvania on tour and hearing yourself on commercial radio that's kind of cool. I like to joke that apparently $40 million worth of advertising is all it takes to get a song on the radio."

In fact, thanks to commercial work, it might be argued that more Austin music comes out of car radios (between songs) and televisions (between shows) than record stores; everyone from Sara Hickman (Wal-Mart) and Don Walser (Mrs. Baird's) to Malford Milligan (Southwest Airlines) and Lisa Tingle (Mastercard) have been dabbling of late in a national advertising market that local experts say is just beginning to recognize Austin musicians and studios as a viable "talent pool."

Just two weeks ago, Watson and bassist Jon Blondell played on a demo for a Nissan commercial that eventually featured Johnny Cash singing the theme song to Laverne and Shirley. The producer of the demos and the ensuing Nashville session? Former Asleep at the Wheel keyboardist/fiddler Danny Levin, who's orchestrated and produced all the aforementioned artists and their spots. And while you won't hear Watson or Blondell in the final spot, both were paid handsomely for their time, with local advertising experts adding that just the fact a demo for a commercial of that profile and budget was birthed in Austin represents a major landmark in local commercial music production.

Traditionally, most jingle work has been conducted in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where the studios and musicians can feed off a concentration of large advertising agencies. But the continuing success of Austin-based GSD&M, Texas' third largest advertising agency and a national Top 20 biller, as well as a number of recent GSD&M offshoots like T3 and McGarrah-Jessee, have brought to town potential jingle business from an increasing number of regional and national advertisers.

"This year is just happenin'," says Tingle, who not only sings and does voice-overs for commercial spots, but also works with husband/manager Carl Thiel at his commercial studio. "GSD&M is thriving and is flooded with work, which means it's coming more and more to Austin musicians and the indie studios and composers. We're all starting to get opportunities for national work that just wasn't around six months ago. And while part of that comes from GSD&M and the local people that have branched off, at the same time, it seems a lot of the East and West coast people are also looking to Texas for new sounds and new voices."

Not only is this influx of commercial activity good news for local musicians in search of daytime work, it also appears to be spurring on a newly revitalized local studio community of nearly a half dozen rooms dedicated solely to commercial work of some kind. So, while studios like Digital Domain, The Production Block, G-Note Music, and Ben Blank all work on advertising composing, recording, and production, they're also finding valuable post-production gigs that involve editing, synchronization, sound effects, and dubbing.

And yet, according to GSD&M and a host of national advertisers like Southwest Airlines, Chili's, Cheerios, and Colt 45, nobody does more work or attracts more regional and national clients than Tequila Mockingbird, a full-service studio led by Levin and a pair of former GSD&M executives, Wally Williams and Karen Jacobs. Last year, Tequila's billings fell just short of $500,000, and the company's take has doubled each year since the studio jumped into the advertising market in 1990.

"Tequila has a grasp on the needs of the national commercial music industry, so they're getting a lot of work," says GSD&M Creative Director Tom Gilmore, whose agency roster accounts for more than half of Tequila's workload. "Austin is perceived as such a cool place to begin with, that with all the new Los Angeles influences, it's become an even cooler place for the advertisers to come and oversee their sound production. And because people know Austin's got a talent base of musicians to pull from, an operation like Tequila makes a pretty strong draw."

In fact, most advertisers echo Gilmore's assertions, saying that the primary factor behind the success of Tequila and other local "sound designers" isn't that different from what makes South by Southwest such a popular annual destination for the music industry: Austin itself. According to most local studios, a large part of handling any advertising account is keeping the agency and client satisfied and entertained -- both by having a fun, accommodating city and by providing a more cost-effective but quality product that allows the executives to go back to Los Angeles or New York and make their superiors happy.

"I think the perception is that production arrangements are more streamlined here and that perhaps we're more flexible about giving the client what they want," says John Mills, a local composer who's worked through Austin Media Music and Bee Creek Studios on jingles, scores, and beds for radio and television clients like KLRU and Cinemark Theaters. "But as much as a friendly attitude and a price break can help, it comes down to the quality of the musicianship. Nothing can be sacrificed on that front, because none of what Austin has to offer would matter if they weren't getting the same level of music they'd find elsewhere."

Perhaps because Austin has a reputation as the "Live Music Capitol of the World," or possibly because many local sound designers just feel more comfortable using real musicians, Austin's commercial output is produced by working musicians rather than the same pool of studio technicians who populate the traditional jingle market. As such, studio experts like Digital Domain's Chris Erlon say the depth of Austin's musical community marks an important distinction between a phrase like `same level of music' and `same music.'

"I think traditionally, in New York or Los Angeles, agencies say, `Oh well, there's a certain talent pool of musicians we use,' and they continue to go back to them," postulates Erlon. "But there's a certain sound that tends to come out of all that stuff. What we produce in Austin tends to be subtly different, and yet different enough that it's worth their while to come here."

Just as the nature of Austin's advertising work varies, from radio and television jingles to voice-overs and industrial video soundtracks, so does the demand for talent. Tequila's reputation initially hinged upon their success with musicians like Don Walser and a few Asleep at the Wheel alumni, yet now, the studio employs just as much children's music, metal, jazz, and classical music as it does western swing.

"Real musicians and real versatility have become our calling cards," says Wally Williams, a former GSD&M vice president who is now Tequila's founder and chief executive officer. "To be successful, you have to produce any kind of sound and produce it convincingly. And our angle is that real Austin musicians are going to sound better than the guy in a little room with a MIDI processor trying to make the same sounds. It may drive up our costs, but we don't mind, because the work sounds real, not canned."

That "real" factor, say the agencies and the studios, may also be Austin's best calling card, because even as processed music becomes better and better, it also tends to sound more and more the same. "Half the cartoon music you hear now is created by samplers," says Jon Blondell, who plays a combination of bass and horns on the vast majority of Tequila's work. "Even the people who think they know samples can't tell. But there's a lot of texture they still can't get. I get called in to put real bass on a lot of processed tracks, because even though I can play in time, I still sound human. And Austin and Tequila are booming in part because what we do different is produce music with hair on it. If somebody wants a slick L.A. sound, let 'em go to L.A. But if they want cool and personal, they're starting to realize they need to come here."

What, then, do diverse talents like Hickman, Mitch Watkins, and Glover Gill have in common aside from being regularly working musicians who moonlight in the jingle market? According to Levin, all three are known for being able to adapt quickly to a variety of styles -- the one talent agencies and studios seem to appreciate most.

"This is only easy work if you're good enough and experienced enough to nail it quickly," says Blondell. "These gigs involve tight time and money restraints, so there's often no time to work material out -- maybe just two or three passes. It's expensive if you fuck up, and there's not going to be a call back if you do. And if you walk in and they say we need something that sounds like Green Day and you have to ask what Green Day sounds like, there isn't going to be the time for people to sit around and explain it to you."

And yet, the majority of regular session participants say it's precisely that need for versatility that excites them. "It's like acting," says Tingle. "They'll say I need to sound like Dolly Parton and I'll have fun doing it, because I get to do something different than I'd do with my own career -- off-camera, without witnesses. Very seldom would they say, `We want you to sound like Lisa Tingle.' Instead, it's a chance to play with range, the highs and lows, and play different characters. That's the challenge."

Levin says that the great musical irony of recording commercial spots is that along with the opportunity to show range and versatility, he and Williams typically compose and orchestrate such tight musical passages and melodies that most musicians tell him they also enjoy the genre's inherent constraints. "My theory is that so many of the musicians find this good and honest work, because unlike the freedom of their own records, they're presented with the creative challenge here of working well in a defined box," says Levin.

Adds Williams, "The real creative studio musician tends to enjoy working on a small piece of music and refining it until it's nicely done. It's like problem solving: Can you come in, and in the space of an hour, do your part to solve the problem? Then, they get a check on the way out, and that's fun for everybody."

Sometimes, the pleasures of commercial work can be even simpler -- like getting paid to be in the studio, instead of paying to be there. "It's a chance to be in the studio on somebody else's nickel," says Bill Harwell, a senior engineer at the Production Block. "A lot of musicians are used to paying for studio time, or paying other musicians to be on their demos or records. Even working on your own stuff can amount to sweat equity, while here they can be in a studio without that stress, getting very direct production advice and concentrating on playing a style they might not get to do very often."

Even for a veteran like Mitch Watkins, who gets the first call on guitar parts for most of Tequila's work, the mere chance to work in a studio setting may outweigh the financial rewards. "There's no substitute for hours in the studio," he says. "You could be recording a glockenspiel choir and at least you're in a studio. And the learning experience can be as simple as hearing yourself being played back. I try to use anything I learn in the studio doing commercial work -- playing, tone, intonation -- on my real work. And at the end of the day, it's always just great to be working."

But 81/2 Souvenirs' Gill, who handles both piano and vocal parts in a variety of local commercial studios, says often the best chance to combine work and education is just the opportunity to work regularly with a new batch of musicians. "Some people say, `Oh geez, I gotta do another jingle today,' but I always see these sessions as a way to learn from other musicians," says Gill. "A lot of these guys I've never worked with before, so you've got to take that as an opportunity to sponge knowledge off them and take something else away other than a check. I mean Danny's got all these people that come in like Jon Blondell who are geniuses, people that can always teach you something."

Notably, with all the talk of "creativity," "learning," and "challenges," few, if any, of the musicians working in the local jingle scene say they have any reservations about acknowledging that work, or becoming a cog in the wheel of the advertising industry. "I don't care if it's an ad for maxi-pads," jokes Watson, "it's just a commercial."

According to Williams, part of the local music community's growing comfort with the commericial arena is that the "jingle" isn't necessarily the cornerstone of this type of work. "We do a lot more vocal work than most, because we have a steady pool of great versatile singers, but they're mostly doing stuff different than a jingle... which is traditionally inane and repetitive," says Williams. "The agency will give us the boards, voice-over scripts, and the idea, and we'll come up with the lyrics and melodies. We're putting a message in musical words, which makes it more a sung commercial than a jingle."

Will Sexton, who was at Tequila last week recording a Public Service Announcement for the Department of Public Safety, says that although he doesn't feel his voice or guitar playing is strong enough for consistent jingle work, he respects and supports the artistry it involves. "A lot of people with the Neil Young anti-advertising stance may not realize what goes on with the jingle sessions," Sexton says. "Sure, there are ad people who use careful pressure and childhood references to get kids to buy things, but that has nothing to do with the jingler. There's not someone pacing the room taking a psychological approach, which is kind of demonic in a way. This is more positive, with people coming in and playing and using the music to get people's attention. That can be very creative, not wrong."

Of course, advertising skeptics say the industry offers impressive financial rewards that go a long way in temporarily erasing any guilt about selling out. And indeed, the money is good; most jingle musicians say that with rates ranging anywhere from $50 to $700 an hour -- depending on the talent and the session's budget -- a couple hour's work in a commercial studio is typically better than a night's work in a club.

"It's quick money," says Gill. "I'm not getting any younger and time is becoming my most valuable commodity. I'm lucky to get to play as much as I do, but with a lot of gigs, the money isn't comparable with the time I spend. That's not the case with the advertising stuff, which is definitely more than worth my time."

Ultimately, session work can also be a gift that keeps on giving -- via "residuals," monies paid to performers each time a spot airs. Locally, there are conflicting reports on whether Austin is seeing more "buyout" -- straight grab-the-check-on-the-way-out-the-door deals -- or traditional residual arrangements, but either way, musicians are reporting better paydays as more Austin studios land national agency work. And better jingle paydays, says Tingle, often means a shot at a better funded regular career.

"I use this to compensate my real career, big time," says Tingle, who regularly does spots for the Texas Lottery and Schlotzsky's. "I'm so thankful every time I get a call, because it pays very well -- two to three time what a gig might. It can keep me going, paying my bills, and cover the costs for my next personal record each time, while I still get to use my voice and talent. And, more and more, I'm getting called in for residual deals, where not only do you bypass the aggravation of hearing your voice for six months on the air without getting more checks, but whereby you never know when you'll walk out to the mailbox and find a check. That can be as fun as the work itself."

Not surprisingly, it appears that the steady growth of the local jingle scene has also given rise to the numbers of local musicians willing to dive into the talent pool. In fact, several local musicians say it's becoming increasingly difficult to find ad work, because work that ordinarily would have called for versatility is now going to specialized musicians who may have entered the game late.

"There's too many singers," says one prominent local vocalist, who says she fears the boom may actually signal less work. "Everyone from Toni Price to Kris McKay and Sara Hickman need to make money, so there's all these great singers out there trying to get gigs. And they do. It's gotten a lot more competitive. I feel lucky to be working as often as twice a month on jingles, which pays the rent, but I'd love to only do the jingle work. Yet because you can make a couple hundred dollars for an hour's work, there's just more singers than jobs. It's now about crazy flukes, so you just have to be home when they call."

Conversely, the local studio scene itself actually seems less competitive. Even a few of Tequila's competitors, like Digital Domain, seem comfortable with the big studio's success. "Tequila has been able to keep a lot of the work in town, which is good for everybody," says Digital Domain's Erlon. In fact, Erlon has been taking on some of Tequila's spillover, because while the current one-room Tequila set-up is meeting the demand of its national accounts, Levin says they've made a conscious decision to let the smaller local and regional opportunities land elsewhere.

"I'm not sure that two or three can thrive on the scale of a Tequila," says GSD&M's Gilmore, "but everything is pointing towards the scene getting bigger and bigger as the agencies in town grow."

For their part, Tequila's Levin and Williams say their current workload and their track record of doubling revenues annually have encouraged them to purchase a new space on 16th Street that will feature three digital control rooms, ISDN phone lines that can fly in performances from around the world, and state-of-the-art sync-to video equipment.

"The way this business works is that it's a small enough industry to where a shop that gets hot gets talked about," says Williams. "A few years back there was a hot operation called Killer Music that did major business just because everyone talked about it and liked saying the name.

"If you take into account our work, the Austin musicians that make our talent pool, and the general hotness of Austin, we feel our involvement with the national advertising community can only continue to grow. This really feels like a burgeoning part of the music scene here and we're primed to make it happen. Austin's going to stick with this until we get it mastered."

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