American Express

On thursday I woke up early (for me) and drove to Santa Monica, just down the road from Remote Control to see Birgit and Paul at Hifi, who do the music for many of the commercials you see today. I was greeted by Birgit at the door and right off the bat she was so easy to talk to. Hifi is this great little studio. She gave me a tour and the place is wonderful. They have two composing studios, a live recording room and a mixing studio. I sat down for a meeting with Birgit and Paul and told them a little about my background and what my end goal is. Birgit told me that because of the number of commercials being made on a weekly basis, composing for commercials is an extremely lucrative business and it’s very easy to make a living writing for them. She said there’s also room to still be a composer for film and TV while still writing for commercials. It’s a tight squeeze to manage those two together, but it’s great for me to hear that I could be writing commercials, making enough money to live and still have the time to search for my ultimate job.

So they started telling me about how the job works. What happens is a commercial agency makes a spot of either 15 or 30 seconds and sends it to a scoring house. Because of the time schedule of commercials, they want as many unique versions of the music as possible, so a house can sometimes send up to 40 different songs for review. This means that in a sense, you’re competing against the other composers from the house who sent in music. Sometimes there will be such a time crunch that the agency will ask for music from more than one house, so you’re competing against composers you don’t even know as well. The agency will then pick the song they want to go in the commercial. The composer who wrote that piece then gets paid for their work. Then the agency will ask for revisions and tweaks to make the music exactly the way they want it, and that’s the process. Hifi has two composers that they’ve hired full time who put out consistently ‘picked’ music, so they get a steady paycheck, and they also have a few freelancers who get paid if their music is used. Paul told me the trick is to write as many versions of a commercial as you can because that increases your chances of getting picked. He said the other added benefit is that there are only so many ways you can edit a TV commercial, and many of the songs you’ve written will fit other commercials, so the more you have, the more you can pick from your library of music a song that will fit a new commercial, so you don’t have to write new music. He said some of the guys who have been doing this a while will go a month or more without writing any new music because stuff they’ve written before works, so it’s like getting paid for doing nothing.

By the end of meeting, Birgit and Paul said they’d start giving me commercials to work on, which was great news. My first commercial is a new spot for American Express. They gave me the video to work on which is cool because it’s unfinished. The voiceover is a placeholder and the visual effects are just Previz. Previz means the graphics are unfinished, unpainted, very rough computer models that graphic designers use to preview how a computer generated scene will look before all the time goes in to making it look pretty, in case any changes need to be made. I was also given a brief which tells the composers what the agency wants the music to be like. For this spot, I was told the music needs to be warm sounding with long tones in the lower register to offset how blue the commercial is color-wise, with fluttery sounds in the upper register. Also, they wanted a mathematical, almost clock-like approach to the rhythms. With that to go on, I set to work.

I didn’t have a desk yet to set up my full workstation yet in the place I’m living, so I set up my mobile rig; the one I used to do my main titles during the fellowship.

So that first night I kicked out two versions of the commercial. One was upbeat, bouncy and happy, and the next was a little more elegant. I wanted all my versions to give the listener a different feeling for two reasons. One, the brief didn’t say what they wanted the listener to feel, only what they wanted the music to sound like, so I want to cover my bases; and second, I want to show the people at Hifi that I can write a variety of styles. I emailed out the first two, and a few hours later I received an email asking me to call them. So I did and I was connected with Paul. Paul said he would put me on speaker and have a conference with him and Birgit while they listened to my tracks. He said he wanted this to be a learning experience for me so I know what sort of things they are looking for. At this I was thinking to myself, “Oh God. I really screwed this one up  pretty bad if they both need to give me notes.” I got out a piece of paper and waited for my execution. But instead, they said the first one was good enough to send to American Express right away and they just wanted me to use a different way of naming my files so they knew what draft I was on and knew who wrote what. As for the second one, they just had a few very minor suggestions and that was that. They were really impressed. I told them I would get two more out to them by the end of the day. Before I left they told me after hearing my stuff, they wanted to give me a 2 minute infomercial for Boeing that they think I could do well on. Information in hand, we left it at that.


Feeling empowered, I didn’t want to be writing music on my mobile rig anymore. Having all the keys available rather than the 48 of the little keyboard makes me feel a lot more free so I feel I can write better with all the keys ready for me. My I ordered a sturdy piano stand the week before and it had just arrived that day. But what I needed was a piece of wood to serve as a table so my computer and hard drives to sit at the level of the keyboard. I went to Home Depot to get a piece of plywood cut down to the size I needed, and I imagine what I felt was similar to someone who’s never cooked a meal in their life feels when walking into a cooking shop to get something called a ‘microplane’ for their friend. Luckily someone was there to help me, and cut me a piece of wood and I was on my way. Within an hour I was all set up and writing music.


By the end of that day, I had two more versions out. The next day I wrote another, and today I did a final one, to make a total of 6. Birgit called me a composing machine, which makes me feel like they’re getting a good impression of me. The deadline for all the versions is Monday, so now all I can do is wait and hope. Although the paycheck would be great, the real reason I want American Express to pick one of my songs to use I think will tell the people at Hifi that on my first try I wrote a piece of music that was used in a commercial, and maybe they’ll start sending me steady work. Let’s hope so.


Here are the 6 versions I wrote for an upcoming American Express commercial. Enjoy!




2 thoughts on “American Express

  1. Anonymous

    wow! go you! they all sound just like real commercials, but my favorite is 4. We’re all rooting for you guys back in Saybrook!


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