Adair is a composer and one of the founders of Santa-Monica-based Emoto music, established in 2004. The company offers music licensing and supervision as well as artist representation for advertising, television, and film - in addition to its core business of original music production. Apart from being an excellent musician, Adair describes himself as “a sucker for obscure coffee, really good wine, road trips… and cool weird music.” 

Reese: Sometimes an idea or a piece of music comes along that changes peoples’ lives. Have you ever been involved in a moment like that?

Adair: I had a window seat on an experience like that. The company I originally worked for was called Ad Music and it was behind the music for Nike’s big campaigns of the late 80s and early 90s. Nike and its agency – Wieden & Kennedy – changed the face of advertising at that point in time, both visually and music-wise. To me, they were like The Beatles of advertising.

Reese: Was there a particular spot you remember?

Adair: Yeah, it was a spot called Heritage, which came out in around 1991. It was going to debut during the Super Bowl, so it was a big deal. It featured a person running through darkened streets, while Nike athletes were projected on the walls around them. We’d gone through several music approaches, but the composer – Jim Bradouw – had the idea of doing something very quiet and contemplative, just a piano. At first we thought “Oh, that’s nice” – but you know, no big deal. But everything came together on the day. Desert Storm had just started in Iraq, so they kept cutting away to scenes of jets roaring off aircraft carriers. All the other spots were huge and loud, the Super Bowl itself is aggressive – the screen was a barrage of intensity and sound. And suddenly our spot came along – and there was peace. For 90 seconds. It was so quiet that its impact was huge. None of us had anticipated it would have that kind of impact, because none of us foreseen the context.

Reese: I remember that spot! I’ve used it in classes.

Adair: Context is important in music. Maybe The Beatles in another time and place might have happened differently. With this spot, no one quite saw it coming. Well, maybe the folks at Wieden & Kennedy did – they were at the top of their game at the time – but we didn’t and we were the ones who created the piece.

Reese: What was the original brief?

Adair: They wanted something anthemic, bigger – a rock anthem. And we did a bunch of treatments like that. The piano was literally an afterthought. We said: “Well, let’s send it along and see what they say.” And to their credit, even though it was completely off brief, they said: “That’s it!”

Reese: That brings me to the question: How do you communicate music to your clients? 

Adair: The trickiest part is to try and climb inside someone’s head, to figure out what they’re hearing, what they’re feeling, and translate that, when they don’t speak music. Most people begin the conversation by saying “I’m not a musician,” so I know if I start talking about, for example, an odd meter, their eyes will start glazing over. What I’ve found is that it usually ends up being a conversation about emotional response and energy levels. The first imperative is to help amplify or define the story, to create the right level of energy and pace… But it’s also a conversation about musical genre, and what tribe that musical genre speaks to. Which has grown more complex because genres of music have exploded into so many different sub-genres. Marketers today know they’re targeting a very media-savvy audience. They want to ensure they’re speaking the right musical language for that tribe.

Reese: Have you felt a disconnect in terms of hierarchy during the briefing process? Say you’ve satisfied the brief from the creative director, but then it goes up to the next level and suddenly the brief changes.

Adair: Absolutely. Often there isn’t a consensus amongst all the parties involved. So the initial brief will come from the creative team that created the spot – they’re very close to it, they feel the nuances, they understand these subtleties of tribal language…

Reese: But they’re not the decision-makers…

Adair: Correct. So the creative team are happy, but the creative director hates it. So you change it, and then it goes up to the client. And they have a whole different set of prerogatives and assumptions about how certain types of music will affect their brand. I’ve had experiences where it goes all the way up the ladder and the last person who hears it – the head of marketing or even the CEO – says: “Yeah, I played it to my wife and she didn’t like it.”

Reese: So how can we fix the system?

Adair: If you take filmmaking as a metaphor: A great director has a vision and is able to martial a huge creative community in the service of that vision, so that the final output has a perfect wholeness. Those people are good at bringing in others who are at the top of their game, giving them room to do what they want to do, and still arriving at the desired result. Nike and Wieden & Kennedy came close to that relationship in the seminal period I mentioned earlier. There has to be perfect synchronicity between who’s driving the creativity and who’s driving the brand. That’s very rare right now.

Reese: Do you think things were better before?

Adair: Maybe not better, but different. The creative process has changed. When I first got into this business, you still started with a blank page. It’s transitioned over time to one of synthesizing pre-existing elements – you’re borrowing this idea from one movie, this visual approach from another, then adding a piece of music that already exists – or sounds like one that exists. The allegory for that in music is sampling, or mash-ups: creating a new message out of pre-existing messages. When I was watching the Super Bowl this year, I was amazed by how much of the advertising was referencing something else; if you didn’t know the original, you weren’t in on the joke.

Reese: What are the implications of that for music in advertising?

Adair: Younger creatives sometimes haven’t even experienced the creative process from a blank page. The idea of starting without a reference track, or without referring to a band that’s already out there, is foreign to them. They’ve never sat in a room with an orchestra, they didn’t see a guy scratching out a score, they just don’t have that frame of reference…

Reese: What do you think about testing?

Adair: When a movie studio test markets a movie, the audience walks out at the end and they’re hit with questions, or they fill in a questionnaire. I don’t have much of an issue with that kind of testing, because the experience the audience has had is realistic, their reactions are authentic. But in advertising you round up a bunch of people who aren’t media professionals and tell them they need to answer a series of very specific questions about what they’re about to watch. That’s an artificial experience from the get-go. Nobody watches advertising critically that way. When you’re watching TV, it either impacts on you or it doesn’t. If you start asking them about the music, it initiates a whole other conversation that has nothing to do with the work: “Well, I don’t really like that kind of music…” I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen great creative work derailed by the testing process in that way.

Reese: How do we justify the value of music in a society that thinks it should be for free? You’re running a company. I notice the air conditioning is still on.

Adair: Yeah, and sometimes I feel blessed that it is on, because as you say, it’s an extraordinarily competitive environment: everyone and their brother thinks they can make music if they have a laptop with Garage Band on it. One thing that drives value in marketing applications for music is celebrity, whether you agree with that or not…

Reese: You mean if it’s a band…

Adair: If it’s a band, if it’s a famous song, even if it’s a film composer. They maybe weren’t considered stars in the past – but now if you want Hans Zimmer or Danny Elfman to write an original score for your spot, that’s going to cost you a hell of a lot of money. Celebrity is still the single biggest driver of value in our business.

Reese: But what about non-celebrity content? How do you create value then?

Adair: I think it goes back to what we started talking about at the beginning: figuring out what people’s needs are, translating what they’re really looking for, navigating expectations… the premium now is much more on the service than on the content.

Reese: But there’s so much pressure on us to charge less, there are so many people out there promising to do the same for less…

Adair: Yeah, but I think too many agency producers have been down that route. They hired the two guys that had one YouTube hit but no experience in advertising. And then the track is delivered late, it’s in the wrong format, they can’t change it quick enough and oh, good God, they sampled another band and it hasn’t been cleared and now there’s an infringement claim flying around. Service is the difference between a successful score and disastrous project. Good agency producers at major agencies are well aware of that difference and are willing to pay for it...

Reese: So that’s the added value you bring to the table – experience, great service, making lives easier.

Adair: It’s the ability to deliver more and varied content, the ability to tailor that content to shifting psychological or political prerogatives at the agency or the advertiser – and to do all that fast, reliably, on time and with no legal or technical hitches. So I may cost twice as much as these guys, or five times as much as those other guys – but I have all this experience and, yes, if you spend that money with me, you’ll end up with more money when you’re done.  

John & Uli

John & Uli