At all of 21 years old, I’d like to think my adult-ing skills are finally on level with my North American peers. I know how to change a light bulb; I make my bed in the morning; I’m in charge of household laundry. However, there is one life skill that thus far eludes me: I am not a gifted cook.
Seriously, filming me in the kitchen could count as TV sitcom material (Facebook Live special episode, anyone?). As of writing this piece, my last attempt at using the stovetop was to make box mix pancakes (“just add water!”) – they turned out black on the outside, and raw liquid in the middle… oh, and caused the smoke alarm to started wailing, terrifying my cat as I ran around the apartment like a chicken with my head cut off, opening windows to clear the air.
However, if you know me at all, you know that I don’t give up easily. So in between my meals of yogurt, pasta, and canned soup, I’m bravely daring to try something that requires spices or vegetables. One of the big secondary skills that comes with mastering cooking, is how to grocery shop. To be honest, it was never something I really thought about when I lived with a family! But now that I need to learn the hard way about not wasting, having enough storage space, budgeting, variety and nutritional content, I’ve been paying closer attention to commercials for food products that play in front of YouTube videos (being a typical millennial, I don’t have a TV). Being myself, of course I found a way to draw comparisons between the food advertising industry and the music industry – and this is the article I’ve written.
Two Types Of Songs:
In the world of songwriting and music publishing, there are two main categories of songs: the “timeless” and the “of its time.” A newly written song will fall into one category or the other, and be marketed accordingly. Most large, overarching genres, such as pop, rock, RnB, country and folk can produce both types.
Anyone can write a timeless song, if you write songs, you probably have. These are the lyrics with universal themes, vague stories and details, belted by emotional, talented vocalists. While their instrumentation might sound dated 20 years from now, the melody line and lyrics will not, making them easy to cover by future talent show contestants, garnering mid-to-highbrow appeal.
For example, big ballads of lost love such as “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen would easily qualify as timeless – especially if associated with a Hollywood Major Motion Picture. Alternatively, classic throwback dance tracks like Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” would also count as long as they still get everyone in a good mood and bobbing their heads. Lastly, first dance songs played at weddings (“Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran comes to mind) are almost always timeless.
Of Its Time Songs:
You’ll know these ones immediately. Best case scenario, they provide a voice to the disenfranchised going through the world today – it’s real, honest poetry, not need for delicate metaphors or symbolism. The more frequent case scenario, however, the instrumentals jump on their genres latest trends, the lyrics use up-to-the-minute slang and reference pop culture through name-checking brands or other famous people.
Avid music listeners (such as us) will hear these songs while out shopping or in the club, and think “well, that’ll be an embarrassing line to sing in a few years.” But, truth be told, these songs aren’t written to be sung in the next decades. They are written by either by the performing artist or just for them at a certain point in their career, and the basic marketing strategy is to exploit the composition for all its worth right now, trading a long term, sustainable legacy for short term virality (and cash).
For example, political songs will classify as “of its time” (“Dear Mr. President” by P!nk was written explicitly about US President George W. Bush during his time in office, asking him how he can sleep at night after passing his education reform bill, the war in Iraq, referencing his daughter, wife, and past drug habits). Brand name-checks (“Gucci Gang” by Lil Pump), and songs whose titles come from a social media platform that might be gone in a few years (“Instagram Models Are Nothing But Trouble” by Lil Wayne feat. Charlie Puth) also spring to mind.
If you want a truly extraordinary example of an “of its time” song that aged about as well as that time I left my Halloween Jack-O-Lantern on the front porch until it rotted, mutated, grew legs, and scuttled away (what! it was too pretty to throw out for the first little while, and too gross to touch after that!), look no further than this #3 on Billboard gem from 2010, “Billionaire” by Travie McCoy feat. Bruno Mars.
The Food Advertising Industry:
So, what does all this have to do with me watching snack commercials? Well, as there are two types of songs to be written, there are two general types of foods being advertised: healthy, and junk foods.
Think about it: a typical commercial for healthy foods (your local dairy industry, granola cereal…) more often than not features authentic-looking actors who are “just like you,” touting the health benefits in a factual way, enveloped in calm, loving emotions (a busy mom getting a moment of peace when eating Greek yogurt… a farmer walking through a sunny field, collecting eggs from his free range chickens…).
Meanwhile, the last commercial you saw for a new burger, or energy drink flavour was probably flashy, loud to the point of obnoxiousness, broadcast during every commercial break for six months (making you seriously consider cutting your cable subscription or installing an ad-blocker), and a featured superstar actor (such as a top athlete who probably wouldn’t ever eat this stuff) playing on your emotions of action and urgency. NEW! FOR A LIMITED TIME ONLY! HELLO! PAY ATTENTION TO ME!
To draw it out cleanly:
Healthy Food = Timeless Songs
Junk Food = Of Its Time Songs
Therefore, I think it could be possible for us songwriters to learn to market our finished compositions by watching what the snack industry is doing. They have big budgets for advertising departments, consultants and boardroom focus groups, but we’ve got the creativity. Let’s adapt what they’re doing to have it work for us.
So then, for “timeless” songs, we can be slow and gentle, taking our time. We don’t want to risk overexposure at the start since we plan on being relevant for a long time – patience is key. How about licensing to longer term projects (such as movies)? If trying to pitch one of these songs, we can negotiate and hold out for the best deal in our favour.
Whereas the “of its time songs” need to be shopped now, and pushed as hard as we can everywhere we can reach. Have all your promo materials (merch, website, bio…) ready to go before the launch, because everything will be fast-paced after. Upfront money from this song is worth more than royalties, and remember there’s no such thing as shame (especially if you wrote a song about Instagram models being nothing but trouble).
On that note, if you’ll please excuse me, I need to take an Instagram picture of my latest cooking experiment. Do you smell something burning, or is that just me?