NASHVILLE, TN—Remember the 2003 Super Bowl? “You’d get to the end of a commercial and go, that was so cool, I love that. Who was that for? You might even wonder what industry it was for. And you’d have no clue!”
According to Bob Farnsworth, who founded Hummingbird Productions in Nashville in 1976 to produce original music for the advertising industry, that was the point at which the alarm went off. “Those dot-com companies that were on that Super Bowl are gone now—or a lot of them—and it was because they were advertising without really branding. That’s when I felt we needed to get back to branding.”
Farnsworth knows of what he speaks. This is the man whose company has won dozens of the advertising industry’s Clio and Lions Awards during its 37 years in the business. His sound design work on the original Budweiser frogs has become the stuff of legend and earned him a Clio Hall of Fame Award. And, once heard, can anyone forget the catchy music used in campaigns such as “Always Coca-Cola” or Wrigley’s “Double Double Your Refreshment,” both of which Hummingbird created?
But those campaigns came at a time—the 1990s—when the memorability of television commercial music was arguably peaking. The efficacy of the musical brand had started to wane in the previous decade, Farnsworth believes, thanks in part to the TV remote.
“If I look at where the history of advertising has been, I sum it up in this way: the ‘80s on back, commercials tended to be clever and memorable. Then, when channel surfing came along and you could choose to knock something off the screen quickly and easily, you had to become more entertaining. That’s when ‘advertainment’ came along, and commercials became more cool and memorable.” Cue those Hummingbird classics of the ’90s.
Unfortunately, he continues, “The cool factor grew and the memorable factor shrank, and that culminated in the 2003 Super Bowl commercials.”
Ten years on, he says, “People cannot afford to do just the cool factor— unless you want to spend millions and millions of dollars just drilling it into people. So people are starting to say, ‘I’ve got to get my maximum bang for the buck; I’ve got to start branding more.’”
Fortunately for Hummingbird, advertisers are beginning to realize that music is underutilized as a branding tool, he continues. “We’ve been using it as a mood tool, but maybe we can’t afford to do just mood. Is there anything else that music can do? Yes—it can brand incredibly well for you.”
Unlike licensed music, an original piece can really reinforce the message of the commercial. “This music is going to emotionally define how [viewers] feel about a spot. Part of the problem with the agency world is that they have largely forgotten how to do original music, because they’ve gotten used to using tracks, or going onto the internet.”
Ambition might also be getting in the way: “I sometimes wonder if the advertising guys are trying to use the advertising industry as a step to get to Hollywood. Which is okay—it just doesn’t do the advertisers any good.”
Time was, Farnsworth had a roster of 17 staff writers, each specializing in a particular genre. But as home studios proliferated, it increasingly made sense to forge relationships outside of the Hummingbird facility. “If we’re doing a piece of classical music, I might do something because that’s my background. But I’m also bringing in other people to back me up.”
Farnsworth also keeps an eye open for new, up-and-coming talent: “It’s more about working with them from the standpoint of trying to get them opportunities to write or produce or perform on a commercial,” he explains. Artists used to feel like they were selling out. Now, “It’s cool to be on commercials.”
Typically, he pitches multiple demos: “I have long realized that nobody hits it out of the park every time. If you have five or six different writers on a major project, somebody is going to knock it out of the ballpark.” And the focus is not just TV spots: Hummingbird also composes for film, TV programming, web, radio, video games and more.
Recording production also gets outsourced on occasion, with orchestral dates usually ending up at Oceanway Nashville. Hummingbird once sold time as a commercial facility, but, he says, “We had to ask ourselves, are we in the studio business or the music production business? In making the decision that we’re in the music production business, we made our focus more on the tools that we need to do what we do.
“If we’re going to do stuff where clients are a factor, then let’s use the guys that will impress them. That’s why when clients come to town, we go over to Dark Horse; it’s the coolest studio in town! But we’re getting great stuff done in our own studio.”