NEW YORK, NY—Ask several broadcast- related music production and audio post companies where the work is coming from these days and you’re likely to get a different answer from each one. But if there is a theme, it is one of evolution and diversification as opportunities present themselves, even if that leads away from the core of the business model.
Howard Bowler, president and founder of Hobo Audio in Manhattan, suggests that there are certain universal things that any business owner needs to get right first. To paraphrase Apple’s Tim Cook, he says, “You have to get the staff right first; that’s the most important thing. You have to get the right strategy together. Then you have to get the execution in place. If you get those correct, you’re going to have a favorable outcome.”
Bowler, who is quick to give production manager Mary Valentino her due credit on financial matters, is obviously doing things right. “Over the last three years, we’ve been growing between 25 and 40 percent; we’ve been very lucky. So far this year, we’re up 35 percent or more. All sorts of issues emerge as you try to grow, including cash flow, but we’re managing quite well. Mary has been exceptional at monitoring that and making sure everything is going smoothly.”
Mitch Davis, composer and co-founder, along with executive producer Scott Brittingham, of commercial music company Pull, has been evolving both as a business owner and personally as a musician, since the pair set up shop in a 5,000-square-foot space in New York’s SoHo neighborhood in 2001. “My control room is a small proportion of the space—maybe twenty-by-twenty [feet],” reports Davis, noting that the remainder of the space was furnished like a big apartment, complete with bar. “It’s really a private studio for my projects; you can’t typically rent time. I built the place in a non-traditional way for the way I want to work.”
Nevertheless, several years ago there was a call from U2, who had heard about Pull over the grapevine. The band spent over two years working on its Songs of Innocence album at the studio. Damon Albarn, Bobby Womack, Stephen Malkmus and other artists have also worked at Pull, he reports. “U2 took over the whole place. I think the reason they liked it was that it’s private; it’s a more comfortable way to work,” says Davis.
“Where do you go from there?” asks Davis, noting that he’d had to put his regular projects on hold while U2 were working at the studio. The answer was a collaboration with another company in the building, Harbor Pictures. Together, they built out a couple of Dolby-certified film mix stages in Pull’s former lounge areas to create Harbor Sound, providing a home for many of the staff from the recently closed Sound One facility uptown.
“We don’t have the same open space we did, but we do have these large, world-class mix rooms,” he says. “And after it just being the two of us, it’s nice to have other people around now. There’s a lot more activity.”
Plus, he notes, “The proximity to these films creates opportunities. I’ve gotten a whole bunch of songs into films that I would not have otherwise.”
Stephen Arnold, president of Stephen Arnold Music (SAM), a sonic branding and music production company that focuses on the broadcast market, observes, “We’re finding that you continually have to be creative in how you relate to your clients. Once a year, we’ll come up with a couple of different campaigns that are bundled with video. We live in a visual world, so anytime our music can be seen with visuals, it helps sell the music. But in this case, we saw a real need for a ‘good morning’ campaign.”
The new “Waking Up My Day” morning show package includes video content that each station can tailor to its specific market. “It helps set us apart and it’s cost-effective for them because they don’t have to go out and shoot a bunch of high-definition video; they can insert stuff that they have around these images,” says Arnold
The venture is a response to shrinking budgets and reduced staffing, adds Chad Cook, SAM’s creative director. “With this, you’ve already set a creative roadmap. A station can easily whip this thing out in three or four weeks. They’re hitting the air with a premium product with great, catchy music and videos that go along with the lyrics, with plenty of places to drop their local talent and market shots in. It’s already in over 50 of the 211 television markets. That speaks to how well-received it has been.”
Hobo Audio’s work typically comes from a variety of areas, says Bowler. “We have three sources of revenue, all audio post-driven. We get it from ad agencies, production companies doing long-form television, and from long-form features. A subset of that is promos; we do a ton of them and we have a guy here that specializes in that.” Despite his success, Bowler doesn’t rest on his laurels. “Every day, I have something to prove; I treat every day like it’s my first day on the job. I think that attitude is helpful in keeping the relationships fresh and engaged, and interest in the creative work. Once you fall into routines and patterns, there’s a predictability that’s anathema to this industry,” he says.
This past year, Hobo has evolved into a mini agency, spurred by Bowler’s advocacy to correct what he sees as an injustice. “Our specialty is audio post-production, but we’re also writing, producing and creative directing radio, TV and internet spots to end the prohibition of marijuana. We are the first legitimate agency to do this; no one else has touched it,” he elaborates.
“The reason I got into this was personal—I got tired of seeing the arrests of people for marijuana. I came at it from a human rights standpoint. I started to research it and uncovered a wealth of information that first got me angry, then got me determined to do something about it.”
Generic versions of the “End Prohibition Now” ads are available free of charge through an online inventory. The spots can be localized for regional markets through customization.
The initiative has revealed some hidden talents, he continues. “I’m not the only one writing these spots—several other people at my company have multiple creative skills that I didn’t know about. Chris Stangroom, our head engineer, has written and produced a couple of the spots, and they’re exceptional. I really had no idea he had this skill. He’s brought some passion to this issue.”
Although Hobo’s focus is audio post, virtually everyone is also musician, he says. “Every single spot that we’re doing for marijuana, we are writing the music for.”
Bowler adds, “People are approaching us because they’re attracted to the creative work. Opportunities may unfold as a result of this. We’ve rolled out our first internet spot; it got 5,000 views in about three days. The next step is to get one on-air.”
Over at Pull, Davis produces advertising music for the likes of Mercedes, ESPN, UPS and others, and is also a signed artist. His personal evolution from underground electronic music to organic, all-acoustic songs—under the moniker Orba Squara—caught the ear of Steve Jobs for a 2007 iPhone commercial and started a revolution in advertising music that can be heard to this day.
“It wasn’t planned, just a reaction to what was happening with music and what I had been doing,” he says, noting that every song on the album has been licensed, some multiple times. “I shift what I do based on when I get bored. I felt the way to go further was to go backwards, to toy pianos, bells and stuff that was the opposite of what I was doing. At the time, people weren’t using that instrumentation, so it was new and different. Now it’s not new and different, and I don’t do it anymore.”
SAM’s Cook has observed musical tastes evolve on TV: “What I’m seeing is that everyone is moving towards being more genuine, and maybe a little softer. They want the music to feel more singer-songwriter based, artist-driven; more like an album track than a production piece that has too many layers and is over the top. Now it’s more about lyrics they can put their own imagery to, that generates a pride of place to the viewer and an emotional connection.”
But coming up with a melody is only half the battle. With the proliferation of delivery platforms, including broadcast TV, OTT outlets such as Hulu and Amazon, the internet and cinema means that “you have to really think through how these melodies are going to work,” says Cook. “It might need to work in a :30, :15 or :10 spot or a :02 “snipe,” he says.
For Davis, cinema and internet delivery has allowed him to become more creative. For a recent campaign for Nike, for example, he set up his studio with a variety of mics positioned around the space and essentially performed to the picture, jumping between instruments.
“I didn’t want to have to break the flow. As I was playing one line I was thinking, I know what would be good next,” he says.
Not being limited to 30 seconds can be creatively liberating, he continues. “You can do things that are a little more artistic. I don’t think the Nike stuff would exist without the internet; I don’t know if I could picture it on television. It’s a little too cool.”