by Steven Barboza
Rihanna. Bruno Mars. Beyoncé. Will.i.am. Jay-Z. Alicia Keys. All have an intriguing musicality that makes us want to buy their CDs and attend their concerts.
But there’s another category of talented stars whose tunes may be even more influential: the composers and arrangers whose tracks persuade us to shell out hard-earned money on cars, window cleaner, burgers, mobile phones, or drugs that treat erectile dysfunction.
These musicians are not just unheralded; they’re anonymous, and yet they’re superstars in every other sense of the word. They’re heard by millions each day. Their biggest fans occupy c-suites, and while their tunes may not top the charts, they result in billions of dollars in consumer sales by tying product to a catchy tune.
Some promo musicians are as talented as the superstars we all know. Some are even more versatile and show depth in a range of musical genres. One day, they might compose a hip hop score for a burger ad. The next, they might create music for a symphony orchestra.
“I love Kanye West’s music, but put me up against him and I will run circles around him musically any day,” said Wendell Hanes, a young black composer and TV promo arranger.
In a sense, they’re Pied Pipers of commerce, musicians whose tunes convey a message: buy this now! Consider the old-time jingle “Call Roto-Rooter, that’s the name!” Or the classic “I Can See Clearly Now,” famously covered by Jimmy Cliff and re-purposed to sell Claritin. Or infectious tracks such as “Days Go By,” the Grammy-winning electronica tune used in a Mitsubishi Eclipse promo.
Fortune 500 corporations are willing to bet big bucks that the soundtracks of TV (and radio) commercials will convince you to buy their products or services. It’s a bet made by corporations tens of thousands of times each day. This becomes evident whenever you watch television.
There are an estimated 25 black composers in the promo business. The best-known are the legendary Bernard Drayton, who blazed a trail in the 70s for black musicians in the ad business; Dunn Pearson Jr., a musician and arranger who has worked with The O’Jays and who is known professionally as the Black Beethoven for his ability to mesh classical and pop music; Nile Rodgers, a member of the R&B band Chic; John Forté, who wrote and produced songs for The Fugees; Stanley Brown, who composed music for Wal-Mart and Piggly Wiggly Muffin Mix commercials; and Hanes.
Much of their work forms a catalog of African American-focused commercials, in part because they are often branded as black artists and relegated to doing ethnic commercials for black ad agencies.
But most of these artists have crossed the racial barrier to do mainstream work in an industry where creative directors often demand edgy new sounds. “It’s very competitive,” Hanes said. “It’s not just you. [The agencies] have got two and three music houses they can use; and not only that – you’re competing against Kanye West, or any of 20 other options. They put a million dollars into a commercial, and then at the end of the day must find a piece of music that stands up. It’s an honor.”
Hanes graduated from Brown University, worked as an unpaid intern at Spike Lee’s film production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, then worked briefly in the record industry before transitioning to commercial advertising.