We end on another good note and it’s composer, Joel Beckerman. Joel Beckerman is an award-winning composer and producer for television. He is the founder of Man Made Music, a company specializing in sonic branding. Fast Company named him one of their “Most Creative People in Business” and Man Made Music one of their “Most Innovative Companies” in music. He created original scores for more than 50 television programs, won ASCAP’s “Most Performed” theme award for the past eight years, and has developed signature sonic branding programs for global giants such as Disney, AT&T, and Southwest Airlines. Beckerman has worked with John Legend, will.i.am, Moby, OK Go, Morgan Freeman, and the composer John Williams. He lives in New Providence, New Jersey.1
One of his most ambitious projects was an 18-month stint creating a sonic logo and other musical signatures, including a soaring minute-and-a half anthem, for telecommunications giant AT&T. “Likening AT&T’s new aural hook to its voice,” Vice President of Brand Identity and Design Gregg Heard said, “We want you to hear us and know us even when you can’t see us.” AT&T declined to discuss the project’s costs, but sonic-branding budgets typically range between $60,000 and several hundred thousand dollars, professionals said. Beckerman said one of his biggest hurdles was distilling a single piece of music that would speak for all the company’s varied operations, from consumer phone services to network infrastructure. He needed to convey friendliness to AT&T customers while also sounding a rally cry for its 256,000 employees. Unlike a singer-songwriter who might pour his heart into a composition, Beckerman’s process is more empirical. “You have to understand the science before you do the art,” he said. He started the AT&T project by surveying the competition, gathering more than 200 sonic logos, including Nextel’s communications chirp. He discovered that virtually all of them used electronic tones and realized AT&T had the opportunity for a more earthy sounding alternative. He presented the company with relevant trends in art, music and culture. With a mandate to humanize AT&T, he spotlighted the way some consumers try to balance their tech-saturated lives with pursuits like organic foods, crafts and the often ramshackle sound of Brooklyn indie rock bands. He played music for his clients, including a song by the idiosyncratic British singer Imogen Heap, and had them rate it based on the mood conveyed. That gave him a better sense of what his client’s parameters for “human”-sounding music were. During parts of the AT&T project, up to eight musicians wrote in groups in three small studios in the Man Made office. These teams tackled the task from different angles, Beckerman said, but all their work was measured against a one-page mission statement boiled down from the preparatory workshops with AT&T. Through three rounds of composition, they created 60 different pieces of music. Beckerman chose seven of them to present to AT&T. Though it was partly a gut decision, he said he tried to pick compositions that objectively conveyed a blend of attitudes, including “curious, open, inventive, purposeful,” in keeping with the company’s goals. One of the first songs built on slicing and sweeping notes from a string quartet. Its mood was grand but a little scary. Another sounded more homespun, with hand claps, chugging acoustic guitar and male and female singers harmonizing on “da da da da” phrases. That tune made it through multiple rounds of vetting, according to Mr. Heard, before getting shot down by AT&T executives. Some listeners deemed it “too young” and “too Up With People,” according to Beckerman’s notes on the feedback. Beckerman said one of the most challenging aspects of the work was finding a common language to discuss it. “People would talk about the trumpets when there weren’t any,” he said, likening his role in such sessions as that of “musical shrink.” His instruction: “Don’t tell us what you want it to sound like; tell us how you want to feel when you hear it.” Eventually his team landed on a core melody that stuck: a short phrase that seesaws through a series of octaves. But the results, when worked up as a full song with strings and synthesizers, seemed “too clean” and too corporate, Mr. Beckerman said. The solution: Man Made rented an old upright piano and a “messed up” glockenspiel. Players incorporated a woolly-sounding 1970s Wurlitzer keyboard and (after Beckerman stumbled on some Celtic rock on a music blog) bagpipes. The company’s new sonic logo—its first—is a stair-step of bright tones. The bite-size tune has popped up in the closing seconds of the company’s advertisements, including a TV spot in heavy rotation featuring a stolen tiger mascot and football tailgaters boasting about the speed of AT&T’s wireless network. In various lengths and forms, the music will eventually be integrated into every product and service AT&T offers, from music at retail stores to navigation sounds on smartphones and digital video recorders.2
It’s eight years in market. It took about 18 months to get there. Not that the work took 18 months but large organization, I think at the time, 230,000 employees. So it was quite a thing to sort of get up the food chain and get everybody bought in on these projects. Getting it bought in is half the battle because people don’t feel invested in it. It’s not going to end up across the brand, which is really the focus. So, I guess really one of the sort of most interesting elements of this often is to work and collaborate with the advertising agency that’s a part of the project. So, David Lubars who’s at BBDO, executive creative director, he was charged to work with me on this by Esther Lee at the time, the CMO of AT&T. And David came to my studio at one point and he was sort of listening to the work that was going on and we were talking about a bunch of the elements and we sort of pushing faders up and down. And David said, “How do you deconstruct this?” which I thought was a really interesting idea, which really is about simplifying. And as you might know from my book, my approach usually is to create a long form piece of music first and then distill it down, distill it down to its essence. So, in the recording studio, that’s where we started pushing the faders up and down against that sonic logo. And David again had said, “What would be deconstructed?” So, really pulled down probably three quarters of the material that was there led more with one particular sound and had all the other sounds supporting that one sound. So there’s that featured sound which almost has a kind of a popping sound to it. And that idea of sort of lining everything up, simplifying it, having one lead sounds and other sounds just in the perfect... really perfect, sort of like making a cocktail or certain tiny little bits of flavor in it and leading with some and pulling others back ended up being the solution along with a bunch of processing and equalization. I mean, we probably spent weeks really kind of finding that perfect combination of colors in the sounds with those notes. In a lot of ways, we think about the notes as being kind of half the battle in the sonic logos that are more melodic driven. The other is really thinking about the sounds themselves, so you want the notes to be somewhat iconic but also the sonics of that sonic logo to be iconic so that it passes what I call the ham sandwich factor, which is if you’re in the kitchen making ham sandwich and you hear that advertisement on the television that you’ll recognize it instantly.3
Did he work out from a couple of notes or did you go big and then deconstructed it down to just a series of notes?
So it all comes back to the assignment and the strategy and really what we’re trying to accomplish. Brands are stories and we need to always understand what’s the story we’re trying to tell which leads us to different kinds of solutions. I think of themes for companies really much like a pop song. It’s very much kind of a modular construction that there is sort of... I wouldn’t say a formula. There’re probably 50 formulas for a song but there are certain kinds of things you go from a verse to a chorus and maybe a bridge and then a half chorus. And then some other kind of element and then you end up with sort of a big recap of the chorus at the end, maybe repeating it two or three different times. So, there is a structure to a pop song and a great pop song and a lot of great songs fit that structure. The same thing is true with themes for brands. So, if we go back to the original ask, the original ask was, look, our problem is the network is amazing, the network makes an iPhone possible for instance, but the network is invisible. The phone you can hold in your hand, it’s tangible, you can see it. So, when you’re using a phone and everything’s fine, you love the phone. And then when the network drops, you hate the network. So really, the network only got credit for the horrible experiences and none of the great experiences. So really the assignment was how do we remind people that AT&T is [inaudible 00:06:43] in making the iPhone work. And more importantly or just as importantly I guess, to recognize that it’s not only sort of a big company or like a big dump pipe, but it actually, again, facilitates these things that you love. And it’s very approachable. The idea was, again, not this big cold company, but really hearing the individuals and the people who are part of the process of making these things happen. So, that really was the beginnings of what the theme would be. And really what inspired us in terms of writing that theme is telling that story. And then as you suggested, a lot of times it’s really hard to tell. It’s like, “Oh, we’re sending out to make notes?” We don’t know. Is it going to be sonics only? Is it going to be a modular construction of different elements when we come back to sonic logo within perhaps if you imagine that a unique sonic or a sound effect along with notes that might work by itself or that may work together or those elements may work by themselves to be able to recognize the brand. The right solution for AT&T, again, we didn’t go into this thinking this is the right solution, but it ended up being those four notes and a transitional device that got us from some other piece of content whether it was the end of a piece of advertising or the end of perhaps something like an outdoor activation or something in retail store and something in the phone actually created ringtones out of this. But the solution really ended up being that transitional sound which was somewhat iconic and recognizable by itself, but in combination with the notes really became iconic and endurable for them and that it’s lasted eight years.4
I’ve shifted from talking about anthem as really to talk about themes. And part of that is anthem has kind of threw people off a little bit, that terminology. So, we still do the same thing we did before. We’re just using different terminology to help people understand better what it is that we’re creating. So a theme is analogous to a theme for a movie or a theme for a television show and people start to get the idea that it is a story, a story to be told as compared to what we used to call this long form work which is an anthem. And people sometimes think of like the national anthem or it tends to be something a little more chest beating. So, we’ve shifted to now calling them themes. But, again, very much like a pop song, I’ve got to bring up that analogy again. You’re going a lot of times and maybe you write the verse first and maybe there’s some idea about the bridge and then you write the chorus, you rewrite the verse and then, “Ahh, the chorus isn’t quite right” and you change some other piece of the chorus. When it all fits together, when it all, again, feels like that modular construction of a verse, a chorus, some kind of bridge and it feels right. Then I think what drops out of that is the sonic logo, which absolutely is analogous to the hook. What’s interesting and sometimes can be a little challenging in the process, which is a good problem, is you end up sometimes with more than one hook. So maybe you might have a primary hook and a secondary hook. So, if you hear the theme, there is certainly (singing), which is the primary hook, but there’s also this other element which is (singing), which essentially is an answer. But as we were creating it, we weren’t quite sure which was going to be the primary hook. But, again, the first one I sang is very much the primary hook and that’s what people remember which is an earworm.5
And what does he think of today when he hears it?
I think of the 18 months it took to put it together. No, actually, what I think of is that I’m proud that it’s been around for a long time and that to me means that we were successful in creating something that had value, an ongoing value. I remember maybe four years into this process, maybe three and a half, the AT&T folks came back and said, “Look, we’re not just a network now. We’re really focusing on the fact that we’re leaning into entertainment.” They had bought a whole bunch of entertainment properties. Certainly, Warner being one of the biggest ones at the time and then they have certainly acquired many more since then. And it was really about focusing on this Footprint Entertainment that it wasn’t just the means of distribution, the means of putting things out in the world, but actually the thing that you’re putting out in the world, the entertainment, the thing that draws you, that pulls you in with the network being a facilitation of what that distribution is. And what we had to do was really evolve the sonic logo and create something that was more heartfelt, entertainment-oriented. So I think when you listen to the two of these logos, you’ll definitely hear the difference where the first is more friendly and welcoming and the second definitely feels more evocative and emotional.6
Does he think that sonic logos are even more relevant today?
Well, there’s certainly a lot to be said about the economy of the sonic logo. That that hook or that earworm as you talk about it is very economical. I believe the sonic logo for AT&T was about two and a half seconds. Some of them were even shorter like their expressive logos that happened with acoustic guitar for instance that I think were about a second and three quarters. So that economy of time, you think about for instance in advertising for sure, how much each second is worth from that 30-second or 60-second ad. So part of it is really just thinking about how valuable that real estate is and part of it is making sure that there’s plenty of real estate in that commercial for the advertising agency to tell their story. So, more and more, I think about the sonic logo as sort of the linchpin for sonic identity or sonic identity system, which really is analogous with visual identity. So a visual identity is not just the mark. A visual identity is all the different elements that you can recognize and that are part of a storytelling in a visual logo. So you have color, you have shape, you have animation. There’s a lot of different elements that make up a visual identity so that that brand can live in very organic way, in ways that are very consistent with the experiences you want to have everywhere. So whether it’s South by Southwest or it turns out it’s something at the beginning of, for instance, places where there are film festivals, places where, again as you mentioned, digital devices, things like Pay Sounds. So, each of those are derivative of or part of a sonic identity system that’s inclusive of the sonic logo. Again, with the sonic logo being the linchpin. What we find is all these other elements, some of them are really direct derivatives, especially Pay Sounds, where you want to make that very, very close to or really pretty much identical to a sonic logo but really designed for a phone speaker. To things like what we call Brand Navigation Sounds which are UI sounds, user interface sounds, or user experience sounds that show up in a whole variety of devices, whether it’s a baby monitor, whether it has to do with the electric cars or the future of autonomous vehicles that these sounds that are intuitive, it helps us understand the experiences we’re having, again, tied back to the sonic logo which, again, really is the hero.7
Does he expect to see more brands use sonic branding?
Well, crystal ball says that fewer and fewer people are watching full length advertising. So, brands really need to show up in ways that are relevant to customers who are spending much more time online, who are spending much more time in this sort of... Again, right now, we’re in an odd moment in the worlds, but usually it would be in places like football games or other kinds of stadium experiences. Again, having these sonic logos show up in ways that are relevant. Again, you would hate to have a sonic logo interrupt your football experience. Certainly, when there’s a touchdown, that’s not where you’re going to have a big AT&T sonic logo. But what we did for the Dallas Cowboys, for instance, was to create a mashup of several different stadium rock songs where the logo was sort of included as really a variation of the logo in particular moments I’m thinking right now. It was really about using orchestral chimes which just was kind of like a fun, quirky way to hear the logo in tune, not only with the stadium rock, but also in tune with what you might want to hear in a celebration when your team gets a touchdown. So, these sounds are definitely more and more relevant. The sonic logos themselves are more and more relevant but we really have to be very smart now about how we incorporate those notes into the experiences. Again, that it doesn’t stick out, it just belongs. It just feels like it’s part of the experience rather than pasted on to the experience.8
Yeah. I’d like to think that I’m still a musician and still a composer. I’ll still do the ad television show here and there and maybe a little independent film. So I still love creating music. It’s in my blood. It’s certainly a first love of mine. So, yeah, it reminds me of... I’ll just tell you a super quick story. So the whole birth of going into essentially creating sonic identity systems, which sounds so sterile, but actually it has so many different creative possibilities in ways it could show up. So, the birth of that whole idea, I was scoring a television show, the last episode of a particular season, and the audience that you get for that, the ratings you get for that really helps determine whether or not you’re going to get a next season or they’re going to cut a short season or the show could go away. So, I was working on this final episode and the showrunners and the script was wrong. The way they shot it was wrong. There were gaping holes in terms of really logic and story and performances and they kept sending me cut after cut after cut of this episode hoping that I’d be able to save it with music. And it’s very difficult to really save something with music. You can improve it. So anyway, I’m looking at my seventh cut. I literally hadn’t slept for about a week because they were close to delivery and I was staring at the seventh cut and I knew I was never going to make them happy. I remember saying at the screen, “I would like to be scoring anything else that’s on this screen.” And that idea sort of stuck. It’s like, “Well, why don’t I score the rest of the world and like what would that be like?” And that was really sort of the birth of this. And it’s thrilling. I mean, you can create music for a television show or a film and it has a certain lifespan. Not to say that great films don’t continue on forever, but strangely enough, the idea of the sonic identity systems, they just go on and on and on when you do it correctly. And it still is really fun to be able to hear those things out in the world, recognizing that there may be hundreds of millions of plays of these sonic identities. There are certain millions of plays with hundreds of millions of impressions each year. That’s kind of fun to think about impacting an audience like that. For instance, there’s some work that I did for the... Well, originally it was for the Super Bowl on NBC which became the NFL on NBC, which was based on a John Williams melody and it was really about extending that melody into a longer form. And how thrilling and exciting it was to be able to recognize that that music that I extended and created a brand new arrangement for was in front of, again, hundreds of millions of people in plays. That’s always been super thrilling for me.9
So, other than AT&T, what’s his favorite sonic logo?
I have to go with NBC. I mean, look in ubiquity of it and the fact that the network has committed to it for decades is so interesting. Recognizing that it originally started, there were these sort of little handheld chimes, which were used on the hour as a station ID, station identifier, and it was actually required at the time that if you had a broadcast network, you had to identify that network on the hour, every single hour. So, there’s only a certain number of notes that are available in these little handheld chimes. If I remember correctly, it’s a major chord. So, somebody came up with the idea of what that would be, essentially G, E, C. And the fact that that identifier went on for a number of years and then when those identifiers were no longer necessary that it carried through with the network for decades and decades after that. There’ve been so many reinterpretations of it that it still exists at the beginning of The Today Show for instance or a bunch of other shows or what they call promos which live next to advertising usually where you see an NBC logo. It’s just fascinating to me. And so amazing that it’s so ubiquitous and has lived such a long life.10
One final fun fact about the AT&T campaign?
I think that there was a group, actually that group is still together at Man Made. They were working on the sonics of the sonic logo for AT&T, again, for weeks and weeks and weeks, trying all sorts of different versions and variations and getting input from me and from the network... or excuse me, from the client and from the agency. And they would go through and create 30 different variations, same notes, but very, very different sonics. And then they get another series of notes and then they go back and work on it again and again and again and then again and again and again. And it must have been probably 15 different recording sessions until they got something that everyone bought off on. We called it the dream team, the dream team. We had to cut or lighten it up and make it fun for them and kind of make them special because you got to imagine sitting in a recording studio for that many weeks, that many versions and variations, it can drive you a little insane. It’s sort of like drip, drip, drip, drip, drip in over time. And then one other fun fact is sometimes they would go create versions and variations and then the next morning they would say, “Yeah, these really aren’t that different.” They get so in tuned to that tiny, tiny, tiny little differences that when you show up in the morning is you recognized you really haven’t made much progress.