FLATIRON DISTRICT, MANHATTAN: Insurance isn’t there to cause controversy. It’s actually supposed to be about as exciting as a grocery cart.
Usually the commercials are just as straightforward, but the Allstate spot “Ghost Bikes” airing this summer has proven to be an unintentional exception. In this visually arresting ad from agency Leo Burnett, rich slow motion footage shows riderless motorcycles biting it big time – unreal imagery that’s proven to be too much for some of those who have experienced the reality of a motorcycle crash.
The visuals are pushed further by the haunting slide guitar-driven track created by the NYC composition team of Tony Graci, James Leibow, and collaborators Human Music and Sound Design. Graci, an upbeat multi-instrumentalist whose reel includes Guinness beer, Volkswagen, Colgate, drums on the Emmy-winning soundtrack for “The Lew Rudin Way” and more, told SonicScoop about how this crash-and-earn project rolled onto his radar.
You’ve been building up a good portfolio of commercial music. What makes someone qualified to make songs specifically for the ad world?
Great ad music composers I know like Randy Lee of Limebeat and James Leibow, they go on instinct and really being aware of different styles of music. The client will ask for a vibe, like a U2 sound or give an example of what they’re looking for, and you take it from there and try to create a composition that reflects that music.
As a composer, you need to have a great ear for the elements. If they ask for a Latin groove, you need to know about Latin clave and rhythms so you can actually create it.
That’s a solid starting position. So how did you get the call for this spot?
James, who is a great guitar player called me to play some slide, and wanted me to use my National Resophonic guitar. Being a drummer first and foremost I felt a little intimidated to do the session, but he insisted I play on it.
What kind of music did the agency Leo Burnett ask you guys for, and how did that guide what you put together, as a result?
They didn’t say Ry Cooder specifically, but that’s what I thought of when they asked for a Southwestern/Paris, Texas style. As a composer you know about that style, and its paints a picture in your mind of what the client is after.James and I got in the studio together, and he played me the video of the motorcycles crashing, and I started playing. We knew that was it.
We chose the National Resophonic acoustic slide guitar for its very authentic bluesy raspy sound. In addition, if you listen to the arrangement there’s also a drum pattern, with a little drone in the background to give a little vibe to it. The acoustic guitar propels the whole piece, but there’s also an electric slide, because you can add delays and reverbs to it. Space it out a little bit like a Ry Cooder thing, and that’s what they were looking for.
Did the client love it as much as you did? What did they say when you submitted the track?
They really liked it, but wanted some revisions. They wanted it more riffy-oriented, rather than a spacey vibe. They wanted more rhythms, so we went back and adjusted it, and they were super-happy with that.
We also gave them a third version for some extra variety — a finger-picky, banjo type thing. They liked that, but they used the second piece that we had made and cut it up into a :15 and a :30. It’s been airing since June and it’s been on the air a lot.
Where did you record the track, and what were some of key tools that you used?
How would you describe, in a nutshell, the overall challenge that you face with each ad project?
Well, basically you’ve got the task of coming up with a :30 piece of music that usually has to build, hit the product shot at the end, and resolve.
Obviously, it depends on what you’re writing for. They’ll tell you sometimes, “When the product shot hits, the music needs to change and open up.” But it’s always gotta change, it can’t stay the same. Then you need a climax, and once you get that, you’re home free. You either have it end right on the logo, or else they do a fast fade.
As we all know, just being talented at music doesn’t cut it anymore. What are the other factors — great service, other intangibles — that you think are important in making advertising clients happy?
You have to be prepared for a very quick turnaround. The client gives you an assignment and it’s usually due the next day, or you may have a few days to work on it. The key to accomplishing a fast turnaround is you need to focus in on what you need to do right away.
Usually, the agency will give you a creative brief and then from there, you ask questions if you’re not clear with anything, and from there – Boom! — you’re on your way. Sometimes you get the opportunity to be creative, that happens sometimes too – “This is a test spot, come up with something.” That’s when you can let your creative juices flow. But you still have to move fast, because you know how these executive types are.
That’s the most stressful pat of being a composer, is the turnaround time. Even if they like your piece, they always ask for revisions. Sometimes you’ll do that, and then they’ll end up liking what you originally had. Do what they asked you to do, accommodate them, and hopefully they’ll love it.
You told me that this ad, “Ghost Bikes” generated some controversy. What was the problem? Was that a surprise to you?
Well, if you read the comments on YouTube you can see what people thought of the ad itself and the track. Some loved the music, but some were not pleased with the subject matter.
I was surprised, because the way it was shot was incredible and listening to Blues music going along to it, as a musician, I thought it worked really well with the footage. But reading those comments on YouTube where people have lost family members in motorcycle accidents, they’re appalled and saying, “We don’t need to be reminded.” I can see how people would think that.
After all that work, what’s the reward of actually hearing your music on TV?
When it’s early on in your career, and you get the first couple of things, you say “Wow, I did that!” But then as you win a few more, and you watch it on TV, you’re just proud of it, which is also a good thing.
And then of course there are some ads that are a little cheesy, but then you’re happy because you got some residuals. You’re always happy to say, “I’m getting paid!”
— David Weiss