Ryan Fitch is the dynamic advertising music savant, who presently serves as the Creative Advisor and A&R Team Lead at eminent Portland-based agency, Marmoset Music. With a decorated history in the category, serving as a long-term music producer at Saatchi & Saatchi and the director of Marketing and Licensing for TV/Film at BMG Chrysalis, Ryan has achieved deep expertise in storytelling through music for commercial purposes. He has crafted and executed the sonic statements for globally relevant brands including Bacardi, Coca Cola, Lenovo, Microsoft, Miller, P&G, and General Mills. In our informative discussion, Ryan teases out the "Jedi mind tricks" behind results-driven creative collaboration.
You studied jazz with an emphasis in percussion at Indiana University Bloomington. How were you first inspired to pursue music and who were your heroes from an early age through your college years?
Drumming, jazz, and improvisational music have always been huge influences for me. Being a drummer my whole life has allowed me to get involved in lots of different styles of music and genres. When I was in college at Indiana University, I started as a performance percussion major, thinking it would allow me to get involved in learning different styles of music, but it ended up being focused on classical music. I decided to switch gears and go to jazz, which was more open minded in terms of learning all styles of music from big band to Latin to Motown music and soul to everything else.
In general, it was great to be a drummer for a couple reasons. First, drummers are needed in all sorts of styles of music, so I have experience performing in orchestras, African ensembles, Latin bands, Klezmer bands, you name it! That's allowed me to have an appreciation and love for all sorts of styles of music. And secondly, I find there's a decent amount of drummers in the TV and film music industry. I’m not totally sure why that is, but I think having a mechanical brain and just being more structured-based with systems has been something I apply to everything I do and something which has been very helpful.
Back in New York, you worked for 10 years as a music producer at Saatchi & Saatchi. During your time there, you worked on projects for Lenovo, Trident, Wendy's, Tide, Cheerios, and others. What was the motivation behind getting into commercial music and what were the most fundamental lessons you learned during that time?
I moved out to New York in 2001 and at that time, I was getting really deep into music production. I built a studio in Brooklyn called Phase4 Studios and started networking, producing and engineering a lot. Around 2003, a friend reached out to me and mentioned Saatchi’s music director was looking to hire a new music producer and encouraged me to reach out to them. At the time, I really didn’t know much about Saatchi & Saatchi or thought too much about the music in advertising. I just knew I loved being a producer and the job seemed like a good fit for me. Luckily, they felt the same way, offered me the job, and before I knew it, I had been working in the Saatchi music department for 10 years working on some of the most iconic brands around. It was a great experience and I learned a ton of lessons along the way.
I think the biggest lesson I learned was how to collaborate with creative teams. The dynamics of a team at an advertising agency can be extreme and difficult to navigate. To quickly talk it through, you usually would have a copywriter and an art director who conceive the idea of the commercial. They typically have a creative director they report to and then there may also be an ECD (executive creative director) who also may review the work. That’s the core team who’s involved from the very beginning to when the ad is done and running on the air. At some point early on, the core team sells the idea of the ad to the client and if the client likes the idea it will go into production where a whole bunch of other people gets involved, from editors to directors, and at this time, you start to hear everyone's opinion of what they think the music should be in the ad. A lot of times, as the music producer, I would feel like a referee and would try to make sure everybody was playing nicely and no one got hurt. So, a big lesson for me was learning how to listen and be a vehicle for the creative vision everyone had. I developed a really good reputation in the agency because people knew I would check my own ego at the door and do everything I could to serve the creative. Another valuable lesson for me was learning how to manage expectations. Most of the time, I would be working with a very modest music budget and quick deadlines, so keeping expectations in check are huge.
With all of this said, I feel like there are some Jedi mind tricks you figure out like how to present music to a team to get them excited about it and to create buy-in. For most teams, I would present my music suggestions in person, so we could discuss them and talk it through. With other teams, they would want me to send them my suggestions, so I would create elaborate write-ups and descriptions to create more context around my suggestions. At the end of the day, there’s as much psychology with dealing with people as knowing about music when it comes to being a music producer. It definitely can be a really tough and challenging job.
You were previously the Director of Marketing and Licensing for TV/Film at BMG Chrysalis. How did that transition eventuate? What were the benefits and the difficulties of representing such a vast and distinguished catalog?
After 10 years in the agency, I was ready for a change of pace and the opportunity came up for me to go to BMG, which was a really interesting opportunity and great for me to explore. Their TV and film department was around 10-15 people and everybody had different media strengths they worked in. The biggest challenge working at a big label and publishing company is having a catalog of more than a million songs to know and represent. On top of having a huge roster of songs, BMG was building a new internal system, which was very much in beta and not really developed in a way, which was helpful. At that time, there weren't any tools available to me to work the catalog. I had to build a lot of my own tools and created a lot of themed playlists with the help of Jose Mellado. The two of us would comb over the BMG catalog tagging it and organizing it in a way where the next time we got a specific brief about a lyric theme like ‘life getting better’ or ‘best is yet to come’, we were organized and could really pitch some really great suggestions. None of that existed before I got there.
Another big difficulty I encountered was the dynamics of working a huge roster which had super iconic names like Blondie, Aerosmith, Johnny Cash and many others, along with having a lot of great indie music. Unfortunately, working for a big publishing company like BMG forces you to focus on the large iconic artists, so I wasn’t able to focus on finding opportunities for emerging artists for some of the smaller budgets as I had hoped. This was really frustrating for me because in my experience at the agency, I noticed there was a big trend of more media being made every year with smaller and smaller budgets. I knew there was a lot of money on the table just in smaller licenses that BMG was missing out on. So, it was good for me to help encourage some of those conversations at BMG and help them grow their business, but ultimately, working there wasn’t a great fit for me and I left after a couple years.
Presently, you work for Marmoset as a creative advisor and A&R team lead. Can you tell us about your collaboration process with artists and bands to write brand new material for various opportunities? How much creative freedom is typically allowed or encouraged?
My focus now is on the A&R side representing bands. First off, we curate heavily at Marmoset so we only sign artists we feel passionate about who we think have music which will really resonate for sync. We help encourage our artists in directions we think could be valuable if they're writing new songs. We have a newsletter we send every month which talks about new creative trends. We try to teach our artists about how to get the most out of PROs and offer other helpful tips to how to navigate the sync landscape, so it can be as rewarding of an experience as possible. We are very hands on, keep a very open relationship with our artists, and we work with them closely.
We also have an original music team, so they’re fielding work for hire requests. Usually, we get a brief and the turn around is super quick. So, that’s a totally different animal and we have another team who focus specifically on those projects. That area is more creative since they are writing from scratch, but also more demanding.
Given the competitive landscape, what are the chances of an up and coming artist, who writes specific and personal songs, getting placed?
Well, it depends. Definitely, the more general you can be and positive with lyrical themes, the better for sync opportunities, especially for advertising. But it needs to be composed in a very unique and genuine way. Some artists try too hard and it’s really easy to hear when something sounds forced. At Marmoset, I'm working with hundreds of different indie artists - everybody is very savvy with trying to do everything they can to tap into every possible music revenue stream possible. We help make sure composers are aware of new trends and what music themes they can they can write which really will resonate with music supervisors. It’s a very competitive playing field and even if you’re being super strategic while writing, you still need the stars to align with your music being heard by the right people to sync your music on a regular basis. Marmoset is a good resource as we have the relationships in place with the music supervisors. We help our artists stay on top of new trends which the supervisors are looking for.
You recently spearheaded a crossbranding campaign between Bacardi and Major Lazer called Music Liberates Music, which leveraged Spotify streams to fund studio sessions for 8 talented Caribbean artists. Can you tell us about the early conversations surrounding this project? How did you conduct the search for Caribbean talent? What were your personal highlights from the experience?
This was a really challenging and rewarding project. The agency, BBDO in New York, was already partnered with their client, Bacardi. I think they’ve been working with Major Lazer off and on for different campaigns. For this particular campaign, Major Lazer had a new song which came out called "Front of the Line". They had this idea of giving free studio time to up and coming emerging artists from the Caribbean based on the amount of streams this new song received so that they can give back to their people. It was a really cool project for my team at Marmoset as we’re huge on supporting the indie artist community.
The hard part was the creatives at BBDO wanted the music to be really obscure so they had a bar it couldn't have over 500 plays on Spotify which in general is really hard to find. It was an interesting process for me and my team to figure out how do we put our ear to the ground and find super obscure artists who were really unique and had all the qualifications the team was looking for. We had to look high and low and we started to look at Caribbean blogs and festivals going on in different areas of Jamaica and Turks and Caicos and some of those islands. Sometimes, we would find somebody who’s playing in a festival and plug their name into Spotify other music services and see if that helps us find other similar artists, then we’d Google a few names, find out if they're on a mix tape, listen to that mix tape and then find another artist, and so on. It was a big challenge. We looked high and low for about two months and Marmoset found half of the emerging artists they featured in the campaign.
The coolest thing now is seeing where these artists have gone. One of the artists we found, Mula - their success has been tremendous! They went from having less than 500 plays to having millions of plays on Spotify, and they have been getting invited to play festivals around the U.S. after the Bacardi campaign launched. It’s been super cool to see their trajectory since being involved in the campaign.
You've crafted musical identities for some of the most recognizable and influential brands on the planet. Going forward, what brands would you like to collaborate with and what about them attracts your interest?
That’s an interesting question! I feel really lucky to have been able to work with so many brands big and small, but I think what attracts me most are the people behind the brand. It’s all about putting the dream teams together from great creatives, to directors, to editors and others on the production chain. When the right people are assembled, and a great idea forms, it doesn’t matter who the brand is - it’s all about bringing that idea to life, creating something interesting, and hopefully, something worth paying attention to.
What do you see as the most prominent musical trends in advertising these days and what would you personally like to see more of?
I’ve noticed a big music trend going on in advertising right now around angsty, dark aggressive songs. The edgier, the better! The days of the friendly ukulele and glockenspiel songs are thankfully in the past. I’m not sure what’s caused this - maybe it has something to do with our current political environment or maybe it’s just a ying to the yang of a lot of upbeat, saccharine type stuff which was happening a few years ago. Whatever the case, references like Kanye’s ‘Black Skinhead’, soundtrack references like Black Panther, and other edgy references come up for us all the time now. It’s been really cool and a fun for us to see how edgy we can go.
In general, as an industry trend, what I’d love to see more of is transparent data around song rights, sync license history, and other administrative information, which can be really murky and hard to track down right now. I’m excited about some of the new technology coming out like blockchain and Disco. I’m hopeful these new tools will help create a more accurate, easier, and fairer playing ground for music artists and sync supervisors.
From your perspective, what are the components of an effective advertising campaign? What are the common mistakes made specifically with music?
At the end of the day, being entertained and having some kind of emotional connection when watching an ad is what really makes an ad campaign compelling. The problem is though, every brand is trying to entertain you, and unfortunately, most people’s attention spans are shorter than ever these days. It’s a lot harder to really break through all the media noise now. Personally, I love ads which are really unexpected where music plays a counterpoint to bringing the story to life. The director, Fredrik Bond is great at this. For instance, his recent ad for Apple last year was pure genius.
The song scores the story line of the film so well and it really draws you in while having the product be a key character of the story. That’s really compelling and effective advertising in my opinion. The biggest mistakes made with music in advertising is insufficient budget and time. My friend, Keith D’Arcy who works at Kobalt would call it the 5% rule. Music only received 5% of the time and 5% of the budget, and yet music is always thought to serve a big role into making a commercial compelling and memorable. Unfortunately, as it gets easier for brands to have their own in-house production teams, the budgets and timelines keep getting worse and worse. Regardless of the challenge, being part of the production process to find incredible music which really elevates a film is something I feel lucky I can focus on every day.
What was the motivation behind your pursuit of coding and full stack development in recent years?
Well, I was really starting to burn out after working in New York in the ad music industry for 15 years. Once I left the agency side, I was surrounded by and working for big music corporations, who seemed like they were only motivated by money. Nobody seemed to support the music, artists, or the art. It was starting to kill my soul, so I moved to Portland and went to code school to get myself into something new. I had been interested in coding for many years and would dabble in it off and on, so it wasn’t that extreme of a pivot for me. Marmoset Music, who I had been a big fan of for many years, is also based in Portland. Thankfully, they gave me the opportunity to intern with their developer team a few days a week and also be a consultant the rest of the time advising on everything from music supervision, to marketing, to A&R and other areas of the business. After a few months, we all realized I should focus on the area of the industry I have the most experience in and they brought me in full time to lead their A&R team.
It’s been an incredibly rejuvenating experience for me to work for a music company who has an ethos for championing indie artists and also they have one of the best work cultures I’ve ever seen. Since everything is data related these days, the coding skills still sneak into my day to day working life now in subtle ways. For instance, I write code to make advance formulas in spreadsheets, so we can get to any roster data or stats we are trying to pull out. I also wrote a little program in Ruby which uses the SeatGeek API and takes our artist roster, a zip code, and lets me know which of our bands are playing in certain key cities, which is pretty cool and super useful!
What is next for you? Are there any upcoming projects you are allowed to share with us?
We just finished a spot for Seagram's, which is owned by Coca Cola. It was a radio spot where they wanted to feature a ‘side’ artist like a background singer or guitarist or other type of side musician. Essentially, their slogan is “Seagram's mixes well with others.” The agency’s idea was to find a side artist who has their own thing going, who also plays with other big names. Luckily, Marmoset has a bunch of artists who also play in iconic artists' bands. Jack Red is the one that ended up going final. He is a background singer for Chance the Rapper, a producer and a multi-instrumentalist, who has written music we represent at Marmoset. Jack Red hadn't really licensed his music before, and he's kind of newer to our roster. I think we signed him a few months back, so it was a cool opportunity and he was really stoked about it. The commercial is going to run on Pandora this summer. It should give him some good exposure to a wider audience. We’re all really excited about it.