How To Pick The Perfect Advertising Song

Good Ear Music’s Jackie Shuman breaks down the process of finding the right song for the right ad.

As much as many a music snob is loathe to admit, advertising has long been a way for people to hear new tunes and find out about new artists. Or old artists, as was the case with Volkswagen and Nick Drake back in 1999. As the influence of traditional radio continues to deteriorate, the role of music in ads and their reciprocal importance to one another has significantly grown. Just ask Aloe Blacc and Beats, or Apple Music and The Weeknd.


In hindsight, matching the right song with the right ad and brand seems pretty straightforward, and sure, when you take a hit or already heavily used song (think Blur’s “Song 2” or Plastic Bertrand’s “Ca Plane Pour Moi”), you’re playing it safe. The real sweet spot is when a brand finds a lesser-known talent or tune that elevates the advertising and intrigues the audience.

The folks at Good Ear Music Supervision (GEMS) know a thing or two about it. Founder Andrew Kahn spent years at TBWA/Media Arts Lab working on iconic Apple ads that brought exposure to artists like Feist, Yael Naim, and more, and prior to that was the music coordinator for The Sopranos.

The company most recently helped Twitter find a tune for its World Series-themed TV ad debut to promote the Moments feature, and, for the second year in a row, GEMS made it onto Billboard and CLIO Music’s list of most Shazammed ad songs. Music supervisor Jackie Shuman talks about the company’s Top 7 picks (see the slideshow above), the process of finding the right song for an ad, and more.

Co.Create: How do you find the perfect song for an ad?

Shuman: “It all comes from the idea that everything is contextual, and our job is to help find a good match between scenes and sounds. How we get there changes with every spot we work on, but we start by making sure we fully understand the brand, the product, and the particular project. After looking over a script or storyboard, we’ll make sure we’re aligned with the creative team in terms of musical styles, era, lyrical content, energy level, etc. We’ll also get their budget and specs so we can make sure we’re only sending options that are actually attainable.

In terms of finding potential songs, we welcome music from all sources, whether it comes from our colleagues at labels/publishers, friends, or the old-fashioned radio. One favorite, though, are personal music blogs. We each have our go-to’s, whether they post emerging pop (like our friends at Neon Gold), vintage garage rock (like the folks at Nevver), or a medley of everything good (Said the Gramophone). The blogs we browse are highly curated and come from writers with a well-defined point of view, so their passion is clear in everything they share.


What’s the biggest challenge in finding just the right song?

The biggest challenges usually come down to budgetary restrictions and timing. We have to be very quick and resourceful when it comes to meeting deadlines and dealing with last-minute changes. Sometimes we have to get very creative, maybe even a little scrappy, to make things happen.

For example, we were working on a campaign for a brand earlier this year with several spots that all revolved heavily around music, specifically songs that could believably be played in venues throughout different parts of the world. The music needed to sound authentic to each region it was set in: a U.K. music festival, an underground techno club, an American arena rock show. It was not only a creative challenge, but a logistical one as well–the budget was tiny and the spot wasn’t coming out for another year, so the client wanted music that might not even be released yet. We had to extend our search to all kinds of people from around the globe, going back to people we’ve met at music conferences, researching lineups at almost every major international music festival, listening to hours of hipster Australian internet radio, and beyond. It was very challenging, but we were thrilled with the outcome.

Given the shifts in record sales and the influence of traditional radio, are artists now more receptive to having their songs used in ads? What advice do you have for artists on how to decide whether to lend their work to a brand?

Most brands genuinely want their music choices to feel authentic and in line with their personality. Bands should look at it the same way. If the band-brand pairing doesn’t seem authentic, they may not want to move forward with it. We’re pretty picky perfectionists over here, so, even though it can be frustrating sometimes, we understand when a band is picky with their opportunities.


Overall, if it’s a well-made commercial for a nonoffensive product or company, and it showcases the song in a positive way, it should be an easy yes. It’s basically a trifecta of opportunity: a nice check, promotion, and creative collaboration.

Typically, we’d think that the creative would influence the song choice, but in your experience, has a song choice ever done the reverse, and influenced or changed the creative?

We’ve been fortunate enough to work on projects where a brand is looking for an artist to partner with on-camera, so we have a hand in the preproduction process as well. One of our favorite examples is last year’s campaign with Blood Orange and Gap, where Dev performed his song using Gap’s musical/fashionable technology. Another nice example is Nike’s “Blake and Drain” campaign with Blake Griffin. James & Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet” was a total wildcard, but the team fell in love with the song and it helped shape the spot.


About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.