Corporate Music – How to Compose with no Soul


Are you an executive making a video pitch
to win a new business? Perhaps you’re a team leader producing an internal video to
motivate your staff? Or you might be an advertising firm creating a public relations campaign
to convince people that oil companies care about climate change? Well, whatever it is,
corporate music has you covered. Because no matter the product, no matter the event, it
has the ability to touch each and every one of us. When we learn. When we play. And even
when we turn off. It has the power to inspire joy and sometimes heartache. It can fill us
with wonder and bring us back down to Earth. And whatever journey your on – it holds your
hand all the way. Helping you ideate and innovate to achieve above and beyond, forever. OK, I’m sorry for doing that. Let’s take
a moment. Let’s breathe. OK. Here we go. Corporate music… why does it exist? No matter
how much of it I’m exposed to, I always seem to come away feeling either baffled or
irritated. When it’s trying to be inspirational, it only ever succeeds in making me feel sort-of
tired and jaded. If it tries to come across as emotionally charged or poignant, it ends
up sickly sweet and desperate. And I don’t think I’m alone here: most people I know
seem to feel the same way, which makes Corporate Music a unique phenomenon when you think about
it – a genre that manages to thrive despite being both unpopular and ineffective. And
I’ve not witnessed anyone ever jumping in to defend it either. I mean – usually when
you criticise a style of music, you’d worry that you might hurt some people’s feelings
[Clip of Mitt Romney: “Corporations are people too, my friend”] Oh yeah… I forgot
about that. Thanks Mitt! So what do I mean by Corporate music? Well,
it’s not exactly straight forward to define. I want to first be clear that I’m not talking
about Commercialism, which is when artists allow financial interests to infect their
music. Corporate music is different in that it’s transparently created to be a backing
track that helps someone sell something. It’s mainly used in that weird world where businesses
advertise themselves to other businesses, or in videos created by massive corporations
in order communicate with their thousands of employees. Let’s deal with this side
first – the insular business side – before talking about how it can spill out into the
real world. So Corporate music isn’t exactly a genre
in the traditional sense because it’s not bound to a specific style or set of instruments.
I think it’s more accurately described as something that can harness the trappings of
a style – taking its surface level idioms and cliches, while deliberately leaving behind
any emotional authenticity. In other words, I think Corporate music is something designed
not to resonate with us emotionally. And I want to clarify what I mean by this before
we dig into some examples. So… let me share a story. A few years ago – I was working as a designer
in a really horrible corporate studio in London. And one morning, on my way to this studio,
my train malfunctioned and I found myself stranded at Tottenham Hale station – which
for anyone who doesn’t know London well, is a pretty joyless place. So, to pass the
time, I grabbed a book I was reading called ‘Dialectics of Enlightenment’ by Theodor
Adorno and Max Horkheimer, written in 1944. In essence – it’s a critique of how our
thinking has been affected under late capitalism. One of its observations is that modern society
is nowhere near as enlightened as it thinks it is and that the most rational among us
are still trapped in systems of thinking that are magical in nature. And they’re talking
about actual magic here. One of the examples they point to is the ancient practice of human
sacrifice – a transaction that offered a human life in return for divine favour. Adorno and
Horkheimer compared this with the thinking process of a modern worker caught up in the
machinery of capitalism – being forced to work for an employer with no real financially
plausible alternatives. They felt that – along with this physical obligation to be at work
– workers were also forced to actively practice what they called the ‘introversion of sacrifice’.
And so… hold on… let me read that again… ‘the introversion of sacrifice’? What..
what on Earth could that mean? Well… I didn’t know. I just stood there,
stranded in Tottenham Hale station trying to comprehend what this could mean in concrete
terms. Did they mean that we simply sacrifice our time in return for money? That seemed
like a pretty obvious observation and I felt was missing the point. So after about twenty
minutes, I put the book away and just stared out into space at all the tired and irritated
looking people around me, and the generally ugly atmosphere – with all it’s electric
wiring and massive billboards hovering above us. My overwhelming feeling at that moment
was “oh, man, I really wish I could exit this dump and go home”. And then I looked
up at the billboards and focused on one that was advertising a fashion line promising to
help you look snappy at the office. And it was at this moment that I started to think
of the ways that I was trapped: not just in location but also in spirit – and I began
to then slowly empathise with this idea of the ‘introversion of sacrifice’. It’s not just that I have to be where I
don’t want to be, it’s that I have to act in a way that I don’t want to act – where
I have to lock my personality in a little cupboard and replace it with the personality
of the company, with its dull, quasi-friendly, airplane food communication style. A little
piece of my spirit in return for the means to go on existing. And when I thought about
it like that, it did seem like a pretty significant sacrifice. With all our amazing technology,
even those among us who are privileged enough to work in well paid jobs still feel de-humanised
and machine like. And it’s in this spirit that I want to return
to corporate music, which I think of as the audio equivalent of the workplace hive mind.
and it also seems to be bound by similar rules – it can’t be too artistic or experimental
and needs to keep things ‘nice and sensible’. In fact, if it was legitimately genuine or
heartfelt, it would be kind of embarrassing to watch in the company of your colleagues
because authentic, heartfelt expression doesn’t sit will in an environment where emotional
displays are frowned upon. So instead, internal workplace music tends to be an empty husk;
only dealing in the most conventional and surface level cliches while actively avoiding
edginess or unpredictability. It resembles the environment it is created in. Take the music I wrote for the introduction
to this video, which I based on something I’m sure you’ve been subjected to a thousand
times: the ‘inspirational’ video. Let’s begin with the harmony – where I’ve used
one of the most unoriginal progressions in existence (E Major: I, V, iii, II). It’s
your absolute go-to if you want to sound deep – in the shallowest possible way. And pay
attention to the fact that this progression never changes once. This is an essential rule
when writing corporate music: avoid development at all costs. Now since our harmony is standing still, we
need to give the illusion of development by using another classic trick: which is adding
a new instrument every two bars. First you hear a bass drum, then the bass. Then a repetitive
melody which never threatens to destabilise the key. And then – with a big burst of drums
and vocals, the music hits its peak. And because I wanted it to sound extra inspirational,
I threw in some meaningless vocal ticks too. To make it sound sort of… spiritual or something.
The vocal tick I decided on the phrase ‘Bo-ba-whey’. So that’s our peak, achieved through loudness
rather than any attempt at musical development. Nothing happened. No story was told. Humpty
Dumpty sat on the wall.. Humpty Dumpty … sat on the wall… he’s just going to sit on
the wall… still there… still there… this is the continuing story of how Humpty
sat on the wall… He’s sitting on the wall. Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall. I go to bed
– he’s on the wall. The next day, I have my breakfast… I look up and… he’s still
there on the wall. He’s still there… he’s still there…
still watching… HUMPTY: “Hey Tantacrul, enjoy your day at
the office! TANTACRUL: “OK… thanks Humpty…see you
later” HUMPTY: You will see me later. I bet you’ll
never guess what I’ll be doing? TANTACRUL: “Em… are you going to be sitting
on that wall’? [Silence] [Part of Humpty’s face suddenly cracks] The next type of corporate music I want to
talk about, is in such high demand, it has to be produced in industrial quantities. I
call it ‘nothing music’. Nothing Music comes into play when a business doesn’t
want to communicate any type of emotion. They just need something that sounds like music
in their videos because the alternative is silence. You come across this more in uncontroversial
industries, like accounting or tech support. Again, I’m going to create my own pastiche
of this style – which primarily takes its inspiration from the kings of nothing music
and fellow Irish compatriots: U2 – and specifically, we’re going to be drawing from the grand-daddy
of genericism: the Edge, with that incredibly lame guitar delay effect he’s known for. A great technique for nothing music is to
open with an ostinato phrase that repeats right until the end. This one noodles away
uninterestingly in the key of D until joined by some piano chords. D, going to G, going
to C followed by a really cowardly retreat back to D. And the coup de grass: this melody. And with that, we’ve achieved near complete
harmonic inertia. This exact process can be followed to write
nothing music in no time. And to recap, let’s look at a different
example I put together in about 20 minutes.. First you need ostinato. [HoloLens Music] Then you add two or three chord change – in
this case, I’m just moving the root note of the chord in the bass. Then you add a pestilential melody, which
keeps restating the same phrase with only minor differences There we go – vintage nothing music — So one of the unfortunate consequences of
businesses creating this kind of music for internal advertising is that corporate hacks
get so used to it. It’s not long before it begins to affect how they communicate with
their customers. And nowhere is this more evident than in the world of Tech. The purpose of this kind of music is to help
sell the idea that product being sold is the culmination of some kind of profound altruistic
endeavor aimed at the betterment of humanity. The inspirational music written for this style
of advert usually requires a decent orchestral sampler because you can believe you’re going
to be hearing a lot of string sections playing spiccato. And when they’re not going the ‘we’re
making the world a better place’ route… then … sigh… they instead go for the ‘isn’t
life just awesome!’ route. This is probably the most irritating of all and you can expect
to hear one of two different sounds. The first is whistling… Hey! Have you got a really trivial inconvenience?
Well here at [INSERT NAME], we’ve designed a ludicrously expensive gadget to help – until
it breaks or until we design something even more expensive. Let’s make the world a brighter
place by wasting our disposable income! But the most common and egregious ‘isn’t
life just awesome!’ instrument of them all is… the Ukulele. Now, since I don’t have
a Ukulele to hand, I asked fellow YouTuber David Bruce to record himself strumming the
lamest progression he could think of on his one. Here’s what he gave me… Perfect.
And from that we get this! Now although most inspirational ads try to
be vague about the social good their product will bring about – usually sticking to phrases
like ‘Me, You, Everywhere, Inspire, yada yada’ – others go a bit further by pretending
to support an actual cause, like Audi, who’s advert seen here pretends to care about equal
pay for women. This advert landed them in hot water after it was pointed out their entire
executive team were men. Oh dear. And after taking a deeper look, I discovered it was
created by a company called… uh… ‘Cause Marketing’. The-there are marketing companies
you can hire to help you pretend you care about causes? How can these people survive
without punching themselves in the face? So, to finish up, let’s look at the most
outrageously cynical marketing campaigns of all: those by oil companies pretending to
care about the environment. An issue this sensitive requires some big guns. For this
you’ll need monorhythmic piano chords. Every year the destruction of the Amazon Rain
Forest intensifies. This makes us sad. Here at Shell, we are sad. And that’s what corporate music is. Pretending.
Pretending to be something a human would write in order to communicate an actual emotion.
Pretending to be anything other than a creative stillbirth – the product of a thousand unimaginative
decisions. And no matter how hard it tries, it just can’t help but reflect the banality
and inauthenticity of the corporation that commission it. And that, I suppose, is the
one emotional insight it’s capable of providing… it is a pretty accurate portrayal of what
corporate life is really like: dull, hackneyed and completely lacking in substance. Here’s some Monster truck music.

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