What do you want to become?
Alternate Career Titles:
Commercial Jingle Composer, Jingle Composer
Career Overview: Writes music for commercials.
General Salary Range: $500 to $15,000+ per commercial
Become a Jingle Writer
“Writing for commercials is super up-and-down and unpredictable,” says Jingle Writer Cheryl B. Engelhardt, who is also a Singer-Songwriter, and music industry Consultant and Speaker. “You’re sort of waiting for the phone to ring and the other jobs are things I feel a bit more control over. In terms of my workflow, I’m always creating content to pitch for licensing or writing music. That’s the stuff I’m mostly working on, but when I get a call for an ad, the turn around time is really quick. They’ll need it in a few days and it’ll air in a few weeks. I tend to make my schedule work so when an ad comes in I can drop everything and work on it. The potential for money is so much bigger with commercials — if they end up airing it.
I’m on the call list for several music houses,” she says, describing the process of landing a jingle-writing gig. “What happens is a company like Nike or Coke or something will hire an agency to do their whole campaign. (The agency will sometimes have people in-house or hire out everything.) The agency will call a music house with in-house Composers and a list of freelancers they’ll call if they have a backlog of jobs in-house, are too busy or it’s the style they know a freelancer can do really well. They’ll email me and say ‘we have this job.’ About 50% of the time they have a rough edit of the commercial and will say ‘here’s what it looks like’ and other times they’ll be trying to get an idea or get music first in which case I don’t have any picture to look at. The first part of the process is they contact me and they either send me the video or they don’t — either way they’ll send me a brief that usually comes from the client with what they’re looking for. Sometimes it’s really specific and they’ll say ‘we want it to sound like a cross between this Justin Timberlake song and this Katy Perry song,’ sometimes they’ll just say ‘upbeat and light,’ or they’ll send in lyrics and I have to work those in. (But most of the time lyrics means you need a Singer and then you’ll need to get the union involved, so most of the time people avoid that.)
I’ll get a creative brief that tells me how long it’s going to be or if there is anything specific I need to hit: if this sound drops out when the logo appears, or if there’s a certain mood, or if they want the shift to happen around this part or any notes they have. That [info] gets put into the brief. Music houses will tell me when they’re planning to present to the agency so I’ll need to get my music to the music house ahead of time so they can give me any feedback. So it’s a whole chain: client, music house, agency, Composer. When I write I am fairly prolific so I usually end up presenting two options or two versions of an option. I found the more options I present, the more likely I win a spot, either because they get it stuck in their head because there are two different versions of the song or because they’ve heard it so much. Sometimes the client will have feedback and we’ll make some changes and ideally, they’ll say ‘Great! This will go to air.’”
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For Jingle Writers, advancement comes through working with more prestigious music houses and landing composing gigs with big name brands. In turn, this means more money for the Jingle Writer and a better chance of being called up for the company’s next commercial.
Education & Training
Jingle Writers must have a solid background in writing music; Composition and Songwriting degree programs will provide many of the necessary skills. According to Engelhardt, recording and entrepreneurial skills are also integral. She says, “I think it’s really valuable to produce your own tracks that sound well-mixed. I’m not saying you have to be a Production major, but definitely take some courses to get your chops up in Pro Tools and Logic. Getting myself familiar with the tech stuff has really helped me and made me stand out as a female in the composing world because there aren’t a lot of techie females in the composing world. It’s really powerful to produce your own stuff and make it sound like you want it to.
Have all the technical skills you can and just keep writing. Every day write something and don’t judge it. If it’s bad, it’s bad, but tomorrow might be better. Building your library is really valuable, so start early on, writing thirty-second and one minute long pieces of music. You can build a library you can use when you start getting calls for projects.”
Education should continue after college, too. She adds, “I looked for so long for a comprehensive guide on how to make it in the music industry as a Songwriter and Composer. I bought all the books and spent so much money on them and nothing was really it, which is why I started doing workshops and courses. I’d say if you just graduated to do my course because it’s all about pitching, getting clear on what you want, and presenting opportunities to other people — and I’m not saying that just because it’s my course. It’s about how can you be different and knowing what you want and how you are an opportunity. It’s called MX4, which stands for The Marketing and Branding, Money-Making, Mentorship Mastermind.
I think it’s so important if you’ve already graduated college and aren’t ready to spend another $20,000 a semester or whatever on more education to just make a reel for the type of jobs you want to score. Even if you haven’t had anyone pay you ever, there’s a bunch of public domain footage you can use. If you really love orchestral music, score a couple things and start to create a reel to get the work you really want to be getting. If you watch my reel there’s a lot of vocal and piano stuff because that’s what I want to do.
Do not stop reading blogs and learning about the industry. Go to the conferences. I’ve met so many people at SXSW and the ASCAP expo. Talk to the panelists afterward; I’m one of them and I love talking to people. Find a mentor. Even if you have to pay for it, pay for it—but don’t stop.”
Experience & Skills
In addition to the ability to record your own work, Engelhardt says “social skills are definitely important. It’s easy for musicians to be like ‘I’m a loner. I just want to make music.’ But if you want to make a living off this you have to treat it like it’s a business. You have to meet people. It’s a relationship industry. Put the awkward Composer in the closet and bring out the social person just for a minute.”
Jingle Writers are often freelancers, which means they have to hustle to get work. They must be flexible, able to take feedback from ad agencies and clients, and curious about the advertising industry. Since the process moves quickly from getting a creative brief from the music house to sending in the finished product, they must be driven, determined and adaptable to sudden schedule changes.
“I have no set schedule,” Engelhardt says. “I have an article on my blog, Living on Gigging; it’s called “A Day in the Life of a Music Maker” and it goes through a typical busy day. I don’t have busy days every week. The days can be random. Some days I sleep in and go to the bank and walk my dog and feel like I’m twiddling my thumbs because I just finished a huge project last week. On some days I’m working ten hours straight, working to midnight and getting ear fatigue because I’m listening to the same thing over and over again. It’s really varied.”
For an aspiring Jingle Writer to land his or her first paying job, Engelhardt says, “They need a reel. The other way to do it is to start as an Intern or Assistant at a music house. I got my start in a video edit house that did commercials and through them, I got to meet the music houses. There are other ways to get in that might take longer, but the benefit is you get to see how the industry works instead of sitting at home trying to pitch from nowhere. It wouldn’t be a terrible idea to get a summer job or internship at an ad house or music house to see how things work.”
“If it goes to air usually you’ll get an upfront fee and that will depend on your deal with the agency. It’s usually five to ten percent of the commercial budget. I’ve gotten paid anywhere from $500 to $15,000. You get backend royalties, depending on how much the ad gets used on air,” Engelhardt says. Even though the agency should file all the essential paperwork, to be safe, she adds, “you need to be signed up with a performing rights organization like ASCAP, BMI or SESAC and let them know you have a commercial airing. They’ll send you a form to make sure it goes through. You’ll get paid based on how often it plays, what time of day, whether it’s cable or network. If you got a Producer or a Performer line on the contract you’ll get something from the local union, too. It’s usually a couple hundred dollars a month but that adds up and that becomes passive income; you’ve already done the work and you’re still getting paid.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
Engelhardt believes networking and learning from peers are integral parts of a Jingle Writer’s success. She says, “The ASCAP expo is a great place to meet a lot of people who are making music. The SXSW interactive portion (not necessarily the music festival) is great because you can listen to a lot of conversations about branding and marketing to get your thumb on the pulse of potential clients.
Adweek is interesting and there are a lot of similar conversations there to SXSW interactive. It’s more print-based, but you can read stuff about finding a brand sound and getting in the conversation and meeting people, which is very useful.”
- “Do some serious research on who you want to work for. Start to watch TV and listen to the commercial music and the kind of music that is playing. If you see an ad that you’re like ‘I could write that kind of music,’ work backward. If it’s Nike find out the ad agency for the commercial. On iSpot you can look up any commercial, who produced it, what ad agency was behind it, which music house. Find commercials and brands who are using music like the type you want to write and start contacting them.
- Be ready. Creating a reel could take a couple of months, but have a reel ready to go and know what you’re asking for.
- If your reel isn’t ready, start an Excel spreadsheet with contacts for music houses, ad agencies. etc. For example, some music houses are really great with hip-hop and rap and if you’re an orchestral person you’re not going to want to reach out to them. Don’t just go around contacting everyone. That would be obnoxious. Don’t be obnoxious.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Make sure their reel shows exactly the kind of work they want to do.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“I think the biggest mistake is to keep thinking you don’t have enough experience or you’re not good enough. Like ‘I’ve only scored one thing’ or ‘I’ve never scored anything’ really holds you back versus knowing you’ve got a skill set and knowing you’re valuable for someone. [The biggest mistake is] letting that conversation in your head keep you from being in action.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Unmessablewithness, like I’m un-messable-with. That may be a made-up word. There’s a lot of rejection [in this job] and if I stopped every time I heard something depressing, it would not work. I don’t let that stuff mess with my workflow, my attitude, negotiating with people for money. I let things roll and go with it but I’m also clear with what I want. I don’t let things shake me.”
Cheryl B. Engelhardt is a Jingle Writer, Singer-Songwriter, Consultant, and Speaker. Her songs have appeared on So You Think You Can Dance, All My Children, Community, and Jane By Design. She has composed music for Ziploc, AARP, and Sabre commercials, as well as the Honey Nut Cheerios commercial starring Grumpy Cat.