Special Interview with Josh Rabinowitz, Senior Vice President of Music at Grey Advertising

Josh Rabinowitz Grey Advertising
Josh Rabinowitz

Josh Rabinowitz, Senior Vice President/Director of Music for the Grey Group, has been of one the most successful music executives in the advertising field for the past 15 years. As an executive music producer, he has worked on many top campaigns for brands such as Cover Girl, Pantene, Dr. Pepper, Sony Electronics and others. In addition, Rabinowitz has worked with an array of hit music artists, such as Rihanna, the Black Eyed Peas, Natasha Bedingfield, Queen Latifah, Cyndi Lauper, Macy Gray, Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Smokey Robinson, LeAnn Rimes, Reba McEntire, Thalia and Anastacia.

Rabinowitz became a leading music producer in the late ’90s, when he was an Executive Producer of Music at the major ad agency, Young & Rubicam. Then in 2005, he moved to top agency Grey, where he has helmed the music department ever since. Rabinowitz has been the recipient of many awards for music in advertising. Also, he has been a bi-weekly contributor to Billboard magazine, and he has been quoted or cited in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Adweek, Ad Age, Fast Company, Creativity, the Boston Globe and the New York Post.

In addition, Rabinowitz is known for being a moderator & guest speaker at many music and advertising conferences. He recently helmed a panel at the Billboard/Adweek conference in New York City. He has also spoken at MIDEM, and at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. And he has presented honors at Cannes to Tony Bennett, Little Steven Van Zandt, and Yoko Ono.

We are pleased to present this special Q&A interview with Josh Rabinowitz. He provides many insights into the music/advertising field.

DK: You have a background as a musician, producer and songwriter. How did you get into the advertising field?

Rabinowitz: I always wanted to sustain a career in music by any means necessary. I’ve worked as a temp at record labels, and I’ve been a music teacher at public and private NYC schools. I have also played trombone for a band called The Second Step, which has been together for over 20 years. I’ve also played music on the street and in the subways in NY and Europe. When I was about 30, I was told by a friend to check out the world of advertising. I faxed hundreds of resumes to people. Finally, I got a phone call from a guy at JSM Music (a music production company). I was 31 when I got my foot in the door at JSM – they hired me as a junior producer. I worked there for six months, and then I heard about a cool music company called tomandandy (which is known for creating music for commercials and for film and TV scoring). I met with them and got a job there in 1996. I worked there for two years as a producer, composer, contractor and as a musician. I learned a great deal about the ad-music business during my stint there.

Then in 1998, I heard there was an opening at the ad agency Young & Rubicam (Y&R). I got the job as a music producer, and then was promoted to an executive music producer. I worked at Y&R for seven years. I did a lot of work producing commercials for Sony Electronics ‘ Y&R created high profile ads with artists. I produced songs that would be featured in a commercial, and then created full-length versions which would be released on their album. We worked with Alana Davis & Columbia Records, Macy Gray & Epic, and Los Lonely Boys & Epic. In addition, I worked on the Dr. Pepper account, which was big account for Y&R. Then in 2005, I went to work at Grey.

Josh Rabinowitz & Wynton Marsalis
Josh Rabinowitz & Wynton Marsalis
Josh Rabinowitz with jazz great Wynton Marsalis.

DK: At what point in the past decade, did it become popular for songwriters and artists to want to place their songs in commercials?

Rabinowitz: Early on (about 20 years ago) it was considered a sellout to place your song in a commercial. But now there’s no stigma. Placing songs in commercials has become part of a new business model in the music industry. Record labels no longer make as much selling records as they did a decade ago – sales have been cut in half. It was 10-12 years ago that things really started to shift toward doing commercials. Sting licensed his song “Desert Rose” for a Jaguar commercial, and it had a big impact. Moby licensed many of his songs, particularly from his album, Play. Also, there was a big Volkswagen ad which featured Nick Drake ‘s song, “Pink Moon.”

DK: How did you form the Pantene/Grey Music record label? Are there artists signed to this label?

Rabinowitz:  In 2008 we had a song contest  – we found this artist Rosie Golan and we loved her song called “Shine” – it was perfect for our client Pantene’s shampoo campaign. So we featured it in a Pantene commercial. At the same time, we released a full-length version of “Shine” as a single on iTunes – it was an experiment for us, releasing a song and being a label.

DK: Have you held other song contests?

Rabinowitz:  We’ve held a song contest at MIDEM for the past three years. We create a brief for the ad spot and then we accept submissions. These song contests have been a great resource for us. We’re also talking to SXSW about doing a song contest with them.

DK: Do you accept submittals from new writers or artists? How do you screen all the songs?

Rabinowitz: We do accept submissions. We listen to as much as we can and categorize the songs by genre or keyword. But doing A&R and reviewing tons of songs – this is not our main thing. To find songs, we also reach out to music publishers and industry people we know. Sometimes we’ll send out a brief on Facebook, or to a few contacts.

DK: You mention categorizing the songs. Are there certain styles of music and production, or lyric content, which is licensed more often?

Rabinowitz: We categorize songs via genre or sounds or keywords. For example, there is more demand for songs which are uplifting, or what I call ‘building tracks’. It’s important to have a track that builds. The production could start out simple or basic, and then build into something which is anthemic or uplifting. There’s a lot of anthemic, positive-sounding music used in commercials. Our clients want commercials which paint a very positive, uplifting picture about their products.

As for lyrical content, it helps if the song has a positive lyrical theme, or has a heartwarming or heroic theme or concept. This is important for commercials. In film and TV, dark or solemn music can work very well. But that’s usually not the case when it comes to advertising. To get an example of excellent music for commercials, check out several of the Apple ads. The Apple commercials often have great music uses – the ads have an attitude and a vibe.

Josh Rabinowitz with LeAnn Rimes.
Josh Rabinowitz with LeAnn Rimes.

DK: At Grey, how many people work with you in the music department?

Rabinowitz: Myself, two music producers, a licensing person, plus business managers who handle the contracts and paperwork.

DK: How does the music/creative process work? Is the commercial usually filmed first, with music synched in later? Or does the music sometimes come first?

Rabinowitz: In most cases the commercials have been shot first, and then we need to come up with an instrumental track, or license a song which fits the commercial. However, sometimes the song is selected first and the commercial is created with the specific song in mind. When we did the Dr. Pepper and Sony Electronic ads, the song would come first.

DK: How much of the music that you use is licensed existing songs, and how much is original music created for the spot?

Rabinowitz: It’s about 65 % original music, and 35% licensed songs.

DK: What’s a typical day at the office for you?

Rabinowitz: My day might start by going to a session at a music house, to work on a track for an ad. There might be two studio sessions in a day. Then at the office, there would be many meetings related to revising the music for a project, or doing music searches. Then there are meetings related to corporate business.

DK: For both new songs and famous songs, what’s the range of fees you pay to license a song?

Rabinowitz: The fees can vary greatly – it’s all over the map. It depends upon whether a song is famous, and if the artist is well known. In each case, we work out a fair price. Due to the economic recession, production budgets have shrunk during the past couple years. But here are some price parameters: for a major network commercial the low end would be $10,000 (for the publishing & master rights combined) and the high end can be huge – perhaps $1 million for a Beatles or Rolling Stones song. If the song is unknown, the range is between $5,000 and $50,000. It also depends on whether the commercial is for TV, radio, online, or all three media. If the commercial is just for online use, the fee is generally lower.

DK: What advice would you give to songwriters & artists who are trying to place their songs in commercials?

Rabinowitz: It’s important that your recordings sound as good as possible. The more fully produced your song is, the better. In the old days there might be a piano/vocal demo, and we would ask the agency execs to imagine how it would sound with full production. But they might not be able to envision how it would sound, because their expertise is in creating ads, and not producing music. It’s better that you don’t leave much to the imagination – make the best production possible.

Also, it’s important to be connected. It’s good if you have a rep who is pitching your songs, who has good relations with the ad agency people. It obviously helps to have the best contacts possible – otherwise you’ll have to cold-call the agencies, which can be very difficult.

DK: Has placing music in commercials become so important, that artists or songwriters can make a living in this field?

Rabinowitz: Generating income from placing songs in commercials has definitely grown in the past decade. With record sales down, it’s a valuable new income stream. However, music and advertising is not a game-changer necessarily. It’s still hard to get a lot of placements as a singer/songwriter or producer. Don’t view it as your main panacea – look at it as one component of getting your music out there. These days, artists need to diversify their career, creating income and success in several media, and not just in one area.

However, if you’re a composer or producer who wants to specialize in commercials, you might consider working at a music production house. Music houses are great – they’re like a mini-Brill Building, or a Tin Pan Alley.