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Music for the Masses

From four-note “sonic logos” to full-blown commercial anthems, how a former rock ’n’ roll hopeful conquered the advertising world

Author Cristina Rouvalis Illustration Mikey Burton


On weekday mornings, during his commute into Manhattan, Joel Beckerman will sometimes play a little tune in his head. By the time his train rolls into Penn Station, he’ll have hummed a few notes into a digital recorder. He hums so softly that few of his fellow commuters even know he’s doing it. But out in the world, his melodies are heard loud and clear.

Beckerman, 50, is the founder of Man Made Music, the “sonic branding consultancy” responsible for AT&T’s four-note jingle. He also worked with will.i.am on a new arrangement for “Entertainment Tonight.” And when Ryan Seacrest walked onto the set of NBC’s “The Million Second Quiz Show” in September, he moved to the beat of Beckerman’s electronic dance composition.

At a time when the advertising industry is still very much in belt-tightening mode, Beckerman’s 15-year-old firm is growing briskly—doubling sales in the past two years. Certainly, Man Made Music has no difficulty finding companies willing to stump up the $50,000 to $1 million it charges for a signature sound. “People,” Beckerman says by way of explanation, “want that emotional connection.”

Of course, there’s nothing new about companies using the emotional tug of music to reel in consumers. The world is full of jingles that have wormed their way into the collective consciousness. But things have changed over the years. Today, rather than a full-blown anthem, many companies want a “sonic logo,” a four- or five-note sound sequence that evokes a brand.

“Those signature four notes become a call to action,” says David Allan, professor of music marketing at Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s University. “It’s almost like seeing a red octagonal sign. You don’t need it to say stop.” Man Made Music has proven itself unusually adept at constructing these truncated compositions, which has driven the company’s success.

Despite their brevity, sonic logos are not easy to pull off. Beckerman’s brief from AT&T was to humanize the brand and to promote consistency across a range of products and services—which is no mean feat when all you have to work with is dum-dah-dee-dum. It took Man Made Music 18 months to finalize a four-note signature—D-D-E-B (see illustration on page 67)—or four and a half months per note.

The hardest part, perhaps, was trying to find the right texture for the sound, which took 300 man hours, many of them spent in a room full of people doing little more than puffing their cheeks. As is often the case, Beckerman had his eureka moment during his morning commute. The resulting sonic logo can now be heard not only in ads but in retail stores and on various electronic platforms.

Beckerman doesn’t always have that much time to get it right. Last year, he was given two weeks to take the iconic NBC Super Bowl theme—written five years ago by his musical hero, John Williams, and reimagined by Beckerman once before, in 2009—and recast it for the 2012 event. “I was hired too late,” he says. “It was nerve-racking.” In the end, Beckerman recruited a 45-piece orchestra and a rock band to record the piece, an “Aerosmith-style arrangement with epic undertones” that worked equally well for the network and its audiences.

Another tricky job last year required Man Made Music to provide a fresh spin on the HBO theme that had introduced every original series and movie for more than two decades. To do this, Beckerman slowed down the orchestral sequence, took out some notes and added new textures. He made sure, though, to keep the familiar dah-dah-dum at the end. “It’s a surprise,” he says, “but by the time you get to the last three notes, you say, ‘Oh, I know what this is.’’’ That piece too was a hit.

It’s all a very long way from the clubs of New Jersey, in which, as a young man, Beckerman played keyboard in a rock ’n’ roll band, hoping to fulfill a childhood dream of musical stardom. While that plan didn’t work out, there are traces of his former life in this one. His experiences dealing with bickering bandmates, for instance, have left him well equipped to play the role of “musical shrink” with clients. “Don’t tell me you want trumpets,” he’ll tell them. “Talk emotions.”

Perhaps the most powerful thing he has retained from his rock ’n’ roll years is a desire for authenticity—something that’s not often associated with marketing. “This is where people mess up,” Beckerman says. “They think you can lie to people with music. The moment you do that, they’ll tune you out.”

CRISTINA ROUVALIS, a Pittsburgh-based writer, is currently seeing a psychiatrist in an effort to rid herself of the AT&T theme, which has been looping in her head.

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