Hearing voices? Why Vermont musicians are plugging cars and cat food
After returning from vacation a few weeks ago, Doug Lang discovered he had only two hours to write the music for a Vermont Maple Board radio commercial. So the 45-year-old recording whiz sat down and composed a jaunty, swing-style tune that would help promote the state's sugaring season. Sweet.
"It suggests fun," Lang notes, listening to the ditty he crafted on deadline and played to accompany a verbal pitch on the joys of turning sap into syrup. "If the objective of the script is about having a good time, you can say a lot of that with the way you use music."
His company, Shadow Productions in Burlington, is among a handful of independent studios run by area artists who create broadcast spots or other media efforts for business customers. Though we hear their work all the time, they generally toil in anonymity. And that's just the point. It's their customers that count.
In Lang's case, that might be Magic Hat or Vermont Teddy Bear or Vermont State Employees Credit Union -- for which he recently completed six different ads with background music ranging from techno to jazz. "Clients tend to be less interested in the music per se than in the results they get with it," Lang says, seated in front of an enormous mixing board and two video monitors at the North Willard Street operation he runs with partner Matt Dugan. "Some have limited musical vocabularies."
For one of Lang's steady accounts, The B Side, that equation is a bit different. "Most of their radio ads go on the Buzz," he says, referring to the modern-rock radio station, "so they can do things with a certain edge."
"Ours is a lifestyle business, and part of that lifestyle is music," points out Rob Quinn, who owns the downtown Burlington skate- and snowboarding emporium. "Our ads have had the same music for five years. It's very recognizable, easy to listen to, but maybe a little bluesy, with kind of a cool beat."
Hip promotional entrepreneurs like Lang -- including Bill Kinzie of 2much Music in Burlington and Peter Wilder of Ergo Com-munications in Morrisville -- seem to know that nothing moves an ad along as effectively as a jingle or an underlying instrumental theme. This process ensures that Vermont's pool of talent will bring some eloquence to the dollars and cents of the marketplace.
In his ads, Lang most often delivers that eloquence himself on guitar or cello. He also hires other performers, such as saxophonist Chris Peterman or fiddler Gene White, to provide an even richer tapestry. Sometimes, however, the entire track emerges from a synthesizer that can emit 2500 different sounds. But that gizmo does have its limitations.
"Synthesizers tend to be best for percussion," Lang explains. "You can't get the kind of subtlety from a machine that a live musician offers. If it needs to be crisp and have character, we go for real people."
Tammy Fletcher is not only real, she's a dynamo. Her powerful voice can be heard on radio and TV belting out songs that soulfully extol the virtues of various enterprises. On an extended jingle for Pet Food Warehouse, she mimics feline purrs and growls. Her predecessor, the late Zoot Wilson of the Dog Tones and N-Zones, used a canine approach.
For Vermont Furniture Galleries, Fletcher was hired to croon in the now-defunct "Dream on!" campaign and the current melodic exhortation to "Wake up!"
Whatever the business or brand name, Fletcher brings enthusiasm to her endeavors. "They want to project a certain image," says the Eden resident. "I give them all I have. It's a symbiotic relationship."
Vermont Furniture Galleries manager Todd Renning agrees. "Music in an ad sets our store apart from others," he speculates. "It gives us an identity, and we hope [the refrain] gets stuck in people's heads."
Fletcher recently returned from a trek to Iceland on behalf of a tourism organization that was showcasing Vermont goods and services -- including a musical component. "I was the entertainment," she explains.
It's hardly news that advertisers use music to sell commodities. Even the elusive Bob Dylan has recently leant his distinctive croak to the latest Victoria's Secret television commercial. Such an alliance might persuade idealists that the world is coming to an end, but, let's face it: There's no longer much of a divide between culture and commerce.
"Business is the most powerful force on the planet," muses Bill Kinzie, a drummer whose Pine Street video production company tries to focus on social responsibility. With clients like Stonyfield Farm Yogurt and Seventh Generation, 2much Music -- which is co-owned by Rob Michalak -- produces so-called "industrial documentaries" and also supplies the soundtracks.
"These companies want to sell products, but they also want to get their message out," Kinzie says. "So the work we do for them is used for public relations. They're sort of video news releases. And everything we do goes out with our original music."
In late February he traveled to Mexico and Guatemala with officials from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to shoot a piece on serious challenges facing the farmers who grow the beans. The Americans did field recordings of indigenous music, paying particular attention to a children's band that greeted them in one Guatemalan village. Back home, that cheerful ballad -- rendered by the kids on accordion, mandolin, guitar and tambourine -- has been enhanced by Vermont musicians such as keyboardist Brian Bull.
The completed documentary will premiere at a National Coffee Association convention in Florida this week, followed by a screening next month at the Specialty Coffee Association gathering in Boston. "Frontline World," a PBS program, plans to air some of Kinzie's footage on a late March show about the global coffee crisis.
In scoring the eight-minute piece, Kinzie applies music at the beginning and the end, and uses it to underline important dialogue and give momentum as the scenes change. "It's really sound design," he says. "We have a whole bag of tricks."
The trick to advertising, according to Peter Wilder, is "knowing what makes human communication special." As the audio and video brains behind Ergo Communications for the last 13 years, he has worked on everything from local commercials to the new theme for Vermont Public Radio's "Switchboard" program to musical interludes for Disney World. Wilder also wrote the soundtrack for New England's Great River: Discovering the Connecticut, which Vermont Public Television will broadcast on Friday and Saturday (March 15 and 16).
Wilder, who has won seven regional Emmy Awards for his TV documentaries, can also boast about being a one-man band. "For my own acoustic or electronically generated music, I play keyboard, mandolin, banjo, guitar, bass and drums," he acknowledges. "I hire extra talent to do lead vocals, because mine are pretty much like strangling a cat."
Wilder writes music in any style. "My motto is: No genre shall be left unscathed," he quips.
After more than two decades in the field -- he collaborated with Doug Lang in the early 1980s -- Wilder observes that some of his earliest commercial ventures refuse to die: "We did a pop-country Vermont Transit ad that ran for something like 10 years. They got their money's worth."
Ditto for the kid-friendly Yellow Turtle jingle, a Lang production from way back that's still a favorite on the airwaves.
Wilder generally frames his music around lyrics and text supplied by Morrisville publicist Mary Collins. "The client needs time to yak about their product, so I create the donut in the middle for that," he says. "I can compose at the drop of a hat."
He's also adept at scouting resources, such as vocalists Tracy Tomasi of Hinesburg, Tracy Wolters of Hardwick and Meg Chambers of Colchester. "There's a general acceptance that Vermont is an undiscovered country as far as talent is concerned," Wilder says. "One of my jobs is to know where all those people are."
Sandra Wright, for example, can be found in Ludlow. She started out in opera, then switched to popular music "when my voice dropped too many octaves," says the blues diva, who performs regularly in Burlington.
Before relocating to Vermont in 1992, Wright had already recorded a nationwide radio commercial for Coca-Cola in her native Tennessee. "I never actually heard it; I just saw the residuals," she says, referring to the periodic payments an artist usually receives for such work.
Later, she warbled for an Oprah Winfrey promotion that ran only in Los Angeles. "It won an award," Wright recalls. "Not me -- it."
In the Green Mountain State, she summoned her old skills when performing a make-believe aria to advertise Killington's Pasta Pot restaurant. Another spot, for Heritage Ford and Toyota in South Burling-ton, was more bluesy and jazzy. "All I know is, I didn't have to do opera," Wright says.
Unlike opera, jingles aren't exactly high art. But they're still art. "You build something the way a painter would," Doug Lang explains. "You tweak. You erase. You add. It's compositional."
He was part of a team that produced the now-frequent radio spots in which a girl rhapsodizes about the "Pop-Pop-Pontiac" that she has named Webster. Lang wrote the music, played it, and recorded the dialogue. This coy, youth-oriented piece de resistance is all in a day's work for this versatile guy.
Adaptability is a virtue, if not a necessity, in Ver-mont. "You have to do many different things to survive in this rural area," Tammy Fletcher contends. "When I sing on commercials, it helps me make a living and never gets in the way of my career. I embrace it.