Jingles All the Way: Making a Living in "Music for Advertising"

It's debatable just how many cultural light years exist between a hummable old-fashioned ditty like "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee," and the slightly dissonant New Age sound of "It's an Up Thing!"

What isn't debatable is that the world of jingles--now fashionably dubbed "music for advertising"--and of the singers who perform them has changed. It's a new breed of performers, a reinvented scene.

As little as 20 years ago, a handful of highly polished, highly skilled pop singers--a largely homogeneous lot in terms of background, styles, and sound--had a corner on the jingle market. They worked all the time, made oodles of money (the most successful earning half a million or more a year), and they did virtually nothing else. Jingle-singing was their career. It was a notably closed and clique-y universe.

The field continues to be very difficult to break into. "Only the best and most phenomenally talented are going to be working," says Thai Jason, one of several New York-based jingle-industry people interviewed for this feature story. Jason is production manager at Crushing Enterprises, a major music house that produces songs for ads.

Still, the doors are not shut in the way they once were. Many more players representing a potpourri of vocal styles are doing jingles, from Kentucky Fried Chicken's liturgical "Everybody needs a little KFC," to American Airlines' loungey "Doing what we do best!" Musical diversity is where it's at.

"Jingle-singers today may be rock-and-rollers to rappers to jazz singers to those who can do grunge, folk, ethnic, country, and heavy metal," says Jason. "There's also a demand for singers who can specialize in a '50s sound with a '90s twist, or just plain retro. That's very big now. So is alternative rock!" (Crushing, by the way, is renowned for its staff of Generation X-ers, known by Madison Avenue insiders as the Crushing Underground.)

Targeting that 20-something market is simply good business. Certainly MTV has an impact on ads, visually and musically. Adds Jeanne Look, president of Look, Inc., (Pepsi, Pringles, Miller Lite): "There are frequent calls for 'ambient' singers--those who can suggest instruments or evocative sounds. It's becoming increasingly less common for jingles to have lyrics at all." Some don't have instruments, either. Digitally created sounds have replaced, at least in part, strings and horns.

Years ago, jingle singers were largely classically trained. Everyone read music. That, too, has blown wide open. Some read music. Others don't have a clue. The requisite today: musical improvisation. Some singers come from Juilliard; others have their roots in the Bitter End.

From the singer's point of view, there's some irony in all this. On the one hand, there's more opportunity for a greater variety of singers to get their feet in the door. On the other hand, there are fewer jobs for everyone. Belt-tightening at the ad agencies has played a role in this change. Budgets for music have been slashed. And, let's face it, licensing a golden oldie ("needle dropping") is a whole lot cheaper--and is esthetically popular today--than hiring new singers to perform new songs.

Virtually nobody is making the kind of money singers made years ago. Another contributing factor: the industry's current notable faddism. This year's high-end singer is dead in the water next year.

"A successful jingle-singer today may conceivably make $50,000 to $60,000 in a good year. But what does that have to do with what happens the following year?" asks Andree Kisselbach, personal manager of session singers and recording artists at Fretless Productions.

SUB: Money Sings

The amount of money earned largely depends on whether the commercial is a national or local spot and how often it is aired. SAG and AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) regulate rates for residuals--the payments performers receive for the airing of their spots--as well as for the recording sessions themselves.

According to SAG/AFTRA regulations, a solo singer earns a flat fee of $333 per two-hour session. If on the other hand, the singer is a member of a three- to five-member group, it's $187.95 per session. For those singing in a six- to eight-person group, it drops to $163.10; and it's $133.00 for singers in a nine-plus-member group.

A non-union singer may perform in a commercial, but if he does not join the appropriate union within 30 days after the job's completion, the producer who hires him will be fined by the union. So states Ralph Braun, executive assistant at AFTRA. AFTRA has jurisdiction over ads aired on radio, and usually over those that are taped, not filmed, for TV. SAG, on the other hand, has jurisdiction over ads that are filmed and aired on TV. In some instances--here it gets complex--SAG also has jurisdiction over TV ads that have been videotaped.

For the most part, the singers we interviewed did not voice many complaints about working conditions. Still, Braun offers a few caveats. "It's worthwhile for singers to find out if the music houses they're working for are signed up with the unions," he advises. "This is especially important if it's a new music house." (A signatory house has signed with SAG/AFTRA, agreeing to work under a union contract, to pay union performers the minimum salary set by the union, and to contribute a specific amount to the union's health and pension plans.)

A source of distress that Braun encounters from time to time centers on the sticky issue of "singers not always getting paid for a demo the music house has created with them. The problem is that the demo may or may not be sold to the ad agency," he explains. "A signatory house is supposed to pay the singer whether or not the demo is ultimately bought. Of course, many music houses say they are not given the budget for that expense and many singers are equally hesitant about complaining. They are afraid that if they make trouble they may not work again."

Says jingle-singer Florence Warner: "This is a problem and it makes me very angry. I must say it never happens in any other city, but it's common in New York."

Kisselbach does not agree. On the contrary, she insists that this practice is rare and advocates silence on the singer's part, arguing it's the better part of self-preservation. "Getting the opportunity to sing and be heard by the right players is a worthwhile investment in itself. If a music house chronically does not pay for demos, after a point a singer doesn't have to work for that house. But in the early part of a career, I'd say do it. Singers can always call or write later to gently remind the producers that they have not paid."

SUB: Subtext Counts

By all accounts, the actual jingle session is not unpleasant, although a number of singers we interviewed talked about hanging around, waiting to be called.

Still, the word "creative" comes up a lot. So does "artistic integrity." Joe Cerisano, one of the top jingle-singers in the business, notes the acting skills required: "Within the parameters of the words and music, there has to be emotion and sincerity," he points out. "When I do Campbell's I'm thinking of my children. And who better for Pampers than someone who has had babies? And when I do the Army stuff--'Be all that you can be!'--I think about and respect those who have served, like my father and uncle."

Jingle-singing has a heady cachÆ’ today that it never did in the past. There's no stigma attached to singing them; no one talks about "selling out" anymore. The line between commerce and art has blurred. You do jingles. You do records. Indeed, some jingles have become mega-hits. Coke's "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony " is the classic example.

Many singing stars have launched their careers by doing jingles. Michael Bolton, Luther Vandross, and Curtis Stigers head the list. And there is no shortage of current stars who do jingles--from Whitney Houston to Isaac Hayes to the Village People. Indeed, we were told that the late Phyllis Hyman said she would have been more than happy to give up her singing career to do jingles.

Other working singers, though less-renowned, do both. Dee Carstensen, a successful jingle-singer and recording artist, says candidly, "Singing commercials made it financially possible for me to work on my records. I couldn't have afforded it without the jingles. I can't say that jingles paved the way for my records and tours, although the records and tours probably helped me get more jingle work.

"It showed the people in the music houses that I was a serious musician, determined to make my living at this," she continues. "In other words, I was like them. Many have their own bands and are trying to launch singing careers too."

Among Carstensen's commercial credits: Lincoln-Mercury, Dr. Pepper, Kodak, Dannon yogurt, and Ponds. Some songs involved lyrics. Others, just vocal sounds. All were solo parts. Carstensen now receives on average three calls a week for work and is currently preparing a new album to be released in April. She makes it clear that she is happy pursuing both careers.

Cerisano has a different story to tell. He gave up a recording career to do jingles full time, although, as with Carstensen, his early goal was to be a recording/touring artist: "Nobody grows up saying, 'I want to be a jingles-singer.' " Indeed, after 16 years of struggling he produced his first album in 1984 for Columbia Records. Later on, his jingle career came about serendipitously. "A friend of mine who was working on the Miller Beer account and was familiar with my voice asked if I wanted to sing in the campaign," he recalls. "I said, sure. I thought it might be fun and an easy 50 bucks." He laughs. "I had no idea of the kind of money that was involved."

Cerisano's jingle career is the stuff of fairy tales. He admits he was never very good at self-promotion, so mercifully for him he has never had to engage in it. Word-of-mouth did the trick. The Miller ad aired on the Super Bowl--the primetime spot for a TV ad. In short order, Cerisano found assignments forthcoming--overflowing, in fact. His credits include singing stints for Goodyear, General Electric (GE), Sprite, Sweet 'n Low, and Revlon.

In addition to his top-notch technical proficiency, another significant element played a role in Cerisano's rapid and ongoing success: the coincidence of good timing. His particular vocal quality, a gritty rock-and-roll sound, was suddenly in demand, thanks in part to Bruce Springsteen's meteoric rise in the pop world.

It was the mid-80's and the music houses were looking for singers who could suggest--not imitate--the hot new style. And for the first time, Cerisano explains, they were tracking down rock singers who had come out of the trenches, as it were.

Cerisano fit the bill perfectly. He also had the uncanny ability to evoke a Led Zeppelin, Tony Bennett, and Little Richard sound. Vocally, Cerisano is both unique and versatile, and those are the classic ingredients for success in this field, all agree.

The end result: Cerisano came to the conclusion, unlike many singers, "I wanted this to be my career. I no longer had any real ambition to be a recording artist. Perhaps that's because it took me so long to make that first album. But more important, I wanted to start a family. I didn't want to have to spend all my time on the road, promoting albums. Jingles made it possible for me to make my living using my singing talent without travel." He stresses, "This is a respectable line of work!"

SUB: Thick-Skinned & Self-Assured

So, how does a singer break into this field? What exactly is being looked for? Is this work for everyone? To the latter the answer is a resounding, no!

"You have to be very self-assured about who you are and your talent," says singer Florence Warner. "You may walk out of these sessions feeling you've been turned into someone else. Of course, that's part of the bizarre talent that's required. This is for singers who are thick-skinned and understand that it's a political business. There's no way you're going to sing better than the producer's wife, and you can't take any of it personally!"

Adds Cerisano: "This is a service industry. You are servicing them. And you give one hundred and ten percent. You leave your ego at the door!"

As noted, jingle-singers either perform in groups or as soloists. And different skills are required for each. Paradoxically, more experience, if not more talent, is required to be a group singer.

"You have to be fast, able to blend vocally with the others, and not stand out in any way," says Crusher Enterprises' Thai Jason. "A solo singer, on the other hand, should have an individual sound and personality. He should know--and this is learned through doing--what words to emphasize in order to sell the product. At the same time, the solo singer should have a playful side, a flair, be able to not take the words that seriously."

Like so much in this industry, there are no sure-fire formulas for success. Fluke and destiny play their roles. So does word-of-mouth. A music producer catching a singer's act in a club may be yet another jingle door-opener.

The odds are that producers will not come to a club to hear an unknown singer, especially if those producers have families and live in the suburbs. Still, you never know.

Elaborating on the you-just-never-know theory, Kisselbach says, "Sing any place you possibly can where you'll conceivably be heard by people in the industry. That means if you have the chance to do a demo for a record company with or without pay, do it! Same thing with charitable causes. Do them! Don't worry about the money!"

Still, the reality is that most singers attempting a career in jingles break in by submitting a tape cold, as it were. This tape, or "demo" as it's known, should be professionally made and sent to the appropriate music houses. These days, New York City's most active jingle houses seem to be Elias Associates, JSM Music, Inc., and Michael Levine Music. To help you with your research, we've listed these and other New York City-based production companies that accept demos. (See page 23.)

"The demo should have brief, streamlined snippets [30 seconds long] of your singing voice that illustrate your vocal specialities," says Kisselbach. "And don't be afraid of pigeon-holing yourself. Otherwise producers are not going to remember you."

Adds singer Carstensen: "Know your limitations. My voice is like Joni Mitchell's. So I'm not going to attempt to sound like Aretha Franklin on my demo."

Clearly this is a world of sound, not of physical appearance. Still, says Jason, "As everyone knows, it's a youth-oriented business. If you're very young and very pretty, it can't hurt to include a photo of yourself. The same applies to good-looking young guys. There are women-producers today who will take a second look at an attractive young man." Still, "none of this means you'll get the first job, let alone be called back for another."

SUB: The Follow-Up

The tape has been submitted. Then what? Regrettably the waiting game begins, and so does the anxiety: "When and how do I follow up?" "What do I say?"

Selling oneself is hard. "You want to be persistent, but in a nice way," says Jason. "Give it a week or two and then call. But remember, producers really are busy and it's possible that you are calling at a bad time."

Kisselbach makes another suggestion: "Don't leave messages on voice mail. If you don't get to someone personally, call back later."

In any case, never ask for your demo back, advises Jeanne Look of Look, Inc. "It's always possible a producer will play your tape at some unexpected moment and abruptly decide yours is the voice he's looking for."

Everyone we interviewed contends that it can easily take two years or more before any jingle comes your way. But Valerie Wilson Morris, a jingle-singer who now manages jingle-singers, stresses, "Although singers may be working at other jobs while pursuing a jingle-singing career, they have to be fully committed to this. Singing for ads cannot be viewed as 'something on the side.' " Morris, a Juilliard-trained opera singer, is head of Val's Artists.

SUB: Agents & Managers

What about representation for jingle-singers? This is an emotionally charged topic within the industry. Curiously, agents rarely submit singers for jingle gigs. One expert who did not want to be quoted speculated that, given the enormous amount of work/time involved in landing these assignments, pursuing them simply isn't worthwhile for most agents.

The fact is, thanks to SAG/AFTRA rules, contracts with union-franchised agents are one-year deals, renegotiated annually. While this protects the performer from entering into an unsatisfying long-term relationship, it also allows him to jump ship as soon as he starts making good money, leaving his agent short one client and a sizable investment.

This problem does not exist--at least certainly not to the same extent--for personal managers. Their contracts with clients do not fall under union jurisdiction, and most of those contracts are written for the long term. So while it is by no means common for personal managers to play a role in the jingle business, it is no longer an anomaly either. As noted, Valerie Wilson Morris manages singers who do jingles. Kisselbach's Fretless is a full-service management house for singers; that includes managing those who do--or wish to do--jingles.

Kisselbach, who has been in the business 10 years, underscores that if a singer knows how to market himself and is not uncomfortable doing those pesty follow-up calls, personal management may not be necessary. "But for those who cannot promote themselves, personal management might be the answer." she observes. "It's also something to be considered by singers who simply don't have the time to do the selling because of other assignments and/or family obligations."

Singers do not require track records in order to be represented. "They need talent, but equally important, they have to be responsible and reliable," says Kisselbach. "I give each applicant a set of instructions, including a request for a tape, a picture, and a letter letting me know what he wants to do and why. I also want to know who referred the client and I want that information on the outside of the package. Eight out of 10 do not follow those instructions. To me that's a tip-off and I don't meet with them or even listen to the tape."

If, however, the instructions are followed and Kisselbach likes the tape, she'll meet with the singer and he'll perform for her in person. It's not unusual for the demo to be misleading. The voice and execution may be good. But there's no way to know how long it took to make. The singer may, indeed, have real musical talent, but little fast improvisational ability. This information is relevant in marketing a client, says Kisselbach. It may also make the difference in whether or not a producer calls a singer back for a second jingle stint.

Generally, personal managers get 20% of a client's income. Kisselbach also asks for $2,000 up front to make a quality tape and copies.

One singer who did not want to be identified insists that managers are an outrageous intrusion. "Until they made their appearance this was a wide open, relatively equal-level playing field. Their presence has changed all that. It won't be long," she predicts, "before all singers will be forced to sign with managers in order to get any work. The managers already have a corner on the market among children who sing for ads."

Not every music producer cottons to managers, either. Thai Jason admits that she has ambivalent feelings. "I suppose I can't help admiring them if they can get what they want and what the client deserves. On the other hand, some are so aggressive they're off-putting."

SUB: The Future of Jingles

Nobody can gaze into that crystal ball and predict with certainty how the industry will evolve. Many of the experts talk about trends moving in circles, even as they anticipate increased diversity and an enhanced emphasis on a singer's ability to imitate and interpret.

Still, it's a safe bet to follow Jason's dictum: "Stay on top of things. Know what's happening in the music world and you'll know what's about to happen in jingles.