March 15, 2016
In addition to bringing you the viewpoints of students and scholars, Trax on the Trail is committed to going behind the scenes to bring you insiders’ perspectives on the creative processes that bring the campaign soundscape to life. Political candidates use music throughout their campaigns to paint a picture of their priorities, patriotism, and identity, and people are taking notice. Campaign music chatter has increased in the mainstream press over the past few months, but journalists are primarily focused on rally playlists, concerts, and celebrity endorsements. In other words, they are interested in writing about songs and artists that the public knows and can identify. Thus, while Bernie Sanders’ use of the Simon and Garfunkel hit “America” in his Iowa ad of the same title received a lot of attention (see The Week, New York Magazine, Variety, the New York Times, and even a Trax contribution by Paul Christiansen), the wordless, instrumental tracks (known as “underscore”) that accompany most campaign ads receive scant mention in the news.[i]
The folks at Trax on the Trial want to bring ad music into the discussion!
Trax co-editor James Deaville addressed attack ads in the March 1st episode of the Trax on the Trail radio show, Trax research assistant Andrew Sproule offered his own musical analysis on Bernie and Hillary ads in the Trail Trax database, and we have also enlisted the help of a prominent political consultant in the hopes of getting an insider’s perspective on underscore strategy.
On February 19th, Trax creator and co-editor Dana Gorzelany-Mostak and research assistant Cannon McClain had the pleasure of speaking with John Balduzzi, president of The Balduzzi Group.
John Balduzzi’s portfolio boasts clients such as Obama Biden 2012, the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Have you ever wondered what goes into making a political ad? Where does that music come from? Read on!
*The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Trax on the Trail or Georgia College.
John Balduzzi Interview Transcript
Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: The Trax team has catalogued over 500 candidate videos and advertisements thus far, and we would love to gain some insight on the process of creating effective political ads. We have spent some time looking at your fabulous website, and we want to throw out some questions. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself first?
John Balduzzi: Well, I am the president and CEO of the Balduzzi Group, a political consulting firm that provides television, radio, and direct mail advertisements for Democratic candidates, progressive organizations, unions, and non-profits, but mostly Democratic candidates who are running for political office. I started the company in 2010, so we’ve been in the business for about six years now. Our clients are running for office all over the country, from small-town USA all the way up to candidates for US Congress, US Senate, and Governor; we did some work for the presidential election for President Obama, his reelection. We’ve done work in pretty much all levels of government.
DGM: Wow! When we corresponded by email, you said that you also have a background in music. Can you tell us a bit about that – you’re a saxophone player, right?
JB: Yeah, I do – it’s kind of a unique background. Music has been in my family forever. My dad was a singer, and my sister was an amazing vocalist and a flute player who started off at the Crane School of Music in Potsdam [NY] before switching to education. My brother, to this day, is still a musician, and I grew up playing a little bit of piano, and then I was a pretty good saxophone player. I started in 4th grade and went all the way through high school, won some awards, and actually auditioned and got accepted to a handful of music schools, but I ultimately decided that I didn’t have the stomach for it, and I went to college to study history and politics. So, my life choice at the time seems to have worked out well for me. Yeah, music is a huge influence in my life, and it always has been, and it’s critical for what we do, especially in the TV and radio aspects.
DGM: The ads and the materials that you have on your website are amazing; it’s really, across the board, incredible what you have there.
JB: Thank you.
DGM: So, we have a couple of questions: first, more general questions about the music, and then, a little more about the specifics. So, the first question is, in terms of the music you put in ads, we want to know if there is a specific source from which you get the music. From what I understand, there’s some sort of clearinghouse where you buy music. But, we’re curious as to how you purchase the music – do you peruse a group of selections and then buy one, or do you have the music specifically composed for your ads?
JB: Well, it’s interesting. I think my colleagues, who probably don’t have a background in music, who have never really played an instrument before, who don’t really understand the complexities of music and putting things together, they’ll just go to a website and try to find something that fits the tone of the ad and just buy the sample. As for me, as we’re shooting the ads and as I’m writing the ads, I have a sense in my head of what I want the sound to sound like, so I’m already thinking about music while I’m writing the spot. I think most consultants just wait to choose the music; it’s probably the last thing they do. They write the ads, shoot the ads, and the last thing they do before they show it to a client is pick a piece of music. I don’t do that. The music is something that I’m thinking about throughout the entire process. So, how do we choose it? There are dozens and dozens of websites that offer sound clips, such as AudioSparx, SoundCloud, or Audio Network. You’re able to log on, and you can type in some keywords and get some samples of music. All you have to do is clip off the 20 seconds, 28 seconds, or 30 seconds that you want for the spot, and there you have it. There are some free websites out there, but I believe in paying people for their work, so we always pay for audio. I think it’s important to me to pay musicians for their time, effort, and creativity. It’s not expensive, either, so I want to make sure that folks get paid for their work.
On those websites, we’re able to go in and listen to various clips. They’re always named “Great Sunny Day” or “Dark and Dreary,” and you can kind of get a sense of the type of music in the clip – you can listen to clips and see what you’d like. The other 10% of the time, our audio engineer, who is a fantastic drummer, will compose original pieces for us to put into some of our spots.
DGM: So, how far along do you get in making the ad before you choose the music? It seems that in some of your ads, there’s a certain synchronization between what’s happening musically and what’s going on in the screen, so do you have the soundtrack playing when you make the final cut of the ad?
JB: Yes, exactly – music is usually the last thing we put into the ad. The ad is completely cut and edited, and then we drop the music in at the end.
DGM: When you’re creating an ad, do you have a theme or idea in mind for the ad, and then develop the talking points around that, or is it vice versa?
JB: Yes, it’s a sophisticated process. When we’re doing television ads for, let’s say, a congressional campaign, a lot of the data that we use to compose an ad is poll-tested; it’s polling data – there’s data behind voters saying what they care about, and we tend to write our spot around good, sound data. That’s the premise of how our TV ads are constructed. A lot of it is poll-driven; if in a particular congressional district, jobs and the economy are the top issues, well, we’re not going to talk about the environment, because people aren’t going to click with that; we’re going to talk about jobs and the economy. So, that’s how we craft our TV spots. In other areas, where maybe there isn’t any polling information, it’s just a gut feel of what we think most voters care about in the district, and that’s kind of how we construct ads when we don’t have any sort of mathematical polling data.
DGM: Is there a division of labor, in that you have some people on your team that are mainly researching, and then you have others that are more on the creative side, or are those people one and the same?
JB: Well, it’s me! It’s predominantly a two-person shop. Anthony is a partner of mine, and together, we do all of the writing and creative tasks. We do hire out to a production team that actually helps us shoot and edit the ads, but we’re writing the script and directing the shoot, and we’re very involved with the editing process as well. Anthony is the media buyer, so he decides whether people watching Scandal see the ad, whether people watching Monday night football see the ad, or whether people watching The View see the ad.
DGM: Are there certain research tools for people in your line of work that you use to gather this polling information and data, since you’re talking about not just data on the issues, but you’re talking about what television shows your target demographic watches? How do you find that information out?
JB: Yes, there is data out there that we can subscribe to, and it has given us a sense of certain demographics and who is watching which shows, and then we buy our political media appropriately.
DGM: I see, okay. Very interesting. Can you talk about some of the sample ads that you have on your website and the music that you selected for those ads? We found two of the ads to be particularly interesting—one was the Toby Shelley radio ad titled “Unpull a Trigger” for the sheriff office, and the other one was a radio ad for Paul Tonko–would you be open to telling us a little bit about how chose the music for these ads?
JB: Yeah, the Toby Shelley ad is perfect; that’s the one that I would talk about. That ad won an award a couple of years ago—it was the best political radio ad for the cycle. I think that it won because of the powerful gunshot in the music. It really hits you right in the beginning; you can’t un-pull the trigger, which is kind of an interesting concept to begin with. It’s pushing the envelope, I think, for a political ad, but we had to—the candidate for sheriff was promised a ton of support from donors and political friends, and they just really didn’t deliver. His opponent had hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we had about fifty grand for the political campaign. So we said, look, we’ve got fifty grand, probably not enough for television, but I think we could do a really strong radio ad. We only have enough money for one ad, so it has to be a good ad, and it really has to captivate people. So, that’s the hook that we came up with – I’m pulling the trigger, the gunshot. As for the music, I probably listened to fifty samples. I needed to get drivers in their cars to pay attention to the ad, since that’s when most people are going to be listening to this – they’re driving to work, they’re driving home from work, on weekends they’re going on road trips; they’re distracted, but I need them to tune in. So, we used that music; we used that hook to make sure that people stop what they’re doing and pay attention to the spot. I think that it was a pretty powerful ad; it won a bunch of awards, and I think the music had a lot to do with it.
The Paul Tonko radio ad was also very interesting. Paul Tonko is a congressman from the suburbs outside Albany, and the congressional district is pretty big; people know Albany as the capital city of New York, but the congressional district itself has some pretty folksy areas, where there are more cows than people. Paul is a very regular person; he’s a Democrat, but he really taps into the more rural parts of the district, and the music exemplifies who Paul is – Paul is kind of a folksy guy. He’s a great person – very caring, warm, and friendly, so when we were looking for music for that radio ad, that’s what I was trying to search for. I was trying to search for background music that was warm, appealing, caring, kind, and thoughtful – and I think that’s exactly what we found in that music sample, so that’s why we chose the music that we did for that ad.
DGM: We thought the same thing when we listened to it. Cannon, you said, “I feel like there’s some sheep there.”
Cannon McClain: You feel like you should be herding sheep as you’re listening to it.
DGM: I thought that it was really effective; the woodwinds gave a really nice feel to it. Paul felt very likeable from the outset just because of the music. There’s one other ad, “One Voice” [for Gina Cerilli] that I wanted to ask you about. Could you talk about the music choice that you made for that ad?
JB: Yeah, Gina is young, maybe 29 years old. She’s a first-time candidate running for a pretty high office in western Pennsylvania, and we just needed to have music in her ads that communicated moving forward, energy, and youthfulness, so that’s why we chose the music that we did.
DGM: In the ad, she appears to be very vulnerable-looking and feminine, for lack of a better word, but something about the music—the mix of the strings and the repetitious, vigorous motive—give her gravitas and a certain momentum. The music changes the whole tenor of the ad. It’s a very effective ad.
JB: Thank you. I really like the music that we chose because there’s a part where she starts to outline what she’s going to do in office, and the music is loud, inspiring, and energetic, and then it decrescendos. At that point, that’s where Gina really starts to talk about the three things she’s going to do—“good-paying jobs, protecting our seniors, and fiscal responsibility.” Once she starts that, the sound cuts down to a low level, and it draws you in a little, and that’s one of the reasons why we clipped just that section of the song. If I remember it correctly, the song that we chose is a three- or four-minute piece, and we just clipped the thirty seconds that we needed. The reason why we chose that one piece is because of that spot, because when she starts talking about the issues that matter to her, the music really comes down, and it draws you in to what she’s going to say, and when she closes the spot, the music pops up again.
DGM: It was really a terrific ad.
CM: You mentioned how you try to specifically push ads towards certain demographics of people. I know that you said you specifically try to tie in music that exemplifies the candidate. Do you ever think about the market demographic that you’re targeting when you’re picking music? Is there some sort of nuance that you’re trying to go for when you’re advertising to, for example, Sunday football?
JB: That’s a great question. We can’t change the audio for each showing of the ad; we can’t do twenty-five versions of an ad with different music in the background and then place that ad on different stations depending on the demographic, but what we can do is incorporate music or sound that is representative of the voters or audience that we’re trying to win over. It’s more of a regional question. So, for example, we’re going to be shooting some ads for a congressional candidate in North Carolina, and you can just imagine the type of music that we’ll use—bluegrass, almost country; we’re not going to choose music that will give the voter a sense of New York City, Philly, or Boston. You have to make sure that you have a sense of the geography and set the music accordingly. If it’s a rural shot, where he’s driving his pick-up truck and talking about all the great things he’s going to do for the district, you don’t want to include music that sounds like that music we put in Gina’s ad. We’re going to choose something that’s more laid-back, like bluegrass.
CM: Okay, thank you.
DGM: Do you look for a certain melodic contour or rhythmic content when choosing the music? What role does timbre play? Are there certain combinations of instruments that you think work best for an ad or certain combinations that you don’t want to use?
JB: That’s a good question. You know, I never go at it by picking instruments, except for maybe piano. If we’re, you know, doing a radio spot that’s soft and subtle, maybe just some light piano is all you need in the background. But I never go into picking music based off of, for example, “We really need trumpets here,” or “We really need woodwinds here.”
DGM: I think ads that have acoustic guitar to a certain extent convey the rural, agrarian connotations that you were talking about earlier. We actually had someone write for our site specifically about the meanings attached to the guitar and guitar players and how they operate in Martin O’Malley’s campaign performances on the instrument, so I was just curious about what role that might play.
JB: Precisely. I don’t think, “We need guitar here, or we need piano here, or we need more brass here”; it’s just, “We need this type of mood.” I’m looking for more of a mood than the actual instruments. Except, I’ll say all the time, “We need light piano here,” and that’s just kind of the feeling that you get from the piano. We’ve done some negative ads that have brash percussion music; you can just tell that it has a very heavy, dense mood, so we’ve used that, but I’ve never said, “We need that instrument or this instrument.” It’s just a mood or a feeling that I’m going for. In fact, on some of those websites that I mentioned before, you can search by feelings, like for happy music or angry music; you can actually select that way as opposed to selecting by instrument. You can search “dark and ominous,” for example, and you would get something you would hear in a trailer for A Nightmare on Elm Street. Yeah, you can search by feelings and moods.
DGM: Isn’t that how film music was created in the early days? The music was queued up by whatever the sentiment of the scene was, right?
JB: Right. When I was a little kid, in 3rd or 4th grade, we went to Disney and we took the tour of MGM. There was a part on the tour where you could create your own music for a scene in a horror film, but it gave you wacky instruments –
DGM: It’s like, “Have a Theremin, kid.”
JB: Yeah, or a cowbell, and you could make the scene seem funny. It used a nondescript scene of someone walking, and it told you it was a horror scene, but when you used the funny musical instruments, it completely changed what you were watching. And then, they went back and showed you the original, and you realized that it was supposed to be a scary scene, but we made it a funny scene because we used all the funny instruments and sounds. I’ll never forget that. You can look at some of our negative ads; sometimes in a joking manner, we’ll throw in something light and funny in a negative ad, and we laugh because you get a completely different feeling from the spot just because of the music.
DGM: Do you think you can tell us a little about the work that you did for Obama-Biden in 2012?
JB: Unfortunately, no music was involved, except for the music blaring through my headphones while I was writing a direct mail piece. We worked for an independent expenditure that was funded by a bunch of unions, and we did a lot of direct mail pieces supporting their candidates, including President Obama, up and down the east coast. We were sending out hundreds of thousands of pieces of political mail, in large cities, as north as Boston and as south as Miami, and that’s what we did for the reelection campaign.
DGM: Are you involved at all in 2016?
JB: Not yet, but I’m certain that we will be in some way, shape, or form. We’re not working for Hillary or for Bernie, but down the road, we’ll probably be involved in the race in some capacity with the unions or other political organizations that will get involved.
DGM: I’m really honored that you were willing to talk to us and take the time to give us some insight on ad music. We’ve published a couple of articles on ads, and we have somebody who’s analyzing underscores, so I thought it would be great to have some insight from somebody who actually, for a living, creates ads, since so much of the work that we do here is talking about impact rather than creative process. I think both our scholars that follow the site and the general public will be very interested to hear what you have to say about this; I know we were.
JB: Thank you, guys; it was fun.
DGM: Thank you again for chatting with us.
Would you like to read more about music in 2016 campaign ads? Check out research assistant Andrew Sproule’s analyses of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ads:
(Transcript abridged and edited by Cannon McClain, Teddi Strassburger, and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak.)
[i] For more on newly composed songs in political ads, see the Trax article by Joanna Love. And for another perspective on music in political ads, see Justin Patch’s essay posted at The Avid Listener.