Meet Andrew Charles Kahn, the man who introduced you to some of your favorite bands

Way back when Death and Taxes was in its infancy as a print magazine in 2008, we paid homage to whoever was choosing the music in Apple’s ads. By ’08, we’d noticed that many of the most celebrated new artists of the decade had popped up in Apple ads just before breaking: Feist, Chairlift, the Ting Tings, CSS, Yael Naim, to name a few.

We didn’t know who was picking the music at the time—no one did, he was contractually obligated not to talk about it—but it was this guy, Andrew Charles Kahn. Back then he was in-house music supervisor for Apple’s ad agency. Now he’s running his own shop, Good Ear Music Supervision (or GEMS—finding gems is his trade, after all).

Andrew was nice enough to talk to us about what music supervision is all about and give us some pointers from that golden ear of his.

At Apple you guys broke some of the biggest indie rock bands of the past decade—Ting Tings, CSS…
Chairlift, Feist, Yael Naim, and then there were the celebrity ones—Coldplay, Paul McCartney, Mary J. Blige. Paul McCartney came because Steve Jobs was the biggest Beatles fan in the world. Same thing with the Bob Dylan spot that came right before that, and U2. I don’t think McCartney had done an ad before. Same with Bob Dylan and U2. And Coldplay. Apple was that tipping point for artists to embrace being used in advertising. You could especially see that with the big artists—getting your song in a “silhouette” spot was basically a 30 second ad for whatever single you had coming out. And I think that’s also what made them so successful in introducing music to wider audiences. There are brands now who are like, We want to do music the way Apple did it, or we want to be known as being a music brand. But then they’ll have 20 seconds of crappy copy in their ad.

It’s almost like the Apple ads got out of their own way.
I completely agree. They respected music and the use of music in their ads instead of putting it in as an afterthought. They also respected their audience. They didn’t need to tell their audience, “iPods are now available for $149 and this is what it does,” and go on and on about their products. They believed their audience could intuit what this device does.

And it seems that respect to defer must have translated to respect for your taste to pick these bands like Chairlift and the Ting Tings. These were not well-known bands at the time. Someone must have had the trust to say, “Ok, I trust that this is cool and that people will think it’s cool.” Did you have to do much salesmanship with these tracks?
No. The music sold itself. Always. So in a sense they didn’t need to trust me as a salesman—they just needed to trust their own ears. They needed to hear why this song was both unique and had universal appeal, and why it fits in this ad. So you don’t have to make a big pitch for it, you just let the music speak for itself. There would be a couple times internally where we’d be going through songs and you’d be like “This is a new band from Manchester and the girl has this crazy vibe,” and they’d be like “Don’t care, just play the music.” I think that’s a good way to do it.

You just mentioned being both “unique and universal.” Are there other specific criteria you have for qualities that make a good pick, regardless of genre?
In short, no. “Unique” and “appealing” are what I think of when I refer to gems, hence the name. They’re such great characteristics for a song to have since they’re fairly rare on their own and one in a million when they come as a combo.

What’s your process like for whittling down from an infinity of possibilities to narrowing it down to the one track that’s going to work. Do you have like a savings account of great tracks in the bank that you’re waiting to use somewhere, or do you start each job with a totally fresh search?
I’ve always done most of the legwork before getting a brief in or a project in. And that’s just because finding music organically as opposed to finding music specifically for a project with your ears attuned just to that is such a better way to hear music and appreciate it. Then once you’ve filtered through the vast majority of crappy music and good music then you’re able to find what works for a certain project that you’re working on. In our industry we have a lot of people who try to sell us music and try to give us music all the time. They can be a great resource, but a lot of times they have their own agenda—selling tracks that may be a priority for their label, or whatever it is. You need to be able to find music on your own.

How has the Spotify/Rhapsody revolution changed things for you? Finding new music is much different than it was a couple years ago.
It’s a good question. Spotify especially makes me a little nervous for my job. The same way Serato made everyone into a DJ, Spotify, by putting so much music at the fingertips of anyone who wants to sign up for an account, can turn anyone into a music supervisor. They can create their own playlists, they have access to all the songs. Ten years ago, before digital music really took off, you had to really have relationships with labels and publishers who would send you physical CDs to even begin to have enough music in your library to tell people what to use. I think it will probably democratize the search for music. And I think you see it in general in the public. You see a lot more people now who have a niche knowledge of certain genres or they like obscure bands, and it seems like independent bands are way more successful nowadays because of technology like that. I think we’re at the very beginning of Spotify and all that stuff.

What’s your cataloguing process like?
It’s very time consuming. Thankfully I’m not OCD in other parts of my life because I wouldn’t have time for it. But every song I hear in my catalog gets an exhaustive rundown with charts notating everything it could possibly be, whether it’s a throwback song, or whether it’s energetic, or whether it’s from a certain region or whatever it is—release dates…

When did you start doing this?
Before I even had this job. I was practicing for it. I guess 1999 when Napster came out. I would just sit at home, download music, and I still do the same thing—listen to music, find new music.

How has it been having your own shop? Is the way you relate to clients different?
Yes, it’s totally different. I don’t have to sit in meetings I don’t need to be in anymore. I’m very isolated. I used to be in-house at an agency so I would deal mostly with the creatives. Now, I talk mostly direct with clients. Every job is a freelance job and I’m having to prove my worth through my taste in music, which is really crazy. To have a job that’s based in something so subjective is always interesting. And now that I’m out on my own everything is always different. There’s always a new project and a new interesting brief coming in, as opposed to when you’re just in-house a lot of the campaigns that you’re working on are pretty similar in tone.

My favorite thing last year was I needed to find music for an ad that took place at an illegal offshore high-class snake fight party. The beginning of that search was for a vintage, possibly exotic or worldly or Tarantino-esque sound. I was disappointed that they scaled that back, but I think they thought it got too much in the way of the story they were trying to tell.

Have you done much film and TV?
Not much. My first real job was on “The Sopranos.” I’ve done a little film on the side, but not much.

Is that something you’re interested in?
Yeah. TV is really demanding, but I’m interested in taking on films. The quality of TV has risen like crazy over the past few years and you really see it in music supervision. You see people discovering music in TV shows now left and right, whether it’s through Gossip Girl or an HBO program. And you think of amazing moments in music supervision and you think about directors who have used music in pretty flashy ways. Wes Anderson, Tarantino… they love music and they love the dramatic slow motion shots.

What did you think about the Beach House/Volkswagen scandal?
It’s a crazy move on behalf of the agency. I think that the level of success and the level of desperation to get a sync is inversely proportional. Beach House has been successful and for that reason they’re not desperate to get money for putting their music in an ad, especially one they’re not in love with. It wasn’t a bad ad, it was just a gross misuse of music. But for whatever reason they didn’t want to do it, and it’s the same reason it’s even more difficult to get Guns N Roses and Eric Clapton and Lady Gaga—these are all artists who, if you’re going to use they’re music, you’re supposed to do it in a way that’s going to benefit them greatly. And what benefits successful artists is going to be a lot greater than a small check to an indie band that hasn’t made any money.

I’m always a fan of, when a band doesn’t feel like it’s the right thing to do, to say no. I totally respect that. I think if it doesn’t jive well with the band’s take on their identity, it’s great if they can have the integrity to refuse a placement. At the same time if there’s decent money behind it they’re probably getting pressure from the people who put out their record and who publish their music, because people aren’t buying records anymore. That’s a loss of revenue for artists. And also radio has completely lost its dominance so you don’t have a way to introduce music on a wide level.

So that’s what supervision has become—for popular TV shows or advertisements it’s the new radio. And it’s paying you money. Whereas back in the day your radio man used to go to the radio station with a bag of money or cocaine or hookers or whatever it was and push to get your music on the radio, now it’s the other way. Now you have the new radio coming to artists with bags of money saying, Please let us use your music. But I think that might change soon.

For the reason that, if it’s a good sync, it is becoming an amazing way to introduce your song to the world. It’s an interesting place because you see the people who control the purse strings wanting a lot more money if it’s going to be more of a wide use—if you get a one year license, it’s a lot more money than if it’s a one month license. If you want to play it on the internet as well as TV, it’s more money. But then once you get the deal done, those same people want to know, How much media are you buying behind this? They want you to push it a lot, because they want it to be a big vehicle for the song. So you see they really are motivated to get their music heard. There have been a couple this year that have done wonders for bands. Fun, L.P. was in an Amex commercial I think. Spots like that are great, they’re a dream for an artist, and other times it’s just a check.

Could this be a commoditizing force on music? With the wealth of new music out there and the volume of bands looking for exposure, could it lower the bar for what brands are willing to spend on really exciting new music and instead motivate them to just go with lower bids in a comparable genre?
I’m all for companies paying a fair amount to license a band’s art, but I think the days are numbered when labels and agents can stand in the way by demanding higher fees. The general mentality is that supervision, whether in ads, trailers, TV or what have you, is the “new radio.” And musicians—both up and coming and already established—are hungry to get their music heard. If acts like Jack White, Mariah Carey, and The Beach Boys are hungry for a “big” sync to promote their new record, because that’s the best way to get their music heard, how can they also demand a million dollars for that use… especially compared to the days when radio reps used to drop off bags of cash and coke for the privilege of getting songs of the radio?

On the flip side, did you see Little Dragon’s new video with Absolut? With DVR meaning most people skip through TV ads, do you see more brands trying to champion bands like this through more non-traditional product placement? Where’s this headed?
Brands acting as a patron of the arts is becoming well-trod territory nowadays. Converse and Mountain Dew have successfully started one-off labels, countless companies sponsor tours and pay for product placement in videos. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a band’s entire album presented by a brand in the near future. I don’t think this is a great model, because it’s a slippery slope to dressing a band up like they’re a race car and have them sing songs about whatever product you’re hawking… But if it produces good results I’m ok with it. I think, from a musician’s perspective, you just need to be very careful about committing to that and making sure you’re not compromising. Mountain Dew’s Green Label Sound imprint has had a fantastic track record so far, so good for them. If a wealthy sponsor allows you to create art and doesn’t mettle too much, that can be a successful partnership.

Are there any tunes you’ve been carrying in your head that you want to place?
No secret gems, but two acts that I think have that unique-plus-universally-appealing combo in abundance are Yuna and Haim.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about art through music supervising?
People don’t love ads, they love the content that’s in them. It could be humor, it could be sentiment, and often times it’s music. So you’ll see people who love the I’m a Mac campaign, or people who love the Kenny Powers K-Swiss ads. And besides that you say, Oh my god I love the song in this Target ad. People get passionate about that. Whether it’s a Mazda ad or a Reebok ad is kind of an afterthought. They don’t really connect with the brand through that—they connect with the content the brand is putting out there.

Check out some of Andrew’s work—some of it will sound familiar.

Chairlift – “Bruises”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Phenomena”

Syl Johnson – “Diff’rent Stroks”