Black Iris — as well as enterprises such as Heavy Duty, which boasts HAIM and Vampire Weekend producer Ariel Reichstaid as a partner and staff writers with songwriting credits on nine songs on Sky Ferreira’s just-released debut album — has a cool cachet with ad agencies because of its ties to certain artists with which it works closely. It can offer entry to certain scenes and sounds companies want to transact with; many of the music houses also have other creative sidelines, for other advertising work is the sideline. Black Iris has a singles label, White Iris; Hallowell admits to using this like a business card when meeting with ad creatives.
In a dark production suite in the Black Iris office, composer Rob Barbato is recording two demos for a commercial for a major national financial institution. An agency has commissioned original demos from Black Iris (and several other houses) for the spot. Barbato works quickly, switching between finessing a twee, acoustic pop track and a terse, synthetic one with a loop that mimics a boys’ choir. After a few takes of whistling, his boss, Hallowell pops his head in and interrupts — the singer they’ve hired for the spot is on her way over.
Prior to this, Barbato worked as a musician — first as a member of Darker My Love, later as Cass McCombs’ sideman, and even doing a stint in The Fall. He went to Berklee College of Music, but instead of Barbato pursuing studio work like his classmates, Darker My Love got both a recording and a publishing deal. He quickly became uncomfortable, however, with the artistic compromises that were expected in exchange for advances the band was given. At 23, living on the road was his dream; by the time 30 rolled around, he wanted stability that touring couldn’t provide and began working as a freelancer for music supervisors Beta Petrol, before coming in-house at Black Iris last year.
“Everyone is constantly asking me about it,” says Barbato of his musician friends, who are eager to commodify their songcraft at higher rate than indie rock pays. He tries to help the ones who are genuinely interested whenever he can, but composing for commercials means being an engineer, dexterous composer, and multi-instrumentalist — it’s not for everyone. Barbato, and every producer and music supervisor interviewed for this story, says the common misconception is that writing music for commercials is easy because it’s only 15 or 30 seconds of music, and musicians regard it as lesser art.
Other underground musicians are just happy to dabble — playing or singing on a demo for a spot can bring $100–200 — though some older musicians and those with a particular DIY credibility still insist on keeping their names off of it. Barbato has done spots with members of bands whose names would be familiar to anyone who’s read Pitchfork in the last five years, who take pains to keep their corporate toil anonymous. Barbato understands that, but he’s emphatic that to differentiate between commercial music and indie rock is to draw a line that does not exist; it’s simply a matter of degrees.
“If someone in the independent-rock world thinks that this is bullshit, they should take a look at themselves. They’re doing the same thing; they’re writing albums that people stream 30 seconds of on fucking Pitchfork and then people are like, ‘Oh, I like your album.'”
The real difference between a preening indie-rock band and a commercial composer is that Barbato is pulling down a low six-figure paycheck annually, and he still has the freedom to entertain purely creative pursuits like producing albums. Aside from his salary, Barbato gets royalties if his original composition makes it into a client’s spot. When he was a freelance composer, if a spot made it into a national ad, he’d net a few thousand bucks — more than he ever made playing in successful bands. Some of Black Iris’ core staff originated in the Richmond hardcore scene; almost all of its employees and freelancers — including members of Fool’s Gold, Eric Pulido of Midlake, and Andy McFarlane of the Twilight Sad — still play and tour in bands.
Barbato is setting up the studio to track vocals with a female singer, a known-name solo artist in indie rock. She’s done demo work for Black Iris periodically and is looking to get back into it; she’s broke until her album comes out this fall. (She asked not to be identified.) Though she is signed to a prestigious indie label with worldwide distribution, she’s barely scraping by and has been saying yes to whatever opportunities arise. Today, it’s harmonizing on a bank commercial for $100 while in Los Angeles to play Coachella.
She curls up on the black leather sofa in the control room and Barbato plays her the track a few times so she can pick up the melody. “So, kind of a Shins-y thing?” she asks. He nods. The song is sweet, pretty, California folk pop, with a little ukulele. If stretched to song length, it’d be getting raves from music sites for being so instantly memorable.
Barbato sets her up with a mic in the neighboring tracking room and the singer runs through her clarion aahs a few times until she nails it. Barbato gets a few takes and gives her the thumbs-up. They got it.
Lunch arrives, and Barbato, Hollowell, and the singer catch up over their salads. She’s put her stuff in storage, she’s trying to figure out what she’s doing with her life and her career. She’s tried her hand doing freelance composition for spots — the money for that work is better — but she admits she doesn’t fully have the knack for it; composing often involves quickly revising a piece of music several times to meet a client’s specifications. She is eager for session work like this, which is easier for her to fit into her schedule.
On her way out the door, the singer asks, “So, should I just invoice you then?”
“Yeah,” says Hallowell.
She flashes a big smile and reminds them of her availability for next week before she waves good-bye. Neither track would ultimately wind up being awarded the spot; the client ended up licensing a preexisting track from another artist.