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Joel Beckerman loves to tell stories. He just doesn’t use words to do it. The founder and lead composer of Man Made Music brings a show or network’s vision to life through sound and music.
“Any great brand is a great story,” says Beckerman. “And that’s always trying to figure out what’s the great story here that is worth telling, and how can I tell it in the most powerful way.”
Beckerman has helped tell many brand stories over his nearly 30-year career. He has worked on the “sonic branding”—a complete music and sound strategy—for companies such as The Weather Channel and the new Fusion network, in addition to being instrumental in helping rework themes for Entertainment Tonight and NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.
Developing a sonic brand, Beckerman maintains, is much more than providing themes and interludes. The Weather Channel definitely has themes and interludes, but there are also website buttons, apps and logo sounds Beckerman and his company had to figure out and bring a certain level of consistency and thought to.
For The Weather Channel's refresh, Man Made created themes for some of the channel’s shows as well as a sonic logo—a brand identifiable sound bite. They also had to bring the sounds from the broadcast to second-screen offerings, right down to an intro sound when a viewer opens the mobile site on their phone, all of which creates a seamless experience.
“Our litmus test for what we’re integrating to the digital experience is: Does that sound help elevate the experience? If it does, leave it there. And if not, we take it out,” says Beckerman.
Bridging the Gap
What Beckerman brings to the table for clients is an ability to offer a sound that translates a set of musical lines into a language viewers can understand.
For Entertainment Tonight executive producer Linda Bell Blue, that was especially important when she began working with the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am on the revamp of the ET theme.
“[Joel was] just a godsend to me because will.i.am is such a creative person,” she says. “I am a TV producer, and so I don’t really know enough to talk the talk with music producers like will.i.am. And Joel was this amazing asset to us, because he worked really hard behind the scenes with Will’s people.”
The “creative genius”—as Bell Blue calls Beckerman—has worked with a host of musicians, from will.i.am to legendary composer John Williams, to bring their sensibilities to light.
In the case of ET, Beckerman rearranged the horn section from the classic theme, offered up some samples and told the artist to put his own spin on it. The result—a catchy modernization complete with a few lyrics—debuted on the popular series last year. “He didn’t want to mess it up,” says Beckerman of will.i.am, who grew up watching ET with his family. “But we wanted him to mess it up.”
Beckerman fell in love with music in the first grade after seeing a gospel pianist during a school assembly.
“It just clicked for me,” he says, and after months of prodding, he convinced his parents to let him take piano lessons.
Beckerman has been able to tell musical stories professionally since he graduated from NYU in 1985. After freelancing in advertising as a composer, the self-professed “variety junkie” gravitated toward TV because the field gave him a much wider range of complex and nuanced stories to tell, as well as opportunities to innovate.
“I think one of the things that keeps me up at night: [Trying] to figure out how to tell that story in the most powerful way that I can,” he says.
Finding the Story
Beckerman relishes every story, especially the unconventional ones.
When the Weather Channel came calling, asking him to do a sonic refresh of the network, he had to find new and interesting ways to bring rain, snow and sun to life.
"So [we were] really trying to get to the meat of [the brand] and to the heart of it, which is the level of passion and seriousness that people there take their jobs. And honestly, from a musical perspective, [the question was] how do we bring that to life," he says.
"The fun in this was trying to find that spark, something that would be original and different but really speak to them," Beckerman adds. "And there's also kind of a humanity to the brand."
That spark that he and his team at Man Made Music found was the tale of the "passionate explorer," and they sought to bring that concept into every piece of music they worked on.
But that theme sounds very different in a morning show, vs. a weather alert, vs. a local forecast.
"Passion doesn't have to be dark and serious and moody...passion can be excited and optimistic," Beckerman says. "So, it's about really expressing that whole range of emotions in their brand and the way they show up."
That expression also must translate to the network's second-screen experiences. To ensure the sounds would work, Beckerman and his team created the music and alerts for the broadcast with the website and mobile offerings in mind in order to forge a seamless experience for the audience. "We want people to recognize the brand everywhere," he says.
People will have the opportunity to hear the sounds of the new Weather Channel as the network rolls out the refresh in the fourth quarter.
Composer John Williams has created many well-known themes from movies (his five Oscars include wins for Jaws, Schindler's List and the original Star Wars) to the NBC Nightly News to the Super Bowl.
Working with the composing giant on any level would be daunting. But having to rework one of Williams' most iconic melodies is stress incarnate.
Williams wrote the song "Wide Receiver" for the 2006 Super Bowl. Six years later, Beckerman was asked to rearrange the theme when the Super Bowl moved from Fox to NBC. The network wanted to put its own "epic" stamp on the event.
"‘John just says do what you think is right,'" says Beckerman of his conversation with Williams' agent. "That was like the most terrifying moment of my career, because he trusted me to do this, but I really didn't want to do anything that he wouldn't be happy with."
Beckerman didn't hear back from Williams' camp until nearly a week after the Super Bowl. It turns out the legendary maestro liked what Beckerman did with the tune.
Perhaps the Star Wars composer appreciated that he wasn't the only person Beckerman had to keep in mind when reworking the music.
The music needed to entertain everyone, and to do so, Beckerman created multiple versions of the theme for the 2012 game on NBC-which may be as good an indication as any of how much Beckerman embraces a good challenge.
"If you're creating for the Super Bowl, [you have] a much, much wider palette of music than you would necessarily anticipate for a sports show," he says.
Please note: In the print version of this piece, MMM's involvement with Fusion was described incorrectly. Man Made Music worked with Fusion to develop the theme for America With Jorge Ramos, as well as the network's ID. But the company did not develop any second-screen sound offerings for Fusion. The second-screen sounds were developed for The Weather Channel.
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