Before “Pumped Up Kicks” became a top-selling single last year, Mark Foster’s greatest hit was the music to a TV commercial for Muscle Milk, a protein drink.
Now, the singer-songwriter and his band, Foster the People, are up for two awards at the Feb. 12 Grammys, including best alternative album for “Torches.” For another artist, that would mean a fast goodbye to the jingle factory day job.
Not Foster. He wrote most of the album’s songs at Mophonics Inc., a Los Angeles-based company that scores TV commercials and, in a unique partnership, encouraged him to develop his recording career. Now that he’s made it, Mophonics is benefiting too, selling compositions he wrote to advertisers including Cadillac. Foster says he’ll return to Mophonics to write the next album once his tour finishes.
“Foster the People wouldn’t exist without Mophonics,” the musician, 27, said in an interview. “Mophonics is kind of a creative home for me. It’s a very comfortable, creative environment.”
Foster’s journey with Mophonics illustrates an evolution in the way songs are used in TV ads. Before 2000, most songs used for ads were Top 40 hits. Moby, born Richard Melville Hall, changed that by licensing the album “Play” for TV commercials, a move that sparked CD sales and got advertisers interested in lesser-known acts.
Mophonics, whose clients include Apple Inc. and Clorox Co., takes the strategy further by recruiting promising composers and asking them to write two- or three-minute songs, rather than a 30-second jingle that would typically wind up in a commercial. The use of a snippet in a commercial can help an artist sell the full-length song.
At the same time, Mophonics’ commercial rights increase in value with the popularity of the artists. Works from composers with published songs can earn greater royalties, sometimes more than double the typical $50,000 rate for a 30-second jingle.
Mophonics has about 120 jingles by Foster that it’s still licensing, including the one used by Cadillac. He records today for Sony Corp.’s Columbia label.
“The thing we love about Mophonics is that instead of only composing a custom piece, they look for existing music from up-and-coming bands, which is what we’re very interested in,” Bruce Bildsten, executive creative director of Fallon, the Minneapolis-based advertising agency for Cadillac. “They don’t just use old music but look forward and help us with searches as well as composing pieces from scratch.”
Foster had been in Los Angeles for 10 years, waiting on tables and getting nowhere in his music career when, in 2008, he met Mophonics’ founder Michael Frick and partner Stephan Altman, who hired the aspiring composer.
Lots to Learn
When Foster arrived at Mophonics, he was shocked by how little he knew about writing music. During his first week, Foster went with Altman to pitch Nissan. The automaker wanted an electronic version of a Billie Holiday song it had licensed.
“It was terrifying,” Foster said. “I didn’t read music and I was trying to figure it out by ear. I was totally freaked out and I didn’t think I’d last a week.”
Altman said Foster, though untrained, was adept at combining disparate musical genres without losing his own style. Foster calls Altman a calming influence.
“I had the benefit of being able to knock on his door or he’d come over and give me notes,” Foster said. “He was extremely generous with his time. I honestly learned an immense amount from him.”
More artists are following Foster’s path. Mophonics also worked with Michael Fitzpatrick, lead singer of Fitz and the Tantrums, which appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Mansions on the Moon, signed to Pharrell Williams’ Star Trak Entertainment label, is working on a new album at Mophonics studios in Venice Beach, blocks from the Pacific Ocean.
“Everything has changed so much it’s hard to even comprehend sometimes,” Foster said. “It’s all still kind of a blur. Myself and everyone in the band, we’re just so grateful.”