An evening with Bob

Behind an unassuming door on Shaftesbury Avenue in the heart of London’s West End, a series of events has been taking place hosted by Radio 2 favourite and former Old Grey Whistle test presenter ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris OBE and attended by some of the most influential people in the music and advertising industries.

Throughout the course of eight events, running monthly from last October, Bob is on a journey to better understand the world of music supervision – the combination of music with visual media – by speaking to leading experts across music, advertising and behavioural and brain science. 

The broadcasting legend recently recovered from a major health condition, which forced him to take a break from presenting his BBC Radio 2 country show, but returned with renewed vigour last year to enter the world of music supervision. 

Before the series, Bob announced: ‘‘I wanted to explore the world of music supervision because I believe that the experience of my fifty years in the music industry will bring constructive thought and creative insight to the intersection of pictures and sound. More than any other medium, music helps me express my creative ideas and I’ve acquired a keen sensitivity to the mood and atmosphere that imaginative music placement can create”.

Bob got in touch with music supervision luminary Ruth Simmons, CEO of soundlounge – the first company in Europe to set up as a rights clearance company and later to found a dedicated creative music research division – who was more than happy to work him.

With a BBC broadcasting career spanning almost fifty years – most famously on Sounds of the Seventies, the legendary Old Grey Whistle Test TV show and as a staple at BBC Radio 2 – as well as a genre-rich record collection hand-built since the early days of Rock n Roll, Bob had plenty to bring to the partnership.

The soundlounge team organised the event series to help guide him through his new creative adventure, running monthly evenings in the stylish and intimate setting of the Century Club, accompanied, naturally, by some great music; with live performances from legends like 10cc’s Graham Gould and exciting new unsigned acts. 

Donations are being raised throughout the events for Nordoff Robbins, the UK’s largest independent music therapy charity, helping to enrich the lives of people with life-limiting illnesses, disabilities and feelings of isolation with the power of music. 

At the halfway mark, with four events under his belt, Bob shared his reflections on the lessons so far. 

In the first event, Bob spoke with strategists from ad agencies, including Les Binet, of adam&eveDDB, - the agency behind John Lewis’ famous Christmas ads. The agency is often held up as an example of music supervision done right, putting the track front and centre of their creative thinking. But it doesn’t work like that across the board.  

Bob said: “One of the things I’ve learned is how much the music seems to be towards the bottom of the priority list when it comes to putting commercials together. It’s almost the afterthought. I’m surprised by that. I really am.”

“I’m pleased that music is so collaborative. Clearly, it’s not a one-person decision-making process. But when you call in an expert and you’re commissioning them to recommend a piece of music, and then nine other people join the committee to almost try to prove that person wrong; that’s surprising to me. It seems that sometimes the music supervisor is struggling to get their voice heard.” 

According to Bob, examples of music used badly in television adverts abound. Bob says: “Empathy is the key word. There was a recent advert with Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower, which was just chopped to pieces and put back together. It was so unempathetic. It was offensive, horrendous! When you get a Queen track - or a derivative - used to advertise Flash cleaner, it’s so basic and obvious. I know it has to appeal to the vast majority of people otherwise it’s not going to work, but I do think you can be more creative. There’s more to it than that.”

In the third event Bob Spoke to Air Edel’s Matt Biffa, who worked on the acclaimed music for Netflix series Sex EducationGiri/Hajiand The End Of The F**king World, as well as films like theHarry Potter series. During the conversation Matt credited his own love of music to early experiences with recorded episodes of Old Grey Whistle Test.  

In turn, it’s film and TV music supervision that inspired Bob’s own move into the practice. He points to Edgar Wright’s 2017 film Baby Driveras a key example: “It was a demonstration of a marvellous moment of unity between film and music.”

It seemed to chime with so much that already characterised Bob’s broadcasting career. He said: “It’s something I’ve been working on subconsciously pretty much the whole time I’ve been programme-building for radio. It’s always been part of the DNA of my programmes to look at them almost visually, that there’s a storytelling aspect.”

In his discussions with ad agency strategists and creatives, as well as with neuroscientists in the most recent events, the theme of nostalgia and ‘golden eras’ for music has recurred. Bob explained: “Advertisers have realised in recent times that if you want to resonate with a certain generation you pick songs that were in the charts when they were teenagers. Particularly early teens – 14, 15 seems to be a really impressionable age, I know it was with me. If I hear a single come on the radio from that era, even if I’ve not heard it for 30 years, every single lyric seems to have been imprinted into my brain.”

But building a musical narrative is not just about reminiscence. “It’s not just a decade thing with me it’s a multi-genre thing. Even on Old Grey Whistle test we were playing so many different types of music, so I want to bring all those aspects to bear.”

Overall, Bob’s conversations so far have provided much inspiration for him and many others. “It’s been amazing for me to meet everyone, but also to get all those people in a room together to talk. To introduce people and start what one hopes will be an ongoing dialogue.”

“It is very exciting. There are keen brains at work in this and it’s a massively creative process. I would love to work with some of the people we’ve spoken to over the last few months. These are really bright, creative people. I’m really keen to plug in to that.”

Speaking of his relationship with soundlounge Bob said: “We’re looking to place the work that we do into a lane that’s not quite as full. In other words, there’s a slightly more cerebral approach to music supervision via soundlounge and myself. We’re totally in sync in believing there is an intelligent way of using music that’s creative but also appealing.”

There are four more events planned for the series, covering economists (think behavioural economics), radio advertisers, musicians and rights holders. 

Highlights of each evening are being published at the dedicated website for the series at www.AnEveningwithBob.com, along with video interviews of the host, guests and the experienced team at soundlounge. The website also shows you how to make a donation to the Nordoff Robbins charity. 

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