Matthew Keegan
Sep 13, 2022

Are chief music officers the next CMOs?

With more chief music officers joining the C-suite, does it signal a broader trend that brands are finally going to give sound the investment and strategic importance that it deserves?

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

Did you know there was a new kind of CMO stealing the spotlight? One that is decidedly more 'rock star' than your average chief marketing officer? 

All hail the 'chief music officer', same acronym, but a much groovier job title, one that in recent years has required you to be a literal rock star in order to get. In 2020, R&B singer-songwriter John Legend was appointed chief music officer of Headspace. Then in March this year, global fitness brand Orangetheory appointed superstar DJ Steve Aoki as their chief music officer.

So there you have it... CMOs have become literal rock stars. But why now? Why do we need chief music officers all of a sudden? Well, some believe it's long overdue.

"It’s about time! I’m so happy to hear that more and more companies are prioritising sound and music strategies," says Hans Brouwer, CEO and founder of international creative music agency MassiveMusic. "Some might call it a trend—I call it a necessity."

Brouwer says marketers often give way more importance to the visual presence than they do to the audible communications. But those that understand that music and sound can make all the difference are the ones thriving.

The data suggests he's not wrong. Music, and more broadly speaking sound, has been an under-utilised asset by brands for too long. A 2020 study by Ipsos found that ads featuring sonic brand cues are more than eight times as likely to perform well and are the most effective distinctive assets when it comes to gaining branded attention (bringing the brand to mind), surpassing all visual assets and even celebrity endorsements.

It's no surprise then that music-driven brands like Headspace and Orangetheory are prioritising sound at a strategic level and adding chief music officers to their C-suite. But should all brands follow in making sound a strategic priority?

Karsten Kjems, CEO of audio branding specialist Sonic Minds, believes they should.

"Nowadays, many brands have the digital space as their primary communication channel, where you only have two senses to use: hearing and seeing. And if you don't utilise the hearing sense, you are missing 50% of your communication bandwidth," he says. 

Michele Arnese, CEO and CCO of Amp Sound Branding, says that brands should approach sonic investment in the same way they do visual branding and design.

"Sonic has been an afterthought for many brands for far too long, and the appointment of chief music officers brings us one step closer to a sound-on future," says Arnese.

"If you look back to the last 10 years, the number of audio touchpoints of a brand ecosystem has exploded. So you need someone who creates a competence centre around all-things audio now."
Michele Arnese, Amp Sound Branding

And while music is a powerful type of sound, sound is much wider than music. "Think of Netflix’s knock-knock or Audi’s heartbeat," says Julian Treasure, founder of The Sound Agency. "I would welcome hearing about chief sound officers, which could optimise the use of sound in every aspect of a company’s existence, not just in branding or marketing."

Should brands be investing more in music internally?

Beyond the headline-grabbing news of celebrities joining the C-suite as chief music officers, will we begin to see more brands, more broadly, giving investment to sound internally?

"100%. Touchpoints have changed: think apps, streaming platforms, smart speakers. This calls for an entirely different approach than before. Having someone who gets how music and sound work and how they can increase the brand recognition is paramount," says Brouwer. "I’d always recommend investing more heavily in sound, even to brands who see music as something that is not entirely aligned with their industry. The ‘worst’ thing that can happen is that you’re a pioneer in your sector."

Outside of brands like Headspace and OrangeTheory, others like PepsiCo have also pushed the space forward and invested in music with Shakermaker, their internal agency focused on music. But is in-housing music in general a good idea for brands?

"We’ve seen three advertisers develop in-house music teams, and none were successful," says Florent Adam, Singapore managing director of sonic branding agency Sixième Son. "Our experience convinces us that you need to have a global viewpoint to build a sonic strategy for a brand. Marketing managers know their brands and the strategy behind them. But they also have their own tastes, their own visions and even their own connections with the brand. And when it comes to emotions, they can lack the necessary distance from the brand to be objective."

Arnese of Amp agrees that it is extremely important that brands establish a sonic identity before in-housing music. "If brands move forward with any sort of incomplete or vague music, they run the risk of sounding completely different across global markets," he says. "Once brands land on this all-important identity, in-housing music is a fantastic idea. Having full production teams on staff will increase brand output across digital channels and allow for expanded worldwide consumer contact."

Can both kinds of CMO work together?

For brands who do appoint a chief music officer, there's the slightly awkward matter of two job titles sharing the same acronym. But how might chief marketing officers and chief music officers work together? Will it be a recipe for confusion or a perfect harmony?

"The only problem I see, since they both share the same acronym, is that it’ll now be challenging to distinguish between chief marketing officers and chief music officers. So maybe the latter should sing their job title when asked ‘What do you do?’"
Hans Brouwer, MassiveMusic

"The only problem I see, since they both share the same acronym, is that it’ll now be challenging to distinguish between chief marketing officers and chief music officers. So maybe the latter should sing their job title when asked ‘What do you do?’" says Brouwer. "Jokes aside, it’d be quite odd to have a chief music officer who doesn’t know anything about marketing. And, as a musicologist myself, I’d say cross-departmental collaboration is a must. That’s how you achieve excellent business results."

While it's unlikely that John Legend and Steve Aoki are strictly speaking marketing supremos, they do have the advantage of having sold millions of albums between them to qualify their positions. But would it be essential for other less famous chief music officers, who haven't sold millions of albums yet, to have a marketing background?

"Having a marketing background is always preferred. However, I’m not sure it’s a requirement for a chief music officer role," says Arnese. "With effective team communication, linking a music specialist with the marketing team should be a streamlined process."

Arenese adds that the sooner brands recognise how central music or sound is to their product or service, the better these teams will be integrated and structured. "And this should happen beyond marketing itself: products, customer experience, sponsorship, and brand communication are also connected through the central chief music officer role. So, why chief music officer and not ‘chief audio officer?’" he says. 

David Courtier-Dutton, CEO of SoundOut, believes it's essential for chief music officers to understand both branding and marketing dynamics to ensure that short term marketing imperatives cannot be allowed to damage long term brand building—and vice versa. 

But Florent Adam of sonic branding agency Sixième Son isn’t convinced that appointing a chief music officer is necessarily the best idea for brands. “Unless your product relies on music, hiring a chief music officer could complicate matters for the brand team, just as it would if a company hired a chief graphics officer,” says Florent. “If sound, music, visual and graphics elements are developed, they are for the brand’s benefit. Branding decisions should reside with brand managers, who may contribute an artistic vision but always put the needs of the brand first.”

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