If you’re starting a podcast, or even if you’re a veteran podcaster, selecting or creating theme music can be a pretty daunting task.

The simplest option is to source stock tracks. Back in the day, stock music was trash. It was elevator music. You were embarrassed to use it. Today there’s more music being made than ever in human history. The quality of stock music is extremely high. And there’s so much variety that if you can’t find the right track, you’re just not looking (listening) hard enough.

Of course stock music also has its drawbacks. The most obvious is you can’t take any ownership of it. This is a growing problem. Amp’s 2022 report found that brands are using custom music in about 25% of material. Unfortunately this does not include numbers for Canada, but I think we can assume that number is even lower. Canada has always been way behind the U.S. and Europe in sonic branding.

Last year I saw a Chevy truck commercial that had this nice mid-tempo blues/rock vibe. It was a good fit and I wondered if it was custom. After all, Chevy isn’t some mom-and-pop operation. They’ve got the money to invest in custom music/scoring. A few months later I heard the same track in a Cracker Barrel cheese commercial. It’s actually shocking how often this happens, and it’s amazing that it happens with multi-million dollar corporations. On the local level, here in Kingston we had a tourism commercial that somehow ended up sharing a track with Shopper’s Drug Mart. Very odd.

So let’s take this back to podcasting. If you’re using a stock track as theme music, over time your audience comes to associate that music with you. Once they hear it somewhere else (and they will) the illusion is lost, along with a bit of trust, and a big part of the brand you’ve worked so hard to build.

Some folks with bigger budgets might consider using established pop songs. I always caution against this. For more on that, have a look at Brands Not Bands from a couple of years ago.

The next option is custom music. This obviously costs a bit regardless of the composer, but it certainly solves the ownership problem. There are many ways to source musical talent that fits your budget. If you’re lucky, you might even know someone that can compose something for you. The downside to this option is musicians and composers aren’t necessarily audio branding experts.

If you haven’t gone through the process of getting to the emotional core of your brand, you’re not ready for brand music.

Is your podcast a standalone project, or is it a companion to a larger brand, organization, or even movement? This is a very important distinction to make when creating music. If it’s a standalone presentation with no other media or broader brand attached to it, you can probably get by with a standalone composition. If it needs more depth and reach, you might want to think about giving yourself a broader sonic landscape. An audio branding expert is not only able to create something with versatility, they’re also able to future-proof your audio identity.

A couple of blogs ago we examined the ins and outs of the Northern Latitudes brand theme. Something we didn’t get into was the early part of the discussion. It started when founder Bill Ault originally approached me about producing theme music for the Northern Latitudes podcast. The more we talked, the more it became apparent that what Northern Latitudes needed was not a podcast theme, but a brand theme. Northern Latitudes is not only a podcast, but also a brand. And it’s a brand that not only produces other media, but requires the latitude (pun actually not intended) to expand and adapt. With this in mind, we composed a broad theme which culminated to an audio logo – another important element that you may not get from less specialized music composition. Each piece of the brand music was designed to not only fit the brand identity and set the tone for the podcast, but to have the flexibility to adapt to other media. I often tell clients that their audio brand needs to be adaptable and pervasive. If it lives and dies in one medium, we’ve failed.

An audio branding expert is also able to offer valuable objectivity and a unique process that a more general composer may lack. Podcasts are a great way to establish expertise, promote yourself and others, and build relationships, both with your guests and the listener. What’s surprising is how many of them sound nothing like their brand. Often this is a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. To put it bluntly, if you haven’t gone through the process of getting to the emotional core of your brand, you’re not ready for brand music. Quite often visuals convey information, but sounds covey emotion. The right sonic identity is built from the ground up; not by a few people’s personal tastes. Research has shown that music really is a universal language. To be most effective, you tailor the music to the brand, and not to your own personal preferences or the perceived preferences of your audience.

Even if your podcast is a standalone project, it’s still important to have congruency between the nature of your content and how it’s presented. Remember that if you’re a creator of audio media, you’re also creating an audio brand, whether you’ve designed it or not. Make sure you get it right from the start. Consider your budget, media, identity, future needs, and mission, and take the option that’s best for you.

Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash

Yes. I see the irony in using a stock photo. Visuals are not my forte.