Yessian: Making Music You Can’t Get Out Of Your Head

Music is one of the most underrated, and most powerful, aspects of TV advertising. Think about the last few commercials you’ve seen – how did you determine if a product is something you might be interested in buying? If you’re an under-35, hipsterish female and you see an ad underscored by a quirky indie-folkie tune, your interest is likely piqued because it sounds like everything on your iPod. Might you be in the market for a luxury vehicle or a really nice watch? Advertisers aren’t going to communicate with you through a cheesy jingle – think a tasteful classical piece or perhaps a vintage jazz vocal.

Figuring out this alchemy and crating the perfect music to communicate a message has been the business of Farmington Hills music and sound house Yessian since 1971. Founded by Daniel Yessian, the company has in recent years expanded internationally through the work of sons Brian and Michael, who have taken over day-to-day operations.

Brian, 35, never intended to join the family business; he’s an orchestral musician and studied music at Wayne State and abroad. Michael studied both business and music at Western Michigan with an eye toward joining the firm at some point, but both brothers say their father never pressured them. “Our father would never allow any pressing us to get into it,” Brian says. “He wanted us to see if it was what truly wanted to do.”

After spending school breaks and summers learning the ropes, they began taking a more active role in the late 1990s, when both were in college. They took their more prominent roles – Brian as chief creative officer and Michael as head of production — about two years ago.

While Yessian is best known for crafting sound for commercials, their work goes far beyond the TV screen. Recently, Yessian has scored a film for a museum in Edmonton, Alberta, and created all the sounds for the Ferrari World theme park in Abu Dhabi – which involved rigging an actual Ferrari with microphones to capture the engine’s roar. Another innovative project was to provide a soundtrack for a European fashion show that featured models filmed using motion capture technology so that their holograms would parade down the runway.

Of course, when you’ve been steeped in the advertising world for most of your life, the Super Bowl offers up your greatest opportunity to be heard. Yessian provided music for five commercials that ran during this year’s championship: a Flo Rida/The Cult mashup for Budweiser; all the music and sound effects for a promo for NBC’s The Voice; a Gillette ad with Adrien Brody, Andre 3000, and Gael Garcia Bernal; Dodge Ram’s “Giants” ad; and a regional spot for the Cleveland Clinic. That’s a heckuva lot of moments in the national spotlight for a small 40-year -old metro Detroit firm.

As the younger Yessians have taken a more active role in the running of the business the company’s reach has expanded. They have strong ties with musicians and composers locally, and have offices in New York, LA and Hamburg, Germany that allow them to connect with big name talent. That said, Detroit is home and always will be, says Brian.

“Two reasons we’re never really left Detroit – there’s a really great creative talent pool here, and the cost of doing business here is far superior to New York or LA,” Brian says. “Just in running our day to day operations, this is a better place to do business in terms of cost of living and the way of life here.”

The Detroit office has become much busier in the last year or two, Brian says. Because of their commitment to expansion, they are able to show off the level of local talent to an international audience, as well as bring international clients into the area.

“We’ve developed a solid team between offices, and been able to do a higher level of creative
work,” he says.

Of course, things wouldn’t be quite so rosy if the auto industry’s woes — and subsequent shakeup of local ad agencies – had continued. For the last few years, out-of-town agencies wrested work from longtime local ad shops. But that trend seems to be reversing. The bailout’s success and the industry’s rebound have brought new work and new opportunities.

The Yessians point out that the business of providing commercial music has changed a lot over the last 40 years. When Dan started the business, it was mostly catchy jingles – something you rarely hear anymore. Instead, it’s original music or existing pop songs that help give brands their identity. To that end, Yessian started their Dragon Licks division some years ago, which researches, licenses and negotiates deals for the use of existing music for ads.

They’ve developed relationships with a lot of independent artists as well who can create original music for a TV spot or film. While it used to be that bands would reject commercials as selling out, the changing music business landscape means that bands can’t sustain themselves on 99-cent iTunes downloads. With radio becoming increasingly difficult to break into as corporate offices instead of local DJs determine playlists, musicians are looking for other ways to get their music heard.

“Having their music in a commercial is a stepping stone to record sales, from a label’s perspective,” Michael says. After all, how many people discovered Nick Drake through the Volkswagen ad that featured “Pink Moon”? Or embraced Ingrid Michaelson after hearing her tunes adorn everything from Ritz Crackers to Mott’s Apple Juice ads?

Still, while the source and style of music may have changed, songs will always remain an important way to communicate a message, connecting with viewers on an emotional level. “We did a presentation to ad agencies where we took the shower scene from ‘Psycho’ and gave it different music,” Michael says. “We turned it into a romantic scene, or a comedy. Music changes the perspective on what you’re watching.”

ALL PHOTOS BY DAVID LEWINSKI