This year marks Trevor Pronga’s 20th anniversary as a Music Designer. He got his start with AEI Music in Seattle, which merged with the Mood property formerly known as DMX in 2001, and has designed and maintained the branded sound for high-profile fashion retail clients for the majority of his career. Few in the programmed music industry have enjoyed such longevity, so Mood was eager to chronicle his reflections back and his unique perspective on what Music Designers do. Below are Trevor’s responses to questions devised by Jessica Reed in Social Media and Amy Frishkey in Music Design.

Describe how you got your start in Music Design.

Initially, it was not a calculated or strategic career path: I honestly never had any conception of “music design” as job or career until working in retail after studying advertising in college.

It was while working for a trend-conscious (but mass-appeal) brand I had that epiphanal moment where I understood how the in-store music was specifically designed to appeal to the customers and create a unique experience. I was impressed and inspired by the selections, and it was obvious that the customers responded positively, too. This was before the days of Shazam, and customers would frequently ask about what was playing. Employees (myself included) usually ended up purchasing some of the music. It went far beyond what we were hearing on the radio. We were all motivated by it, even though it played on a continuous loop. The selection was that good.

What compelled you to make it your career? How did it evolve from a curiosity? What has kept it vital to you?

It goes without saying that most of us are music lovers, but making “mix tapes” (yes, this was the 80s & 90s!) was my way of making a connection with people–even if the music wasn’t my cup-of-tea. I was fascinated by everyone’s music collection and how they differed: “Do you mind if I look at your CDs?”

As a teen, I was also inspired, if not overpowered, by the early-MTV era. While some of the effects and video “illusions” of that era may seem dated now, the concept of music and imagery really materialized for me. It didn’t hurt that the era produced some of the biggest pop fashion icons.

I also grew up in Middle America. Most radio stations never embraced anything new. While I was discovering great music on my own, or through my music-savvy friends, I was frustrated that a larger audience was not hearing it–an audience that might connect with it. Just because music didn’t fit radio standards or commercial formulas didn’t mean there wasn’t an audience for it. Those dots weren’t being connected, and interesting music either wasn’t being heard or was lost at the bottom of the charts. There had to be another venue for discovering music that would be appreciated by the appropriate audience…

Naturally, the idea of deejaying came to mind, but I was uncomfortable with the idea of using my voice, following a commercial formula…or, alternately, learning turntable skills.

I didn’t know about the possibility of being a “behind the scenes” DJ who sets the mood for our more subtle music experiences…shopping, dining, relaxing at a hotel.

So, as soon as I made that realization that there was “a business in business music”, the die was cast. I remember looking at the company logo on the retailer’s music package and telling my co-workers I was moving West and going to work there. The path was very deliberate from then on, although the exact steps to my destination were more rigorous!

To be clear, it’s more than just being a music lover: You have to be really objective about making selections that underline a specific image and attitude, resonate with a specific mood or theme, appeal to a target demographic, and project an experience that is appropriate for a retail setting.  It’s a taller order than some might imagine.

I do love music…and I love working with music.  But, ultimately, it’s not about what I like.

What became your current process for building out a Custom program? Why do you feel this is the most effective approach for you? What lessons have you learned along the way?

It starts with learning everything you can about the brand, the target customer, and the desired store experience. Inspiration/mood boards and any marketing information from the client help significantly–as well as meeting the client directly and spending time in the actual store.

This information helps me outline parameters and objective criteria for the soundtrack: attitude, energy (tempo + texture), customer relevance, themes/seasonality, etc.

Next, I create a blueprint for the sound, which is typically a one-hour sample that will ultimately be magnified into a full Custom library of music. Once agreement with the client is reached on the parameters of the program, my song selection process begins.

The build-out is more rigorous, because you need to ensure that each selection fits the “filters” you have set for the branded music experience.

For me, the search is daily and ongoing: it doesn’t stop when I leave the office, and sometimes better ideas materialize when I’m away from my desk or discovering music in a more creative setting. Staying connected to all things music and pop-culture related helps. Live music, lifestyle blogs, records stores, retail visits…anything that resonates musically.

There is rarely a “shut-off” valve. I’m usually filtering music for various projects whenever and wherever I hear it.

What type of accounts do you work on?

I primarily work on fashion accounts. This ranges from clients with a broader, more familiar appeal to more sophisticated, upscale brands where a multi-dimensional, thematic, and eclectic (yet focused) perspective is required. My work with fashion brands naturally projects to some higher-end hospitality environments (hotels)…it’s an extension of a related lifestyle, attitude, and taste level.

What’s your favorite part about your job?

Through the years, it has always remained that I am in the unique position of putting music in front of an audience that is most likely to appreciate it. Again, tailoring a new venue for discovery.

What are the challenges?  

Music is subjective and difficult to quantify. Everyone has a different set of ears, perception, —and they often have good and bad memories associated with some songs. These personal factors can be difficult to account for. That’s why it’s always important to set objective criteria such as overall mood, attitude, energy, texture, and theme. Ultimately, it comes down to who the music is for and what kind of experience you want to create, with the added understanding that personal tastes differ and not everyone is going to appreciate the same song in the same way.

Additionally, you may have certain genres or sounds that work well for a brand, but either aren’t being produced anymore or offer a variable amount of new material. There are many occasions where I find the “it” song that epitomizes a brand, but, unfortunately, there aren’t many more like it to be found. It is part of what makes that song unique and ideal, but you may need to stretch your search parameter a bit to find similar material.

And since music resources can vary from month to month, I do think it is important for brands to evolve their sound and adapt new elements into their mix. What worked well last year may not even be available the next.

How has the process changed since you started?

From the creative standpoint, I’m true to the same process: Start with the brand image and translate that into a music experience. You need to learn to be a translator along the way.

Obviously, technology has changed in quantum leaps, and the discovery of music online is exponential. Clients and their customers seem much more savvy about music–and their access to it is at their fingertips. It’s not a trip to the music store anymore and having a massive, exclusive library. It’s accessible to everyone, and you not only have to keep up…you have to stay ahead.

Have any favorite memories you’d like to share?

Well, 20 years ago, it would have been shopping the “import” bins, browsing an expansive CD library, and fighting over who took what CD off an assigned project shelf! At the time, we were also recording all linear (segued) programs onto DAT tape from CD, which was very hands-on to say the least. There was some anxiety over that technical process, but I really appreciate having learned some older-school mixing and editing skills.

Does the type of music you program reflect your personal taste?

I would say they are related, but it varies: I often develop an affinity for something I didn’t know much about…and sometimes lose interest in genres I program regularly. I think my personal tastes have evolved a lot as a result of this career: it’s a bonus.

What artists are you listening to right now?

I’m rediscovering some of the influential producers like Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers, since they’ve obviously had such an impact on current pop and electronic music….also some trendsetters like Gary Numan, Sparks, and Grace Jones.

I’m always digging deep to find more vintage French classics, so Jacques Brel has been playing in my car. I just bought a “Bombay Disco” collection that is entertaining (and totally unrelated to my “job music”), although it probably frightens my neighbors. Remixers like Zimmer and Fred Falke are fueling my workouts.

And I will always go to Kylie Minogue for my pop fix.

Do you remember your favorite artists from when you started the job?

It was the mid-90s, and “trip-hop” was not only making waves but clients were incorporating it into their sound…mood music with an edge. It didn’t matter that it was downtempo— it was evocative, sexy, and cool. Portishead, Tricky, Sneaker Pimps, DJ Shadow, Massive Attack. I still love it today, and it doesn’t sound dated.

Mood congratulates Trevor on his two decades of service and the invaluable wealth of experience he brings to our brands!

Trevor Pronga

– Submitted by Trevor Pronga, Music Design