Traditionally, artists have struggled with the idea of selling their music to advertisers. Some, such as Arcade Fire and Adele, have steadfastly refused, citing artistic integrity. But the relationship between creatives and corporations is only getting stronger with the rise of labels like AWAL, and Josh Ocean, the artist who is known as NVDES, makes no apologies for jumping into bed with Apple. NVDES, which currently tours mid-size venues with fellow Los Angeles-based genre-defying artist Oliver Tree, has an audience of millions who will will hear Ocean’s song “Brazooka” in ads for iPhone 11.
This is a modern-day example of a longterm love affair “based on a relationship that we built over time,” says Jeannette Perez, president of global synch and brand partnerships at publisher Kobalt, who along with her team of 50 licensing experts has closed campaigns with Acura, T-Mobile and Toyota. “They were interested in approaching NVDES to write an original song for the spot [but] the band had this song in their back pocket and everybody at Apple thought it worked perfectly. It happened somewhat organically in the sense that it worked for the creative and all the stars aligned.”
It’s not like artists can make money from selling CDs these days. “The beauty of synch is that it straddles the line between marketing, promotion and revenue generation — three very important things for an artist’s career,” Perez adds. (As an added bonus that is music to Taylor Swift’s ears, they maintain ownership of copyrights.)
“It started with a jam session,” says Ocean. “I didn’t know what campaign it was for, but they asked me to create some music for an upcoming product launch. I sent them a folder of, like, 20 songs that I had been working on to pick their brain as far as the vibe and which direction they wanted to go.” Originally, Apple selected a different song. “We actually spent a lot of weeks developing a whole other track specifically for what became the iPhone thing,” Ocean says. “And then, last minute, they ended up selecting the demo of ‘Brazooka.’ So then I had to go back and reassemble and re-edit the idea to fit what Apple wanted.”
Just as some screenwriters dread getting notes back from studio execs, this might have been a frustrating experience for other artists. But not Ocean. “I’ll be honest,” he says. “The process of working on this project was extremely fulfilling and enriching for me because I loved the creative music director at Apple and I had fun. NVDES is me mashing up many different sounds and trying to break genres and invent new genres. And my job was to provide Apple with a bang-bang track that excites people. If ‘Brazooka’ was the one that they ultimately wanted, then I’m still happy.”
Ocean sometimes makes a song in less than six hours — between the writing, recording, producing and mixing of it — but this one took 10 days to complete. While producers tend to be notorious perfectionists, Ocean takes the opposite approach to making music. “I’m just obsessed with crazy sounds,” he says. “A big part of NVDES was to create a platform for not over-thinking stuff. I want to capture a flash of inspiration in the moment and then preserve that. So my ultimate intention is to share raw creativity, and pretty much every song is a freestyle of a vocal that was done quickly. I don’t think a lot of people are exposed to raw musical creativity.” And yet radio airplay is of little interest to Ocean: “It’s not what drives me as an artist,” he says.
“Brazooka” is intended to be a feminist anthem, as it turns out. “If you listened to the drop in that song, it sounds like a laser but that was actually my wife’s friend,” he says. Evidently she had never screamed before, which is surprising given the amount of spiders in Southern California. “We were really pushing her to scream, like, ‘C’mon! Yell!’” he recalls. “The whole concept is female empowerment, and her voice broke apart in that moment of giving everything. So I put a lot of distortion on it and turned it into this really futuristic sound that became the focal point of what I built. And as an artist, that was like the perfect expression.”
Ocean could probably afford a Beverly Hills mansion at this rate but he opts to keep it real in a two-bedroom apartment, where Ableton Live is an essential part of his home studio. “I created this genre called Laptop Punk, but believe it or not, I also work with a lot of acoustic guitars,” he says. “It’s a DIY type of process, but it’s not lo-fI because my sounds are so exciting.” In fact, Ocean’s music has more in common with gospel in a sense. “I want to inspire as many people as possible to connect with their higher creative faculties and make the world a better place,” he says. “I put positive intentions in every single one of my songs, so it’s a win when my music is used in commercials that have a tremendous amount of reach like the iPhone or other cool advertisers. It helps me to expose people to the frequencies I’m sharing,” That said, Ocean is still selective and it’s not like just anybody is worthy of transcendence: “I don’t say yes to everything,” he says.
As a result of becoming the go-to iGuy, Ocean has become synonymous with Apple. “They’ve referred to me as their house band,” he says. “I’m honored to work with a company that develops such incredible technology. So for them to enjoy my sonic experience is a tremendous compliment. And it’s a good pairing because my motto has been to encourage listeners to experience music differently, and that’s directly connected with the classic Apple advertisement: ‘Think Different.’ We’re in line,” Ocean adds, “but the entire creative world runs upon these devices.”
So how does he like the iPhone 11? “Oh, I actually don’t have the iPhone 11,” Ocean admits. “They sent me a 10. They said they were going to send me the 11, but at this point, no worries, because the 10 is great.”