Songs For Screens: Inside Producer Ariel Rechtshaid’s Commercial Sync Business

Rechtshaid, who made his name as a writer/producer for Vampire Weekend, has had his Heavy Duty Projects become a one-stop shop for ad campaigns.

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Ariel Rechtshaid is best known in tastemaking music circles as a go-to writer/producer for Adele, Usher, Haim, Charli XCX and Vampire Weekend, whose 2013 album “Modern Vampires of the City” helped net him a 2014 Grammy nod for producer of the year (he also executive produced this year’s No. 1 follow-up, “Father Of The Bride”). In the mood for intricate, emotional melodies with airtight live-band production? Rechtshaid and his army of writer/producers have them in droves.

But for a growing roster of blue-chip brands, Rechtshaid has built a second calling card for himself and his production house Heavy Duty Projects as a one-stop shop for original, radio-ready compositions and covers that are currently soundtracking new campaigns for Apple, Postmates, NIntendo, Marriott and Oscar Health. The firm has also paired Sia with Procter & Gamble for Gillette’s 2016 Olympic campaign, as well as John Legend and Chrissy Teigen with Target for a remake of “The Nutcracker,” among many other recent music works.

Rechtshaid will be one of the speakers on the Sonic Storytelling For Brands panel at Variety’s second annual Music For Screens Summit on Oct. 29 at NeueHouse Hollywood. More details on the Summit can be found at www.variety.com/musicsummit.

The delicate dance between art and commerce is something Rechtshaid can deftly choreograph, having first gotten his taste of the stable income and mass exposure that brand work could provide in the early 2000s while still moonlighting as a musician in ska-punk outfit the Hippos. “It paid well: I moved out of my parents’ house, and I got a loft in downtown L.A., ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ style, with a little studio setup. I never thought twice about it,” he says. “Plus so many of my favorite artists did it growing up. I remember finding the rare Fruitopia spot that was composed by the Cocteau Twins. I don’t know if I ever understood the taboo.”

And by today’s standards, Rechtshaid adds, “I’d consider selling out (by) changing your music to fit a Spotify playlist algorithm. Those are the conversations that come up way more than whether or not to license your music.”

Rechtshaid’s early ad work soon overlapped with stints in other bands, including the critically acclaimed late ‘00s indie-rock outfit Foreign Born, which led to studio sessions with A-list collaborators. Eventually, Rechtshaid amassed a sizable network of fellow writer-producers that became his publishing business, Heavy Duty Music, founded in 2010 with industry vet Josh Kessler. And as Rechtshaid’s profile on the Pitchfork circuit grew, so did the requests from brands like American Eagle, Marriott, Bud Light and Chase to create original music for their commercials. Heavy Duty Projects, Rechtshaid’s ad music arm, was officially established in 2015.

Kate Urcioli, who now works at Heavy Duty Projects as a partner and executive producer, first called on Rechtshaid during her days as a senior music producer at ad agency mcgarrybowen for his unique ability to nail the assignment. “I always found it challenging to work with [other] music houses when the brief was pop,” says Urcioli. “I just felt like the music we got didn’t feel authentic or hold up to the quality of the production that you’d hear on the radio. So I thought, ‘Hey, instead of hiring a music house, I’m just gonna hit up Ariel.’”

It helps that Rechtshaid has stacked his Heavy Duty Music roster with singer/songwriter/producers who have a firm grip on what can slip blur the lines between cutting-edge indie and mainstream pop/rock, including Cass McCombs, Miya Folick, Cherry Glazerr, Jim-E Stack, BJ Burton and Buddy Ross, among many others. “It’s always been in our DNA,” says Kessler, partner and co-founder at Heavy Duty. “One of the ways that a small, independently funded out-of-our-own-pockets kind of company has survived is by creating opportunities and finding avenues for our talent that are nontraditional when you consider what a publishing company does.”

Part of that DNA remains confidential. Heavy Duty Projects’ current cover of “Pure Imagination” for Marriott, a dream-pop take with pure-hearted female vocals, has sparked a bit of a social media guessing game, which Urcioli says is by design.

“That’s sort of the secret behind Heavy Duty is that we are tapping into our network, which involves our publishing roster and a lot of people they work with,” she says. “So we are not always at liberty to share who actually worked on tracks because these are artists with their own public-facing profile and sometimes the branding of the spot doesn’t actually match up with the artists’ vision of themselves.”

But other times, Heavy Duty’s prolific streak can produce simultaneous breakout moments for his work, such as the case for his two current campaigns for Apple that both premiered during the company’s latest keynote last month. One for the iPhone 11 features a new track Heavy Duty produced for Kobalt-signed electronic/rock act NVDES, the other a spot for the new Apple Watch featuring an instrumental for the Rechtshaid-produced “Sympathy” by Vampire Weekend.

Both spots also dovetailed with the release of a new Jonah Hill docu-series for Instagram’s IGTV, “Un-filtered,” featuring new score work from Rechtshaid, who’d been friends with HIll for years before finally working together. The project marked one of the few times Rechtshaid has composed music to picture for a Heavy Duty project. “I would’ve gladly given him something I had laying around, but I just reacted emotionally to the piece,” he says.

As for which pop stars might be on the dance card next? Aside from Haim, whose latest single with Rechtshaid dropped in late July, the multi-hyphenate is light on details. “There’s always somebody from my musical family hopping in and out of the studio, but not to be coy or cagey, until it actually turns into something I don’t know what it is,” he says.

“I’m just never the guy who’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re in here cooking.’ Because it starts to create an expectation of, ‘Well, what are you guys doing?’ For so long, I was making music in a void where no one cared and it was outside of the mainstream, like when I was making music with Dev Hynes, Solange and Sky Ferreira. So the minute that sort of pressure starts coming on, it’s like, ‘Ooh, that’s not fun.’ So I’ve started to be a bit more under wraps to maintain that free spirit.”

Songs for Screens is a Variety column sponsored by music experiential agency MAC Presents, based in NYC. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @ahampp.