At 8pm on 7 October, BBC Music launched a three-minute film featuring 27 musicians to promote all of the corporation’s music content in a single ad for the first time.
The spot, created by Karmarama, showed musicians including Brian Wilson, Sir Elton John, Kylie Minogue and Stevie Wonder singing a version of The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows. It was two years in the making.
The brief was to launch BBC Music and to showcase its unique role within the industry – as a curator, platform and incubator for new talent. The original idea featured an orchestral version of Iron Maiden’s Phantom Of The Opera with the theatre coming to life. This then developed and became more about the artists and how we could best celebrate their involvement. The concept of creating an "impossible orchestra", blending stellar artists and genres, felt the perfect metaphor for BBC Music’s aspirations.
The idea was to make it look as though everyone was there at the same time but, with this talent, that was never going to happen – although we tried to get as many stars to attend each shoot day as possible. Mostly, we recorded the vocals and then filmed them on green screens in adjacent studios. It would have been easier if we hadn’t created the narrative of the theatre coming to life, but we wanted to do something with a story to it.
The choice of song was critical. We wanted a well-loved song with lyrical significance, but it was a bit intimidating when one of the producers, Ethan Johns, picked a track that is regularly voted one of the top ten ever written. We knew we had to create a unique version while remaining faithful to the original.
Most of the musicians only recorded their line plus the chorus, so the process was a bit like laying track in front of a moving train. If Stevie Wonder sang a particular line, that was his line – no matter who came along after. It became a complicated process – first deciding where they would appear in the song, then shooting them immediately so they could fit in at the appropriate point in the film. We had two brilliant producers steering the whole thing in Johns and Ken Nelson.
It was a huge effort to assemble the right cast and persuade everyone of the ambition of the project. We also didn’t want it to leak to the media. It’s testament to the team that we managed to keep everything under wraps. We worked extensively with the BBC Music director, marketing and audiences, Neil Caldicott, and his marketing team, as well as George Ergatoudis and Jeff Smith (the heads of music at BBC Radio 1 and 2 respectively), drawing on their industry contacts and knowledge.
The integrity of the music was always paramount and this helped convince a lot of the stars to get involved. We were also striving to ensure we featured talent across all genres, from emerging artists to the established names of pop, rock, jazz, folk and so on. One thing that really helped was the warmth from musicians towards the BBC in recognition of the support it provides. And, as all proceeds of the single go to Children in Need, that helped a lot.
As we had needed to lock the whole thing down so meticulously before shooting, there weren’t that many options when it came to the edit.
Because each star only appears while they are singing their line, each performer’s shot had to do two things: tell the story of the theatre and orchestra coming to life, and allow the public to clearly see who the musician is while letting them be the hero. It put more pressure on the shots connecting the stars to make the narrative clear. It is fairly unusual for such a long film to have such a rigid structure, so it was amazing to see it come together in post-production.
In order to maximise impact, the BBC instigated a "roadblock" across its schedule – playing the promo across all its networks and platforms at the same time. There was a radio, TV and social teaser campaign building up to the launch, but everyone was quite nervous before we pushed the button. This was two years of work and we hoped the public would be excited to see it.
The BBC held a secret screening for its presenters pre-transmission, where the likes of Tony Blackburn, Nick Grimshaw and Bob Harris watched the film. Their amazing reaction when Pharrell and Stevie Wonder appeared made us confident we were on to something special.
The response has been overwhelming and quite humbling. BBC Music was four of the top ten trends on Twitter on launch night and the video has already achieved more than 17 million views online – as well as the single becoming a UK chart hit in its first few days after release.
Joe De Souza and Sam Walker are the group executive creative directors at Karmarama