Stills from projects Sara Matarazzo has worked on
Stills from projects Sara Matarazzo has worked on (clockwise from top left): the film Frances Ha; the first-ever Facebook ad; the pilot for CBS’s new series Believe; a Nike “Find Your Greatness” spot that ran during the London Olympics; a Target holiday campaign with music by Portland band Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside

Matarazzo’s path to reinventing the music industry bounced and grew like the beat of a dance track. The daughter of a musician, she worked at her father’s New York record label, Celluloid, before taking off in the ’90s to hopscotch the world as a DJ, playing major raves and parties from Paris to Bangkok. She chose musical aliases in keeping with her identity as a self-described nerd, performing as Doomer, a tribute to the comics villain Dr. Doom, and Sara Walker, after the mammoth vehicles in Star Wars. But the advent of her thirties kindled an urge for stability (and health insurance), so she applied for a job at the New York–based global advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather in 2004. 

“She came across as very intuitive, personable, and had great taste, which is paramount to what we do,” says Karl Westman, the senior-partner executive music producer who hired her. She worked with clients like American Express and IBM. Westman highlights her work with Fanta as “groundbreaking” for creating a sonic brand identity that continues to this day. 

At the time, the general practice in advertising was to find a band whose sound fit the spot, and then to hire a composer and studio musicians to emulate it. (For years, Matarazzo says, all she heard was, “We want it to sound like Coldplay!”) Her epiphany came in 2005, while working on the Motorola campaign. The Ogilvy creative team suggested copying the sound of an electronic artist named Evac, recounts Matarazzo. “I said, ‘Let’s call him.’” She tracked him down in Kansas City, hired him to do an original piece of music, and paid him handsomely for it.

Coming from the music industry, where record labels take a princely cut from many artists, into an advertising industry drunk with money to pay “talent,” Matarazzo’s realization was simple: artists could do very well through licensing and compositions. 

Ads, of course, have long featured musicians. Coca-Cola had Ray Charles as early as 1965. Pepsi had Michael Jackson in the ’80s. But for the most part, big brands wanted only superstars, seldom entrusting their products’ futures to unknowns. Meanwhile, indie musicians valued their street cred over commercial tie-ins.

"Commercials have launched a lot of independent bands. They're the new radio—just with a bigger megaphone." —Ryan Wines

That is, until 1999, when the electronica artist Moby licensed all 18 tracks from his album Play hundreds of times, exploding into the mainstream like an aural Trojan horse. From the American Express ad in which Tiger Woods uses Manhattan as a golf course to the movie The Beach and episodes of The X-Files, Moby’s songs have been everywhere. Consequently, the album sold more than 12 million copies worldwide, redefining “commercial rock.” The same year, Nick Drake posthumously landed in a Volkswagen commercial, catapulting the forgotten artist to fame. In 2000, Portland rockers the Dandy Warhols’ “Bohemian Like You” soundtracked a flashy Vodafone commercial and became a summer anthem in Europe and Australia.

 “I have no idea why Moby decided it was no big deal,” Zia McCabe of the Dandy Warhols says, “but for us, we realized without fitting neatly into any commercial radio categories, this was a great way to not only get exposure but to get paid for it.” After barely making a thud in 2000, the band’s album was rereleased in 2001 and the title song peaked at no. 5 in the UK. 

What started as a trickle turned into a stream with Apple’s mid-2000s iPod commercials, which became known for breaking lesser-known bands. After soundtracking an ad, Feist’s “1234” hit no. 28 on Billboard with 78,000 downloads in a week, and CSS’s “Music Is My Hot Hot Sex” became the highest US charter by a Brazilian artist (no. 63). “It’s probably only in the last five years or so when we really started to see it taking off,” says Berklee’s Gorder. “Ad agencies started recognizing that this millennial generation is so into discovery, and they really began searching out indie bands.” 

By that time, Matarazzo was already on the vanguard. “She really has a knack for matching the band to the job in a way that’s appropriate to the storytelling at hand,” says former boss Westman. “It was very apparent early on that she was going places.”

One place was away from Ogilvy. While working on an American Express spot that showed the director Wes Anderson strolling through one of his chaotic shoots, she met Randall Poster, an industry legend hailed by Salon as “the man with perfect taste” for his supervision of all of Anderson’s films. “Wes and I insisted that we were going to get the original score from François Truffaut’s Day for Night,” says Poster. “The client and the agency were a bit appalled at our resolute commitment to doing that. Sara was the only person on the other side who was cheering us on.” Poster, working to expand his company, Search Party, from film into commercials, offered her a position in 2008. Matarazzo quickly ascended to managing director while working on movies like Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, commercials, and TV shows. 

In 2010, Wieden & Kennedy hired Matarazzo’s husband, Dan Kroeger, as a copywriter. She relocated to Portland and, because Poster didn’t want to lose her, set up a satellite office of Search Party. While operating out of her apartment, she landed a gig working on a W&K Christmas campaign for Target that involved six commercials and an entire album of original holiday music. She immediately set off on her mission to hire bands she loved.

Matarazzo joined a growing cluster of Portland-based tastemakers who operate a bit like record-label talent scouts did in the music industry’s glory days: picking and choosing bands, making and breaking careers. Founded in 1996 by composer Paul Anthony in his University of Oregon dorm room, Rumblefish, for instance, began by repping local musicians and placing music for the likes of The Sopranos, The Real World, and Chevrolet. But since moving to Portland in 2001, Anthony has shifted to what he sees as the future: licensing music for user-generated content. Rumblefish created an iTunes-style program that lets anyone choose songs to accompany, for example, their own YouTube videos. The selection includes big names like Miles Davis and indie acts like Seattle rapper MG! the Visionary, who helped popularize the “planking” craze (lying rigid like a plank on any number of objects) with a viral video. The company now licenses more than 25,000 songs a day (the artist gets half the fee), supporting a stable of what Anthony calls “middle-class musicians.” 

Other companies are setting up shop all the time. This month, Marmoset—started in 2010 with a goal of tapping into the Northwest’s musical talent pool—will launch the first licensing website geared specifically toward independent filmmakers, says cofounder Ryan Wines. The national agency Beta Petrol started a satellite here, and a collective of musicians called Pacific Soundtracks opened in June. “Part of it is the Portland appeal and brand,” Wines says, explaining that it was much easier than he’d expected to land a Bud Light Super Bowl campaign. “You go to New York or elsewhere and say ‘Portland music,’ and everybody listens.”