A Cup of Coffee With Luc van Stiphout
by Ilaria Mangiardi
He heads up the Music & Brands department within MassiveMusic, which allowed him to take on a wide variety of sonic branding projects such as Philips, UBS, KLM and UEFA Europa League. He’s obsessed with late 60s and 70s soul music thanks to an old record player from his parents.
A pragmatic thinker applying his ninja skills to all things audible. Will he also apply them to answer our million dollar questions? Let’s find out. But first, coffee.
Hey Luc. As you know, this series is called ‘A Cup of Coffee with..’ but here we are, drinking beer because hey, life is full of surprises.
That’s what you do on a late Wednesday afternoon. Plus, I don’t drink coffee. Ever.
I wouldn’t survive. Talking about unpredictability, does music affect your other senses? I don’t know if that ever happens to you, but when I listen to music I sometimes associate songs with colours.
Well, I think I’m quite cinematic indeed. I do find myself generating videos in my head when I listen to music. The thing is, I usually need to have a framework in my mind and I guess it comes from my Industrial Design background.
Unfortunately, I don’t get too much of a chance to sit on a chair, close my eyes and just listen. I used to do this more often, using music to escape, painting my own picture to the song. Now it’s more about micro moments, something along the lines of a mini chill pill or a steroid injection.
That’s quite cinematic as well. If you have to compare the current state to when you first started working here, are brands acknowledging the power of music more and more?
Definitely. And this happens because there are different factors in place. The first one is that brands are more in control of how they express themselves. But also, if you think of their online communication, they produce much more content. They’re in a continuous conversation with their target audience.
These two elements, which are also interlinked, make Marketing Directors and Heads of Brand ask themselves: “Are we using the right tone of voice?” And music is definitely part of that bigger picture.
Any anecdotes about your beginnings at MassiveMusic?
In a way, MassiveMusic has always been there, even when I was working with other agencies. With TBWA I did a lot of great stuff, mostly for Heineken International when I worked on the global activation of their UEFA Champions League sponsorship. For nearly 5 years, I traveled the world and I kept on asking myself how I could connect brands with music. So I started setting up a music department within the agency.
At the same time, I got word that a guy I was working with moved to the music industry. He had MassiveMusic as one of his suppliers and was very enthusiastic about their work. Another friend of mine was having this workshop right in front of the old MassiveMusic office here in Amsterdam, so I asked him directly if he could put me in contact.
I ended up having two conversations, talking about football and music for hours, initially just to have more insights about this world. Then I started working at EMI and Universal, so it took me a while before I could safely leave Major Tom’s capsule and land on planet Massive. But hey, here I am.
All roads lead to Massive. Among all the projects we worked on, which one do you take the most pride in?
Definitely The Sound of Philips. It’s really rewarding to see what we did for their sonic identity. Coming up with a broad yet cohesive spectrum of sounds that could support their communication, products and digital services was a challenge that we were happy to embrace. The impact is so big on so many different levels, as the creative idea behind it allows to cater to all of their different touchpoints. I am really proud we made something that helps people within the company.
How is creativity seen by brands? And how do you combine it with a strategic approach?
It really depends on the type of brand. A very marketing-driven brand like Heineken, for instance, wants to stay close to their messaging. As soon as you become too corporate, people will not relate anymore. I think that brands nowadays fully understand the necessity for creativity and the need to cherish that within their overall organisation.
However, first comes the strategy. After you acknowledge who you are as a brand, then you have to define how you express yourself, and this is where creativity comes in. For some, this means a very linear and factual binary messaging. For others, it’s about moving people and creating an emotional connection with them. Emotions and creativity fuel each other.
Talking about emotions, if you had to pick a recent campaign that made you smile and moved you to tears at the same time, what would it be?
Regardless of the heavy debating on this campaign, I would pick, without hesitation, the latest John Lewis’ Christmas commercial with Elton John. Simply amazing. The musical build up, that brings it full circle. I’m a sucker for this kind of setups. I’m actually planning to buy a piano for my kids so it literally struck a chord. And also, the double meaning of the word “gift” in the wrap up is just spot on.
You have a Master of Science in Industrial Design Engineering. I checked the Delft University website and found out it actually has lots in common with what we do. There was an article about ‘The Internet of Things and the Future of Design’ and another one called ‘A beautiful alarm beside your hospital bed’.
You know, I didn’t really know what to do at the end of high school. I was very creative. I thought I would either pick languages and cultures or design.
I ended up going to Delft, just for one year, and hated it. I applied to the design academy in Eindhoven, but I felt there was not enough substance, so I went back to Delft. During those years, I learned to question the obvious: studying Industrial Design taught me how to persevere, but also how to organise a creative process with a very pragmatic approach.
I mean, in any kind of creative process, there are always essential steps you need to take. The biggest challenge? Not to try to solve the whole creative riddle at once. You will never get to the end result right after reading the brief. The trick is to cut the process up into smaller pieces, allowing you to take one hurdle after the other. You need to stop for a second to acknowledge what specific solutions and fundamental ideas you can translate, and then, only then, move on.
Interesting you’re saying that. I do the same with creative writing.
Yeah, how do you approach it?
Most of the times I jot down my main thoughts as if they were headlines, but I develop them at a later time. The most important thing is to remind myself that the job of a first draft is only to exist.
Exactly. You want to fight with creativity in a healthy way, and you can only do this by understanding that you need to go through different phases.
During your career, you worked for important music labels. What was their main role back then and what is their main role now?
Funny enough, when I started working at EMI, everybody recognised that physical products were dead. Record labels were going through difficult times, really reinventing themselves and their business models. They were cutting wages but wanted to retain talent at the same time. Something that is not realistic.
With the upcoming of Spotify, we thought this would be the end of major labels. Well, we are now a few years down the road, and major labels are thriving more than ever. The internet is a game of numbers and they know how to play that game.
Talking about Spotify and streaming platforms, how do you see it?
I am glad that music is now accessible to anybody. I can still remember when Spotify came out: it blew my mind away. All of a sudden, you could make your own playlist and easily discover new artists.
Music is so much more than just usage. It’s a real companion, and it’s revolutionary to think of how we curate it nowadays, what people look for, or how artists decide whether to release a single, an EP or an album.
Late 60s and 70s soul music: I know you can talk about it for hours. Why is that?
I started with my mom and dad’s old record player. I didn’t have much money during university, yet I wanted to discover new music. I went to many second hand thrift shops to explore different genres – from Bowie, the Beatles and the Stones, as well as Pink Floyd and The Who. Everything that I thought it was of quality had to come home with me.
Then I discovered that I really liked that ‘thick’ sound that only genres such as drum ‘n bass and hip-hop could provide. I was quite obsessed with De La Soul, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest. Lots of their songs had that funky, groovy vibe that soul music also has. And James Brown is the first one that comes to my mind when I talk about ‘groove’.
Do you know what completely blew my head off? When I saw Maceo Parker, a saxophonist who played with James Brown, live at Paradiso here in Amsterdam. I still remember the date: it was May 5th. He played for 3 hours and smashed it. I never experienced a live show with so much realness, so much energy. That was the moment when I thought: Ok, I am sold.
Or ‘souled’: it might be even more appropriate. What’s that one line in a song that feels like it was written for you?
*starts singing ‘I Believe I Can fly’* Just kidding. I’m not sure, but I can tell you the two tracks that I would like to be played at my funeral.
Yeah. Don’t you have one?
Whoa. Never thought about it. But I agree, everyone should have at least one.
Mines are ‘Little Wing’ by Jimi Hendrix and ‘If You Want Me to Stay’ by Sly and The Family Stone.
I’m glad we sorted that out. Are you still DJing?
Not anymore but who knows. It was lots of fun. Back then they called it ‘urban eclectic’; we just called it: ‘From soul to De La Soul’. It combined old school with new school, breakbeat and freestyle. Squeezing James Brown in, of course.
And how did you learn?
By failing a lot.
What does the sonic identity of Luc van Stiphout sound like?
Well, to answer this question I should make some research, gather insights, look into future trends, forecast what Luc might sound like in a few years from now. The only thing I can tell you is that it would probably include the sound of ocean waves.
Any question I should have asked but did not?
Do you want another beer?
‘A Cup of Coffee with..’ is a MassiveMusic series. Creative Copywriter and Content Manager Ilaria Mangiardi sits down with other Massivians to ask unpredictable questions over a cup of coffee.