A John Braheny column from the archives…
Helpful articles about the Business of Songwriting
I recently sat down with TAXI’s Michael Laskow to be grilled on Songwriting and the Music Business. Here is my interview (reposted from Ustream).
When noted lyricist, K. Lawrence Dunham (aka Kaye L. Dunham) told me the story of the wrong version of his lyric to a jazz classic ending up in a songbook and another artist recording that wrong version, I felt there was a lesson to be learned. I asked him if he’d allow me to post the story. Thanks, Kaye.
December 17, 2009
Re: “Don’t Look Back”
Lyrics by K. Lawrence Dunham
Music by Johnny Mandel
Thank you for offering to post my story about the song “Don’t Look Back”. I agree that is has teaching value. However posting it also offers me the opportunity to somewhat resolve the situation for myself although there is no feasible avenue for me to change the outcome.
This is a song which I, as a lyricist, co-wrote with Johnny Mandel. It was first recorded in the Seventies by legendary jazz vocal artist Irene Kral on the vinyl album, “Where Is Love”which only featured Kral with the fine piano accompaniment of Alan Broadbent. The album became a critical hit internationally in the world of traditional vocal jazz. It was nominated for a Grammy in 1976 and was later formatted to a CD version. “Don’t Look Back’ has had more than a few covers and is still an active copyright.
Here is the situation. Several years back I re-acquired my publishing rights for the song and became the co-publisher. In the latest edition of the Johnny Mandel Song Book, published by Alfred Publishing Company in 2006 Mr. Mandel included “Don’t Look Back(It was not included in the first edition.) I was delighted when he informed me of his intention while he was working on the project. When the book came out this was a high point for me as a writer.
Now three years later, it has come to my attention that there is a error in one line of the lyrics as printed in the book. That in itself is unfortunate in terms of the record for posterity. Added to this is the ongoing possibility of singers performing and even recording the song incorrectly based on the book. This is actually is how I found out about the error. A singer who recently recorded the song sent me a reference copy and I was shocked to hear the lyric change. When I emailed him about it he told me that learned the song from the Mandel songbook. I must say that the singer kindly agreed to sing the correct lyric in live performance now that he knows what it is.
The lesson here is that when Mr Mandel informed me of the pending publication, in my role as co-publisher I did not request a copy of the arrangement for proofing. True, one was never sent to me as a routine matter of procedure, but the responsibility was mine. Even when I got a copy of the book, I was so enthralled by it. I never looked carefully at the lyrics, and this is something I routinely do keenly in my role as a lyricist when it comes to lead sheets or lyric sheets
Here is the incorrect line:
“Who cares to feel what went on before, as far as love’s concerned
All those dreams will disappear and never will return.”
The correct line is:
“Who cares to feel what went on before, as far as love’s concerned
All those dreams have disappeared and never will return.”
Thanks again so much. John.
K. Lawrence Dunham
a.k.a Kaye L. Dunham
I referred Kaye to Ronny Schiff, my book agent and print music expert. She told him Alfred Music Publishing was a highly respected and conscientious company and he should write to them directly and request a correction. He did send the request and received back a very gracious personal letter from Bryan Bradley, Alfred Music Publishing’s COO, promising to make the correction on the next printing. Kaye thanked Ronny for encouraging him to follow up and in her note back to him she said, “The print companies (the few that are left) are ALL dedicated to accuracy. That’s why they’ve survived. They also are there to serve the songwriter. Without you, there would be no music business that brings us such joy.” Well said, Ronny.
Glad this worked out for everyone.
“No cue sheets, no pay.” That’s the mantra you need to remember when you’re dealing with film/TV music. Sometimes it’s easier said than done. When my friend, topical songwriter Smokey Miles (aka Count Smokula) started to tell me the story of his “Balloon Boy” song and it’s use on TV surrounding that hoax, I though it was something you should hear about. It turned out to be an even more valuable lesson than I thought after he got deeper into his experiences with other TV projects he’d written for and companies he got screwed by. You’ll be glad you listened to this!Smokey Miles Interview
Production Music Libraries
By John Braheny
Production music libraries are a major source of songs and underscore for film and TV productions, multi-media projects, video games, commercials, music between TV and radio programs and commercials, station ID’s, station and show promo’s, direct to DVD/video productions and many other uses where producers need quick access to pre-cleared (the rights already granted), inexpensive music. There’s been an explosion of production music libraries in the past few years that parallels the growth of new digital cable channels, satellite and web radio broadcasts.
If you’re an unknown writer or band who doesn’t have the clout to get your songs into big budget productions and don’t have the time to constantly research all the new low-budget shows that may be in production and in need of underscore music or songs, music libraries represent a major opportunity for you. These companies secure the rights (more about that later) to broadcast quality songs and instrumental underscore compositions submitted to them that they feel they can place in audio-visual productions. They then assemble and reproduce “libraries” of these collections on CD’s (and/or online) and make them available to production companies.
They’re indexed by musical style, mood, instrumentation, length, tempo, male, female or group vocal and any other attributes that allow an audio-visual producer to quickly target the type of music they need. They find the piece, use it, and fill out a “cue sheet” for the music library and your PRO (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC) that includes information on how the song is used, how long, name of the piece, composer(s) and owner of the copyright
Some of the bigger libraries hire their own in-house composers to create music for them but will also sign individual songs and complete new libraries from indie composers. That’s where you have your best opportunity.
What does “broadcast quality” really mean? Don’t feel you have to spend a bundle on studio masters. Any good digital audio work-station (DAW) setup or a good live recording can give you the quality you need if you know what you’re doing. Apple’s Garage Band continues to upgrade to take even more advantage of the new screamin’ Intel Core Duo processor. The trick is to study and experiment with it (or any other software or operating system you use) to maximize the quality of your recordings. Recording, The Magazine For The Recording Musician is a great resource. If you’re submitting instrumental pieces, they should be well arranged. Stay away from using stock sounds that come packaged with your keyboard or software. Use live musicians whenever possible, particularly for rock and country. They hate keyboard triggered samples that emulate steel or acoustic guitars, saxes, etc. Try to create fresh sounds. Generating a mood is important. They’ll use pieces with strong melodic themes but will also use underscoring that just enhances a mood. It’s also a good idea to produce mixes with and without lead instruments.
Songs are used in many different ways. Sometimes the lyric is important. Sometimes it’s irrelevant, and your song will be barely audible in a bar scene behind a conversation. It may be more important that the style is authentic and appropriate for the era in which the story is set.
Exercise: Tape TV shows (Try a drama and a comedy.) with just an audio recorder. Play them back and make lists of all the “cues” (pieces of music used) with info about mood, number of instruments, style, length, use of songs vs. underscore, and how many are under the dialog. Are they using different mixes of the same track for different cues? There are actually cases of entire shows being scored using a single five-minute piece of music that’s dissected and used in different configurations for each cue: only drums and bass in one, just the string pad of part of the piece in another, etc. Use this information as a guide to the cues you’ll submit as demos.
It’s a good idea to go to the online sites of the big music libraries, find the style of music you create and search for examples of that style on the site as someone looking to use that music would do. Note how it’s presented – how long – types of mixes – the way they describe the pieces. Here are some libraries to start with:
Presenting Your songs to Music Supervisors and Song Placement Companies —
The best resource I can give you is to go to a series of interviews with music supervisors and music editors along with other very valuable information by Skip Adams. Skip is a music publisher whose company, Global Graffiti specializes in custom placement for film and TV. I particularly liked his interview with Madonna Wade-Reed whose music supervision credits include Boston Public, Alias, and Smallville. I especially like her candor in describing what she does.
What’s the Deal?
Advances are rare. They know that you know you’ll make most of your income on the “back end” from your PROs after it’s broadcast. In most of the situations listed above you’d get an advance for synch and master use licenses when pitching directly to music supervisors for specific shows or a percentage of the advance when pitching via song placement companies. That’s not the case with music libraries.
Contracts vary from library to library so read them very carefully. Some are actually publishing agreements in which they own the copyright just like any other publishing contract. You get your 50% writers share. I’ve also seen exclusive publishing deals in which the library exempts a maximum amount of CD sales 5,000 or 10,000 for example (This is undoubtedly negotiable.) that the group is allowed to sell without the publisher taking publishing royalties.
Ideally you’d want a non-exclusive deal in which you’re free to use the song in your own CD and sell as many as you want – or place it in film TV on your own. A trade-out on that situation is that they’ll often want not only the publisher’s share of income but 50% of the writer’s share (This usually happens when the library is required to give the publishing rights to a film company to get the placement..) leaving you with 25%. Though splitting the writer’s share goes against everything holy to me, you have to decide how important it is to you to have a non-exclusive contract. You need to consider that carefully, especially if you have a co-writer, which means that you’d now be looking at 12.5 %.
Speaking of co-writers, it’s important that you have a written agreement that neither of you can make any kind of deal other than a compulsory license (See page___) without the other’s consent. That would certainly include the above situation.
Reversion clauses can sometimes be negotiated that give you back the rights to the song within two or three years if it hasn’t been placed.
The Legal Backup You’ll Need
For the master recording, a license must be granted to the audio-visual producer that states that you control all the rights to the performances on the recording. Each musician or singer who contributes a performance to your recording has a copyright interest in their performance and you must cover yourself with a “work for hire” release agreement with your musicians/singer(s), (See Work For Hire Agreement) Though you may not have to show these releases to the production music library or the audio-visual producer, you’ll have to “warrant” in the contract that you have done it so your singer doesn’t sue them when she hears herself on that TV show.
If you pay your musicians and singers for the sessions and get the releases, you have no obligation to pay them more later and it’s cleaner that way. However, a situation in which you might consider it would be if you have a band or a dedicated group of musicians/singers you work well with and can always count on to give you great performances. Sometimes it’s tough to find a crew like that and you want to keep them happy by sharing a percentage of the “master use” half of the income. As an indie self-published writer you – and co-writer(s) get the “synch” portion. A caution in making the decision to give your musicians a piece of the action is that it could compromise or preclude your ability to make a deal with the publisher or song placer later, with whom you would need to share all or part of the master-use fee.
Note: If you hire a demo service to produce your demos, do not forget to have them sign a work-for-hire agreement. Before you even commit to hiring them be sure to let them know that you require it. Most demo-services today do broadcast-quality work that will easily qualify for broadcast use and they don’t mind giving you a release agreement.
A common practice for music libraries is to limit their involvement only to audiovisual uses. The benefit for the writers is that they’re free to use the songs on their own CDs, for example, without having to pay royalties to the music library for a song they played no role in exploiting. The benefit to the library is that they’re able to offer a non-exclusive license to the writer and it gives them competitive access to better material from bands who wouldn’t go for an exclusive contract.
Actually, re-titling as been working pretty well so far despite the fact that, according to some attorneys and publishers, this is problematic because the rights given to the music library are actually for the same song since nothing is really changed but the title. Music business attorney Andrea Brauer has much experience with these deals and offers this advice about some things to watch for in the contracts.
“The practice these days with music libraries is to acquire the rights for a “derivative work” of the original song, thereby allowing the songwriter to retain ownership of the composition and at the same time allowing the music library to license and thereafter collect its proper income on placements of the composition. Of course to create this derivative work, the library simply takes the original work, as is, and re-names it. Unfortunately, this re-titling of songs clashes head on with copyright law which will not recognize the existence of a separate work unless the new work has been fundamentally changed in terms of its lyrics or melody. Nevertheless, music libraries are not likely to change their practice until confronted by the copyright office, so here’s some advice about what should be contained in those contracts.
First of all, the whole point from the songwriter’s perspective is to protect his/her rights in the original song. Therefore, the contract must specifically acknowledge the existence of the original song and its title; it must acknowledge that the rights being granted are for a derivative of the original song and it must state the proposed new title of the “derivative work”. There must be a clause reserving all rights in the original song to the songwriter and a clause stating that the music library has no rights to the original song. This may all seem self evident but you’d be surprised at how many poorly written contracts fail to mention any titles at all and, as a consequence, the library gets credited with the wrong title.
Two final points: If the library seeks the right to authorize a true derivative work (i.e., to bring in a new songwriter to alter the lyrics or melody) it must not be allowed to do so without the original writer’s permission. Otherwise the original writer will quickly lose control over who gets to use the song. And last but not least, make sure there is an audit clause in the contract so that if the accounting looks suspicious, it can be challenged.”
Caution: A practical problem with re-titling is that many music supervisors at audio/visual production companies do NOT like it. Here’s what happens: The music library pitches the song for a TV show, then the writer/artist/band happens be be heard by, or has a contact with, that same music supervisor at the show who hears the same song with two different titles, from two different sources. A big red LEGAL TROUBLE!!! sign flashes through her mind and she says no to both. And in series TV there’s no time to sort it out.
Music libraries offer a great opportunity for writers of both songs and instrumental tracks to potentially earn a substantial income from the use of their music in film, television, games and a variety of other audio-visual uses. It does take time, dedication and patience because you need to grow it song by song and placement by placement. Nothing happens overnight.
To find music libraries, get Music Business Registry‘s Film and Television Music Guide.
Production Hub – go to Post Production , then to Libraries/music
… or just search Google under “Production Music Libraries”.
A version of this article appears in The Craft and Business of Songwriting (3rd ed) by John Braheny.
Let’s assume that you’ve found a lyricist and/or composer whose words or music feel like the magic ingredient you need to write great songs. You find that you can work well together and, first thing you know, you’ve got a fantastic song. You say, “Great, let’s find a publisher!” Your partner says, “Oh, I guess I forgot to tell you, I’ve got my own publishing company so I’d like to publish the song.” At that point the song may be in trouble. You may rightfully ask whether your partner’s company is capable of properly promoting the song. Does the company have the connections to get the song recorded? You’re better off not having a publisher at all than to have the song tied up with an inadequate one. At least you’d be free to place the song with a good publisher.
If you find yourself in this situation, you might request that if your partner’s company doesn’t get the song recorded in six months or a year, that he give up his publishing interest and the two of you look for a publisher together. You might also set up your own company and split the publishing, but jointly agree to the time limit. Or you may agree to bring in a third publisher at which point you both will give an equal share of the publishing (or all of it) to the new party.
You also need to agree on a division of the writer’s share of the royalties. Your collaborator may have supplied a title for a song but you wrote the rest of it. You might feel you did most of the work and should get 90 percent of the money. Your partner may feel that without the title, which supplied the premise, there wouldn’t be a song. You may both be right but that kind of bickering could destroy a very promising collaborative effort. It’s generally agreed that if you get together with the intention of writing a song or to establish an ongoing writing relationship, you split the writers’ royalties 50/50.
Without a written agreement to the contrary, all rights and percentages are split equally. Each writer owns an equal portion of the copyright and each of the writers is empowered to grant a license to anyone who wants to record it.
If one of you is a lyricist and the other writes music, it’s a pretty straightforward arrangement. It tends to get a little touchy if each of you write music and lyrics or if the contributions are more difficult to quantify. There’s more room for argument about who contributed the most. That’s why it’s always best to agree on equal shares ahead of time.
On some of the Lennon/McCartney tunes, one undoubtedly contributed more than the other on individual songs or wrote them himself, but they just didn’t want to fight over it every time so they divided the royalties equally.
Here are some other possible situations you may have to deal with:
1. You’ve written the song and you take it to someone else to “tighten it up” and that person contributes a new hook or changes the song’s direction. How much writer credit will he get? At the time you bring your song to the writer you should try to work it out based on what you want him to contribute.
2. You take your song to an artist who wants to “personalize” it and changes something. For this he wants writer’s credit. This is a very common and potentially volatile situation, with several factors to weigh:
1. Is this an important cut? With an established artist there’s no question about it. But even with a new artist the song could be a major hit or end up on a hit album. Any recording credit may therefore be important to you.
2. How extensive are the changes “Personalizing” the song by changing a “she” to a “he” does not warrant a writer’s credit. If the artist wants more extensive changes and you want to accommodate him, offer to make them yourself. Get as much information as you can about what the artist is looking for and present several rewrites. If the artist seems unreasonably resistant to your changes, you have to face the reality that you may lose the cut unless you allow him to rewrite or just give him the credit. You can swallow your pride and walk to the bank, walk away with your pride (and your empty pockets), or tell the artist you can’t change this song but suggest that you write something together from scratch. If it’s just a matter of financial incentive for the artist to record the song, you also have the publisher’s share of the royalties to offer if you publish the song yourself.
3. How badly does the artist want the song? If he thinks it’s good enough he’s torn between wanting the writing credit and money and possibly blowing a potential hit. You’re in the same position, too, except that you may also be motivated by anger that someone would have the huevos to demand credit for your work.
While many artists wouldn’t think of asking for undeserved credit (and royalties), others do it in a New York minute. You ultimately have to decide whether it’s worth it to your career to give up a portion of those royalties and credits.
3. A publisher suggests changes and wants a writer’s credit. Generally speaking, this is the publisher’s job, and she shouldn’t ask. It would depend, of course, on how substantial the contribution is and it can get a little touchy, but it should be your decision.
4. Maybe you decide later that for some reason you want a new lyric to a song you’ve already written with someone. Is it okay to change? Not without your co-writer’s written permission.
5. What if your melody writer or publisher wants a new foreign language lyric? Do you still get paid? A decision has to be made whether you’re going to say, ‘words and music by _______, or words by _____ and music by ______. In the former, if a foreign sub-publisher wants to commission a lyric translation, the percentage granted to the translator comes out of both your royalties equally. In the latter, it’s deducted from the lyricists half. In the former, if you’re sued for lyric infringement, you both get sued. In that latter, the lyricist gets sued. In the former, if there’s a successful instrumental version of the song, both writers get paid, in the latter, the lyricist doesn’t. In the former, if a lyric is reprinted, you both get paid, in the latter, only the lyricist. Note that all these are also vice-versa and know that these questions can be worked out contractually.
All these potential problems point to the need for collaborators to get all the business straight before they get into the music. There are few things more frustrating than knowing you’ve written a winner but can’t do anything with it.
PRELIMINARY BUSINESS MEETING
K.A. Parker is a professional lyricist, a five-time American Song Festival winner, and former staff writer for Motown’s Stone Diamond Music who has taught lyric writing at UCLA, Musician’s Institute and throughout the US. Her suggestions for conducting a business meeting and list of considerations for collaborators (which she uses in her classes) is the best I’ve seen and, with her permission, I offer them to you minus the more extensive discussions of the ones I’ve already covered.
CONDUCTING THE BUSINESS MEETING
Setting up a business meeting is like buying fire insurance: you may not think you need it until it’s too late. The things that you’ll be discussing will only be necessary if and when the songs you write with your collaborator turn out to be good enough to be published, recorded, and released. Of course, there’s no way to know this until you actually start working together. But, assuming you believe in your own potential, and in that of your collaborator (and there’s no reason to work with another person unless you do), I am going to assume that you agree that a meeting of the minds on business matters is necessary before you begin work on music matters.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because your potential collaborator is “nice,” that ironing out the business will be a snap later on. Most of us are “nice” when we are trying to impress others. But greed does amazing things to people and business is about money, after all. Ego, dreams, and money make a powerful brew. Many successful songwriters have ended up giving their royalty income to the lawyers who were left to sort out the disagreements between two “nice,” talented people.
The business meeting has three basic rules:
1. Never conduct a business meeting at the same time as a creative meeting. You’ll need to be organized, closed, and tough to do business. You’ll need to be flexible, open, and childlike to be creative. Don’t try to be both at the same time — it won’t work. Conduct your business in a neutral place, like a coffee shop, on a day when you’re not planning to write together. Sharing a meal is a nice idea. It softens the whole affair, limits the time frame (usually not more than an hour), and makes it easy to exit if you see that it’s not going well. Of course, if things do go well, it helps to bond the relationship, too.
2. Come prepared. You may very well end up educating your new partner if she is less informed about the business than you are. Make copies of information you want her to read. Back up your opinion with resources. Take notes or tape the meeting for future reference. Make a checklist or agenda of the items you want to discuss. Be prepared to draw a letter of agreement for signature at a later date, based on the discussion. A business meeting is not a good time to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs of any kind. Have your drink when the meeting is over.
3. Go in with a positive attitude. Don’t enter the meeting with tales about how you got screwed before and you’re doing this to protect yourself. Assume good will and go from there. You’re building a team and every team needs goals, guidelines, regulations, and direction. Don’t be defensive. More than anything, the session should be an information-gathering interview. If you conduct it well, it should save you from any hostile confrontations in the future.
Now that you know the rules, what specifics do you discuss? Here’s a list. You may want to eliminate some of these points or include some of your own, but all the basics are here:
1. Is your information current – name, address, phone numbers, Social Security number, birth date and affiliation (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC) on your partner? This will go in your files and be used when you fill out the copyright forms on your songs. The minute you create a copyright (i.e., a song) together, you must keep up to date on this information. I remember vividly how I felt when a publisher wanted a song of mine badly, but finally passed when my collaborator could not be found. Most publishers will not be interested in publishing half a song. Keep in touch! Note: I wait until I know I want to work with someone before I ask for his/her address and Social Security number. Some people may be touchy about giving this info to a new acquaintance.
2. How does your partner feel about publishing? Does he have his own publishing company? Is it active? Does he want your publishing as well? How does he feel about working with the major publishers if they offer a contract on the tune? Is he interested in working with a small, untried publishing company?
3. Does your partner have aspirations to be a recording artist? Do you? Will either of you want to keep all the best songs for yourself? This is a source of major conflict with many collaborators and should be thoroughly discussed before the work begins. There is nothing more frustrating than holding back a great song on the chance that your partner might get signed — or seeing all your best songs go to another person, if you’re the one with artistic aspirations. Be frank about this issue.
4. When is a song completed? Ideally, it’s when BOTH of you say so. That’s okay if one of you isn’t a perfectionist or a procrastinator. Clashes of temperament will be a sore spot here unless you come up with a set of rules about this. What if you disagree? How many times do you rewrite after a critique session? After the demo is complete, will you be willing to go back in and make major changes?
5. How prolific are you? How prolific is your partner? If one of you writes every day and one of you only writes when you’re inspired, that can be very frustrating for the more prolific of the two. Do you or your partner need deadlines? Pressure? How long will you give a lyric or melody to your partner before you expect to see some activity on his part? What do you do when one of you wants the song finished and the other one doesn’t want to finish it, or can’t?
6. When do you bring in a third party to work on the song? Who will you bring in? Ideally, it’s when you both agree you’ve reached a dead end. Again, in an ideal situation, it should be a mutually agreed-upon third party. But you need to discuss this thoroughly. Never bring in a third party to work on a song without telling your partner. You’d be surprised how often this is done and it usually means the end of the partnership.
7. What about splits? This is a major bone of contention in many relationships where one party writes both words and music and the other party only writes one or the other. Professional writers split everything right down the middle, no matter who does what. When a third party is called in, everything is divided into thirds.
8. What about demos? Where do you do them? Who decides which songs to do? Who pays for them and how? Who produces, engineers, plays, sings? Generally, the fees are split exactly like the song, 50/50. But what if one partner owns a studio and can play all the instruments, etc.? Does he charge the other partner for the demo costs? This is an individual matter and both parties should agree with whatever arrangement is made, regardless of how they work it out.
9. What connections do each of you have? Would either of you feel comfortable in using them? Is one of you more aggressive? Do either of you go to LA, New York, or Nashville on a regular basis? How will you get your songs heard by publishers, producers, or artists? Do either of you belong to professional organizations such as the Nashville Songwriters Association, The Songwriters Guild or Taxi? Would either of you be willing to join to get professional feedback, pitch songs to producers and publishers and so forth? Most partnerships without goals die quickly. Once you spend the time and money required to write and demo your songs – then what? Are either of you prepared to move to LA, Nashville, or New York to better promote your work?
10. How do each of you feel about songwriting competitions? Who pays the entry fee and how will the winnings be split?
Creating music successfully with your partner will depend on the flexibility and willingness to work things out that each of you brings to the relationship. If the songs you produce are great, the incentive to work out the snags will be greater. It might help if you adopt the belief that people are more important than songs. If you don’t believe that, then maybe you should write alone.
I highly recommend you download my Sample Collaboration Contract.
The following article by music supervisor Michael Rogers is the first in a regular column for Film Music Magazine, a must-read for anyone interested in writing music for film and TV. This is a great introduction to what music supervisors do.
Michael Rogers is owner of Rogers Entertainment, a full-service film & television music supervision and clearance company in Los Angeles.
by Michael Rogers
Adventures in Music Supervision 101
This is the first in a series of columns on the craft of music supervision. As a relatively new specialty in film production (and sometimes pre-production-more on this later), this monthly column will attempt to both educate and (with any luck) entertain you.
For the past 20 years, almost every feature film has had a music supervisor or coordinator. Their role is often misunderstood, and they are in all fairness not quite as powerful as frequently perceived. However, they are inherently essential to the contemporary filmmaking process.
LESS IS MORE (or, wouldn’t it be cheaper to just have the director hum a few bars?)
It might prove fruitful to begin with what music supervision is not. Apart from the superstar music supervisors (including among others, Budd Carr, Bonnie Greenberg, Peter Aftermath, Sharon Boyle, and Karyn Rachtman), most are not the initial decision-makers about which composer to hire for underscore and/or which source songs to license. In the affable words of composer John Ottman, “music supervisors are dead wood.” In theory, the director and producer(s) usually provide the suggestions from which to select film music.
A typical scenario involves the director/producer leaning toward a particular composer with whom they already have a previously successful working relationship or whose work has made an impression. Likewise, particular source songs may be dancing around their heads as they shower (hopefully not singing too loudly-as only their loved ones would appreciate). The music supervisor’s job tends to be as creative as his or her collaboration with the director/producer allows it to be. Contrary to some popular views, part of a music supervisor’s job is not to interfere with the freedom and creative process of the composer. If a supervisor’s background happens to include composition, arrangement, production/engineering, theory, or even tin-ear syndrome-so be it. But once a composer is hired it is always advisable to oversee at a distance to allow him or her to actualize the talent they are hired to utilize.
A SUPERVISOR’S RESPONSIBILITY (or what does that guy over there do, anyway?)
An initial determination must be made about whether there will be a need for pre-recorded music to be used in coordination with principle photography (i.e., a scene requires a character to write an original song because he/she plays the part of a musician in the film). In this case, the supervisor will usually be required to hire an original songwriter (details about songwriter deals will be covered in a future column) to create the original song, book studio time, hire any necessary vocalist(s) or musicians to record the song, and oversee the mixing and mastering processes to ensure that the song is ready prior to principle photography.
Depending on a music supervisor’s industry credentials and relationship with the producer and/or director, he or she may or may not be involved in the composer selection process. The final call is that of the director and producer. Once the composer has been selected, the supervisor may negotiate and structure the composer deal. The music supervisor may be present during spotting (watching the footage to determine where music will go) but it is usually advisable to leave this process to the director and composer. In fact, the supervisor undoubtedly works more closely with the music editor than with the composer. Music supervisor Gerry Gershman (Buffalo 66) confirms, “For the most part, supervisors oversee that the big-picture musical vision is being realized and that the composer is staying within budget. Usually the music supervisor’s creativity is in deciding what source songs will most seamlessly match the tone and theme of the composer’s underscore and vice versa.” Part of the job also becomes the fine art of ensuring fair compensation for the artists while at the same time staying within the studio/production company music budget.
Next, the supervisor must work with the director and producer to determine what, if any, source songs will best enhance particular scenes and sequences in a picture. This process can often be the most creative aspect of the job. However, going about the business of clearing and licensing songs is an art in and of itself. The supervisor must close a deal with both the song’s record company (who owns the Master rights) and the author’s publishing company (who owns the Sync or publishing rights) before permission is legally granted to sync the song (a sync license is a fee paid by the film company to wed (synchronize) a song to a visual image).
A music budget range for a major film is typically between $500,000 to $2,000,000. Attempting to get film executives to appreciate why composers and source songs are worth shelling out some cash for is often an arduous process (but one well worth the effort for truly talented supervisors who value how the right music can literally make or break a film). For student films or projects to be shown at festivals, publishers will often quote a significantly lower price to accommodate the budget (issuing a limited festival license). However, if a festival film is picked up by a commercial distribution company, the distributor will usually have to re-negotiate a commercial license.
Once the songs are decided upon, the race is on to get them licensed, cleared, and into post-production in order to meet the film’s release date.
Despite the challenging expectations and pressures under which music supervisors are expected to deliver, the good ones are invaluable and very well-compensated. The next time you watch a film or television program, ask yourself if you would be as engaged in it if a music supervisor hadn’t effectively overseen the strategic placement of music.
Contests provide songwriters, singers and bands with an opportunity for validation/acknowledgment of their talent as well as an opportunity to win prizes.
Contests are created for many different reasons and it’s important to be able to assess whether or not you’re wasting your money to submit material at all. Most contests are created to make money, though there are always contests that spring up for other reasons, for example to find a theme song for an organization or a city. There have been several competitions for a new national anthem, for instance. Many non-profit songwriting and music organizations use competitions to raise operating funds. These contests are usually open to writers from all over the world. Continue Reading →
Casting: The Right Song For The Right Artist
“Kelly (or Josh, Faith, etc.) could sing this song really great!” This statement, and the ignorance behind it, has been the cause of countless unnecessary rejections of songs. Though it’s certainly not the only cause, it ranks right up there with poorly crafted songs. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s say both the demo and song are excellent. But is it appropriate? It’s not a question of whether they could do it. They could make bus schedule sound good. But from the artist’s point of view it’s about whether they need to record your song.
If you’re writing for yourself in a band or solo artist context and don’t think this information applies to you, don’t stop reading just yet. The history of pop music is filled with songs written by self-contained artists who had no idea their songs could be recorded by other artists. After all, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) probably never would have dreamed that Johnny Cash would cover “Hurt.” Cash covered it because he said it was “the best anti-drug song he ever heard.” Someone had the skills to recognize that those songs were right for those other artists. Wouldn’t it be better to develop these skills yourself rather than reward skillful publishers/managers with a substantial percentage of your income for it?
The skill is called “casting,” knowing which song is appropriate for which artist.
First, there’s a process of elimination. Forget about artists who write their own songs. Not that they wouldn’t ever record a song they didn’t write, but generally speaking, they’re not motivated financially to record “outside” songs (written by someone other than themselves or their producer). With substantial royalties for sales and airplay on a hit, they’d rather fill their CDs with their own songs, for better or worse. Sometimes worse. Record buyers are getting tired of buying an album with only two or three good songs on it. Though “good” is certainly in the ear of the beholder, things are changing now that single tracks can be bought online.
Who Not To Pitch To-Playing the Odds
If you’re playing the odds, you’ll leave self-contained artists until last. First, you’ll read the Billboard magazine charts to find those artists who record outside songs. How can you tell? You look at the “Hot 100” chart and your favorite genre singles chart: “Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs,” “Hot Country Songs” or “Hot Latin Songs.” (The other charts don’t list writers.) You look to the left under the name of the song, and the first name is the producer’s, the second (in parentheses) is the name(s) of the songwriter(s). If the same name is in both places, the producer is the writer. Then, if you see, in the column to the right, that the artist’s name is the same as the writer, you know the odds are bad. You may have a hard time telling who wrote the songs when the artist is a group (although if there are four or more writers listed, you can often assume the group did or they’re using samples of other songs). Check it out by going online to their record companies and look up the artists’ bios. If they wrote the songs they’ll want everybody to know it.
You’ll end up with a list of about 25 percent of the hits on the “Hot 100” on which the artist sings an outside song. About 2/3 of those will be Country. On the “Hot Country” chart about 60-70 percent are outside songs. Check the charts periodically. Record “countdown” radio or cable TV shows (MTV, VH1, BMT, CMT) of current hits so you can listen more than once and analyze them without having to stay tuned all day (Or just go to i-tunes or Amazon.com and buy a few.) Keep your Billboard handy for reference. If you’re an Internet user you can go to Web radio sites like Live365 and pick your genre. Last time I looked there were more than two hundred country Web radio stations playing country songs, and those are divided into subgenres.
Doing the Research
A critical step in casting is to get all the information possible about the artist to save yourself the embarrassment of pitching something totally wrong. Your best move is to buy the CDs of any artist in your style who records outside songs. Listen to each cut on the album with special emphasis on the successful singles and determine the following:
- Style. If it’s rock, is it influenced by pop, blues, funk, punk, metal, or world music? If country, is it on the rock, traditional, pop, or Texas swing side? You may find different influences in different songs on any given CD, but they’ll give you some boundaries of style.
- Are there any songs the artist did write? Pay particular attention to the style of these. Also try to determine the common factors of the outside songs. Chances are, the artist or producer had some input into those choices.
- Lyric message. The shaping of an artist’s image is based largely on their personal philosophies and attitudes about life and love, how they handle disappointments, etc. Those attitudes show up in their song lyrics regardless of who writes them. Read or listen to the lyric of each song and answer the following:
a. Is the lyric positive or negative, up or down? Do the down songs show some hope in the end? Are the songs in first, second, or third person? Are they about winners or losers?
b. Does the lyric have a payoff, a final “moral”? Is it based on a high concept such as Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” (written by Craig Nichols and Tim Wiseman) or is it just a straight ahead love song?
c. Is the artist young, naive, inexperienced, hopeful, or more mature, experienced, a little world-weary, sexy? A song I once heard pitched for a former Gospel artist looking for secular songs was a sex-oriented song that would have worked great for almost anyone but an artist, who didn’t want to lose his Gospel following altogether. You’d know this if you’d read some interviews with the artist. I heard a song that was pitched for an established country star but it was about how he had to return to his little town in defeat because he had not attained his dream of stardom. Remember that a successful artist is singing your song and needs to believe the lyric, and that it has to reflect the artist’s self-image and personal story. Songs that say, “I’m a terrible human being” don’t work unless maybe you’re apologizing to someone you’ve done wrong. Remember the prime audience for country is 25- to 40-year-old women (and they love to hear a man apologize).
- Lyrics as vocal platforms. In addition to vocal range, you need to consider whether your lyric allows the artist room to sing. When I see a lyric sheet literally covered with lyric, and hear the words sung so tightly that there’s no space for the singer to style the song in his own unique way, I know it’s going in the reject pile. Great singers love to hold notes (particularly vowels at the ends of lines) and play with them, embellishing the melody. It may be a wonderful story and brilliant lyric but so much a product of your own unique style that it won’t work in their style. A group like Third Eye Blind, for instance, writes unique songs that other artists would have difficulty covering without sounding like them.
- Who is the artist’s audience? Pre-teens and early teens are fans of bright, young pop artists who quickly outgrow the style at the same quick rate as their audience. Listeners in their mid-to-late teens generally become more genre-specific (rock, pop, alternative, rap, hip-hop, or country) and tend to fragment along those styles. You’ll need to gear your song and demo to that style or recognize whether or not you write in that style or for that audience.
- Vocal range. Listen to the song with the highest and lowest notes and you’ve got the range. Does the artist have a wide vocal range like Celine Dion or Kelly Clarkson, or Josh Groban? Odds are they’ll choose a song that will show it off. If the artist has a limited range, a two-octave stretch won’t work. Also, look for a place in the artist’s range that she favors because there may be a unique quality or timbre there. It’s been referred to as a “sweet spot.” Make sure the song allows them to use that spot.
- Structure. Do the artist’s successful songs use a repeated chorus, pre-chorus sections, or classic AABA (verse-verse-bridge-verse a la “Yesterday”)? AABA structures are rarely recorded, except by self-contained artists. It’s easier for a listener to learn a song with a repeating chorus, so verse/chorus songs are seen as being more commercial.
Along with analyzing the song, collect articles about and interviews with the artist from fanzines, trade magazines, and the artist’s personal and fan Web sites. You can find some great clues to the artist’s image and values. Don’t send a recovering alcoholic or drug addict your song about the bottle being your best friend. But the song about getting your life together might work. It may help to know that the artist is a parent, donates money to organizations that help kids, just got divorced, is a womanizer, feels women deserve more respect, feels women should stay at home, is a born-again Christian, etc.
Another level of casting expertise involves projecting, based on past success and artist image, where you feel the artist could go. This is a common strategy of writer/producer/arrangers and publishers who can conjure a vision of the artist’s next step and, in the process, become the artist’s producer, at least on the producer’s own songs. This requires a thorough knowledge of the artist and, in the best case, the ability to produce tracks that would provide the artist with a fresh sound. There is a point in a very successful career where an artist looks for a stretch away from the too familiar and into adventureland. You can either anticipate that move or help to create it.
Regardless of all the homework you do on an artist, you can still strike out, though the odds will be considerably better if you’ve done the research. A major benefit is that you now have a great frame of reference when you talk to the manager, record company A&R representative for the artist, or the new producer who may be taking the artist in a different direction. In my experience, those people speak to and listen to demos from so many writers who are clueless about their artists that they welcome a conversation with someone who knows what makes their artist special. It also gives you a level of confidence in that call or meeting that communicates that you should be taken seriously.
The situation for lyricists in the marketplace has its positives and negatives. On the plus side, it’s necessary for you to collaborate to have a suitable melody for your words. I know that doesn’t really sound like a plus, but if you’re a prolific lyricist, finding several collaborators represents an opportunity to produce a great number of finished songs. Those who insist on writing both lyrics and music, in my experience, are rarely so prolific. As a lyricist, you can develop your lyric skills in a variety of styles without needing to restrict yourself for marketing purposes as do many writer/performers.
On the minus side, it’s very difficult for you to get a staff-writing deal. You really have to be an extraordinary lyricist with some commercial success under your belt to get an exclusive staff-writing situation. And it’s virtually impossible to make a single-song deal on a lyric with no melody. There are audiovisual firms that commission lyricists to write material for them. Check with local firms to see what their needs are, and find additional contacts listed in Songwriter’s Market.
So, outside of that, what can a lyricist do? Find collaborators. Along with the methods listed in “Collaboration,” (see Chapter 7 in The Craft and Business of Songwriting), pay particular attention to political strategy. Find co-writers who are further ahead in their careers than you and still moving forward (This is called “Writing Up.”). Among collaborators to consider are new bands that are getting some industry attention or at least drawing great audiences locally. Good lead singers and keyboard players are usually worth considering because they’re more likely to write exciting melodies that may need equally exciting lyrics. Find other writers who are starting to get their songs recorded or those who are already on staff at a publishing company. Find writers in strong positions to make contacts with artists, such as studio musicians and recording engineers. With all the above you have the advantage of writing with people who could get good demos made at a reasonable cost, a big plus for you.
If those situations are just not available to you, look for skilled musicians in bands, college music departments, churches, theaters, and so on. If you speak another language fluently, gather samples of your song translations from, and into, the language. Contact publishers both here and in the countries where the language is spoken. They can be found in directories like Songwriter’s Market and Billboard’s International Buyers Guide. The Spanish-speaking market, for example, is enormous.
Make contact with as many potential co-writers as possible, enter lyric writing contests, put notices in music stores, schools, and magazines. Let everyone know what you’re looking for and you’ll find that your opportunities will grow quickly.
Caution: Do not send your lyrics to companies who advertise in magazines for “song poems” and ask you to pay a fee to have them write melodies to your lyrics. No legitimate music industry company will ask you to pay for collaboration or publishing. (See “Avoiding the Songsharks,” in “The Craft and Business of Songwriting.”)