Thursday, March 09, 2000

Music Producer as a Cool Hunter

The general public doesn’t often realize how much music is created as a reaction to something else.

Record companies will sometimes sign a band –not because they’re ground breaking revolutionary artists– but because they sound like the another ground breaking revolutionary artist on another label's roster; or because they sound like another demonstrably successful band on the label's own roster.

In Hollywood, film composers often receive their assignments in the form of rough edits of footage upon which the director has synched ‘temp’ music. That is, he or she has 'borrowed' existing music from another source, even another movie, and is using that music as both a placeholder and a creative brief to audio artisans who might be commissioned to produce final sound.

In effect, the movie director is asking the composer to use an existing score as the model for his own score. That's why every time you watch a chase scene, you're usually subjected to a version of French Horns over Tribal Timpani drums. Because everyone is essentially being asked to follow the same model.

Commercial ad music is also created in similar fashion, and advertising professionals commonly call temp tracks 'needle drops'.

My old employer, Elias Arts, compiled playlists of potential needle drops to present to clients as possible options to model a bespoke track upon, and called those playlists 'Concept Reels'. 

However, while I appreciated the facility with which a temp track, needle drop or concept could communicate direction, I was never completely comfortable with the implication that professional composers would actually model a so-called original work using an existing work as a framework. As a producer, such temp tracks have many utilitarian uses, but as an artist myself, I still held a rather romantic notion of the independent composer.

The reality was, however, I was never going to stop the film, advertising and media industry from the practice of modeling tracks, one after the other. However, I did subscribe to the belief that I could train my clients to employ temp tracks not as models to A/B final production against, but as a lens for genre. 

As I explained to my partner at Blister Media, an Audio Style Guide was less a model and more a 'creative brief' for composers and sound designers. It was, to be sure, and idea I borrowed from watching my parents and sister, all commercial artists at one time or another, when they worked with swatches and ‘Style Guides’ as a means to establish direction.

By my measure, an audio Style Guide would indicate musical or sonic direction by providing existing musical references for inspiration. But none of the ideas are meant to be used a model, and the less one listens to the Style Guide, the better. Ideally, the client will only here the track prior to production, and thereafter A/B against his or her initial impressions of the track. The reason being is that repeated listens of any track will often create familiarity in a given work's creators, such that they become attached to the track. Therefore: listen, analyze and draw conclusions that lend themselves to proceeding forward with a creative brief. Then put the style guide away.

How did work? It worked great:

Audio Style Guides clarify verbal instruction, provide convention, genre, trend analysis and may act as a tempo map. But they are never meant to represent a blue print for composition or design.

Style Guides might also include non audio sound sources, such as trend analysis and image swatches.

My theory is that –at least with commercial clients– advertisers don’t so much want to plagiarize another piece of music (although they do sometimes), but rather they are commissioning the composition an original work that captures the popular zeitgeist of a current trend, or the hallmarks of a broad genre.

Thus, it is important for commercial music producers to keep abreast of not just music styles, but of all the aspects and manifestations of a trend.

Of course, learn the methods of composition, performance and production by which a style is created. But also explore the reasons –beyond audio cues– as to why fans are attracted to any given artist, work, or genre. That means being a bit of a cultural anthropologist as well as a musician.

Why would a style guide designed to serve as a creative brief for an audio professional include non sonic sources? Certainly a piece of music can indicate direction to a composer, but equally: visual elements can serve to inspire both composer and client, by adding culturally significant anthropological evidence pertaining to a given demographic.

To borrow a phrase, be a cool hunter.

A cool hunter is analytical in the observation of trends/fashions as they sweep through the culture. It takes neutral eyes and ears to accurately identify and analyze any given trend, much less several; and then capably communicate the applicable variables to others assigned the task of creation, so that they might inform their work with the fruits of your research.

No doubt about it, derivative creations are standard operating procedure in the media production process. But better to have a comprehensive understanding of the intended audience, than to simply rely solely on whatever first stimulates one's ears via a ‘temp track’, 'concept' or 'needle drop'.

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