Monday, August 13, 2001

Too Many Notes To Choose From?

I returned to New York from Miami after attending the 2001 Winter Music Conference with the interesting observation that DJ's were not only trading in their turntables for laptops and recording software, but many were also abandoning the tag 'DJ' in favor of the more expansive title of 'Producer'. It didn't take a genius to realize that this trend would eventually result an increase in the number of creative audio options available to advertising agencies. And in fact, where there had once been a few music houses, soon there many boutiques, and the choices so plentiful that an ad shop never had to use the same audio house twice.

A lot of studio guys who had been in the business for years were still paying off their Neves and Studers would find themselves sweating bullets. But, since my partner and I were basically kids with laptops ourselves, I argued that if we could squeeze into the industry, then there was still room for more competition.

Now, whether or not this is actually true maybe for up for debate, but one thing is certain: The New Economy favors small, fast and lean –and over leveraged, top heavy post production companies were going to find themselves forcibly downscaled or simply overtaken by the unforgiving forces of market evolution.

The title of this article, 'Too Many Notes To Choose From?', is inspired by Emperor Joseph II's famous comment to Mozart that there were ‘too many notes’ in his music. Mozart replied there were neither too many nor to few notes than the composition required of it.

–Terry O'Gara

Too Many Notes To Choose From?
By Terry O'Gara
First published in Shoot, April 13, 2001

There has been a discussion in the music production community as to whether the number of people entering an already crowded field is reaching a saturation point. Ultimately it's a matter of perspective, but I think the repercussions are generally positive for all involved.

The reality is that many talented people out there now bypass the rigors of training at a large shop, and directly approach an agency. The reason being that you no longer need a multi-million-dollar studio to create first-rate music. A modest investment and your hobby can become a viable way to get immediately into the game. Or so it may seem. If you can manage to pound the pavement and find a way to stand out from the rest, then who's to prevent you from competing?

A decade ago this wasn't necessarily the case. But as the competition multiplies, music houses are definitely going to be niched. They are already. The variety of projects available to an established composer is significantly--and ironically, one might say--reduced. Regardless of what you're able to do, if it's not on the reel already, you won't get the job. Because clients now have such a wide range of talent to choose from, they're more likely to place their bets on someone who has already done exactly what a client wants to do for a current project.

This makes sense from the client's viewpoint--much to the detriment of many composers who need the work to expand their craft and abilities. But if stuck with a smaller budget, clients and composers have to take fewer risks and get it right the first time. Also, because licensing a ready-made track is much easier than creating an original piece of music, a client on a smaller budget will go for the former if it has already been created--by a recording artist or through a stock library, for instance. Whether or not a ready made track can address the branding issues of the advertiser or the campaign doesn't seen to make much of a difference as long as the experience of the spot is riveting. I'm not personally convinced that this is true, but it seems to be the tendency. And branded or not, a licensed piece of music has a good chance of hooking an audience that is already predisposed to listening to it in the first place. Since licensing does appear to be a growing trend, add it to the increasingly competitive climate of the industry.

One new difference does make someone on our side of the business optimistic: The avenues from which a music production house can generate revenue have also multiplied. Advertising dollars now only account for a part of the income pie. I started my career in 1991. Back then we only did commercials. Many houses still only do commercials, as they remain a lucrative business. But today a talented production team can make a living in a host of other media, as well--like electronic games, Web sites, in-store kiosks, special venues, sync to-broadcast and enhanced television projects.

New talents in shops like mine no longer have to sit in their studios waiting for an agency and/or client to believe music-makers can score that campaign right to the Clios. We can dive in and have fun with all sorts of new technologies and the new media they provide. Granted, none of these media generate the dollars that a steady diet of TV commercials does, but this variety keeps you on your toes and does provide composers and producers an opportunity to work differently. It keeps life from getting dull, and you're not allowed to repeat the same formula twice.