Thursday, March 26, 2009

Music Supervising in Today's World

Are you currently sitting on a back catalog of compositions that you've recorded over the years? Are they doing anything but sitting on a hard drive? Your music deserves to have a life of its own, even if you can't pull yourself away from ProTools for even a moment. So, why not put those songs to good use and start seeking avenues to license the material?

Last night I had an opportunity to attend a workshop at the New York chapter office of The Recording Academy titled "Music Supervising and Licensing in Today's World."

Linda Lorence Critelli (VP Writer Publisher Relations, SESAC, Inc.) moderated the panel. Panelists included: Jim Black (President, Clearsongs), Keith D'Arcy (Senior VP, C.O.R.E., EMI Music Publishing), Suzanne Hilleary (Founder/President, WacBiz), and Ed Gerrard (Impact Music Management).

I'm always eager to learn new things, or hear how other people work, so I love going to conferences and workshops. And even if you're already an expert in your field, then there are always plenty of new people to meet and schmooze, provided you're up to the task. Sometimes the most useful information you come away with maybe delivered by the person sitting right next to you, not necessarily the person on stage.


If you want to be a music supervisor rather than a composer/songwriter, you do need to know how to clear a piece of music. Sounds pretty basic right? But back in 1996, when I selected 3000 tracks for the NBC Olympics and cataloged them by Sport and Mood, all I had to do was search, identify, catalog and indicate edit points. I didn't personally need to execute the paperwork on all that stuff. Today, I certainly would, or someone on my team, or a business partner, would.

In other words your credentials need to be more substantial than a big music collection.

Yeah, it's true, we all gotta work for a living.


If you're on the creative side, and your aim is to get your music placed more than once, make sure it's easy to license and that there aren't any surprises attached to your work. Music Supervisors like it if you own and control your own master. And you've heard this before: Clear your samples! –Or don't use any sonic elements that aren't hand crafted and completely original to you.

Also, if you're using live musicians, make sure they sign work-for-hire agreements before they leave the session, not to mention that all and any co-composition /co-arrangement issues are well defined before you begin submitting material and calling it your own.

You may think that sneaking in an uncleared sample isn't going to hurt anyone. I've witnessed several composers use uncleared samples left and right, like sometimes for every sound on every track. In fact, I was standing next to two of them when each got served with a Cease and Desist letter for infringement. Nothing like a lawsuit to drag down the whole artsy vibe, man. So, just because someone else –even someone you respect– is willing to risk their career and reputation doesn't mean you should.

The truth is, it's not just about you and your reputation. Whatever your personal feelings about copyright laws, when you choose to skirt them, you put other people's livelihoods at stake, too.

Jim Black pointed out that one little uncleared sample can do irreparable harm to a music supervisor's career, not to mention cost a production hundreds of thousands of dollars on the back end, just because you weren't honest about your work.

Think they'll secure a license from you again after that? Think NOT.

But if you do have an uncleared sample in the master, don't let that stop you from submitting it. Just be honest about what it is, who it is, where it is, etc., –so that if your track is up for consideration, the music supervisor at least has an opportunity to clear the sample/s on your behalf, and on behalf of the project at hand.

Sample issues aside, you say your only real issue is one of creative insecurity? That you feel like none of your compositions are ready for prime time yet? Hey, if they're mixed, they're ready. When it comes to music placement there isn't any good or bad music, just the right track, and then all the rest (which are good for something else).


If you weren't at the NARAS workshop on Music Supervision last night, and you're trying to figure out what the first steps you should take to getting your music licensed, I invite you to check out the following articles from the Critical Noise archives. I'm pleased to report that everything I've previously written on the topic is still very much relevant. Given my personal experience, most of it applies specifically to broadcast promotions and the ad biz, rather than to movies, episodic television or games. But whatever your personal creative goals, I think you'll find, at least some of it, to be useful advice.

Breaking Into the Ad Music Biz (Originally posted November 16, 2007)

How To License Your Songs (Originally posted November 01, 2005)

Creating Value By Licensing (Originally posted October 01, 2005)

Too Many Notes To Choose From? (Originally published in Shoot Magazine, April 13, 2001)

Monday, March 02, 2009

Future Friendly For David Fincher

Have you ever lit up the world with music?

You Will.

In 1993, the music house I worked for was commissioned by ad agency, NW AYER, to create an original score for an AT&T campaign named 'YOU WILL'.

At the time I was a young assistant –hanging onto the ropes of commercial music production with one hand, answering phones and getting coffee for composers with the other.

The premise of the 'YOU WILL' campaign was that with the future right around the corner, AT&T was in a position to deliver all sorts of high tech goodies to their customers.

Try to visualize the pre millennial era: Few in the public sphere had yet heard of the Internet, much less owned a personal computer. Cell phones were the size of car batteries. The hot technology was the CD-Rom. So imagine how futuristic these commercials looked and sounded when they first aired and asked the then hypothetical questions:

"Have you ever paid a toll without slowing down? Bought concert tickets from a cash machine? Or tucked your baby in from a phone booth? 'YOU WILL'."

In one sense, 'YOU WILL' can be seen as (and possibly) modeled after GE’s own campaign 'WE BRING GOOD THINGS TO LIFE'. But cleverly, AT&T recast the message so as to position itself as the GE of the future.

But what a dark future the ad agency imagined for its client.

Let's look at one of the spots now, sans audio. Doing so will give you an idea of just the way our music composers first approached the project:


Director David Fincher was commissioned to shoot the commercials. His vision of the future, as it turned out, was pretty bleak, made only somewhat more pleasant by gadgetry. At first glance, most of the interiors looked like they couldn’t even power the lights in the room much less a computer, while exteriors seemed designed to resembled a climate change model in full effect.

Which is not to say the film didn’t look good, it was great, even beautiful. But the art direction did not immediately convince one that a brighter future –either figuratively or literally– was upon us. Essentially, Fincher delivered a study in Sci-Fi noire: equal parts 'ALPHAVILLE', 'BLADE RUNNER' and 'BRAZIL'.

Oddly enough, no one at the agency or anyone of our creative staff initially thought this Orwellian version of the 21st Century presented much of a marketing problem (for a company trying to position itself as a ubiquitous element to your future lifestyle).

In fact, the consensus between both agency and our compositional staff was that Fincher’s footage demanded a rich cinematic treatment that inspired admiration in the things AT&T could achieve for its customers.

Someone suggested that the music house use as a reference Ennio Morricone's 'WHILE THINKING ABOUT HER AGAIN’ from the soundtrack to 'CINEMA PARADISO'.

I don't recall who first made this suggestion. It may have been Fincher, Jim Haygood (the campaign's editor), someone at the ad agency or one of our own creative directors Jonathan Elias or Alexander Lasarenko. But upon its acceptance and approval, Lasarenko composed a stirring work that captured the emotional depth of Morricone’s original cue.

In fact, if you lay the 'CINEMA PARADISO' cue against any of the AT&T spots today, you can see that as a temp track, the music synchs relatively well to picture (it lacks sound design, but you get the idea). If I had to guess, I'd bet that Haygood might have used either Morricone’s music, or Lasarenko’s demo, to facilitate the process towards a final cut.

AT&T YOU WILL 'TOLL':30 (Alternate music direction):

Either way, Morricone's track certainly reinforces the cinematic quality inherent to the footage. It also adds emotive warmth, and in that regard it humanizes the picture.

By virtue of the orchestral arrangement, it also conveys a sense of understated power, which one would think agreeable sonic branding for the communications giant.

All of which is to say that this direction seemed exactly right for the project, and everyone at the ad agency seemed to agree at first.

Unfortunately, the account executives at AT&T found the Morricone direction, however romantic in its original context, weirdly dark for a project that purported to be a brand imaging campaign.

It wasn’t simply an issue of the music not working, but that the music worked too well, reinforcing Fincher’s dark vision, demanding awe and respect; rather than conveying a feeling of technological marvel and inspiring a sense of excitement and wonder.

And of course they were right.

Most of the time music is supposed to support picture, but the AT&T campaign provides us with a perfect example of a project that requires a score that contrasts picture.

The symphonic direction did well to announce a Brave New World, but our real job was to introduce a Friendly Future.

Lest there be any confusion, the future was not going to be dark, rainy or Orwellian, or feel anything like the inside of a rusting deep space oil rig.

It was going to be fun, engaging, the technology liberating and easy to use. –Less 'ALIEN 3', if not quite 'JETSONS'. No rayguns; no monsters; and the weather is going to be fine. In other words, Disney’s TOMORROWLAND: safe, warm, inviting; and above all human and accessible.

So why didn’t Fincher shoot happy-go-lucky spots in the first place? In all likelihood he was the hottest young director at the time, and sometimes that’s all it takes to get the job. Which is to say Fincher was hired to do Fincher (and he delivered), and any issues related to branding would be managed in post, which they were.

But another surprise awaited our composers: While our symphonic music demo was soundly rejected, the edit it was synched to was approved.

In many cases, when music providers get it wrong, agencies simply fire them and move on to someone new. But in the case of 'YOU WILL', NW Ayer gave us another chance.

However, now we were in a position of having to compose a new score that contrasted picture, and in such a way designed to represent the polar opposite of our first demo, but would nevertheless synch to the existing edit, therefore matching picture lock.

Elias wanted to provide yet another reference track for the creative team, in order to provide a concrete example of the client’s aspirations. So, this time out Lasarenko suggested an inspirational acoustic rock track, written in the odd meter of 7/4, whose cadence roughly followed a driving I V I vi V vi† chordal sequence, upon which a mystical lyric was delivered. Slammed against picture the music’s energetic beat and shimmering guitars all but lit up Fincher's otherwise dark world.

(†FYI: For readers who are not musicians, the roman numerals in the previous paragraph represent shorthand for various kinds of chords: Upper case = Major/ Lower case = Minor)

As a choice for a scratch track, it was far from typical film music. But it indicated a direction that could transform a Sci-Fi noire mini feature into a fanciful version of the future. And it achieved this result by forcibly re-framing picture with music (that specifically provided the necessary context).

Obviously this speaks to the power of music, whether in advertising, entertainment or something else altogether: That is, the power to make you believe you are seeing something you are not, because your ear is telling you that you absolutely are.

Today, people re-frame their own respective worlds simply by scoring their life with personal playlists streaming off their own iPods or other portable playback devices.

In the end, both Elias’ NY and LA composers created several versions of the driving acoustic rock direction. The agency selected the strongest demo, which was further developed by adding sound design and an affable voice over courtesy MAGNUM P.I. actor Tom Selleck. When at last approved, and the final spots delivered, AT&T released the following press announcement:

"… the 'YOU WILL' campaign takes a whimsical look into the near-future when information technologies now being developed at AT&T will soon enhance the way people work, live and play."


Of course, if the agency had approved the original symphonic orchestral direction, inspired by Morricone’s CINEMA PARADISO, the spots would never have been framed as anything near whimsy. Even now, the images themselves remain, dark and a bit Orwellian.

If this is the future, where the hell is the sun, you may ask?

Well, it's there, of course, beaming down upon the entire campaign, whimsy and all. It may never be a prominent element in any of the video. But nevertheless, it shines bright, illuminated by the power and magic of music.

* * *

Here's a video that includes all the spots in the campaign
(Added to this article 10/30/11)

* * *

Read what other people thought about 'YOU WILL':

1. From Boingboing, Cory Doctorow writes:

“I think these are the most emblematic advertisements of the era, defining the way that big companies totally missed the point of the Internet…”

2. The Work and Genius of David Fincher:
AT&T - "You Will" (1993)

* * *

FUTURE FRIENDLY FOR DAVID FINCHER is the third in an educational series examining the utilization of temp music in advertising, entertainment and media production. To read previous articles on this topic, click on either the following link or the TEMP MUSIC label/link that follows at the footer of this post: