Composition – the black sheep of sync?
Why commissioned music is no longer Licensing’s poor relation
Why is it, so many new clients we meet for the first time have such reservations about commissioning composed music, or a preconception that the art of crafting a piece for a specific project, is somehow a second rate option (or worse still not a viable option at all)?
How, when year on year budgets are tightening, did we arrive at a situation where clients continue to shell out four or five times what they need to, to sync an existing piece, when they could have something 100% tailor-made, for a fraction of the cost? Is it five times as good? The answer is, well, sometimes. But more often than not, no. Not necessarily.
In almost every other field of industry, custom-made is the purchasing pinnacle. The point of the lustre tree. Fine dining vs the ready-meal. An Ikea flatpack vs the bespoke Italian piece.
So what the f**k is going on with music?
In this post, we’ll take a look at the reasons behind these preconceptions – and challenge the underlying culture and history within the creative visual industries working with music, which has lead to such an unnecessary (over)-reliance on licensing. And more importantly, why now, that shouldn’t be the case…
The Bespoke Delusion: How did we get here?
Until the end of the 20th Century, music in advertising was largely the domain of jingle writers, churning out pretty inane ear-worms, that ploughed uninvited into viewer’s living rooms. They weren’t of course all bad (Henry Mancini springs to mind), but the vast majority were cheesy, one dimensional and sought no other purpose than to grab your attention, to make us all buy more stuff. It had little or no emotional context. Musical hard sell. And it grew tiring for consumers.
As the 80s and early 90s wore on, this way of going about things, went the same way as the Yuppie and the second-hand car salesman, earning itself a stigma for being out of touch and lacking credibility – a hangover, we still suffer to some degree today.
Then as we approached the turn of the millennium, following the catastrophic crash in record sales due to MP3 piracy, publishers and labels increasingly began looking sideways to sync placements as a way of recouping recording costs. Licensing became more affordable. At the same time, the advent of improved technology began to usher in an age where more people than ever before had access to be able to create semi-professional-sounding results without ever really having the ability or finesse for how music and film interact so intricately together. The growing ubiquity of sample packs (royalty-free beats and riffs), meant it was suddenly all too easy for so-called ‘composers’ to throw a few ready-made loops together and call themselves a songwriter or producer.
An already competitive marketplace became squeezed and oversaturated.
Factor in an explosion in the number of digital channels hungry for vast quantities of music, knocked out quickly on the cheap to fill the hours of endless new airtime and it was a toxic cocktail. Many working in the field got lazy. And like anything produced on a large scale, it was inevitable that quality was going to suffer at some of the weak links in the chain.
Tracks were sloppy. Everything sounded the same. Music just became sonic wallpaper.
Like the cowboy builder, a culture grew whereby so much commissioned composed music became (and still is) ‘cut corner’, lacked pride and more importantly substance – with those pedalling it seeing it as throwaway, just a means to make a fast buck. And it gave us all since, a bad name…
With supply now seemingly far outreaching the demand, composition budgets began to dwindle and conditions for the emergence of free demos took root, driving down quality further still.
It became more viable for producers trying to balance their bottom line, to allocate meagre low (or no) budgets for music composition, which slowly became the norm. Those prepared to undertake projects for these fees (or for free) were more often than not the least skilled to tackle the job, frequently inexperienced students or hobbyists. Results of which only in turn reinforced the stereotype of commissioned music as second rate. Compounding the issue further still was the often cursory level of engagement client-side with the work being presented. Clients hadn’t had to invest anything in it’s creation and as such, there was no vested interest in seeing it succeed.
Throw in super-tight turnarounds (the result of composition being at the end of the post process) doing nothing to help give any composer the best opportunity to really deliver, and it all became a vicious circle.
It would take another ten years before this trend would begin to subside, spearheaded by a new entente of individuals and creative-led startups like us, rallying against mediocrity and driven by the knowledge modern audience’s craved more meaningful, sophisticated content. Loyalty and authenticity were the new creative currencies. Slowly the media industries began to realise this couldn’t be achieved delivering luke-warm work the product of always trying to undercut price. But ingrained practices die hard.
We as part of a wider breed of musicians, film-makers and digital artists began to champion a sustainable collaborative way of working, that placed the emphasis squarely on the originality and quality of the work being produced, as opposed to how cheaply it could be delivered.
Those that wanted to scrabble over exploitative industry scraps, the product of thirty years of a race to the bottom, were welcome to. The rest of us were forging new paths moving forward into the digital 21st Century proper.
So here we are…
We feel passionately that too much bespoke composition work delivered to clients these days, still just isn’t up to the task. And how can we expect to oust deep-seated preconceptions if that continues to be the case? When we speak to new clients, too regularly they tell us the pitches they have back from other composers all too often feel generic, derivative and particularly within advertising, “addy” or like “ad music”.
Ultimately they just feel a bit, well….underwhelming. They just doesn’t stack up against commercial releases.
And we know why…
Usually it boils down to a few key ingredients being woefully absent. Most notably, tracks lack integrity – the authenticity – the ‘realness’ for want of a better term. These submissions masquerade on a pastiched, superficial level, relying on uninspired clichés (what we refer to as “music-by-numbers”), lacking the deep understanding and passion for the detailed nuances of a genre, both in terms of the musicality, performance and studio production, to really resonate with the listener.
It’s the musical equivalent of fast food. Quick, cheap and lacking in real substance.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Having something composed, when done right – this approach couldn’t be any further from the truth.
Shit’s moved on people. Snoop Dogg is releasing material solely for TV. Trent Reznor just did the music for a BBC4 documentary. Music composed for TV and advertising is big business. Its legit. And International recording artists and performers want a piece of the pie. And we see that as a good thing, as it drives standards up. It means everyone needs to up their game. Sweet. Bring it on. No more insipid soundalikes and half baked pastiches ta very much. Well certainly not from us anyway.
We have an unerring belief that Music for ads doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) sound like ‘ad music’.
And that’s because first and foremost, we’re actual musicians and producers ourselves, with years of real gigging, international touring and studio experience cutting our teeth. We’re not media composers. We’re composers that just happen to enjoy the intricate marriage of sound and the moving image as well.
We don’t like the term commissioned music. It’s just a bit cold and prosaic. We much prefer bespoke. Because that’s exactly what it is, for us. Custom-made, hand-crafted to exacting standards with every last fine detail, considered and executed exactly as intended to be the perfect accompaniment to a film.
But that’s just us. I guess not everyone writing music to picture sees it that way.
Nobody gets into music to sell ice creams, or be the soundtrack to the latest online viral (or at least they shouldn’t). You do it because something stirs you to pick up a guitar or start singing, on a borderline primal level. But there is no reason why just because you work to a brief, you can’t produce stunning innovative music. If you actually give a shit about what you do. If you take pride.
And there in lies the rub.
Too many companies see it as a job, in a service industry and not as a vocation. And you can hear it a mile off in their work.
We’re fiercely proud of what we do. Every note we play, we believe in. We work tirelessly so that all our output is absolutely one thing. Real. Not passé. Not cliché. Not jaded. Lovingly made with fresh ears, attention to detail and vigour. We build our own instruments if we need to and go into the field to record new samples, so the sounds in our work are always original, exciting and engaging.
We know how to and care about getting something to sound the way it should. Whether it’s an enormous grime sub bass or an authentic 40s big band arrangement, we understand the subtleties in both the composition and production to make the idea sing. I mean, it’s just got to sound like an actual fucking record, right? It’s not rocket science.
For preconceptions towards bespoke composition to change, we as composers and producers must prove our metal by delivering jaw-dropping work that exceeds even the most demanding of expectations each and every time the phone rings. That’s the yardstick we judge ourselves and let our clients judge us on.
Sure, there are absolutely times when licensing that big hit is absolutely the right call. It brings a different kind of kudos. With certain tracks, or certain artists, you effectively buy into a pre-made set of connotations, that only comes from a track being in the public consciousness for a period of time.
It’s all about the big name and what that name brings to the party. Like buying a Prada handbag, it’s less about what it looks like, more the label plastered across it. And it’s easy to sell “this is trending so it must be cool” up the line, regardless of it’s suitability to the film or the creative idea behind it. It takes the pressure off and homogenises the decision-making process, and avoids the trepidation amongst creative teams, that they might not actually be able to get a composed track to the place they eventually want the music to be. Either through lack of confidence in the musicians they’re working with or in their own ability to effectively traverse the minefield of communicating with them.
And that’s the problem – the process itself. Too many music production companies fail to really get under the skin of what the client is after in the first place. It doesn’t instil confidence. So clients tend to resort to type – defaulting back to trawling through Spotify or HypeEm for something that’s maybe only vaguely in the ballpark, confusing audience familiarity with kudos. Unfortunately, just because people recognise something, doesn’t automatically mean it works or resonates with them.
And we get it. Briefing and feeding back on the seemingly abstract nature of music can be tricky and seem impossible to adequately articulate what you want the music to do, leading to frustration. But we work exceptionally hard to make the process pain free, can-do and as straight forward as possible, speaking to you in your language, not jargon. Such is our commitment to getting off on the right foot, we even wrote a step-by-step blog post on How To Write The Perfect Music Brief to demystify the whole shebang – download it here).
We recognise that the briefing phase of any project is almost, if not more, important than the actual writing and recording. If we can gather a clear sense of what our clients are after, we are entirely confident in our ability to produce it.
Suits you sir…
To use an analogy, licensing, either existing label or library material is like buying a suit off the peg. You could buy it at either end of the pricing scale – from East Street Market or from Alexander McQueen, but it’s a pre-defined cut – one to fit all, often intended only as viable for the generic mass majority. It might by luck, just happen to fit an absolute treat, and congratulations if it does. But it takes nothing into account for your individual body shape or how best to contour it.
Bespoke composed music on the other hand, is like employing a Savile Row tailor, measuring and understanding every last detail to create something unique and entirely personal – from the cut of the ticket pocket, to the length of the trouser hem. Everything has been created exactly to what the wearer wants and needs.
The rewards for the investment of energy are far greater and ultimately more ‘ownable’. That track is entirely one of a kind, yours and yours alone. It won’t end up appearing on another film or commercial. In marketing terms, it’s a powerful brand asset.
A World of Pure Imagination…
Work with the right people, and with a bespoke composition you can do literally anything you can imagine. There are no boundaries. None. With existing tracks, you are constrained by what you have in front of you to work with. You have very little control over tempo, pace, transitions, instrumentation, lyrics etc. For example, the track might start out great, but then it falls flat as it doesn’t develop or build anywhere near enough. And as such the film feels underwhelming at the end.
With custom composed music, you can dial in exactly to taste all of these details. Need a musical sounding drop out for 36 frames? No problem. Track fighting with a VO? No worries, let’s sculpt our mix and arrangement to leave a hole in the centre for it. Need more of a payoff for the last five seconds? Done. More energy to help a poised edit skip along? Let’s add some rhythmic interest here and there. The overall result is wonderfully dynamic audio and a streamlined project.
But unlike buying on Savile Row, generally having something composed will likely be less expensive than licensing a track ‘off the shelf’ from a publisher or label. Yeah, seriously. So where’s the logic here?
Reddies at the Ready…
Licensing an existing song, even from an up and coming artist or band, can comfortably run into six figures. Having something written especially for you – exactly as you want it, will likely be a fraction of that cost, even when factoring in agreed industry rates (such as PCAM) and usages. Easily. So actually, nine times out of ten, it’s a less expensive option. Touch.
Similarly, without the red tape of publisher / artist approval and licensing fee negotiations etc to contend with, the project invariably progresses quicker as clients’ hands aren’t tied by the copyright holders. We’ve known several instances whereby a creative team has built their whole film around the sync of a track only to find they can’t clear it. And so the time, money and resources have been wasted. This doesn’t happen with bespoke. And surely anything that creatively makes the process more painless has to be a good thing, right?
We know clients turn to licensing as they are often are looking for a song, with a very specific theme to outline their narrative arc. But sometimes it’s just easier to build that message from scratch rather than try and find something that nails that almost impossible balance of combining lyrical content, with style, genre, pace, dynamic contour, cost to licence etc.
When we song-write to a brief, it’s absolutely fundamental that our finished track feels like the perfect find, not like it’s been specially composed. Too often companies over-score the ad, or go about writing a lyric that’s way too literal – it’s heavy handed and gives the track away from the outset. It pulls the audience out of the story. Ultimately, as always, it has to sound real, not forced.
So when we write lyrics, we often build them around a metaphor which provides depth and context to the visuals without being obvious. There are always ways of underpinning the creative behind an ad, without beating the viewer over the head with it.
Case Study 1 : Kerrygold “The Wetter the Weather, the Better the Butter”
Our brief on this TVC was to create a fully authentic, original early 60’s RnB song that carefully threaded an idea of rain into a positive lyrical theme. There were numerous sad examples of lyrics about rain (“raining in my heart”, “teardrops keep falling on my head” etc) but the challenge here was to construct a rain metaphor that was uplifting and feel good, whilst still being true to the language and melodic character of that era. Here’s what we did.
We drafted in the wonderful Acantha Lang on lead vocals, who brought her sultry New Orleans delivery to the lyrics and melody we had scored, accompanied by some lovely deep barbershop doo-wop BVs, produced via some crafty Varispeed pitch effects (recording the lines higher and at a quicker tempo, then slowing the tape back down to the original tempo). Adding a simple arrangement of guitar, bass, piano and strings all faithfully recorded and produced in the pain-staking detail of an early sixties style – loose, warm yet with a lovely valve grit – and of course in Mono, brought the idea to life and added the necessary character to this charming spot.
The Vintage Dilemma
Clients very often find themselves in a position whereby they love the timeless nature and gritty character of an old song and its recording, but simply cannot stretch to licensing the original. And they’re understandably hesitant in trying to have something produced that can deliver on the classic sound of records from bygone eras. That can do what that old record does.
Again too many music production companies stab around in the dark, with well-worn cliches that miss the mark, with the resulting track sounding unconvincing and like a watered down derivative, neither fresh and new enough to be exciting nor timeless enough to be nostalgic. Neither. Beige. Bollocks.
When we are asked to write something authentic to an era or genre, we are aware that it is not just the melody you write, the chord progression you accompany it with and the beat that kicks it along, but the specific instruments idiomatic to that style, and down to the last detail. Doing a late 60 psych-rock garage track? Well we’ll need a big 28inch Ludwig kick drum for that. Looking for early 90s rave sound? No worries, lets fire up the Juno. Looking for a 30s MGM type score? OK, that string section should be 24 pieces not 64 etc.
And then there’s the production – arguably being able to authentically produce in different styles is almost more important in sealing the deal. Knowing which reverb choices to make for example – plate or spring, what tape width to track through, and which microphones to record the vocal with. Mono or stereo? All these details when totalled together make all the difference between the music feeling 100% real, like the producers have unearthed a wonderful hidden gem and not like they’ve had something hashed together because they couldn’t afford to licence the original.
Clients can have the best of both worlds: the timeless sound of yesteryear, lovingly and painstakingly recorded and produced, coupled with a custom-fit to the specific length and narrative of the film. And at a fraction of the cost. Win-win.
For clients who still have concerns about engaging with composers or a new company for the first time, there is one approach that is undergoing something of a boom at the moment that can represent a great halfway-house between original composition and licensing. ‘Re-versioning’ or the cover version.
It can be a nice introduction to working with new musicians, as through the lyric, song’s cultural history and song form already being present, there is already something of a framework to build out from.
Of course, the best use of re-versioning, is one that takes the existing track and re-invents it entirely tailored to the needs of the film, as this balances audience familiarity, with a fresh forward-looking approach to the song guided by the mood the director is looking to forge.
Lo-Fang’s version of “You’re The One That I Want” from the Grease OST for Baz Luhrman’s award-winning Chanel No 5 ad alway sticks in the mind as a great example of re-versioning done well.
So what are we to conclude?
We all know that there’s a cornucopia of options out there when it comes to the music for your project, with plenty of upsides to using a well-known hit in your latest film (if you can afford to) or a piece of a library music. And we’re not advocating for one moment, that all projects should have commissioned music composed (that’d be no good for the ailing music industry either).
But we do feel a mindset shift is necessary so that composition gets a fairer crack of the whip.
Getting something made that’s just for you. Only for you. Just the way you want it. It’s a special sort of feeling in today’s disposable fast-paced culture. And we don’t do it enough. We accept lacklustre imitations or “that’ll do” or “there or there abouts” all too readily, because it’s quick and easy. It requires the minimum investment of time and intellectual heavy lifting, as the we’re sold convenience as substitute for substance.
We already know from speaking to forward-thinking directors and producers that there is a healthy appetite for this sort of highly skilled, artisan music. But often that appetite is accompanied by a hesitancy born out of habit or of underwhelming past experience.
We as modern writers have to reclaim the industry we work in and work harder than ever to disprove these preconceptions. We have to burn the bed those that went before us made us lie in.
Hopefully you haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater, when it comes to considering composition for your next project. Because the if you still see bespoke as the poor relation to licensing, then the truth is you simply haven’t worked with the right musicians yet…