Long loops and samples. Write your own damn production music.

A soul loop library from Sony. As Sony says, the loops rely heavily on the compositional talent of John Hobart at Scorpio Music Productions in Los Angeles, an actual composer. But please, feel free to use this almost 1GB loop library to make something unoriginal.
A soul loop library from Sony. As Sony says, the loops rely heavily on the compositional talent of John Hobart at Scorpio Music Productions in Los Angeles, an actual composer. But please, feel free to use this almost 1GB loop library to make something unoriginal.

A disturbing trend has been taking place in the production music business. Composers are getting lazier… and lazier… and lazier… So lazy, I don’t know if you can even call them composers anymore.

Sound design and sample libraries have been churning out so many loops and “construction kits” and the length of these samples keeps getting longer and longer. Some of these samples are minutes long. Minutes. And, as good as these kits sound, they’re sucking the creativity out of composition and music production.

How?

Composers (heck, let’s call them Mashers from now on, because they didn’t compose a note) are taking these long loops, adding another loop, and calling it a song, giving it some emo name, and then posting all over the internet as production music. You see thousands upon thousands of DJ’s and electronic music “mashers” calling themselves artists, with their adoring fans marveling at their creations like gold. At the same time, they couldn’t do it again if they tried. Need a live group to play it? Impossible, because they don’t have the faintest idea of the orchestration or sounds actually used in their construction kit.

It would be like giving me a fully constructed toilet to flush, and then calling me a master plumber because I flushed the hell out of that toilet, when in fact, I know nothing about the inner workings of that toilet. If I tried to build a toilet, you’d probably have to pee elsewhere.

So is this type of mashposition creative? It’s about as creative as throwing paint at a wall and calling it art.

Real production music composers have mastery of their sonic arsenal, and the musical craft. They know how to combine sounds and textures in ways that aren’t prepackaged. They take a flute sound and some string sounds and create concertos. They use loops and samples as textures or beds for departure into other sonic territory. They invent new melodies and build new harmonic progressions. Mashers, in contrast, use existing melodies and existing harmonies and put them one right after the other. There’s no skill in that. It’s more of a paint by numbers skill, really, which is why most of these “composers” turn out to be useless when you need something in another style, or heaven forbid, custom composed.

Call a mashup “creator” what you will. Their songs might be fun to dance to, but they’re not new, and they’re not original.

End of rant.

Anyone Can Cook, But Can Anyone Sell Production Music?

production music - ratatouille

It seems that every company is trying to get on the production music train these days and sell their libraries to the public. What baffles me is this: how does a major, worldwide, multimedia/electronics mega company like Sony release a production music library of fewer tracks than most indie composers have laying around as scraps? Am I supposed to be impressed by this? And if they offer 4 versions of every track, that means they really have 400 compositions total. I don’t get it. What is the point of jumping into the production music business with nothing to offer? It reminds me of the movie Ratatouille, where Chef Gusteau claims, “Anyone can cook!”

Libraries today carry hundreds of thousands of tracks because video producers don’t want the same old production music track that they used last week, or that their competition used two days earlier. These days, with the low cost of digital technology leveling the playing field for musicians of all kinds, making music production so much easier and affordable, anyone can be a production music composer. Anyone can sell their production music!

So, Sony Creative was able to throw together 400 tracks. But should they really even bother? It’s like saying, we’re here…sort of. Not that I’m challenging Sony to get it together, the production music library scene is too crowded as it is. But maybe if you’re going to jump on the library music bandwagon, at least add some value.

Production Music Affects Your Brand Perception

One of the most important aspects of music supervision (for commercial projects in particular) is making sure that the production music selected appropriately reflects, and in some cases, defines your brand as intended. Failure to properly consider the affects of your production’s soundtrack can have unexpected, and sometimes adverse, results, in turn affecting ROI and public perception.

Let’s take a look at some famous brands on the market, and their selection of production music — and the effect the companies’ music selections had on their brand perception.

1) United Airlines. United Airlines ran a lengthy, multiyear (-decade?) campaign on television and radio with their ads featuring Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue. This classical piano work is known for its complexity and technique, and its refined and sophisticated sound (especially when compared to the rest of George and Ira’s huge catalog of show tunes). The resulting commercial production gave the United brand a sense of sophistication and class, refinement, and luxury.

2) Apple. Apple continues to pair their sleek, simple, everyday-meets-crazy-sci-fi-like-technology video imagery with catchy, simple pop tunes by previously unknown bands. Their commercials are known for catchy melodies that make you think, I KNOW that song! Or… wait… The genre of Apple’s production music selections is definitely pop — and makes Apple’s brand seem fresh, new, and relevant — while the style is simplistic, catchy, and familiar — making Apple seem approachable and friendly. Makes me want to buy a new MacBook.

3) McDonald’s. Lately, McDonald’s has worked to appeal the working class, and a younger generation of Big Mac eaters. To do this, they’ve turned to hip-hop based tracks, their ever popular “badabopbopbah I’m Lovin’ It” slogan, and other street-savvy tunes to appear hip and fresh. They’ve turned chicken nuggets into fast food with a beat — young and popular.

What can you do with production music to help define and develop your brand? When considering how you want your brand to be perceived by the public, consider these commercial characteristics of different musical genres to aid you in your music selection process:

Classical Music — sophistication, elegance, refinement, class
Pop — familiar and fresh, 2.0
Electronica — cutting edge, technological, business savvy
Swing, Blues — dated, senior-friendly, familiar, sophisticated yet comfortable
Other Jazz — sophisticated, but cool, sexy
Rock and Metal — teenager-friendly, mid-life crisis
Opera — refined, but somewhat cliche
Country — down-home, family, relaxation
World — travel
Childrens Music — children and family
Hip-hop, Rap — street cred, city, middle-class, tough
R&B, Soul, Funk — sexy
Gospel and Religious — religious

What is a Production Music Cue Sheet?

A cue sheet is simply a document that lists out all of the production music that gets used in a film or television program.

So why is this sheet important? Every piece of production music is written by a composer. Under copyright law, these composers are entitled to compensation for the public broadcast of their work, called public performance royalties. These royalties are collected and distributed by the public performance organizations — You may have heard of these: ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, to name a few, and a lot of composers and songwriters are members of these organizations.

A lot of confusion arises out of the royalty payment part, and not enough is being done by the performance rights societies, film schools, and the professional community to make film producers aware of how these work.

First, filing a cue sheet is free. There are no fees to send ASCAP or BMI, and it’s as easy as sending an email.

Second, filing a cue sheet does not make you, a creator of a film, liable for any royalty payments or song usage tracking. All that is handled by ASCAP and BMI. THEY track usage, and THEY make the royalty payments to the composers whenever their music gets played on air.

Where does all the money come from to pay the composers royalties? The money comes, not from film makers and TV program producers, but from license agreements between the performance rights societies and the network or venue. Every TV network, movie theater, concert hall, church, restaurant (if they’re running their business on the up and up) has a license agreement with performance rights societies that allows them to, well, publicly perform any of the music in the ASCAP or BMI catalog. They pay a yearly or quarterly fee, and from those fees, the organizations pay the composers a few cents each time their music is played.

But in order to know who to pay, organizations like ASCAP and BMI need to know when and where the music was actually used. Cue sheets are one such tool that helps them track the usage across different networks, locations, and venues. So if you use production music, do your neighborhood composer a solid, and file a cue sheet. You help put some food on the table and compensate artists for their hard work and expertise, and you’ll be doing the right thing.

Will Free Production Music Benefit Composers?

Got an email today highlighting the launch of yet another free production music service that allows professional productions, namely big name TV studios and production companies, to license production music for free in exchange for filing cue sheets. Seems to be just another way for producers and studios to tell musicians “the check is in the mail.” Sure, I’ll file a cue sheet, tell me where to sign!

The lure of making thousands and thousands on residual checks must be huge for composers and musicians, but the reality is that they might see a few pennies if they’re lucky. A very small handful of composers make most of the money (like in any industry) from residuals. Giving away their music for free (or in this case, in exchange for an empty promise) isn’t going to help them any, ether. Facts are that few production companies these days even know what a cue sheet is, let alone know how to file one. So are these sites just empty promises for a few website owners to make a couple of publishing dollars from your music through a PR gimmick? Honestly, I’m yet to benefit monetarily from anything I ever gave away.

The bigger issue, in my opinion is how this applies to the on-going free vs paid content debate. The web 2.0 world wants you to think that free stuff equals big business. The model is make money from your content through advertising and other non-related deals by generating buzz and traffic around the stuff you give away for free. Give your production music away, they say, and in return get more exposure and land a big contract. Give your band’s music away, and get more fans so that someone important will notice. Meanwhile you starve and struggle, and the payoff at the end, if any, is minimal for most. Better luck playing the lottery.

What if musicians just actually licensed their music, for a fee. An easy, one time fee. Want to use my production music track in a tv show? Pay me up front and then go do what you do. There’s a novel idea. A musician getting compensated fairly for the product they produce, at the time it’s brought to market. A musician feeding his or her family because of their work, and not scraping together pennies from complicated contracts and residual royalty agreements set up to benefit a few guys in suits.

Residual contracts, publishing contracts, royalties, and free content are for lawyers, not musicians. Stop living off of scraps, convincing yourself that you’re eating filet mignon, and make a fair honest living from the product you create.