Interviewed by Michael Laskow

We recently had TAXI's first Member Advisory Board meeting in Los Angeles. Ron Burns is a TAXI member who is on the Board, and flew in for the meeting. It was the first time I had a chance to meet Ron in person.

Ron makes what I'll term as an "enviable" living doing music for TV and Film. The best part is that he's been able to do this from his home which he describes as "rural," but near Philadelphia. I thought his story would be interesting to many of you, so here it is.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in the Bronx, but I grew up in Media, Pennsylvania.

How old were you when you first knew that you wanted to be in the music business?

I think I knew before I was born. But seriously, I was probably ten or eleven years old. I wasn't thinking about the music business. I just knew I wanted to play music. The business part didn't come until much later.

So you wanted to be a rock star?

I was just really obsessed with the guitar. I was playing guitar ten hours a day.

Is it still your instrument of choice?

No, the Macintosh is probably my instrument of choice now. But I do love the guitar and guitar music a lot.

Do you still play a lot?

Yeah, I try to add some guitar to every thing I do to warm it up a little bit.

How much equipment did you have when you first started doing music for film and TV?

When I got out of college, I charged up some credit cards extremely high for the time. I spent around $20,000. I took a total risk.

Did you already play keyboards as well?

Not really, no. I was kind of just banging on stuff and twisting knobs. I had to learn keyboards in college, so that's when I really got the chops.

What was your first commercial gig that put food on your table?

Doing jingles. A buddy of mine introduced me to Philadelphia Music Works, and I just started doing jingles for them.

It was that easy?!

I started out there doing a few jobs here and there musically, but mostly doing sales on the phone. Then I segued into doing more and more of the production. I had to get my foot in the door as a guy doing a lot of things at once. It was valuable to them that I could do a lot of things at the company. Slowly, I started doing more production. Then I phased out of the production of jingles and moved more into instrumental stuff from there.

Can you explain exactly what a production music library is? How it's used, and where it's used?

A production music library is a stock library of various styles that can be used in television, radio, multimedia presentations. A station maybe is editing together a soap opera-digitally editing video together-and they want some soft romantic music. They might go to a music library and out of a hundred disks, four of them might be slow and romantic. Or for someone who is doing sports highlights, there might be ten sports disks in a hundred-CD library. The good news about that is you can write specifically for a particular style or genre without having a director looking over your shoulder telling you what to do. In a certain sense, you can set the agenda.

Any rules to follow?

You always have to make it so someone can talk over it, if it's that kind of a thing. You always want to do a mix with a melody and one without a melody. If you're going to submit a library track, a good thing would be to prepare an underscore version in which you take out a lot of the melodic instruments. A lot of times, if it's going to be used for a news theme or something like that, they might edit the two versions together. They'll take the full version until their opening visual is done, and then they'll edit in the underscore version so that the voice-over guy can introduce the news or whatever. That works in a lot of contexts. So, if you've got the mix up on your board, and you're going to be submitting it for a TAXI instrumental listing, you might as well rattle off an underscore version. Maybe just send in the full version, and then if they buy it, you've got the underscore version already archived to DAT. That way you don't have to go back and remix it.

What are some of the rules about time—the length of cuts, and the variations of cuts?

Most everybody wants :60 spots or :30 spots—which means really :59.5 or :29.5—that's where your reverb trails have to end out. TV commercials are tightly, and you don't want any of the reverb trail being cut off. Some of the general structure rules about writing are, if you're going to be writing more for a TV high-energy thing, always do a nice high-energy opening with a flourish, and then kind of settle into some type of a groove or a paced thing. But if you're doing something solo and more textural, that rule really wouldn't apply. It's always nice to give a little thematic thing up front and maybe come back with that so that there is sort of a beginning and an end. You should always think visually. Like, would a graphic look good here? Imagine scoring something even though it doesn't exist. A video editor has to use it in one way or another.

Are you essentially writing what is the chorus, or the hook, and using that from start to finish to varying degrees?

I don't really think of it in terms of hooks at all in writing library music. I think completely visually and texturally. That's the fun part of it. It's more about sound. You still crave memorable moments. The thing about music is you've got to have memorable moments, no matter what kind of music it is—if it's instrumental, or if it's pop music.

Where do you begin? What's the creative process like?

The good news is you don't have to subscribe to a formula way of writing. You can start with just a rhythm, or just a melodic bit, and build out. In a lot of ways, it's a more free way to write than writing a pop song. You're much freer to experiment, and that translates into how a piece will start.

I would recommend that people always try and start writing in a different way. Don't sit down and write the same way every day. Start maybe writing a bass line. Write the whole piece with the bass line all the way through, and then fill out the parts from there. Or try and write something completely away from the computer or the guitar or the piano. Try and hear a whole piece in your head and maybe write a few notes down on a piece of paper. Then the next day, maybe come in and just do a drum track. Or write something all high-end oriented. Write a string line and then fill in the bottom underneath that. Challenge yourself to do something different, because if you find different ways to write, you'll sound different from cut to cut. It changes the way you work. The outcome depends very much on the way you work.

What's a good place to start marketing yourself from?

One really good experience to learn how to write library music is to score industrial and corporate videos in your area. You find out what doesn't work in a hurry. The biggest mistake that people make in writing for television is that they don't do what is appropriate. The only way to learn what is appropriate is to have experience. The mistake is the greatest teacher. That's the most important thing I can say in this interview. Really smart people learn from their mistakes. Really brilliant people learn from other people's mistakes.

There probably are a lot of local opportunities that people aren't looking at. Every major corporation in every major city does all kinds of industrial video. I bet you given any major metropolitan area, there are probably ten or twelve corporations with in-house video departments that use library music. I would recommend going to them and saying, "Hey, I'm trying to learn how to write. Can you give me a video tape and let me score one of your things on spec? If you like it, pay me something. If not, I've had a good learning experience." I think you have to stretch and look for opportunities where they don't exist. You have to create the opportunities.

Can you do this from a home studio?

You can definitely do this out of a home studio. It can be a moderate home studio. Your final mix should be delivered on DAT. It should be as close to master quality as you can get it.

Is doing what you do for a living something that is attainable by most musicians?

I don't know if everybody would want to do this. It takes a certain mentality to want to do this. It's a lot of work. It's like a 9-to-5. It's not your average musician's lifestyle. You have to have discipline and a lot of attention to detail. You have to be prepared to maybe lose a little bit of your initial musical vision in order to make compromises and do that album of sappy soap opera music that you hate.

Isn't it worth it in the end because of the financial reward?

It would be worth it for some people and not worth it for others. For me it's been worth it. The grass is always greener, of course, no matter what you do. We have to be honest about that. You're not going to become a millionaire doing this, but you can make a nice living.

My feeling is—and it's really important for all TAXI writers to realize—that it's an extreme growth industry right now. More cable channels are being added every day. The Internet and CD-ROM development are both growing. I think there is going to be a major demand for music on all different kinds of levels that the libraries aren't going to be able to keep up with.

Can you put a price tag on the average dollar amount that a piece of library music might generate in a year for its writer?

It's really hard to say because there are so many different markets. You do have two different types of primary libraries. One is called a "buy-out." This is how the end customer buys the music, not how the writer is paid. Most are buy-out music libraries, where a television station might buy a library of 50 CDs at a buy-out one-time licensing price. Another would be called a "needle drop," where they have to pay every time they use a selection. In general over the years, the needle drop libraries have been considered to be of higher quality. That's why they have been able to charge more. Recently though, I think there has been more of a parity between the two which has forced the needle drop libraries to lower their prices. In some cases, I think some of the buy-outs are going to have to raise their prices because they are at such a thin margin right now.

It certainly wouldn't hurt to submit music to some of TAXI's instrumental listings, because some of them go directly to film or television and they would pay more than your average music library track on a per cut basis.

Have you made any deals through TAXI?

Yes. I've already signed deals on 14 pieces through TAXI, some of which have already aired.

Can the library business lead to custom scoring gigs? Is it a fantasy for a person who lives in Peoria to think they can fly to Hollywood and get appointments with guys at major film studios?

I think scoring stuff in Hollywood is hard to do if you're not in Hollywood. But I think Hollywood is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the film industry. The independent film companies are everywhere. You might want to look into one in your area and see who the filmmakers are. Every town has their budding filmmakers. Hook up with them. The key to commercial success as a film scorer is to score a film that becomes known. The film industry is very much like the music industry. There are a ton of misses. You might luck out and find a guy who is going to be the next big independent film producer living in your town. Get involved with him. Believe me, the independent film guys don't have any money, so they love to have people who are creative get involved with them. If you live in Peoria, Illinois, and you want to be in film scoring, and you're not inclined to move to Hollywood, maybe a better stepping stone would be to score local art films in your area.

There is no formula for success in this business. It's up to you to make your own road. You don't always have to be looking at the end point of where you're going. It's better to look right at your feet to see where you're digging. If you're looking up to see way far in the future, you're not going to build a very good road. You're going to trip and fall. You're going to go on and sell donuts or something. I think it's better to just live in the here and now and do what you need to do to take care of today's work. If you're doing good work, you're going to get noticed.

Do specific jobs force you into situations where you're on a tight deadline, and just by virtue of having the deadline, the adrenaline rush brings on another level within you that might not have otherwise surfaced?

A lot of times when I don't have enough time, or when I've got too much work to do, I do my best work. I don't know why that is. It's just because I have to get it done, and I get into another level of intensity. Deadlines are good. Deadlines keep you on your toes.

Where do you see the future heading?

I think that the jobs of the future that will make a lot of money for people are going to be information processing jobs. If you can look at music as information, then what the composer and library writer does is process information. The information we process is the different styles, and influences and cultural trends. We bring it in, process it, spit it back out in a musical form that the visual artists can then use to paint a picture.

I also think it's important to remember that right now, culturally, music is not that important. Music is not to this generation what the Beatles were to older generations. What's juicing up this generation is the visual revolution. We haven't begun to see the interaction between computers and music. It's just beginning.


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