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
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
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
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
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 timethe length of cuts, and the
variations of cuts?
Most everybody wants :60 spots or :30 spotswhich means really :59.5
or :29.5that'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
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 isif 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
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
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.
isand it's really important for all TAXI writers to realizethat
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
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.
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
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
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