Edited by Michael Laskow
I admit it! It's right before the Road Rally, and I'm too slammed with Rally prep to do an interview, get it transcribed, and then edit it. My solution? Do a 'Barbara Walters' on you, and give you excerpts from some of my favorite interviews.
I've chosen three gentlemen who are tops in their fields — Jim Long, who has owned and operated some of the most successful production music libraries in the world; Jonathan Wolff who has been one of the most successful composers of TV music (now happily retired at a very young age); and Steven Corn, who, in my opinion, is one of the most well-reasoned experts on the future of the music business and marketing music in these changing times.
I hope you enjoy reading these excerpts as much as I have while digging them out from the A&R Insider archives. — Michael
Jim Long, Interviewed in 1995
Would you give our readers a brief overview of what a production music library is, and how it functions?
Production music libraries have been around for a long, long time—since the '40s. For instance, the old Ozzie and Harriet T.V. show was scored 100% by music from the Capitol Cue Library. Then there have been radio production libraries, which were used as backgrounds for local commercials and promotional announcements on radio and television for years. These libraries are on CDs (and hard drives, circa 2007) at these stations so that when a local advertiser wants to have a certain sound for their commercial, the station is able to provide that to them.
A lot of producers working in episodic television, especially the daily soaps, use library music. Many of the music videos like the stuff turned out on the Playboy Channel use libraries. So I think that any time that there is a demand for music that can't be created in the right time-frame or for the right budget, the music library is available to step in there and do it. A lot of major motion pictures end up changing scenes at the last minute, or editing this or editing that, and all of a sudden they need some music.
So, I look at the production music library business as supplemental to the explosion of the video productions that are being done. That includes the corporate communications departments at big companies. Our client list included everybody from the U.S. Government, Ford, Chevrolet, to tiny ma and pa businesses.
Where do libraries get their material from?
They get their material from a bunch of different places. They will hire writers to write certain kinds of music to fit certain categories that they have. Most of the libraries are categorized in some way where they have the "dramatic" and the "action" music separated and the "atmosphere" or the background, very soft, smooth stuff will be in a different category.
So, if you are in charge of the on-going A&R for a production library, you might write a "brief," as they call it, looking for some hard-hitting action music that could be used on NFL films (which is all library music) and also could be used for the chase scene in a T.V. show. Or it might be used to promote a local radio station. So, those are doled out to writers who write to order.
Editor's Note: TAXI has become a leading resource for libraries to find existing tracks and musicians who can "write to order," over the last 15 years.
The other way to do it is to go to a producer, a well-known producer, a well-known record artist and ask them to do something in their style, and work out a production budget like a record company does and they bring it back in completely done for approval. Sometimes (and this doesn't happen too frequently) you will find some incredible music that was composed for a T.V. show, or for some industrial film, and you will negotiate rights for that and include it in the library. There are also a number of smaller record companies who have their music represented in music libraries.
Do libraries ever have a staff, or a "stable" of writers who they use on an ongoing basis?
Yes, key writers—backbone people who really know how to write and underscore—who know what a theme assignment is, and how it should be formatted, usually make up the bulk of yearly assignments.
Editor's Note: While all libraries seem to have their favorite "go-to" writers, things have changed to be much more inclusive over the last decade.
Is that all they do for a living?
In the U.S., I wouldn't say that there are too many guys walking around who are doing well just with libraries. Usually, they'll also take industrial jobs, or are working in support of a lead composer on episodic television or motion pictures. We've found some of our very, very best people that way—by finding out who is really writing stuff for some of the writers (who will go unnamed) who make you ask yourself "how could they possibly have written all of that stuff?"
But, in Great Britain, where music libraries are licensed to users at a much higher rate and much better policing of the performance royalties is done, I have been told by reliable sources that there are a number of writers making in excess of 500,000 to 1,000,000 pounds a year. I think most people could probably scrape by on that (laughter).
Editor's Note: Please remember, this interview was done in 1995, and things have changed a great deal since then. The amount of library music being used has skyrocketed as more and more cable channels have been added. Additionally, the need to record in expensive, professional studios has been greatly reduced by the advent of inexpensive, but high-quality home recording gear. In today's world, it's likely that the U.S. market for library music is now on par with the British market Jim refers to in this interview 12 years ago.
Any advice for people who want to enter the music library field?
Usually, new writers over-write. They make things too complicated and too busy. One of the things that my associates and I have done is urge people to rent a video or take something off television, and take the sound off, and then re-score it. That will help them get the feeling about what the level of intensity or activity the scene can take. Lots of times, the very simplest little pad or underscore, very neutral with very slow moving chords will end up being what I would call a hit. It will get used over and over again because it will work with almost any scene. It supports the scene with a certain attitude that's right and it stays out of the way of the dialogue.
Jonathan Wolff, Interviewed in 1999
What were some of the issues you faced when writing the now famous score to Seinfeld?
You can't have melody while he's trying to do monologue—they butt heads. So the sound design problems I saw was that the opening title already had its melody—it's Jerry! So I built the music around him. And instead of using standard instruments like drums and clarinets, because of the human nature of the melody—his voice, I went with the organic sounds of the finger snaps, mouth pops, lip smacks, and tongue noises.
Did you sample yourself doing it?
Yeah. And for the pacing, I watched some of his HBO special and noticed that he has a rhythmic, musical pacing to the way he delivers his monologue. I clocked a tempo for it—about 110, and built the music around him at that tempo. The bass mainly hangs out in a frequency range that doesn't interfere with his voice, below him—it supports him as a bass does with a melody.
You must of learned this from doing commercials with voice-overs?
Yeah, because you want a clear cut frequency path for your voice-over artists or your jingle singers so that they're front and center and clear while being supported by good production. Same thing when you're making a record. And that's how I built this theme for Seinfeld. To adapt to different monologues, the music is completely modular. And it worked—it was quirky and fun and identifiable and signature.
Did he love it when he heard it?
He did. He really liked it a lot. He liked that it was kind of weird. That was the first thing he said about it.
He didn't send you back in for re-writes over and over again?
He was the coolest. Actually, he came over one day and I showed him, I had already reviewed his material and mocked up a groove. He sat here while I created this "thing" for him. When he left, that was it—it was done. He called me the next day and said "That was cool, that was fun! Can we do it again? Just 'cause I'm free and if you're available, let's make sure that we've got what we want." So he came back and we tinkered some more. To be honest, I don't remember which day's version we ended up using.
"Doing work for music libraries is good for experience. You need the experience of doing all kinds of music, because for the shows that I've worked on, every script is different."
— Jonathan Wolff
Has the Seinfeld theme become any kind of an albatross for you? Has it become so signature for you as a composer that people come to you now looking for totally quirky or do they still come to you looking for big lush dramatic themes?
It hasn't hurt me. At the moment that hasn't happened. In general, Hollywood, particularly the T.V. industry is a 'me-too' town. People want to be associated with winners and they want emulate and learn from and repeat the successes of others. So Seinfeld certainly put me on the list of potential composers for a lot of shows that certainly I wouldn't have been on if not for the Seinfeld association. First of all, Castle Rock, the company that produced Seinfeld has been really good to me; they've been very loyal. So yeah, Seinfeld has been a very good thing for me during and after the series.
But, in answer to your question, it's all fresh. Each job starts over. Obviously, I can't use the twangy bass because it's Seinfeld. In fact, some of my friends who are composers, have complained to me that they can't use it either!
What advice do you have for someone who wants to get in to the same kind of work you do? How does an 18-year-old who lives in Four Points, Kansas, end up being you?
Right now, I think if you really want to do T.V. you have to be here in L.A. At some point in the future it will be a global enough market place, that you won't have to live here to start your career.
Editor's Note: Remember, this interview was done in 1999. Things have certainly changed in the last eight years!
Okay, once you get off the bus at the Greyhound terminal, where do your feet take you next?
There is no formula for it. If there were a formula, everyone would do it.
Are production music libraries a good starting point for people who want to gain experience?
Doing work for music libraries is good for experience. You need the experience of doing all kinds of music, because for the shows that I've worked on, every script is different. In one day around here, I will have to record a piano concerto, Bluegrass music, an old school Rap and maybe some Dixieland. You've got to be able to do all of it. And a production library is a good place to really exercise those muscles.
So if you exercise those muscles and get a dozen cuts...
Actually, that's a more important reason for doing it—income stream. Production libraries, although they typically own 100% of the publishing of whatever you work on...
At least you own the writer's share.
Exactly! You're earning money through ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC when your cues are broadcast. That's so, so, so important. As an entry-level composer, you need to start working on that broadcast catalog. There are certain types of music that are global and timeless. If you're doing what's hot this week on the radio, well, maybe you'll get some placements this week, but it's not continuous. But if you have a good package of news, suspense, orchestral, cues that are timeless—you're starting to work on that royalty income that will sustain you.
Well, let's say that kid from Kansas, stays in Kansas and has music in five different libraries—a couple dozen cuts at five different libraries. And now he's making $30,000 a year...
Stay in Kansas. The air's clean. It's nice. Marry the girl next door.
Steven Corn, Interviewed in 2006
It often seems to me that most musicians feel that once they finished recording the music, their job is done.
Their job is done if they have a label that's releasing their music and they can trust the label to do the marketing. But even most labels still require the artist to go out there. I mean, when John Travolta finishes filming a movie, he still shows up on E!, at Entertainment Tonight, on ABC, and he does interviews. He does the press junket because he knows he needs to help drive awareness of his movie.
When the Rolling Stones finish an album, they do a nine-month worldwide tour.
And guys like Travolta don't get paid to go on Entertainment Tonight. He does it because he's going to make more money on his current film, or next film if his current film is a success. So that's part of his business effort. An artist needs to be a businessman, even if they have a label releasing their music. What that means is, you e-mail every friend, every week, or every month and tell them where they can find your music. And you ask them to e-mail every other friend. You give away a hat if someone can prove that they e-mailed 10 friends. You've got to be creative. You can't just make an album, put it in Virgin Megastore in the rack somewhere and stand by the door and hope that a thousand people are going to walk by and find your album. You have to point to it with big, big fingers and neon signs saying, "Here's my music."
I get calls and e-mails from hundreds of artists per year that say, "If TAXI can help me get my CD to a distributor who will then get it into every record store in America, then I will be very successful." Is that fact or fantasy?
That's fantasy. Distributors are not the same thing as marketing. That's the same thing with the digital world, but especially in the physical world, again getting your CD in Virgin Megastore is wonderful. It's never going to sell unless people know it's there. It's not the distributor's responsibility to tell the people that you have a CD in Virgin. It's you as a label, or if you're the artist it's the label, it's still your responsibility to get people to know about it.
"I would say a good song doesn't ensure success, but it greatly increases the chances of success. Conversely, I would say that a bad song decreases the chance of success."
But the musicians are often heard to say, "It doesn't matter, man. I am so good, my CD is so much better than that crap I hear on the radio, that if it were in every record store in America, I would sell a million copies."
I don't comment on quality.
It's not even a quality issue. Again, it comes back to the marketing. You could have a record that's better than the Beatles and in every record store in America under the letter "T," and it'll still be a flop because nobody knows it's there.
Right. I mean how many brilliant artists, musicians, painters, sculptors, writers have died penniless? And they were amazingly talented. And how many incredibly untalented people get rich?
So, what would you suggest to an Indie artist trying to earn his or her living by just selling their music?
Two things: perseverance and humility. The sense that your music could be enjoyed and treasured by millions of people doesn't necessarily mean that it should or deserves to be. It's something you have to work for. I think the greatest musicians out there are probably writing for an audience of one, they do it sincerely, and it happens to touch the right chord with more than one person.
Has the Internet and digital distribution lowered the bar for songwriting, or is great songwriting still the key to consumers hearing about you and spreading the word among their friends?
Great songs seem to find outlets regardless of the production values, regardless of the medium—whether it's live, acoustic, digital, or physical. I would say a good song doesn't ensure success, but it greatly increases the chances of success. Conversely, I would say that a bad song decreases the chance of success. The stuff that ends up on the radio is generally of pretty good quality in some aspect—production, singing, or songwriting. The quality has to be there. But if you don't have all the other elements, and you end up with just the song, and if the song isn't good, you have nothing.