Making Big Bucks With
Film and TV Music

Interview with Steve Corn, Co-founder, Big Fish Media

Interview by Michael Laskow
making money with film and tv music
Give me the five-minute drill on your career in the music business so that our readers know who they're hearing from.

I've done everything... almost. I was a self-employed TV film composer. I did that for about eight years.

And were able to earn a living doing it, right?

Yeah, until I got married and had a house and a kid. I was in that one percent where I was actually supporting myself writing and doing other music tasks. I was a keyboardist, and I was there at the advent of MIDI-technologies. I became a very adept MIDI-programmer, so when I wasn't writing I was doing other people's MIDI-work. So that was kind of a nice way to make a living.

I've run a post-sound facility; I've worked at a film production company; I have been a music supervisor for a lot of different things; I worked at a production music library. I've been a licensor and a licensee, which is an unusual position for someone to be in. Either you work as a publisher and you're licensing everything, or you're working as a music supervisor and you're the licensee of everything. I've been on both sides of the table. I've worked at a film company representing their interests, and I've worked at publishing and music libraries representing their interests. And now I'm running a digital music distribution company.

What is a digital music distribution company? A lot of people know that moniker, but they don't know exactly what that means.

It's someone who gets the music out to the online music services. I do everything pretty much that a regular physical goods distributor does but without physical goods. iTunes needs a certain kind of file, they need certain data, they need the picture, they need certain things—everything but the CD. So my job is to represent artists and labels and have their goods go from their hands to iTunes, Napster, and eMusic. Because everybody has different delivery methods, it would be akin to knowing that if you want to get your stuff in Tower Records, you have to ship via FedEx-3 day; whereas, if you want to get into Virgin, you have to ship UPS-2nd day; and if you didn't do it that way, you wouldn't get into their stores.

I want to start out with film and TV music questions, then work our way into the future of digital music and digital distribution stuff in Part 2 of this interview.

Can you give our readers a short but potent explanation of what a production music library is?

A production music library is a company that provides prerecorded music in wide variety of styles generally that are pre-cleared, so that you give a bunch of CDs to somebody and they know if they use it, they're going to pay X amount of dollars, and they don't have to go to you for permission before they use it. It's sort of prearranged that they can use it, report the use, and everything's cool. It's often a very simple payment recording licensing process. These are cues that are often written by composers and musicians that are in between gigs—their real gigs. Some people do nothing but film music or music for whatever their genre is. A production music library is a quick-fix solution for people who have a high-volume need for music. Not always high volume, but typically, they're the people who use libraries the most. In the TV world, often you don't even know you need a piece of music until the afternoon that you might need it. That's why you need the music right then and there, and you don't have time to call anybody to clear it. It has to be available to use. That's what libraries are there for.

For more than a decade I've been telling people that if they are hard working and study what music libraries really do, they could realistically earn $100,000 to $150,000 a year if they really hunker down and work at it for at least five years. Is that a fair statement?

Absolutely. I know of many composers who make that kind of money. Five years to build up to that level is probably the minimum, because it takes time to build up the royalty stream of performances. But if you're with the right library and you get enough music in the library which increases your chances of getting enough music placed, even if you don't get a piece of the licensing fee. I know guys who are earning $80,000-$120,000 a year just on royalties alone. It does require a lot of effort to study what library music is. There is really an art to writing good library music that can be used in multiple ways and times. If you learn the art and you get a lot of music out there— and I'm not talking about 30, 40 tracks, but probably 300-400 tracks over those five years, yeah, you can make a nice living, and generally it earns for a long time. TV shows rerun, movies wind up playing in different markets for easily 15 to 20 years.

So, it might be the ultimate job for a 45 year old who works at an insurance company but is very talented as a musician, has a $5,000-$10,000 home studio, and wants to make sure that when he's 60 or 65 and retires, he could have a six-figure income from his music kick in.

It certainly is possible, but with anything, it doesn't come without a lot of hard work. You can't expect to get five placements and have that kind of retirement pension. You could have five featured network placements and, yeah, you'll earn $2,000 a year maybe for each of those. But they won't be primetime more than the first year—and then they go to into syndication, and other mediums pay less than primetime networks. So, you really have to create a large body, which is hard for a 45-year-old person to do part time. But once you're in with the library, and they're doing well, it really will pay to give them as much music as you can put out...without compromising the quality of course.

Let's talk for a minute about music with lyrics. I have a theory that I've been espousing to TAXI members for many years. Let's say you recorded an album five years ago, you press a thousand CDs at Disc Makers, you sold a couple hundred and you've got the rest sitting in your garage, and you think it's over, it's history.

Are you talking about me?

No. You've done that, huh?

Actually yes, but on vinyl! (laughs)

A lot of bands and singer/songwriters out there have stuff that they've recorded, that they've demoed, that maybe never made it to their CD, or a CD that they didn't sell very many copies of. My theory is, "Don't let that stuff die on the vine." You could submit that stuff to libraries because so much music is being used nowadays that has lyrics. I often use the example of the girl on The O.C. who just found out her boyfriend has dumped her and she swallows a bottle full of pills and she's sitting in her daddy's Porsche convertible on the top of Lovers' Leap, and she's thinking about driving the car off the cliff. While the camera pulls back, you hear music coming out of the car radio a song about lost love. Am I nuts, or is that reality?

You're not nuts, and that's the reality. In fact, never before has there been more demand for good vocal music that's not controlled by major labels for just such placements. There are a lot of ways to re-purpose songs that are languishing. If a song is a good song, and if it was recorded with primarily live instruments, not the latest and greatest synthesizer which will date it, then chances are pretty good you could find somebody willing to rep it for film and TV placements. And those typically get feature placements and earn the most money in performances and license fees too. There's a lot of competition for song placements, and you're competing also against the big guys—the big publishers and the major labels. But they charge so much they don't get a lot of placements, which is fortunate for every other songwriter in the world.

Last week when we were together you played me some stuff that was seven, eight years old that sounded as fresh as today, and there's no reason why any of that stuff couldn't be licensed and make a nice extra chunk of money. It may not be replacement income, but it certainly could recoup their CD manufacturing costs and create a nice steady royalty stream.

The other thing you often find with music libraries is they want the groove of a Paula Cole song from Dawson's Creek, but they don't want vocals. Sometimes vocals do get in the way. So what I always suggest to a lot of these guys that have songs lying around is to open up the song, drop the vocals, and make a 90-second mix edit of the song. Because now you have an instrumental track that is perfect for library usage, and you still have your full vocal track, which is good for other uses. It multi-purposes the track.

And it seems that more and more libraries are willing to do non-exclusive deals now where they will each re-title a song for their own purposes, and for their own library. So in reality, is it not true that a musician could take the same song, put it in five different non-exclusive library situations, and each one of them may get a placement or two or three during the course of the year for that song?

It's possible, but I always recommend against that because there's nothing that scares a music supervisor, a picture editor, or a music editor more than thinking that the song they got from somebody isn't owned by or represented by them, and they get the same song from two sources. They start to think, "OK, I wonder who really owns this song, so I'm not going to use either version. I'll go find another song." It's so easy to find a replacement for whatever it is they're looking for. Why take the chance, because it would be copyright infringement. And, while most of those situations are amicably resolved with just a nice little or very large payment... What you're trying to do as a music supervisor and someone who's representing music to be placed with them, is develop a trust. I've seen a lot of libraries acquire music by doing re-titling and derivative copyrights and it's not exclusive as far as the songwriter's ability to re-use it any way they want to, but it's often exclusive as far as other music library representation companies. I don't recommend having the same song in several libraries. You don't want to create a situation where somebody pushes your music less because they know other people will be as well.

Interesting. That's great information. From the day you get something placed in a library and sign your contract, how long could a songwriter/musician expect to wait before he sees a check? What's the time line?

That's a really good question. Often songwriters are impatient people who think that once they get someone who's even interested, they'll go out and buy new car.

We get this all the time. Members who get the music forwarded to the library and they sign a contract on a single song or a piece of instrumental music, then 120 days later they haven't been paid on anything and they call TAXI and complain about it.

Right. Well, let's talk this through because I haven't done the math in my head. But, forgetting all the prep work, once you get to the point that a library says, "I like this track and I want it," and let's assume it's a completed track and requires no re-recording, no touch-ups, no editing, and all you have to do... And maybe the library already has the final version on CD in their hands. So, the contract is signed, they have the music, the delivery requirements are done. Some libraries still manufacture CDs, in fact many of them still do, and so they have to find a... I have to go back a step. It really depends a lot if it's instrumental or a song. Do you want to go both ways, or do you want to take one direction?

Let's go both ways. I can always edit the interview.

Let's start with an instrumental. An instrumental will have to be fitted into some CD collection, like The Blues Collection, Vol. 3, whatever the next collection to come out with the library.

Which means they might be amassing music for that collection, and it could take them several months to find the rest of The Blues Collection.

If you figure optimistically they have enough music to put together their collection, I would say it's probably three months. So that's three months before they have the CD put together, mastered, and you figure another two to three months to get the CD back from the plant and distributed to all their clients.

And their clients might be hundreds, on a worldwide basis?

Exactly. So that's six months. That's before anyone's even used the song yet. The song has to be picked by a client, a TV show music editor, film editor, whomever. They've got to pick it and put it in a TV show. Let's pick a network TV show just to be easy right now.

So, you're six months out now from the contract; a guy gets your new blues CD, it has your track on it and he goes, "Oh, this sounds really great. I'll keep this in mind for when I need a blues track." And then, if you're lucky, next week he's cutting an episode that has a scene with a blues bar in it. You're never that lucky, but let's presume that you are that lucky.

It could sit in the library for six months waiting for that occasion to arise.

It could never get used. That's the downside. It could just simply never get picked and it could be the best piece of music in the world, but let's not go gloom and doom.

So, let's say a week after this editor gets the CD, he happens to be cutting a scene. It's a blues bar scene, and he goes, "I just heard that CD; I like the cut on it." And he happens to pick your cut out of the 20 or 30 that are on the CD. You're really, really lucky.

Now you're six months and a week in. But that episode that he's cutting probably won't be airing for another—if you're lucky—four weeks. Sometimes they'll be working farther ahead, but that's generally it.

So, now you're seven months and a week in from the day you signed the contract to when your cue is used in the show that airs on TV. Now you have to fast forward, and the performance money for that episode won't come for at least nine months after that. That is if the television broadcasting company filed their music cue sheets on time, which they have actually up to nine months to file without penalty. And the libraries know that, and often it is left that late. In a perfect world, the show airs, the next day they file the music cue sheets. Now it's nine months later before you see any performance money.

So, now you're 16 months after you signed your contract where you might see some performance money come in. So, you're looking at between 12 months and 17 months before you see a nickel. And that's if everything goes really well.

What about a song with lyrics?

A song is a different scenario. You don't have to wait for your representative to put that song on a pre-arranged collection of CDs, so chances are that song could go out more quickly than if they were waiting to go on a CD and the initial six month waiting period could be eliminated. But that could be offset because maybe you signed your deal in April and there's no TV going on, and there's no film work generally going on until August. So, you save the six months, but you lost the six months because there's no production going on that might need your music. A lot of it depends on when you sign the deal. But in a picture perfect world, you sign your deal in July or August, as a song it could go out to all the music supervisors and could end up in a show in September that airs in October. But you're still a year away from seeing money.

We see a lot of quicker turnaround times on placements and income vis-à ;-vis TAXI Dispatch, our quick-turnaround service for film and TV, because those are circumstances where a music supervisor is already on a mix stage, the show's almost done and something doesn't clear, or the director has a change of heart about a particular piece of music. They ask for it overnight from us, we find them something that's perfect. It ends up in the episode a week or two later, and the musician gets paid inside of six months.

Right. And actually, sometimes overnight is too long. I got a call just this summer for America's Got Talent, and they had a contestant who's doing a striptease—an old male guy doing a striptease—to Ricky Martin's "She Bangs." And they cleared the publishing, but they couldn't get the master cleared. We had a different recording of the song, so it was a pretty instant usage. However, TV shows don't even pay their license fees until the season is over. So I just got an invoice for that, plus 10 other uses three days ago—three months after the fact.

One of the problems we have at TAXI is that a large percentage of our members are not experienced in the ways that the industry works. They don't know what you just explained, and they get extremely impatient and dejected. You know, they sign a contract on a piece of music and they think that in 30, 60 to 90 days they're going to be able to turn on their TV and show their family, "Look, Dad's got music on a TV show," and get a check 30 days later. So thank you for summing that up. We'll move on to the Internet marketing of digital music in Part 2, okay?

Sure, I'll look for it in next month's issue!

Read Part 2.

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