TAXI member Steve Barden
Explain some of the nuances that might be easy to miss when contrasting the cue composer’s job and that of somebody scoring a TV show.
Everything in library music is compressed compared to that of scoring. And by compressed I’m not referring to plugins. Library cues need to stand on their own as compositions: they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even if they are only a minute long, they need to tell a story on their own.
In contrast, when scoring a film or a TV episode the individual music cues are part of the bigger picture, so to speak. A film has an arc: it has an opening act, a middle act, and a closing act. The music cues in a film propel the story over the course of 90 or so minutes.
Since your library cues may only be used anywhere from 8 to 30 seconds, it’s important that your cue is constructed to work in smaller sections. That’s why editors really like cues with edit points.
“After nothing but rejections for my songs I began to understand how TAXI works. None of my songs were commercially viable. This wasn’t TAXI’s fault. I was just barking up the wrong tree.”
I heard an interview recently with Jeff Beal, composer for House of Cards on Netflix. He talked about how because all of the episodes for shows like House of Cards are released all at once, many people choose to binge-watch many episodes (or the entire season) in one sitting. With this in mind, Jeff considers the entire season as a 10-hour movie so he builds his score with an arc spanning 10 hours, not just per episode. Kind of like writing an opera.
Are there differences between scoring for TV, and let’s say, a short film?
If you’re referring to episodic television, then no. Both require a level of composing that are virtually identical because you’re building the thematic material over the course of the entire story. But if you mean things like reality TV you are most likely a production music composer and that means developing a library of separate cues that may or may not find more than one or two of those cues used in the same episode.
It’s a good idea writing production music to target a particular style, say dramedy, or surf rock, for example. Here’s an idea to consider. Create a batch of 10 to 20 songs. Construct the cues to mimic the way you would score an episode. In other words, design an arc over the course of the cues to build slowly, show some tension, find relief, tender moments, build excitement, etc.
If you’re lucky – and all those cues are part of batch of cues that the music editor has access too – you may find multiple cues being used in an episode. There is an organic flow to your score. The most cues I’ve had in a single half hour episode of a reality TV show is 10 cues. I like to think that my cues were chosen because there was a similarity in my style of writing and covered a range of emotions that happened to fit the story.
You and I are on a very similar page with that advice. I’ve been telling our members to think beyond a single cue or piece of music for years now, but so few people seem to get it! There are “systems” or workflow ideas like that, that can dramatically increase the amount of music a composer licenses.
How many TV shows would you estimate that you’ve had music in to date?
Around 90, with placements ranging from a single episode of the series to (currently) 75 episodes. Many are not listed by cue sheets with my PRO because there are some networks that work on direct licensing (which means no backend royalties for me). The only reason I’m aware of these placements is because I utilize Tunesat to track when my music is present in a TV show. Not a perfect system, but it gives me a good idea of when my music is being used. But it also means there could be many more placements I’m not aware of.
Since June of 2010 I’ve had at least one placement in a new episode of some show. The most placements I’ve had in a single month was 10 shows.
How many plays of your music would you estimate you’ve had on TV shows to date?
I only know for sure with the cue sheets reported to ASCAP which is around 1,000. I can only guess that there are approximately another 300 or so with those using the direct licensing model (instead of royalty arrangement with the PROs). My estimation is based on the Tunesat tracking service I use.
How many different music libraries do you have music in?
Not really very many. There are about five that actively get placements for me and just a handful of others that only place one or two cues a year – if that. In the early years I was trying to get my music in as many libraries as I could. It wasn’t a very good strategy, especially since many of them are non-exclusive. I don’t contribute to those libraries any more since they have such a poor track record for me. I’m focusing on the libraries that get the best results.
I no longer have an interest in placing music in a library with the hope that it will someday get placed. It’s very likely that it will just sit there doing nothing for many years. I now prefer to work with libraries that have very specific needs. Only if they put out a call for cues for a specific show will I put any energy into it. That way I know I will probably get at least one placement for the track.
Do you compose with a purpose, target genre, or type of TV show in mind, or do you just sit down and let the muse take you where she will?
As I said, I now only write when there is a specific need for something. I’m very deadline-oriented. Rarely will I (or can I) write in some arbitrary style for the heck of it. I might do that if I want to learn a new genre, but that doesn’t happen very often.
Right now I’m currently focusing on writing trailer music, so that’s one of those exceptions. So I’m treating the project as if it were for a client. I just completed a 20-track CD that I’m currently shopping around to libraries and music supervisors. As of this writing I’ve signed two of those tracks to a music library.
“I realized that I should stick with my strengths. I really did enjoy writing instrumental music and songwriting just wasn’t my ‘gift.’”
Once I have a project to work on, I put my head down and don’t come up for air until I’m done.
When you go back and listen to music you created a year or two or three ago, do you cringe a little bit because you’ve become so much better each year just from doing more and more of it?
Oh my, yes! It might even be as recently as a month ago. We never have the luxury to sit on something for a long while to contemplate how to make it better. When you have a deadline you simply have no time to be overly critical.
I have a rule when I compose, which is, that I never throw anything away. I just keep moving forward and make it work. Even if it’s the most mundane melody, I know I can save it with orchestration. There are always little tricks you can do to make something interesting.
The other side of that is that I might spend too much time trying to perfect a melody, only to find out that the version that gets used is the one without the melody! Sometimes that melody is just too busy to sit behind dialogue.
I think I remember that you met CSI: Miami and Star Wars: The Clone Wars composer, Kevin Kiner, through or because of TAXI… maybe at our convention, the Road Rally—and you ended up doing a bunch of work with him, right? If I’m not nuts, tell our readers about how that happened and what came of it?
I met Kevin Kiner at the 2010 TAXI Road Rally. I can’t believe it’s been that long already. Kevin was on one of the panels. As Rally attendees do, I stood in line after the panel to speak with him and hopefully give him my CD.
We chatted briefly and I told him how impressed I was with the work that he was doing and let him know that this was the kind of work I was interested in getting into. I asked him if I could give him my CD, which he took and said, “Yes, I’ll definitely listen to it.”
In the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Sure you will” and that he would toss it in the first trashcan he came across. Ten days later he called me (not an email, but a phone call) and told me that he really enjoyed my CD, thought it was very good, and that he was working on a show and wanted to know if I would be interested in writing music for it.
The show turned out to be The Little Couple on TLC. Kevin wrote the theme song and was considered the primary composer on the series. Basically, he would farm out the work to other composers like myself, and he would be listed as co-composer.
It really was a great opportunity for me. To date I’ve had placements on 75 episodes of the series. Many of my tracks were also used by the producers as examples of the type of cues they were looking for when new composers came on board. In addition, the music I created explicitly for The Little Couple have been placed on dozens of other reality shows, many of them also on TLC.
When did you first join TAXI?
I joined in February 2008.
At what level were you at when you joined? Had you had any significant success or a bunch of placements with your music yet?
I joined after having just released an album. I had written a bunch of songs that had a Beatles influence. I’ve never considered myself a singer, but I sang all the songs on the album anyway. I had developed a following on MySpace (remember MySpace?!) and that was the encouragement I needed to do the album. I had known about TAXI for several years and decided this might be what I needed to become a star.
Prior to that I had one great success with production music. I got involved on a project with my business partner, Eddie Young. He is a fabulous illustrator who happened to be working on creating a couple of animated commercials for Time-Warner Cable. He asked me to write some music for it. There were two separate spots.
I was becoming aware at this point of performance royalties so I had joined ASCAP around that time and registered the cue sheets for the commercials. Since I was still learning about all this royalty stuff I didn’t really know what to expect.
Around two or three years later I got a call out of the blue from an ASCAP rep in New York letting me know they had accumulated some royalties for me but I needed to supply some additional information in order to collect the payment. I thought about it and figured that it might be at least $500 so I should probably do whatever I needed to do to make this happen. Well, several more weeks passed before I saw a check in my mailbox. It was for $24,000! Wow. I couldn’t believe it. By this time I also learned about publishing and let ASCAP know that I was also the publisher. Cha-ching! Another $24,000 check. At this point I thought, “That was easy. I could do this.” Over the course of the next couple of years I probably made a total of about $50,000 for those spots.
Unfortunately, it was a long time before I started collecting royalties again from my work in production music. I kind of got lucky on that first one. But it sure proved to me that money can be made in this business.