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How Independent Filmmakers Choose and Use Music, Part 2 With Producer, Bernie Stern

Editor’s Note: Bernie Stern is a Los Angeles-based independent film producer who has successfully used TAXI as a resource to find music for several films he’s recently produced.

Who decides how much of a film is scored versus how many songs are in a film? Who decides what that balance is?
Yeah, I would say it comes from the director. Because again, that’s part of the creative vision. They’re going to paint with the image; they are going to paint with sound; they are gonna paint with the foley… they’re putting all of these different types of sensual interface together to make this film. So, they know whether they want it to be a song, a sounding song, or whether the moment requires a score or that kind of feeling that needs to be created.

The balance of “You can’t afford that,” comes from the producer. I did a film a few years ago with Dan Mirvish. It’s based on a Jules Feiffer script that he had written back in the ’80s, and it took place in two different time periods. We set it in, I believe, the early ’60s. The ’60s and ’90s, I think, were the two eras. But it was two very specific eras. We had zero dollars for sync at all; there was no music that was going to be purchased at all. We had $5,000 or something like that, some very specific number for a score. So, when we brought our composer on board, he worked directly with the director to compose things that could sound like they were source music, and even the director actually sang on one of the songs. So, the whole movie was completely scored by one person; he did the whole thing. But, in the creative conversation that we had with them, we crafted a very specific sound throughout. And I told them that we don’t have any money for music. I mean, we tried, but there is music for score that we can give all of it, everything we have, to the composer, and then you are just gonna have to make it work. There was a little bit of that balance in this last movie. Again, we had some money for the songs that he absolutely had to have, and then the rest of the money was like, “OK, let’s go find some gems that are a bit more affordable.”

“I’ve had directors that didn’t even want music with lyrics playing at all when actors are speaking, because they would want them to be able to hear the words, and the human brain can’t really process two conversations at the same time.”

Let’s talk about featured music versus background source. Something we put in a lot of the TAXI listings is that the lyrics should be universal lyrics, kind of general—not, you know, “I fell in love with you under the arch in St. Louis on New Year’s Eve. I took you home to your mom’s house in the suburbs and we kissed in the driveway next to her Jaguar.” That’s a story in and of itself, so it can’t be used within a story, because it conflicts. So, we generally tell the members to submit stuff with lyrics that are, “Well, how did it make you feel?” because that’s the essence of what they are looking for here is emotion. So, you know, “The first time we looked into each other’s eyes, we knew it was magic,” in so many words. Now you know why I’m not a lyricist.
That’s a great song. It’s a hit! [laughter]

So, I’ve personally made the observation in the last year or two that the industry seems to be moving a little bit away from the universal-lyric thing for background source—in particular because 95% of the time it’s on a jukebox in the back of the smoky, stinky bar, and somebody’s having a conversation on the barstool. You know there’s music in the room; you can’t really tell what the hell it is, which is always a bonus for the person whose song is in there. Like, “Come on over, everybody. Popcorn and pizza at my house. We’re going to hear my song in the TV show.” Have you noticed any trends like that, where universal lyrics are more or less desirable, again, for background source specifically?
Yeah, I would say that, at the very least from my taste, I would definitely tend to agree with you that you don’t want to have anything too specific. Because we’re telling a story with our film; that’s the main story. I’ve had directors that didn’t even want music with lyrics playing at all when actors are speaking, because they would want them to be able to hear the words, and the human brain can’t really process two conversations at the same time.

Tell that to my wife and children. I say that all the time: “Dad’s only got one input.”
Right. They have proof: You cannot listen to two things and comprehend them at the same time. You can quickly switch, but it doesn’t work. So yeah, I would say that’s definitely the case for me. But here’s the other thing about the lyrics in a source song like that: At most, you are going to hear one line. As you cut into the scene it’ll be at higher volume, and the second an actor starts talking, you’re gonna drop that volume.

You could make a case that the lyrics don’t matter, in that case anyway, but you want to have universal-enough lyrics so that the one line that they use coming into the scene doesn’t confuse anybody or—and what’s better—drives the message up and set the tone for the scene. So yeah, I would certainly agree that universal lyrics are more important in songs from a service like TAXI. Famous songs have stories. Like our favorite songs…

So glad you brought that up.
Yeah, they do, and that happens. But in those cases, the director is choosing like, “OK, I want ‘American Pie,’ because I want the section where he talks about dancing in the gym of the school, because we’re doing a scene with a dance in a gym at school.” So, when you’re pulling famous songs, the fact that they have a really cool story or a very specific thing, it’s fine! But for songs no one has ever heard before, or for songs that are being created for a film, it doesn’t behoove your members to create songs that have very specific stories, because no one has ever heard that song. It doesn’t create the same emotion.

That brings me to a whole other topic. I think when we first met, I told you that we had a director that ran a listing, and he had a scene where the movie opened with a shot of a 20-something son standing over the grave of his dad, where the last shovel of dirt had just been thrown in. He’s very upset and he’s leaving the funeral, and the director had a very specific vision for what he wanted, kinda generally on the lyric, but they had timing hits that they needed to make, you know? So, they had about 14 seconds with the kid just standing there mute over the grave, and clearly he’s thinking something. He’s thinking that he loves his dad, had a great relationship, not a great relationship—whatever was going on in his head. But they needed 14 seconds in the clear in the beginning, and then they needed it to go generally in the direction of, “I’m sorry we didn’t have that conversation before you died.” I’m making this up a little bit because I don’t remember the exact stuff, but we put out a specific listing that was written with an exact roadmap for the songwriters, and we got a bunch of great material. And that director was over the moon and said, “This is the greatest thing in the world. Your people custom-write music [tailored] to what I need for my film, and I’m getting the music at a reasonable price.” Everybody wins, everybody’s happy. And for the members who created something that didn’t get picked for the film, not so terrible, because it is probably good enough to take it and put it in a production-music library anyway. So, it wasn’t a wasted effort. I think that’s one of TAXI’s greatest attributes for filmmakers: if you can’t think of a song that really fits what you need, and you’ve got specific timing hits or specific lyrics that need to be in a certain place, we can get that for you. That guy was just blown away.
I think about when the last film that we [ran through TAXI] we had a need for a very specific type of song with a female vocal and a very authentic-sounding, 1960’s style song. We wanted a song that sounded like it came out of this very specific era. It needed to not only to sound like the orchestration and the composition, but the performance and the recording needed to sound like it was from the ’60s, and we got that [from a TAXI member]. I mean, not only did we get that, but we got a bunch of options that we could choose from, and it was amazing. It was the same thing; my director was completely blown away! It wasn’t anything like, “I need these 12 lyrics,” but it was a very specific ask. If we had been looking for those tracks, they would have been extremely expensive. Because if you were to get something out of the ’60s that you were aware of, they’re hits, that would have been very expensive to license.

So, we couldn’t get an actual song that was famous in the ’60s; we needed something that just sounded like it was. The other thing was that it was playing on a radio in a diner in the background, so it’s not like we’re gonna spend like 50 grand for something that’s [in the background], but it sets the whole tone of the scene, and that was needed. We have to have it, and to be able to find that, and find a dozen viable options that we just get to pick from, was awesome! So you’re absolutely right.

So many musicians would love to get you their song. They’d likely say something like, “I’ve got this awesome song, you’re gonna love it.” And they don’t really seem to understand the process. It’s not about, “You’re gonna love my song.” It’s more like, “I’ve got to love your song when it’s right for the scene, when it’s right for the character, when it’s right for the story.”

They get very frustrated that it’s not like A&R people at record companies where they’re picking something because it sounds like a hit. You could have a hit; you could have the greatest song in the world that’s gonna be a massive hit, but it wouldn’t be right even for a hundred-thousand-dollar movie, because it just doesn’t work. Would you agree with that?
100%. And I do get submissions every day. I’ve reached the level where I get five calls and/or emails per day. And that’s where I am at in my career. I get five from somebody, either a screenwriter or a musician or a composer or an agent. Somebody will reach out and say, “Hey, can I send you my music library, or all the songs that I’ve made to consider on your next film?” And it breaks my heart a little bit, because I’m so excited for you that you’re making stuff, and that you’re hustling, and you found me. What an honor that you actually think I’m big enough that I would need something. Great! However, it’s really hard to do anything with that, because, like you said, if I’m not working on a movie at that moment that needs [that specific type of] music and we’re on board with that style, it’s really hard. It’s difficult for me to collect a library of every musician who has sent me a song. I don’t have the bandwidth for that, or the patience.

“I encourage songwriters and musicians to use this service, as opposed to just emailing every filmmaker that’s out there. Being in a service like [TAXI] is a way-better system.”

It’s amazing to know that I can come to a place [like TAXI] that’s basically doing that for me, that works for me, and I am so grateful. Because I can come to you and go, “Hey, I need this, and it’s there.” So, I encourage songwriters and musicians to use this service, as opposed to just emailing every filmmaker that’s out there. Being in a service like this is a way-better system.

“The producer’s job is to facilitate. The same thing with the music supervisor; the same thing with a casting director. They know what the producer wants, and then they go get it, or then they make it, or they go out and find it.”

So, it really breaks my heart, even when a song is awesome [but I can’t use it]. I could be in post on a movie, and we’ve already explored the whole musical aspect, or I’m trying to raise money for a movie that’s not going to happen for two years. There’s no telling where I’m at in my process. And the other thing is, if I take a song to a director before they ask for it, there’s a 95% chance that they’ll turn it down as if it’s sort of like a stepping-on-toes thing. The director is in charge. It doesn’t actually improve the likelihood that the song gets placed if I introduce it.

Again, the producer’s job is to facilitate. The same thing with the music supervisor; the same thing with a casting director. They know what the producer wants, and then they go get it, or then they make it, or they go out and find it. So yeah, being part of a system, a service [like TAXI], or a group of songwriters, composers, and artists that filmmakers are coming to and seeking out is a much better position to be in than reaching out to individual producers and then just saying, “Listen to this song; I’m sure it’ll be great your next movie.” But I have no idea what my next movie will be. No idea!

I’ve got to run, because we’ve got to get the next panel going. Man, I love hanging out with you, I really do. Every time we have a conversation, I feel like I’m learning something new, and the relationship gets deeper. And I really, genuinely appreciate the fact that you glommed onto TAXI. You got it, once we explained it to you, that you have used it, and your directors have been happy. I really appreciate that, Bernie. And tell Mandi I said thank you for introducing us. I appreciate that as well. And I’ll see you on the other side of COVID, my friend.
OK. It was good talking to you.

Good talking to you. Thank you, Bernie.