Most musicians who tell me all about how they are going to take over the film and TV world, also tell me they are going to do this by mailing their CDs off to production people or production offices. Ummm…really?


People who have never been behind the scenes of any kind of professional production might be tempted to view the industry like you would any other business – let’s take your local print shop as an example. You call or write in and the nice secretary at the front desk might immediately ask what you need, direct you to the proper person, and take your contact information if someone can’t help you right away. Someone would eventually call you back about your project (hopefully being very professional and sincerely helpful), and would be able to give you all the information and attention you would need. And they would do this because they hope that you will be paying them something for the trouble. Sometimes lately, even that is not enough to get the proper attention, so go figure.


But in production, you aren’t a customer. In fact, there are no customers. Productions are green-lighted by some entity (either a studio, or a production company, or an individual) and the actual production doesn’t become a product until the whole thing is wrapped up and “in the can.” The customer is then the movie viewer and money is made back on the gamble by selling it. While it is in production, all the people employed to get the work done only have one goal: to finish the production, preferably within budget and on time (neither ever happen). This is what they are paid to do.


If you’re wondering where you fit into the equation – you don’t. You’re irrelevant. They don’t need you, nor do they want to be bothered by you.  But, you might say, I’m a great musician! And I’ve got some awesome recordings! My work will make everything easier for them! I’ve written this great song and it will make the perfect theme for the movie! All they’ll need to do is hear it and they’ll agree!


That fairly overly optimist viewpoint would maybe be correct if production worked in logical ways. But it doesn’t. In a lot of different ways. So let’s start with how music get’s chosen, since that’s really what we’re interested in.


Back in the days when productions were rolling in money because there was a lot of money to be rolling in, there were a lot of people on the production staffs. Most jobs were union and there were a lot of specific rules about how the job was done, what could and could not be done, and who would do it. There was very little crossover work as every job had specific duties and you could not add or subtract from them without approval from the union. Some jobs in production are still like this. But the failing economy has changed a lot of that. You are far more likely to find productions where people wear many hats and the office is, in general, understaffed. In a business that has ungodly deadlines and massive amounts of complicated scheduling, you can imagine how hard that must be to do with fewer people. I currently know people in Hollywood who sometimes carry three job titles. Often they don’t have assistants either. And all of the production jobs in the most commonly produced television category of “Reality” are non-union jobs without a lot of rules about how things work. Kind of a mess, right? (Say “Right.” I’m always right. You’ll get used to it.)


Enter you. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to conquer Hollywood with every musical inspiration you’ve mustered, you send your CD to the production office labeled correctly and it arrives. Only to be opened by the unpaid intern or the production assistant who is making minimum wage. It will land in the pile with all the other “unsolicited” material they have received – likely boxes full. “Unsolicited” material is anything that has not been specifically requested by someone at the production, whether it has been labeled to go to the proper person for that job or not. It will include CDs, DVDs and videotapes from aspiring actors, oodles of resumes from people who want to work in production but never have, promo packages for every kind of graphic designer, artist, dancer, singer, screenwriter, director, editor, and trained dog act that has ever had a dream. You’ll excuse them if they have a hard time wading through the pile to find YOUR package and make sure it gets to the person you want it to. Because, after all, it’s 10:00 am and on top of being in charge of getting your career off the ground, the PA has 45 scripts to copy, coffee and Danish to order for the production meeting, 6 lines ringing off the hook, and a seriously cranky director calling about not receiving yesterdays’ dailies (daily footage) on time. Production is a hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. There are whispers in its backstage wings that only the truly crazy survive. And all of these people are wildly underslept (which is why Hollywood will likely never see the banishment of cocaine from its corridors).


Large productions may have a music supervisor on staff. This person doesn’t likely work in the production office. They are typically independently employed and work from their own offices, homes, or studios. Which means they aren’t waiting around to receive music from unknowns so they can finish choosing pieces for the film. It’s more likely nowadays though that there isn’t a music “sup” at all. Why? Because music is technically a non-budgeted line item in film and TV budgets. For years, unless you were hiring an orchestra, you haven’t been required to deal with a union to obtain music for your production, because unlike the actors, writers, and directors, musicians have not made it a priority to unionize and pressure their union to make agreements with Hollywood to pay them fairly. Musicians are essentially non-represented in production. Which means they can pay whatever they want to for it and everything – including the licensing fees – don’t have a scale or a minimum. They are totally negotiable. And line producers (i.e., people responsible for the production budget) either budget almost nothing or nothing for it because many other jobs in production are union jobs, which means they have specific amounts that MUST be paid by agreement to the unions in order for the production to be made at all. And those wil
l all be paid first.


It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how this bodes for musicians. Basically, you get leftovers. Those few crumpled hundred dollar bills underneath the case of bottled water that was brought in for the crew. After they’ve paid for craft service (catering – because their crew eating on a 16-hour shoot day is essentially far more important than paying for music), a bunch of set furniture that the crew will end up taking home when the production wraps, make-up artists, hair stylists, lighting equipment and rentals, camera gear, cranes, costumes, props, looping, post-production, and the large chunk of cash that is required to pay an editor to actually make sense of all the footage they shot.


See how well this is working out for you? And here you believed all that nonsense about unions being bad for people.


So, given this mess that is production, when it comes to the music, who is it that is actually going to end up making decisions about it? Probably not who you think. Not necessarily the director. Not the producer. Possibly a music supervisor, if they are paying one. And certainly not the PA who might actually be the only person who ever touches your CD when it arrives in the mail.


It’s the editor.


Editors, some say, have the hardest job in Hollywood. They are magicians. And technological wizards, and brilliant story tellers all in one. The several that I know personally, I can honestly say, are their own brand of genius. They are essentially the person contracted at the end of the shooting of the production to make sense of all of the footage and piece together every visual and audio thing you’ll experience in the production. Lately, they also get a lot of control over the feel and tone of the project, and that means – yes – you got it – the music. Some editors are contracted specifically for their style. Others, like good music producers, know how to cut in a variety of different styles.


With the assistance of the producer, director, and some other technical people, the editor is given several cameras worth of filmed material which, with the help (hopefully) of assistants is digitally captured into a editing system and catalogued (logged). The editor then goes about the daunting task of choosing which scenes and which camera angle to tell the story from. While they are at it, they may assist themselves by choosing music that helps them achieve their goal. Some editors even prefer to cut specifically to a certain selection of music to achieve the feel they are looking for. 


Obviously, to do this quickly, an editor isn’t spending hours while they are cutting searching through CDs by unknowns to find the right piece for their needs. They have a lot of different tools to use. Some have purchased music libraries, of which, some of the music will end up being used for the final cut. Others will choose music that they already know by someone famous, hoping to later find an affordable piece by a lesser known artist or something similar in a library. Others may use programs like “Soundtrack” offered as part of Apple’s highly popular Final Cut Pro Suite, that is essentially a cut and paste program that allows the editor to choose bits of music phrases that are searchable by style, tempo, or feel to piece together and drop into their work.


In all of these cases, it’s unclear in the early stages whether the piece of music will survive till the final cut of the film or show. The editor is simply using it in a “quick and dirty” effort to get on with their work. Being the last person in the chain where things typically run overschedule is no easy job, and editors have quite a lot of pressure on them to work quickly. (Believe me, I wouldn’t want their job.) Polishing continues throughout the editing process as other people involved in the production have their say in what they like and don’t like. And things change all the time. Including whether whole scenes will end up in the final production or not (which includes the music underneath them).


Once the final cut has been approved by everyone important in the production (which often includes people who are not important but just happen to be sleeping with someone who is), the editor will usually go about their final quest of finalizing music, which includes replacing any music that the production can’t afford or get proper clearance for. Editors will tell you, this is one of the most dreaded aspects of the job. Because they are trying to preserve the original feel of their cut while replacing something that can be integral to the feel of the scene. Often they have to do this with almost no money to work with. And though sometimes I feel I should feel sorry for them, I often remember that they are payed pretty well and musicians aren’t and the sympathy immediately kind of disappears. It’s their job. What this means to you as a struggling up and coming film and TV musician is there is an opportunity for you, if you can help them.


Remember that database I told you to make? And all those touchy feely descriptions about your music? This is where it comes in. Because the editor is going to have a list of cues (music snippets) with descriptions of what they need the cue to convey. As a professional now working in film and TV music, your job is going to be to fill an order for a specific type of cue. Not to try to get that one song you think is your hit to be in the film. But to find out what they need. And to find something in your work that might be suitable for the part. These opportunities might come to you from out of nowhere if you’re in the right place at the right time, because this is essentially how everything you ever see on a television screen gets produced, and a large part of film music that is not specifically contracted by a composer gets licensed.


Essentially, this is also what happens when you submit your work to a library, or to TAXI, or to any service that puts you into their licensing catalogue. Obviously, there’s a middle person sometimes doing this work of figuring out whether your music is suitable for the needs of the production. And we’ll talk all about how libraries, TAXI, and catalogues work, as well as how to make connections in the industry in my next blog:


Film and Television Music, Part IV – Networking to Get In

Originally posted 2010-07-27 20:29:24.