Saturday, August 05, 2006

Music for Film and TV

by Susan Finch, Posted July 2006

I've worked in film and video for the last several years and have always been the one to place most of the music in commercials and TV shows I work on. What's surprised me throughout my career is discovering some musicians who know how to talk the talk, and some who don't. In my line of work, I would never know if a musician was a college student or a seasoned professional, provided they packaged their work and presented themselves correctly. So how can I tell? What do I hear?

Consequences of Not Talking the Talk:
The talk isn't always verbal, sometimes it comes in non verbal cues. They may not have a label on their CD or it's crinkled or smudged or looks like it was run off from my Apple II C computer in 1985. Presentation is important in that I should look at a CD in my hands and not even notice it. I don't want to think twice about it. And if I do notice it, the artwork is either amazing or it looks like a five year old put it together.

Jewel cases are often cracked. Perhaps this happened in route, but it's easy enough to buy a few padded envelopes to take care of this. And actually I prefer cases with spines so I can group the CD's I like together. This makes it difficult to do with skinny cases. They get lost in the shuffle, I have to take them off the shelf to see what they're called and ultimately they fade away into a jumble of discarded music.

I like CD's that come in groups. A mini box set of tracks for commercials and TV. The variety is what matters. A rock, pop, hip-hop, acoustic, and mellow collection of CD's makes life easier. I'm not forced to listen to the same thing over and over again. The single CD's that come in from musicians give me pause. The music might be fantastic and I wonder when they're going to send more. I often work with the same clients over and over again and they don't want to hear the same selection of music for every spot or show we do. I need fresh variety and the musicians who keep sending me their work are the ones who succeed.

Another headache I frequently encounter is when the tracks aren't laid out to spec. A simple beat of tone two seconds before the song starts would suffice and without it, my job is twice as hard. Maybe the play list or the duration of the song is missing from the jacket and I'll have no idea if I'm working with :30 tracks or 2:00 tracks. If I'm in a rush, I'll just skip over it completely and go onto the next CD.

And when the talk does come in verbal cues, that's the ultimate telltale sign. I might call a musician to find out if they have other work that sounds similar to a track I like. Maybe I just need the tempo quickened or a little more percussion. The musician will often blurt out "How much am I going to get paid?" before my clients have even decided if they want to use the track at all. It's not uncommon for a track to be used on a commercial until right before it airs. We may nix it because the melody needs to be reworked or the client may change their mind at the last minute. A seasoned musician would know this. They would understand payment isn't even discussed by me at all, that the producer on a commercial sends out all the contracts and payment.

Or, in their excitement they'll gush on about how this is the first time they're music has ever been bought and you can practically hear the tears bubbling over. While this is all very special, for them, I don't really have time for it. Throw yourself a party instead.

The Professionals:
But when I come across a professional, I know it. They're calm, they know the drill, they're happy to accommodate a fast turn around. They don't gasp when I say I need it the next day, or even in a few hours. And if they can't accommodate, they're direct about it. They don't stammer. They tell me when they can get it to me if at all. And if they can't help me out at all, they offer to send more tracks over as soon as they can for future use and wish me luck on my project.

I can tell from these professionals that they didn't just end up trying to compose for TV and commercials by chance. They researched it, they set up shop to specifically cater to my industry. Sure, they may be in a band and looking at their work for hire as a day job until they get signed, but they never let me know that. They don't make me feel as though they're doing me a big favor by lowering their standards for my product and client. They exude experience, whether they have it or not.

Their CD's are laid out to industry expectation. I know how long their tracks are, they don't name them obscure names like A Farewell to John Lennon. Instead they're called what they sound like. Jazzy Nights and Acoustic Melodies. Although not the most creative names, I like knowing I can flip over the CD and immediately recognize if this track might work just based on its name.

But more importantly I feel their confidence and faith in themselves. There's nothing worse than working with a musician who is unsteady on their own feet. Selecting music is a small part of my day. I might spend a half an hour in my week looking through CD's and I want it to work. I want to hear your best, I want to know that when I press play I might find the perfect track. If a musician makes my life easier, that's when I know I'm working with a professional.


Susan Finch is a freelance writer and film and video professional based in New York. She has written a book Trax: Get Your music Heard.
To find out more click here.

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