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September 22, 2011

Insider Tips for Getting Your Music on Film and TV

Your computer’s RAM-ed up, your DAW and plug-ins updated, your keyboards patched in and ready to go—and you’ve learned more production tips than you can shake a stick at from these very pages. You’re a one-person music creation machine and the ideas are flowing.

But once your luscious love themes, adrenaline-marinated horror hits, and soul-stirring action fanfares are safely exported and backed up, how do you get them heard—and in a position to earn some money for your creative efforts? For many aspiring composers, licensing original music for use in film and TV is the proverbial Holy Grail, and for good reason: Your music can get played for thousands, if not millions, of listeners, potentially for years to come, and if you ink the right deal, you can make solid bucks in the process.

To help pull back the curtain on getting your music from “bounce to disk” to “back aft er these messages,” we spoke with Billboard Award winning producer and music supervisor Brooke Wentz. She’s also the author of the book Hey, That’s My Music! and founder of the San Franciscobased music supervision and clearance company, the Rights Workshop.

What should composers know about sound quality and media format when they begin sending their music out?

The audio quality should always be the best possible. Specific file format—AIFF versus WAV, for example—doesn’t matter as long as it sounds good. For submitting music, the format can be anything from emailing a ZIP file to sending a physical CD.

How long should music cues be?

You can send shorter ones, at 30 seconds to a minute, and if something needs to be expanded upon, you can always make it longer. In my experience, keyboardists usually try to get an emotive feeling, so it’s important to get your strongest material across right in the beginning. Don’t do the Philip Glass thing and gradually build—getting there right away is vital for film and TV.

If it’s actually your goal to write theme songs [as opposed to cues or incidental music], remember that TV themes need to kick right in. Th e Rights Workshop worked on the theme for ESPN’s X Games, which was built on just 13 notes. The Seinfeld theme is iconic and it’s built on only five notes. Make your music strong and memorable from the get-go.

Is it ever appropriate to send a rough mix or a work-in-progress, or does everything need to be polished?

It depends on your aim. If you’re cold-calling music supervisors, you want a clean, professional feel for the production on all of your work. Especially if you’re up-and-coming and you want to get yourself out there, then things you send around should be fully produced.

On the other hand, there are times when music directors and supervisors have calls out for specific themes for specific projects. If you’re answering that sort of call, you may not have to send something fully orchestrated and produced, per se. You can oft en just create a piano sketch so the people listening know where you want to go with it. Particularly with filmmakers, if they need some ideas, it may be appropriate to send thematic ideas done only on a piano. It doesn’t need to be fully dressed.

How can composers find out about calls for themes like that?

They really need to be in contact and build relationships with music directors from various television networks, more so than with film producers and directors. You can get that information from Film and Television Guide, published by the Music Business Registry (musicregistry.com). Those books are good for two or three years and they list supervisors, composers, representation, editors, libraries—it’s the best $100 you can invest if you take your composing career seriously. Good sources and good contact information are a huge help if you want an edge up. If two composers are working together, they can even split the cost and share resources.

What general advice can you offer to composers who want to get their music heard?

First of all, write as much as possible and know what else is out there. You have to know who your competitors are. You also have to be ready to take a lot of free gigs before you can get paid.

Also, go to film festivals. Composers are generally the least represented group at film festivals, and of course, they’re a great place to meet filmmakers. If you have a CD, then you have the opportunity to put it right into the hands of directors. I’ve seen composer friends of mine get work that way.

Another simple thing is to put your best cues on a CD and send it to people. Build each CD or playlist around a theme—a bunch of love songs, for example. Want to work on horror films? Bundle up some great suspenseful cues for a thriller. If you’ve composed and recorded the music completely by yourself, and you own the rights to the music and the publishing, that can also be really useful. This is because if you’re the only person that TV and film clients have to deal with to negotiate a license, it makes it possible for them to get the music quickly and easily, and to use it immediately. Composers should also consider taking older cues that they own, repackaging them, and sending them out.

Should up-and-coming composers look for publishing deals?

Getting a publishing deal in the beginning of your career is not a good idea. Publishing companies want to see that you have some existing income streams before they sign you, and as a composer, it’s hard to get income in the first place. It’s good to hold on to your publishing rights as much as possible, since most composers are engaged on a work-for-hire basis—which means that you don’t actually own the music once it has been created.

So the only negotiable thing is oft en publishing. If composers are savvy enough, they’ll retain publishing rights as much as possible, unless they’re getting paid a good amount and a TV show insists on getting a cut of publishing as well.

It sounds like a tough world to break into.

It is, but one gig gets you another, and all you need is that first gig to get started.

Licensing Lingo

When licensing a track for use in film or TV, the ownership of any recording is split into two distinct portions:

Master rights: These belong to whoever owns the specific recording that listeners experience
Publishing rights: These belong to whoever owns the copyright for the composition that was recorded.

For example, if you decide to lay down your own version of “Sweet Child of Mine” and weren’t an original member of Guns ’n’ Roses, then you would own the master rights to the resulting track, but the band (and/or their label or other entities they made deals with) would still own all of the publishing rights. To license your recording for use in film or TV, you’d have to get permission from all parties involved. If you write, produce, and record your own music, without using any sampled material that belongs to someone else, then 100 percent of the publishing and master rights are yours.

Performing rights organizations (or PROs) such as ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC monitor public performances (live and recorded both count) of published works and pay royalties for a song to whoever owns the publishing rights. So if you happened to write the theme song to a sitcom destined for rerun immortality, you’ll likely have some major royalty checks rolling in for years to come.

For more about PROs, visit ascap.com, bmi.com, and sesac.com.

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