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Audio: Production Music for Every Production

It can be just what you want or just what you didn’t know you needed; it’s production music, but is it right for you?

By Tom Inglesby

Production-Music-headphonesMarkee has been covering the production music industry for a long time, including an annual guide to production music sources. The magazine also sponsors the Best Use of Production Music award at the CINDY Awards. The last winner, CBS Thursday Night Football, used music from Warner/Chappell Production Music (WCPM) and we asked CEO Randy Wachtler a blunt question: What is it that makes production music as good as, or in some cases, better than original scoring for films, commercials, and TV shows?

“I think you’ll see across broadcast and television that production music is being used more,” Wachtler says, “and it’s because competition in the industry has led all of us to improve our quality. We’ve all gotten better at what we do. That’s one reason. Another reason is that technology has gotten better, and the recording process has gotten more affordable and easier. A lot of things have contributed to pretty darn good production music these days.”

There are many, perhaps hundreds of studios that crank out material that can be considered production music. Warner/Chappell alone has many different libraries and several different companies represented in their catalog. “A number of years ago,” Wachtler notes, “the majors—and when I say majors, that means Universal, Warner Brothers, and Sony—all got into the production music business. Each of those studios assembled many of the smaller independents. In our case, Warner/Chappell is owned by Warner Music Group and we’re made up of a whole bunch of independents. However, we’re a little bit unique compared to some of our competitors in that we have two world-class production facilities, one in Nashville, on Music Row, and one in Salt Lake City, where one of our companies, Non-Stop Music, was based, and where we can do large orchestral scores.”

Music of any sort doesn’t just happen. It takes composers and musicians to realize the sounds we hear. “We hire composers, on a project basis, to create what we’re looking for under our guidance,” Wachtler explains. “For instance, if we need some romance cues or some drama cues, we would hire a composer that’s skilled in that genre to create that for us.”

The term production music can be misunderstood. It wasn’t too long ago that film and video producers had two choices in scoring their project: original music and stock music. The former was generated specifically for a film, often scene by scene; the latter was from a library of music that had been created specifically for—well, for anybody and everything. Stock music was a collection of short and long pieces, from seconds to minutes of music in a variety of themes that could be used by anyone paying the fee and/or royalty.

Production-Music-speakersSome studios created both stock library material and scores on assignment for various projects. Wachtler says, ”We have a library of existing catalog cues and we also can do on-the-spot custom scores, directly to what a client is working on. We have done that for many years and we continue to do that.”

If you have an original score that needs realization, you can use a studio and engineer, hire musicians, and generate music. You are in control. What about hiring a company like WCPM; will that put your score into their library for someone else to use in the future? “Not necessarily,” acknowledges Wachtler. “Let’s say NBC needs a certain song or a certain cue for something. If they’re hiring us to do that, we will not put it in the catalogs. It will really be for their use alone. Anything we compose and create on our own can go in our catalogs. But if a network or a TV show hires us to do something, normally, they will own it, and it will be for their use only.”

The digital revolution has also been responsible for changes in how production music is delivered. The vinyl records and reels of tape that were staples in a studio’s storage room are no more. According to Wachtler, “We do music on hard drives once in a while, but it’s almost entirely on the Internet now; it’s just much easier. Imagine a production facility that has multiple editing and post-production rooms, and hearing ‘Where’s that CD?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. Wasn’t it over in Studio Four?’ ‘No, it wasn’t. Is it in Two?’ It gets a little crazy with physical product for the bigger users. The convenience of the Internet is so much better for them. For those that can’t use online access, because of firewalls or company policy, we’ll provide them with hard drives.”

Online catalogs may be convenient, but how does an editor find what he or she is looking for? How do you do indexing? “It’s a challenge,” admits Wachtler. “We’ve gotten pretty sophisticated in our metadata tagging, and you can drill down on our search site, much like on Amazon. It is very much like what we have. You want rock? You want classic rock? You want classic rock, but only a :30? You want classic rock with no lead guitars, but a :30. And you just keep refining down like that until you get what you want. And then you can play it to hear if that’s exactly what you want. If it is, you download it and pay the fee or apply it to your contract.”

And if you are a big studio, you don’t even have to do it yourself. “We have 10 full-time U.S. reps,” says Wachtler, “because some users just don’t want to take the time to do everything and so we do it for them.”

Music cues are not the only sounds in some libraries. As Wachtler notes, “We have sound effects, as well, and then we have a hybrid of sound effects and music called sound design. It’s not quite music, and it’s not quite a door slamming. It’s in between. It might have a few effects together. It might have a chord with it. So we have a really nice, extensive collection of sound designs.”

If you are doing a period project, the next American Graffiti, for example, you’re also covered. “Our libraries include some archived series—‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s for example,” Wachtler adds. “As a major, we’re expected to cover the entire spectrum. If we don’t, then we’re not really doing our job. So we’re constantly writing and producing new music all the time in the older vein along with the contemporary styles. A lot of times, producers want the newer stuff to sound like the old stuff, and so we find ourselves saying, ‘Hey, can you make it sound like it was done in the ‘70s?’ It can be fun and a challenge.”

Is there a trend now? “We call them mashups, a form of cross-collateralization. You have rock composers and musicians coming to Nashville to write with country people, an interesting mix of country and rock. And what does that sound like? It’s not like the old country rock. It’s an interesting, new sound. And that seems to happen all the time, where things are crossing over.”
Another trend is the wide distribution, through many channels, of popular music.

“Our competition these days seems to be the labels,” admits Wachtler. “We’re constantly compared to whatever artist seems to be hot. For instance, a music supervisor might think Maroon 5 or some other artist or band is hot right now. They don’t want us to copy them but they ask, ‘Can you guys write and record music every bit as good in quality as big artists?’ That’s what we’re constantly compared to, and it’s tough because some artists spend months and months on a single, with huge budgets and big producers. Having said that, I think we do a pretty good job, comparable to some of the biggest artists’ recordings.”

Not that anyone will admit it, but there are times when a session isn’t exactly as planned. In the 1960s, there were two sayings heard frequently in the studio: “We’ll fix it in the mix” and “Close enough for jazz.” We asked Wachtler, “Do you ever make mistakes today?” He responded: “Oh yes. But sometimes, mistakes aren’t so bad. In the studio, especially, sometimes you do something, and then say, ‘Wait a minute, that wasn’t what we meant to do, but let’s save it.’”

Outtakes are always a good thing to keep around; that’s one way to build up a production music library!

September 4, 2015