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Writing The Perfect Track

Scoring in today’s music market

By Mark R. Smith

Endless Noise engineers recording unique sounds for a Craftsman Tools campaign.   Stephen Arnold Music President, Stephen Arnold, in his studio with one of his many guitars. Producing original music is a significant portion of the workload at the Dallas-based company.   In the studio of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Endless Noise.  Endless Noise produced a track with up-and-coming artist Kevin Olusola.  Photo: Mary Catherine Finney
Endless Noise engineers recording unique sounds for a Craftsman Tools campaign.
Stephen Arnold Music President, Stephen Arnold, in his studio with one of his many guitars. Producing original music is a significant portion of the workload at the Dallas-based company.
In the studio of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Endless Noise.
Endless Noise produced a track with up-and-coming artist Kevin Olusola. Photo: Mary Catherine Finney

Like the rest of the production and post world, the market for original music has turned with the tides, has ebbed and flowed, and has shifted here and there – now possibly to a point where clients again see the value of expanding a budget to include that perfect, signature score.

Talk to any veteran of the music scene and you might hear that business is not as good as it once was, that it’s steady or that a new (or even old) market is re-opening, perhaps to become a significant segment of a company’s target market again.

Aircast Creative Services Director, Randy Hart, working on a composition at his piano.
Aircast Creative Services Director, Randy Hart, working on a composition at his piano.

Audio view, anew

Custom music is a product of its writer’s imagination, but often with a little influence. That’s the take of Randy Hart, creative services director with Aircast Custom Music (www.aircastmusic.com), the Nashville-based division of Megatrax, a North Hollywood music library.

“Stylistically, the usual references I get from clients concern what’s hot. So, you write something in that vein,” Hart said, citing popular artists such as Katy Perry and Mumford & Sons. “They ask for certain types of tracks, but we obviously don’t copy anything; what we do is extrapolate something unique that’s akin to a genre and is also popular with a target demographic.”

What’s extrapolated by Aircast accentuates spots, and sonically brands TV news packages and show opens for clients such as the Fox O&O’s, as well as cablenets. Aircast also just updated one of its news packages for the NBC affiliate in Albany, N.Y., WNYT, which may be syndicated to other network stations.

Local affiliate promos and image pieces “are another leg of what we do, but they are a completely different animal from a local news package,” said Hart, noting promos for the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s program blocks in various categories, such as court programs and talk shows.

Other projects, which are cut on the house’s Pro Tools 10 with Nuendo 5.5 DAWS, range from scoring spots that feature the yodeling cow for the California Dairy Council to an orchestral Spanish radio network ID package.

Projects begin with Hart, a keyboardist by trade, working with a team of up to 15 musicians, composers and arrangers to create a product from a talent pool that includes some of Nashville’s finest, as well as crack players from New York, L.A. and Chicago; Aircast garners the various instrumental tracks via file transfer sites, then often records and mixes at various Music City studios.

Carlos Chafin and engineer/ foley artist Andrea Stefl at In Your Ear Studio A, Richmond, Va. Recently, IYE has scored TV spots for numerous clients around the country.
Carlos Chafin and engineer/ foley artist Andrea Stefl at In Your Ear Studio A, Richmond, Va. Recently, IYE has scored TV spots for numerous clients around the country.

‘A Real Fine Day’

Call co-owner Carlos Chafin at Richmond, Va.-based In Your Ear (IYE) and he might tell you that he and the staff are having “A Real Fine Day.” Music fans may recognize those words as the title of the new album by Chafin’s writing and business partner, and one of Virginia’s favorite sons, Robbin Thompson. However, they might also be used to describe a rising current in an original music market that plummeted at the house years ago.

Spot work had “been the way” at IYE (www.lobe.com) up until 9-11, which marked the start of what Chafin termed “a dark period” for original music, when budgets were slashed and advertisers began opting for less expensive sounds from libraries or from a lesser known (thus more affordable) artist’s tracks. That sharp decline, coupled with the rise of desktop audio, meant dwindling demand.

“It was a double-whammy,” he said, “and it’s been that way for most of the past 12 years.”

However, during the past 18 months, IYE has scored spots for Boone Oakley Advertising (Bojangle’s), Charlotte; Peter Mayer Advertising (Centurylink), New Orleans; and Adworks (Total Wine) Washington, as well as The Martin Agency (Cool Whip), which is located across Shockoe Bottom, in Richmond. “Seeing that geographic diversity is much more encouraging than just getting one project – and that’s encouraging about where this part of the industry is headed,” Chafin said.

All of the aforementioned ad shops are creatively driven, he said. “And they’re being tapped to use more resources. That means calling music houses like ours. And that means demand is rising.”

Today, there’s another bonus in the equation. During the downturn, IYE, which offers a technical mix featuring Pro Tools and Cubase with Nuendo, returned to traditional music recording. The house has produced about two dozen albums (including releases for the likes of Grammy winners Chris Brown and Wale) “and made new alliances, while working with old friends,” said Chafin. “That not only re-ignited our fire, but it has led to us creating more original music.”

JDK Music President, John Keltonic, conducting an orchestra at Omega Recording Studios in suburban Washington D.C. The Richmond, Va.-based JDK’s scores can be heard in three upcoming projects for PBS.
JDK Music President, John Keltonic, conducting an orchestra at Omega Recording Studios in suburban Washington D.C. The Richmond, Va.-based JDK’s scores can be heard in three upcoming projects for PBS.

Still an original

Also based in Virginia’s capital city, John Keltonic, president of Richmond’s JDK Music (www.jdkmusic.com), says his clientele still prefers original scores to library tracks. He offered ample reason as to what that personal touch means when tailoring a perfect soundtrack.

“Many clients can still hear and appreciate the difference between library music and original tracks. That also means clients don’t necessarily accept pre-recorded music that isn’t quite right for a project,” Keltonic said, though he offered an opposing point of view.

“I do wonder if the some of the younger audience cares quite as much, though” he said. “I think fewer people care about using original music these days, or the quality of either the music or the format. Many younger viewers actually prefer compressed audio (i.e., MP3s), as opposed to higher quality audio. Maybe they don’t know what they’re missing.”

Keltonic works virtually and produces his sessions at such facilities as Bias Recording or Omega Recording Studios in suburban Washington, and Quad Studios and 615 Productions in Nashville. Digital Perfomer is his main composing tool, and he also uses ProTools 10 and “a ton of music sample libraries,” plug-ins, etc. “Digital Performer is always the go-to composition tool,” he said, because of features such as Chunks, which makes modifying cues “a breeze;” flawless integration with MIDI, and live audio.

Still, he’s more interested in being a composer than an engineer or a businessman, so compose, he does. These days, Keltonic is scoring three films for PBS that will premiere in 2014.

“Most of my work is film scoring, but different types of production companies still hire me,” he said, also pointing to work for Tom Brokaw’s special during NBC Sports’ coverage of the 2012 Summer Olympics, plus music for national TV spots for CBS Sports (coverage of the PGA at Hilton Head, S.C.), Nomads Agency (Amsterdam) for Emirates Airlines and The Production Line (Alexandria, Va.) for Marriott Corp.

Still, even with the industry’s shifts, people are still calling, Keltonic said. “I’m still able to make a living doing what I love to do.”

Up close ’n’ personal

  Stephen Arnold Music President, Stephen Arnold, in his studio with one of his many guitars. Producing original music is a significant portion of the workload at the Dallas-based company.
   Stephen Arnold Music President, Stephen Arnold, in his studio
with one of his many guitars. Producing original music is a
significant portion of the workload at
the Dallas-based company.

Producing original music is the significant portion of the workload at Stephen Arnold Music (www.stephenarnoldmusic.com), the Dallas-based music house that has made its name by remaining small enough to offer cablenets and network affiliates a personal touch.

“Here, you’re just talking to me and a couple of other composers,” said Stephen Arnold, president, who also offers several audio libraries through a sister company, The Vault. “At other houses, you’re talking to a sales rep, then a creative liaison who might sub the project out. But we’re a boutique studio.”

At Arnold’s house, the approach to writing depends on how a network or show is branded. For instance, for CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront,” Arnold imagined an edgy guitar would appeal to its young demo; but for CCTV China, strong world music-styled percussion and orchestration were the order of the day.

Arnold also recently crafted music for the ABC affiliate WGNO in New Orleans, “using all top local talent to capture a true New Orleans flavor.” The point, Arnold noted, is that all shows and networks require “an immediately identifiable sound” that’s all their own.

“We create a sonic brand,” he said, “with the ultimate challenge always being to come up with that memorable set of notes.”

Regarding recording, the house works with artists worldwide who often record their part and FTP it back to Dallas, where Arnold employs the iZ Radar, Nuendo, the Pro Tools HD interface and Digital Performer, all running on a Mac. Other recent clients include Golf Channel, Top Rank Boxing and Fox Business Channel.

Noting that the original music business has become more fragmented, thus more financially challenging, as it has become harder to get real players to play on tracks (rather than using samples), Arnold said that creating original music “can be as much science as art. So, what we have to do is be careful not to suck the life out of the art.”

Endless Noise in the recording studio for client Norfolk Southern. Photo: Donna Schoch-Spana
Endless Noise in the recording studio for client Norfolk Southern. Photo: Donna Schoch-Spana

Under the covers

At the marvelously named Endless Noise (www.endlessnoise.com), president Jeff Elmassian and company write for film, TV, record production (more on that later) and “an enormous amount of spot work, which is 70 percent” of what dots the house’s production dossier.

The client list at the Santa Monica, Calif.-based house includes the likes of The Henson Co., Disney, Nike, Volkswagen, Hyundai and their agencies, which include Saatchi & Saatchi (S&S), TBWA\Chiat\Day and Deutsch.

Elmassian offered two examples of industry trends. The first can be explained via a spot project for Norfolk Southern and agency RP3, which required the licensing of the beloved kiddie tune, “Conjunction Junction,” but called for an updated version. “So we reworked the lyrics using various beats (including reggae) before clearing a final version through Disney,” which owns the series that featured the original, “Schoolhouse Rock.”

YouTube sensation Pentatonix in the Endless Noise studios, Santa Monica, Calif. Photo: Mary Catherine Finney   
YouTube sensation Pentatonix in the Endless Noise studios,
Santa Monica, Calif.
Photo: Mary Catherine Finney
 

Such projects are part of a huge new wave, he said. “During the first craze in licensing hit songs, it was expensive and the artist felt like he was selling out. But it became cool in the late ’90s and most of the early ’00’s.”

But more recently, updating famous songs has become the favored avenue. “People want to license the song, but no one wants to edit the original,” Elmassian says. “That way, advertisers like the song’s cache with boomers and GenXers, while millennials get something new.”

Affordability is still an issue, “though a client like Norfolk Southern can afford it, but still wants its own version,” he said.

The other trend, Elmassian continued, concerns record production work that is fed to the masses via the Internet. “We work with S&S on all of their cereal brands, and those spots often are animated and fun. They’ll target kids – and older ‘kids,’ in their 20s – who still eat Lucky Charms,” he said, noting a tech roster that features Pro Tools and Logic 10, with Ableton products. “So the advertiser looks for acts with large audiences, and millions of hits on YouTube, like Pentatonix.

“The agencies have us try to connect with bands that have more viral followings than the mainstream bands, like Vampire Weekend,” Elmassian said. “Pentatonix, for instance, gained traction through YouTube and starting touring based on that introduction to their fan base.”

Paul Robb, HiFi Project creative director, in the company’s studios in Santa Monica, Calif. Robb said electronica is coming back into favor with clients looking for original music.
Paul Robb, HiFi Project creative director, in the company’s studios in Santa Monica, Calif. Robb said electronica is coming back into favor with clients looking for original music.

Living in synth

Another performer who embraced the creative outlet that is scoring production music, Paul Robb, writer/drummer for the ’80s synth-poppers Information Society (remember “What’s On Your Mind (Pure Energy)”?), now spends his days serving as creative director for the Santa Monica, Calif.-based HiFi Project (www.hifiproject.com). He creates “music for pictures,” with 85 percent directed to the spot market, be it broadcast or interactive.

Robb also is still at work “in what was once called the record business” and can talk all about advertisers chasing the viral trend. “But what we do at HiFi Project is pretty consistent,” he said, “regardless of the ultimate medium.”

Having such a big spot base often can mean plenty of auto work, and last summer HiFi scored a Chevy campaign (Commonwealth/Detroit) and Jaguar spots (Spark 44/L.A.). The house, which used the Cubase system with several plug-ins, also licensed tracks for Target and worked as supervisors while searching for tracks via demos, networking, live performances for the client via the agency, Mono (Minneapolis), for unsigned bands.

Like Chafin, Robb feels like he’s seeing good things on the horizon. “I’ve also noticed is that original music is coming back. Agencies were spending huge amounts – well north of $1 million in some cases – for well-known hit songs, and others they believed to be hip or groovy in alternative circles,” he said.

And though he’s still seeing plenty of younger creatives with “an iTunes search mentality” who may simply check their music libraries for tracks, he says, “more people are understanding the value of original music.”

Another trend Robb noted, which isn’t a surprise given his pop pedigree, is that “After a decade of folk rock, indie or Americana” being the general music of the day, electronica is coming back into original music circles.

“That’s great for us, because electronica is kind of my home territory,” he said – even hinting at a possible new release from Information Society.