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Original Music for Spots, TV and Film

By Christine Bunish

Whether its capturing the essence of today’s Grand Ole Opry, tapping an extraordinary musical career for the benefit of commercial advertisers, evoking the emotions of 9/11, or painting a picture in sound for a heartfelt new documentary, music houses nationwide are reaching deep to deliver memorable original tracks for projects of all kinds.

American Pickers Frank Fritz (left) and Mike Wolfe from the promo for their History Channel program.  Photos: A&E Networks
American Pickers Frank Fritz (left) and Mike Wolfe
from the promo for their History Channel program.
Photos: A&E Networks

Aircast Goes Custom for Pickers and Pickers

As the custom scoring division of production music giant Megatrax, Aircast Custom Music (www.aircastmusic.com) has the ability to create music from the ground up for clients, as well as modify existing library tracks and deal with copyright issues.

The vast majority of its work, however, is custom, and Aircast’s credits for TV programming and promos are wide ranging. Recently, The History Channel asked the company to score a promo for its popular collectibles-hunting series, American Pickers.

The playful :30 promo depicts the hosts showing off their often outlandish finds in a stop motion-style video layered against a changing background of rural landscapes. “Our big direction for the promo was stylistic. They also needed some hit points to go with the animated visuals they had in mind, and they wanted something with a certain fun factor,” recalls Aircast’s Creative Services Director, Randy Hart.

The result is a driving rock track that reflects the freewheeling nature of the hosts’ picking. “It’s kind of a raw, harsh electric guitar yet it bounces along – it’s not dark, it has a lot of life to it,” says Hart. “Virtually all age ranges are attracted to the show. We didn’t want to alienate older viewers with a track that was so raw and in-your-face that it would appeal only to those who like that sound. We needed a track with a certain quality and integrity to it.”

Earlier, Aircast teamed with The History Channel and sponsor Mercedes on a cross-promotion celebrating Woodstock: Now & Then, which tasked the company with devising a new arrangement of Canned Heat’s iconic “Goin’ Up the Country.” “They needed a succinct, :30 version that worked musically with a tight, clean ending,” Hart explains. “It had to sparkle sonically – the instrumentation needed to be a bit cleaner and brighter than the original recording by virtue of today’s recording techniques.” The famous flute line itself was irreplaceable. “It was instantly recognizable, and we wanted to engage viewers as quickly as possible,” he notes.

Title squence for the new Opry Live.
Title squence for the new Opry Live.

Aircast, headquartered in Nashville, just completed a new theme for the famous Grand Ole Opry, whose Opry Live telecasts are now seen on Great American Country (GAC), and radio broadcasts are syndicated by Westwood One. “For their re-launch on television they wanted a high-energy, contemporary-sounding piece, primarily guitar-based, that had an identifiable sound or logo” for branding opportunities, says Hart.

The TV theme, which accompanies a bold graphic montage of today’s top artists, is a far cry from the acoustic guitar and vocals one might associate with the Opry’s heritage and its cadre of older artists, Hart said. “The production values are similar to those of contemporary country recordings,” he points out. “It’s very electric – banjo, four or five guitars, organ, piano and a percussion loop for a bit of a subtle bounce. It definitely sets the tone for the show, which features a lot of contemporary artists.”

The package that Aircast delivered for the Opry was typical of a project of this type. It featured an array of deliverables starting with the :30 theme, which was cut live; longer and shorter variations edited from the :30; and :05 bumps, which also were recorded live. “With a program package like this you always want sonic or musical continuity going in and out of commercials to remind viewers what they’re coming back to,” says Hart.

Randy Hart, Aircast's creative services director.
Randy Hart, Aircast’s creative services director.

“Themes and promos are a unique animal,” he emphasizes. “There’s an important relationship between the piece of music and the entire production. It’s kicking off the show; it has to mirror what you’re about to see. It takes a special skill set to set the tone and tell the story in that short a time frame.”

Mutato Muzika Ramps Up Spot Work After Feature and TV Success

LA’s Mutato Muzika (www.mutato.com) is “reinvigorating” its commercial music side after a period which saw company founder and Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh concentrating on recording with the band and scoring numerous movies and TV shows. “I drifted away from spots,” he says, “but I’ve got some new people working with me in production, including Natalie Montgomery who was formerly with Wieden + Kennedy, and we’re ramping up so we’ll be in full swing by the end of the year. We’re also partnering with Funkhaus to create a new website and Internet presence.”

Although he’s more accustomed to long-form composing these days, Mothersbaugh enjoys writing music for commercials. “Thirty-second spots are like mini movies: So much information is packed into them. Films, even TV shows, have space in them. But commercials are airtight, very intense and compressed. That kind of makes them exciting and fun. There’s so much energy in a :30 – every second is precious and important.”

He notes that using songs for commercial tracks seems to be a lasting trend. “Songs seem to solve the problem people have communicating with their clients – they’re a safe area. When you have a song, you have a place to start the discussion. Music is difficult to talk about: Words are less satisfying from a descriptive standpoint. But when you stay in the world of songs, it’s a comfort area for people. You can tell them, ‘This is piece we want to use.’”

Mutato Muzika
The Oscar Niemeyer-designed building on Sunset Strip, which houses Mutato Muzika.

Mothersbaugh says he isn’t insulted if a customer comes to cutting-edge Mutato with a song in mind. After all, Mick Jagger once told Mothersbaugh that he had produced Jagger’s favorite version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” “I’m up for mutation, reinterpretation and turning things inside out,” he says. “We get called about music people have heard in films and on TV.” Including his own compositions.

“Agencies call and say, ‘We’re temping spots to your music from this Wes Anderson film or from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, but we don’t have the money for a 95-piece orchestra. Another spot composer told me he’s asked to knock off my stuff every month.”

Faster turnarounds for commercials and high expectations from clients competing in a pressure-cooker environment mean music houses do more hand-holding with customers than ever before. “You used to send the music and sit back,” Mothersbaugh recalls. “Now you have to be on top of the client almost hourly. They’re looking for someone to solve problems for them.”

Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo frontman and founder of Mutato Muzika.
Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo frontman and founder of Mutato Muzika.

Recently, he collaborated with colleague Chris Kennedy on music for a tongue-in-cheek spot for Google TV’s Logitech Revue, which featured the ultimate Kevin Bacon fan (played by Bacon himself). The whimsical track “helped keep everything together and moving along,” he says. “It had to be all about Kevin, but we didn’t want anything that would seem creepy or put him in a weird light.”

Mutato is well known for scoring George Clooney’s hilariously deadpan black-and-white spots for Martini, which aired in Europe and have the feel of lush continental films. “They had to feel that you were at the Cannes Film Festival – that kind of atmosphere,” says Mothersbaugh. In the ‘El Toro’ spot, he discovered that recording real mariachi players didn’t work as well as classically trained orchestral players who played to picture more effectively.

Mothersbaugh usually records in Apple’s Logic, although he sometimes goes straight to a room with guitars and drums. Mutato’s own studios meet most live recording needs – in fact, half of his feature work has been recorded inhouse.

At press time, Mothersbaugh was still working on four features and a mountain of episodic television: Season four of Spike’s Blue Mountain State; season three of Cartoon Network’s The Regular Show; plus HBO’s new Enlightened and Showtime’s new House of Lies, which showcase his “Thomas Newman side” and “acidic and electronic, veering towards club” tracks, respectively. He also recently played in a “Super Band” with Bootsy Collins, rapper Biz Markie, Questlove and Erykah Badu for the hit kid’s TV program Yo Gabba Gabba!.

One of the many unique instruments Mutato Muzika uses to produce original music for its clients.
One of the many unique instruments Mutato Muzika uses to produce original music for its clients.

Such diverse musical experiences boost his spot music capabilities, Mothersbaugh believes. “I’m not a guy who does music for commercials every day, and there are advantages to that. I think there’s more of a chance to get something fresher and more original sounding than if you go to a music house where the people are feeling fatigued from pumping it out all the time.”

Stephen Arnold Music Takes on 9/11 Anniversary for CNN

When CNN was looking for moving and inspirational music for its coverage of 9/11 – Ten Years Later, the news network came to Dallas-based Stephen Arnold Music (www.stephenarnoldmusic.com) for a package to brand and unify the week-long commemoration. CNN required music to anchor a range of shows and promotions in the lead up to the 10th anniversary of the attacks, and it needed an arrangement to play behind live coverage of the unveiling of the 9/11 Memorials in Shanksville, Pa., and at Ground Zero.

“CNN didn’t want us to create something that was overly dark and somber,” says Stephen Arnold. “The music had to be a thread among all the programming, yet it all had to be a little different. After doing three scratch tracks, they latched onto a track that had a nice balance of reflection, hope and optimism.”

Stephen Arnold Music crafted modular tracks that the network could combine for various promos and use to support programming such as Dr. Sanjay Gupta Reports: Terror in the Dust; Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience; Footnotes of 9/11; and Beyond Bravery: The Women of 9/11. The monumental main theme primarily featured strings, French horn and orchestral percussion, all recorded live in Texas.

Stephen Arnold
Stephen Arnold at the ProMax Digital Lounge.

The second, sparser arrangement, used during the Ground Zero and Shanksville dedication ceremonies, took a slightly different direction with classical guitar, strings and a touch of textural vocals.

Stephen Arnold Music composed moving and inspirational music for these television specials on the BP oil spill and 9/11.
Stephen Arnold Music composed moving and inspirational music for these television specials on the BP oil spill and 9/11.

The project had Stephen Arnold Music walking a “tightrope” of emotions, reports VP of Creative Services, Chad Cook. “It had a strong brand to it and an emotional tie to viewers. But we couldn’t go to the dark side of the tragedy: We had to mark the moment and move on.”

The company is no stranger to creating music with “a strong emotional connection,” he notes. It won a Promax Gold Award for “God Bless Louisiana,” an inspirational track written for ABC affiliate WGNO-TV/New Orleans following the oil disaster in the gulf.

“We got the voiceover first [actor Wendell Pierce from Treme] when typically the last thing you work with is the voiceover,” says Arnold. “It was like a Deep South pastor giving a tent revival speech in the heat. Wendell’s voice was almost the melody – I just had to come up with the chords. So I grabbed my guitar and began to play a few little licks.”

Arnold hired New Orleans-based musicians to record the drums, organ, bass, guitar and piano for two spots called “Hardship” and “Hope.” They jammed and produced a two-minute track, which was edited for the :30 spots that truly resonated with New Orleanians.

“One of the values of custom music is the ability to fine tune your emotional message to your brand,” says Cook. “We’ve never seen a bigger response than we did from these spots. They went beyond TV station branding to connecting the station to the community and all it had been through.”

PrimalScream Demonstrates the Power of Music for New Doc

A story of personal courage and survival, the feature documentary The Power of Two profiles twins Anabel Stenzel and Isabel Stenzel Byrnes and their battle with the fatal genetic disease Cystic Fibrosis (CF). Defying all odds, the sisters have survived double lung transplants and become authors, athletes and global advocates for organ donation.

When Academy Award-nominated director Marc Smolowitz first contacted Nicole Dionne, creative director at LA’s PrimalScream Music & Sound, about scoring the doc, she thought it was a medical documentary. “But it was an emotional, passionate story about the twins that hit me hard,” she says. “I’ve been offered to music supervise movies before and never done them. I always knew the first one would be something I was passionate about, and my mind started clicking just based on my initial creative call with Marc before I even saw any footage.”

Anabel and Isabel Stenzel from the documentary The Power of Two.
Anabel and Isabel Stenzel from the documentary The Power of Two.

Dionne selected the doc’s two composers, Tim Easton and Kyle Moorman, who each started to work based only on Dionne’s verbal picture-painting: The doc was still being edited and footage was available only randomly. Dionne also began collecting songs that meant a lot to her, compiling a soundtrack by bands and singer-songwriters who are a rising stars in the music industry.

“I didn’t want any trendy songs,” says Dionne. “Kyle’s work is unique and inspired – his electronic sounds are great and very progressive. Tim is fully acoustic; his guitar work is so in-the-moment – it hits you right away. The two of them couldn’t be more opposite, yet they inspired and motivated each other as artists on this film.”

Early on, Dionne proposed 15 songs for the doc, all of which ended up in the film, “some for their musical aspects, [and] some for their lyrics.” Sara Melson’s “Feel It Coming,” whose lyrics express that something better is coming soon, accompanied the story of young Anna Modlin, another CF transplant recipient and two other sequences. “It so aligned with the film that [Anna] asked, ‘Did Sara write it for me?’” Dionne recalls.

She thought that Juliette Commagere’s haunting “Skyscraper” would work perfectly over the opening titles, providing an immersive musical counterpoint to a lyrical rough cut she saw of the twins at a swimming competition.

Nicole Dionne of PrimalScream with songwriter Gus Black.
Nicole Dionne of PrimalScream with songwriter Gus Black.

Dionne also selected Gus Black’s “The Afterlife,” a simple and affecting vocal with guitar that was written about his child being his own afterlife, to draw together the different transplant philosophies of the American and Japanese cultures and reflect the concept that organ donation is an afterlife.

She chose Mindy Gledhill’s “Anchor,” a piano track with a beautiful lyric about being someone’s anchor when the world is spinning around, for Anabel’s wedding sequence. And Remy Zero’s “World,” produced by Dionne, adds an especially poignant touch to the end credits since the band’s drummer died of CF. Throughout, Dionne deftly placed songs with lyrics around the film’s considerable narration so they would not compete with but only support the storytelling.

When The Power of Two was finished, Dionne hosted a screening at her home for all the artists included in the soundtrack and for the real-life stars of the doc. “When the film ended, no one moved,” she recalls about what has proved to be a transformative experience for the participants. “Many of the artists are now giving their time to CF and performing at events. It’s rare for a film to have had this kind of connection with its musicians.”

The Power of Two premiered during DocuWeeks, the prestigious Oscar-qualifying doc showcase held in LA and NY, and has been selected for the Tokyo Film Festival. It also had gala screenings in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., with live performances by the artists involved in the soundtrack.

November 26, 2012