Can you visualize your music in a film or on a television show? For an independent artist, a new band or a rising songwriter, contributing music to a show is entrée to new audiences and industry credibility, and in a universe of evaporating record sales, a lucrative pursuit in its own right. Indeed: many working musicians attest that they can potentially earn more from one strategic placement than they might realize after months of grinding gigs.
That said, there are parameters governing what makes music work for a show––and what does not. For independent and feature films, these demands are even more specific and exacting because the musical choices made by a music supervisor must mirror the plot and the characters, and also match the director’s vision.
While the playing field has become increasingly level in terms of affordable digital technology and internet outreach, the competition has become much greater for placements. Now, music can be pitched from anywhere in the world. Music publishers, record labels and companies who can anticipate the trends and maneuver accordingly have the inside track. In this exclusive feature, MC speaks with a cross section of industry sources about what the film and television industries know about using music that those who create it often do not.
By Dan Kimpel
“A good lyric for film and TV is universal enough to allow the song to be used in a variety of scenes while still maintaining integrity, originality and focus,” writes author and songwriter Robin Frederick in her indispensable book, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV. “Of course, no song will work for every scene, but some themes and situations occur more frequently than others—falling in love, breaking up or overcoming adversity, for example. If you choose one of these, you’re more likely to be successful. Imagery, emotional detail and a fresh approach to your theme will all add muscle to a universal lyric, making it more appealing to film and TV. On the other hand, too many specific physical details, like place names, proper names and dates, will limit the uses.”
Frederick also advises that while music supervisors often seek out tracks that sound like the current charts, all genres of music are welcome. “Songs are very effective at evoking a time period or location. From delta blues to big band jazz to Seattle grunge, films and TV shows use them all. And yes, a flashback to Studio 54 will require a really hot disco track to set the scene. If you’ve got it, they need it.”
David Scheffler, whose company Drama King works with a variety of shows and productions for Fox, ABC, CNN, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, Hallmark and Court TV, adds a musical counterpoint to this information. “Harmonic simplicity is very important; no linear melodies unless it’s a theme or there’s no dialogue; don’t even think about noodling or soloing; it’s all about supporting the visual with a vibe, feeling and emotion. Less is more.” But, he adds, “You can break every rule I just laid out, depending on the individual situation.”