July 1, 2008

For a Song: How to Get the Music You Want

Hey, That’s My Music!
Music Supervision, Licensing, and Content Acquisition

By Brooke Wentz
Hal Leonard Books
$24.95, paperback, 256 pps.
ISBN-10:1-4234-2212-0
ISBN-13: 978-1-4234-2212-9

 

I recently read an article about Elmer Bernstein. In it he discussed writing the music for Animal House. He was confused about how to handle it, so he queried director John Landis, who told him to treat it as if the film were deadly serious. Immediately I remembered the scene where John Belushi exhorts his frat-mates to fight back against the university. I could hear the music swelling as he delivered his viscerally inspiring directives. Without that music, the film wouldn't have been the same, and quite possibly could have been a total failure.

We can't all hire Elmer Bernstein—especially since he’s no longer with us—but we should recognize what an important role music plays in our films. If you're lucky, you have friends in a band who make amazing music, love your film and understand your goals. You buy them a pitcher of beer and they give you all the music you need for your documentary. If you're not so lucky, you fall in love with that Rolling Stones song that you'll never be able to use.

In any case, you're going to have to have some kind of contract (actually, several kinds of contracts for each piece of music) before you can sell your movie to anyone else. In Hey, That's My Music!, music supervisor Brooke Wentz lays out all of the ins and outs of getting permission to use those tracks, what contracts you'll need and how to get people to sign them.

As de facto producer on many of our films, I'm always stuck with the task of talking bands and labels into letting us use their songs. With each film we've made, we've been able to pay a little bit more, but not nearly as much as anyone wants. For filmmakers who don't know bands or composers and don't have a big budget, it can be a difficult slog. Frankly, there are so many people and so much paperwork involved for most songs released by major labels that it's difficult for small docs to scrape together the funds to make it worthwhile to even do the paperwork for most rights owners.

Wentz dispenses a lot of useful advice (including sample letters) about how to contact the different owners and beg for a break. Her best advice, though, is to realize when a negotiation is going nowhere and just let it go. As she points out, major labels need to see cash flow and they ask for large sums of money, while many indies want to get their music used for exposure value. Wentz also gives good advice about using music libraries, sound-alikes and composers to reign in costs and effectively place music.

Hey, That's My Music! is aimed a bit more at the wannabe music supervisor and music-maker than the average filmmaker. That is, it has a lot more information than the average filmmaker is going to find useful, but it does include all of the information that a filmmaker is going to need. Moreover, understanding the business perspective of the content owners and industry workers can be useful when negotiating with them.

Frankly, music licensing is a lot more complex than anyone wants it to be. However, when a filmmaker really wants that song, he/she will often go the extra mile to get it. If you're that filmmaker and you have to have that song, it probably makes sense to read Hey! That’s My Music!. Like anything else, music licensing is based on relationships. Either hire a music supervisor who does have the relationships or educate yourself so that when you do approach the song owner you'll be able present yourself professionally. Who knows? You just might get the song—and then you'll really need the contracts provided in the book.

 

Michael Galinsky is a filmmaker who used to be a bass player, and sometimes he still plays bass backing his six-year-old girl when she channels Mark E. Smith.

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