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10 Music Documentaries to Binge-Watch on a Free Weekend

10 Music Documentaries to Binge-Watch on a Free Weekend

Many films have been made about music and the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of those who produce it. Here we list, in no particular order, some of the best and most successful music documentaries to hit the screen, both big and small, over the last five decades. So pick a weekend, get some snacks and beer, lie on the couch and start streaming!

Please use the comments box to add to the list and tell us about your own personal favourites.

It Might Get Loud (2008)

White Stripes’ Jack White meets U2’s The Edge meets Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page in this American documentary by Davis Guggenheim.Sitting around in comfy chairs, these three exulted Guitar Gods chat about their techniques, influences and humble beginnings with interviews, live appearances and found footage from their early careers up to the present day.

At one point, each guitarist teaches the other two how to play one of their band’s tunes. I Will Follow (U2), Dead Leaves and The Dirty Ground (White Stripes), and In My Time of Dying (Led Zep) being the three chosen tracks.

The film boasts some classic moments for hardcore axe fiends. Jack White making a guitar in real time from a piece of wood, some wire and a broken bottle. Jimmy Page gurning away with a huge grin while listening to Link Wray’s Rumble. And The Edge plugging in his favourite axe as he warns the camera crew, “it might get loud.”
In the US, The film received a wide release by Sony Picture Classics on August 14, 2009.

Amy (2015)

Featuring lots of found footage alongside interviews and concert film, Amy is the tale of a private, often shy girl with a huge talent and addictive nature that ultimately led to her demise. The film depicts Winehouse’s struggle with substance abuse and the effect of its profound grip on her decisions. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are a lot of scenes dedicated to the celebration of her career and music including a number of previously unheard tracks and unseen performances.

To date the film has received 33 nominations and has won a total of 30 film awards, including for Best European Documentary at the 28th European Film Awards. Best Documentary at the 69th British Academy Film Awards, Best Music Film at the 58th Grammy Awards, the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 88th Academy Awards and for Best Documentary at the 2016 MTV Movie Awards. The success of the film and the music from soundtrack also led Winehouse her second posthumous nomination at the 2016 BRIT Awards for “British Female Solo Artist”.

The Wrecking Crew (2008)

The Monkees, The Beach Boys, Phil Spectre’s Wall of Sound. This film is where you learn (if you weren’t already aware) that most of your favourite tunes of the 1960’s were not played by the credited musicians. In fact most of these famous songs were performed in the studio by a group of expert session musicians who became known as The Wrecking Crew.

Your jaw will drop as one after another, the surviving members list off their sessions. Good Vibrations, Wichita Lineman, California Dreaming, Mr. Tambourine Man, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water to name but a few.

And why? Because The Wrecking Crew’s ranks include a variety of guitarists, drummers, pianists and orchestral players whose combined musicianship is beyond compare. So why spend all afternoon trying to get a take from a young, fledgling guitarist or a drummer who can’t play in time? Draft in expert session players like The Wrecking Crew and get your song finished in one take!

Sound City (2013)

Produced and directed by Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighter’s frontman Dave Grohl, this film documents the story of Sound City, a recording studio tucked away in the San Fernando Valley amidst rows of dilapidated warehouses and disused buildings.

The little-known recording studio housed an analogue 28 channel 8028 Neve mixing console and had a reputation for drums, giving the studio recordings a particularly punchy sound. Artists such as Nirvana, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Rage Against The Machine and Slipknot all recorded ground breaking music at the studio. The film tells the story of Sound City from its very early days in the late sixties to its closure in 2011.

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

A beautifully warm film by Wim Wenders documenting Ry Cooder’s ambitious undertaking to reunite a group of legendary Cuban musicians to record an album and perform three concerts. Two in Amsterdam and one in New York. The film includes interviews with each of the main performers. About their early lives in Cuba, their careers in music and the relative obscurity that followed.
There are also some wonderful scenes of the musicians (many in their 70’s and 80’s at the time of recording) traveling abroad, some for the very first time.

The film spawned a hit album of the same name which includes songs by the likes of Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Eliades Ochoa, Compay Segundo and Omara Portuondo.

Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972) 

It doesn’t get much more proggy than Floyd’s 1972 film which centres around footage of them performing in an ancient Roman Amphitheatre in Pompeii, Italy. Filmed over four days, the Floyd are playing a typical live set, but there is no audience, somehow giving the film an other worldly feel, intensified by their hot and sweaty semi naked daytime performances. For gearheads it’s a great opportunity to ogle at their stacks of amps and speakers, miles of cables and classic guitars, drums and organs all being thrashed by the band to powerful effect.

Filming was dogged by technical issues. The power supply in the amphitheatre was insufficient to run the masses of equipment. So in the end a lengthy cable was fed from the local town hall to supply electricity.

With the power supply restored, the Floyd play versions of Echoes, A Saucerful of Secrets and One Of These Days mixed with interviews, rehearsals and, in later versions of the film, studio footage from the Abbey Road sessions for Dark Side Of The Moon.

Classic Albums (various)

We cannot list music documentaries without a mention for the greatest music documentary series of them all, Classic Albums. The TV series made by Isis Productions and distributed by Eagle Rock Entertainment.

The format of the show is as follows. The music, and its production, is dissected by the musicians and/or producer, playing the multitrack recordings and singling out the separate recording tracks on the mixing desk. Then the individual musicians play back pieces, which are blended with the original recording. Almost all songs on the albums are meticulously examined, focusing almost entirely on the music itself, its inspiration, composition and realisation.

Each programme highlights the emotional process involved in making music. The highs, the lows, the addictions, the obsessions. Everything is laid bare and examined in minute detail. A truly great series for all musicians interested in the process behind making music.

Classic Albums include recordings by Elton John, Steely Dan, Motorhead, The Sex Pistols, Pink Floyd, The Who, Lou Reed, Iron Maiden, Nirvana, Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac and many more.

Cracked Actor (1974)

This 53 minute BBC documentary film depicts a post-Ziggy Bowie, emancipated and becoming addled by drug use, but remaining in control, hugely charismatic and beautifully fragile as he tours 70’s America. Languishing on the back seat of a huge limo, being hustled in and out of hotel rooms, appearing on countless TV and radio shows as the US tries to come to terms with this strange pale alien and his alluring, captivating musical paeans to the American psyche.

Drinking from a milk carton in the back of a Limo as they speed through the desert, The Thin White Duke is asked how he’s picked up on so many of the themes and culture of America during his stay. Bowie replies, “there’s a fly in my milk, a foreign body. And he’s getting a lot of milk. That’s kind of how I feel.”

The film includes concert footage from the ambitiously staged Diamond Dogs tour mainly filmed at the Los Angeles Universal Amphitheatre on September 2nd 1974.

Although not widely available (it still remains officially unreleased), this film is worth tracking down for all Station to Station/Young Americans period Bowie fans.

Searching For Sugar Man (2012)

This is the incredible story of Sixto Rodriguez, a little known singer/songwriter who had gained almost mythical status in South Africa despite remaining entirely unknown in his native USA.
The film details the efforts of two Cape Town fans in the late 1990s, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, who set out to discover whether the rumours of his suicide were true, or if not, what had become of the singer.

The film takes many fascinating twists and turns as the super-fans uncover more and more surprising details about the singer’s life.

What’s not surprising is that the film won both a BAFTA and an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature of 2013.

Tragically the writer, Malik Bendjelloul committed suicide in 2014.

Some Kind of Monster (2004)

All is not well in the Metallica camp. Their long term bassist Jason Newsted has quit the band and frontman James Hetfield is on the verge of a breakdown. His unwieldy ego and dark mood swings are over riding the band’s efforts to record a new album. Enter Phil Towe, a therapist and psychoanalyst drafted in by the management company (at $40,000 a month) in an attempt to reconcile the band’s differences. But things go from bad to worse and Hetfield checks in to a rehab centre to tackle his depression and alcoholism head on, delaying the recording of the album by around 18 months.

Even if you’re not a huge fan of Metallica’s music, this film is highly recommended for its candid insight into the turbulent roller coaster lifestyle of a mega rich rock group. Including a recruitment scene where new Bassist Robert Trujillo is welcomed into the band with a cheque for a million dollars!

And here’s a list of 5 more music documentary films you must binge-watch on your next free weekend…

  • Woodstock (1970)
  • Festival Express (2003)
  • Kurt Cobaine: Montage Of Heck (2015)
  • Dig! (2004)
  • Joy Division (2006)
10 Unforgettable Electronic Movie Soundtracks

10 Unforgettable Electronic Movie Soundtracks

Most Hollywood films use orchestral arrangements in their
scores to engage the audience and help express a wide range of emotions. But synthesisers and computer based music can offer an entirely new experience and enhance the
film in many unpredictable ways. So here’s a list of 10 great movies with 10
great electronic music scores to add to your ultimate movie soundtrack
playlist.

10. Run Lola Run (1998)

Lola’s boyfriend is in big trouble and the only way she can save his life is by
running, sprinting and jogging across Berlin in pursuit of a huge stash of
cash. The accompanying soundtrack drive’s the action forward with a wide range
of acid beats, spikey synths and squelchy basslines. The Techno soundtrack was
composed by the film’s director, Tom Tykwer. With more than a little help from
Johnny Klimek and ’99 Red Balloons’ producer, 
Rinehold Heil.

9. The Social Network (2010)

The story of Mark Zuckerberg’s rocky road to success as head honcho at Facebook
is underscored by music from Atticus Ross and Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor.
The beautifully dark, post industrial electronica earned Reznor and Ross an
Oscar for Best Original Soundtrack of 2010.

8. Beverley Hills Cop (1984)

Harold Faltermeyer’s indelible synth melody is as 80’s as a Rubik’s Cube,
although far easier to play.
It chattered away behind Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley as he attempts to track down
the killer of his childhood pal, Mikey Tandino. The soundtrack to this comedy
cop thriller opened the gates for a slew of music scores featuring contemporary
80’s instruments like the Yamaha DX7 and Roland Jupiter 8. All driven along by
the robotic rhythms of classic Linn drum machine.

7. Forbidden Planet (1956)

The score for this science fiction epic was so experimental that MGM prohibited
use of the term ‘music’ in the credits. Instead Bebe and Louis Barron’s ring
modulated warblings were referred to as ‘electronic tonalities’. As neither of
the avant-garde experimentalists were members of the Musician’s Union, this
term avoided any union payments for the studio. But it also meant that this
innovative soundtrack could never be nominated for an Academy Award. However, Forbidden
Planet’s soundtrack is a rare gem and still perhaps the most unique sci-fi score
ever produced.

6. Chariots of Fire (1981)

As Hitchcock once said. “If music and picture are doing the same thing, one of
them is being wasted.”

Perhaps that explains the success of Chariots of Fire’s synth heavy electronic
score. The melancholic melody line of the main theme is the polar opposite of
the extreme excursion felt by the athletes on screen. Yet it somehow works
perfectly with the visuals. Helped by the use of slow motion to stretch out the
agony just a little further!

 Of course, there were no synthesisers
around in 1924. So it was a bold decision to use electronic pioneer Vangelis as
the film’s composer. But it paid off big time, winning the film an Oscar for
Best Original Score of 1981.

5. Midnight Express (1978)

Before ‘Shawshank’, before ‘The Green Mile’, even before ‘Caged Heat’, there
was a prison movie to beat all prison movies called ‘Midnight Express’. The
harrowing story of Billy Hayes. An American student who attempted to smuggle
2kg of hashish out of Turkey and ended up spending 5 long years incarcerated in
a Turkish prison-from-Hell.

The film’s director Alan Parker recruited Italian disco
producer Giorgio Moroder to compose something along the lines of his recent
smash hit with Donna Summer, I Feel Love. The result is a dark, incessant
arpeggiated score that coils and slithers its way through the film like an
angry snake. The Chase theme became a disco hit in its own right and earnt
Moroder an Academy Award for Best Original Score of 1979.

4. Gone Girl (2014)

The music to this psychological thriller was the third collaboration between
director, David Fincher and composers, Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor  (the previous two being ‘The Girl With The
Dragon Tatoo’ and the afore mentioned ‘The Social Network’).

Filcher’s vision for the music was to recreate an emotion he had felt after
hearing muzak played at a recent chiropractor session. He described what he
heard as ‘inauthentic’. A soothing, reassuring soundscape that in fact had quite
the opposite effect. Leaving him feeling anxious and ill at ease.
The result was a soundtrack that included washes of beautiful tones and colours
indispersed with spikey incongruous electronic noises and discordant notes. Unsettling
to say the least, and another triumph for the pioneering composing team of Ross
and Reznor.

3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Although not wholly electronic, the score for A Clockwork Orange must get a
mention because of its hugely influential role in the history of movie scores. Recorded
in real time (there were no sequencers back then) on a bank of modular Moog
synthesisers, these haunting renditions of well known classical pieces took on
a maniacal life of their own as they resonated in the disturbed mind of
protagonist Alex DeLarge, head of the Droogs played by Malcolm McDowell.

Composer Walter Carlos (who later became Wendy Carlos) came to the attention of
the film’s director Stanley Kubrick after releasing an album of speeded up
electronic chamber music called Switched On Bach in 1968. After contributing to
the Clockwork Orange soundtrack, Carlos went on to record the score for the
Disney film Tron in 1982.

2. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

There couldn’t be a list of electronic music score composers without mentioning
the master of them all, John Carpenter. His mid 70’s film soundtracks
terraformed the entire film music landscape and were a huge influence, not only
on movie soundtracks, but other genres too, like Synth Pop, the New Romantics
and Post Punk.

As a director, he’s quoted as saying that the only reason he composed for his
own films is because he was fast and cheap. But the reality is way beyond that.
His stark synth driven instrumentals locked with the visuals in a unique
tensile alliance. A bond that became so strong that you couldn’t imagine one
without the other.

Christine, The Fog, Escape From New York, Halloween. Any one of these films
could have appeared on the list. But ‘Assault’s insidious five note bassline
has a way of getting inside your psyche. And just like the Street Thunder Gang.
Once it’s broken in, it’s difficult to shift.

1. Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott’s neo-noir sci-fi epic was by no means as successful on release as
it has become since. It under performed in the US with critics calling it
‘plodding’ and lacking in pace. However, it has since become a cult classic and
is was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry and heralded as
being ‘culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.’ It is now
regarded by critics (probably the same critics that earlier panned it) as being
one of the best science fiction films ever made.

A large part of the success of Blade Runner can be attributed to its
soundtrack. A glorious sweeping synthesised wash created and composed by Greek
composer Evangelos Odysseas
Papathanassiou. Better known to fans as Vangelis.

Vangelis began his career as a working musician in a covers band, moving on to
become a member of the prog rock outfit Aphrodite’s Child. As side
projects he began composing film scores, later setting up a studio in London
dedicated to his solo album work and a steady stream of movie soundtracks. This
brought him to the attention of high profile film directors and in particular,
David Puttman and Hugh Hudson who were making a film called Chariots of Fire.
An Academy Award followed and the following year he collaborated with Ridley
Scott on the music for Blade Runner.

The score is noted for capturing the isolation felt by replicant Rick Deckard
(played by Harrison Ford) as he scours the dystopian landscape in search of Roy
Batty (Rutger Hauer). A replicant who has escaped to Earth in an attempt to
extend his life cycle and elude his ultimate fate of being ‘retired’.

After the release of the film, a disagreement led to Vangelis withholding permission
for his performance of the music being released. The studio instead hired a
group of musicians dubbed The New American Orchestra to record the official
album release. It took 12 years before the disagreement was resolved. The
composer’s own work was released in 1994.

As with all the movies on the list, it’s important that a composer has an
affinity with the narrative and subject matter of the film. Vangelis’s love of
sci-fi is evident in his score for Blade Runner. He is quoted as saying,
“mythology, science and space exploration are subjects that have
fascinated me since my early childhood. And they were always connected somehow
with the music I write.”
His Blade Runner soundtrack is still seen by many to be one of his greatest
works.

Other films with electronic soundtracks include:

Drive (2011)
Escape From New York (1981)
Dredd (2012)
The Birds (1963)
Friday The 13th (1980)
Christine (1983)
PI (1998)
Requiem For A Dream (2000)
Sorcerer (1977)

Do you have any favourite Electronic film scores? Use the “Comments” field to discuss. Thanks!

Copyrights and Wrongs

Copyrights and Wrongs

Is music plagiarism cut and dried or are there still ‘Blurred Lines’?

Throughout the history of music there have been melodies, rhythms and lyrics that closely resemble existing compositions. So is it clear in the eyes of the law when homage, inspiration or musical parody becomes outright musical theft?

History Repeats Itself

Despite the controversy surrounding the recent high profile case of the Thicke and Williams track ‘Blurred Lines’ and it’s legal dispute with the estate of Marvin Gaye, musical plagiarism is far from a new phenomenon.

In the early 1960’s The Beach Boys were forced to relinquish the publishing rights of their song ‘Surfin’ USA’ to Chuck Berry’s publisher due to its similarity to one of Berry’s compositions. Led Zeppelin got into hot water when there second album was found to have lyrics and riffs copied from early blues artists such as Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf.

Rod Stewart didn’t feel quite so horny when his song ‘Do You Think I’m Sexy’ was found to have a number of similarities to another composition, ‘Taj Mahal’ by Brazilian composer Jorge Ben Jor.

In the 1990’s, the Oasis hit ‘Whatever’ was forced to share songwriting credits with former Bonzo Dog & Python lyricist Neil Innes for its similarity with his song ‘How Sweet to be an Idiot’.

And the Manchester brothers were in trouble a second time when The New Seekers questioned the similarity between their hit ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’ and the Oasis song ‘Shakermaker’.

Plagiarism cases have continued throughout the 21st Century. Sam Smith’s Grammy nominated hit, ‘Stay With Me’ was the subject of an out-of-court settlement with Tom Petty and ELO’s Jeff Lynne, when it was decided the melody contained too many similarities to Petty’s hit ‘I Won’t Back Down’.

And UK producer Mark Ronson was forced to add writer’s credits to various members of The Gap Band for copying one of their hits on his multi million selling worldwide hit single ‘Uptown Funk’.

The latest high profile case concerns Jay Z and producer Timberland with their long running lawsuit defending their hit Big Pimpin’ and its interpolation of the Egyptian love ballad Khosara Khosara.
With these examples and many, many more besides, surely it’s clear that there must be very well defined rules to govern whether a song is copied or not. Or are there?

What exactly does the Law have to say about musical plagiarism?

The Law and How it Stands

Well, in many cases it seems to boil down to quantity. Exactly how much of the copyrighted material has been copied? Just a little, or is it a substantial amount?

If it’s more than what is considered to be paying homage to a particular artist or song, then the alarm bells of ‘infringement’ may begin to toll. And when an entire melody or motif is undeniably similar then the laws will irrefutably consider it as a copyright infringement.

And since the ‘Blurred Lines’ case, the substantiality clause has been extended. It’s not only a similar melody or copied lyric, but also the ‘feel’ of the composition. Its very ‘soul’. Its ‘mojo’ that may also be copied.

The second thing that the law considers is the ‘likelihood’ that the artist may have plagiarised the work. For example, someone who has gone on record as being the numero uno David Bowie fanatic all their life, is more likely to be under suspicion if they release a track based on the chord structure, lyrics and melody line of ‘Heroes’. It could indeed be presumed that they have copied the track from their ‘hero’ Mr. Bowie. Any similarities will certainly not work in their favour.

Interestingly, Bowie has often described himself as a musical magpie. Citing in one interview that it’s knowing ‘what to steal and when to steal it’ that is the trick to good songwriting.

But then again his remarkable genius elevates any would-be homage into an entirely new stratosphere. Quantum Plagiarism if you like. Yes, there may be an essence of the Rolling Stones and Velvet Underground in Aladdin Sane. But could either of those artists have written such songs or created such an album?

Thou Shalt Not Steal

Plagiarism or copying music also includes the actual physical audio. Sampling has notoriously been responsible for a number of plagiarism court cases since affordable digital samplers were introduced in the 1980s.

An early example of problems arising from digital sampling was on a record by UK chillout producers, The Orb. Their 1990 release ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld’ featured a big slice of the song ‘Loving You’ by Minnie Ripperton. It floated into the track as if in a dream. Panning around the stereo field, bathed in delay and reverb. A very pleasant effect that enhanced the Orb’s live DJ shows at the time. But including it on a published release was to land them in a great deal of trouble with Minnie Ripperton’s publishers and pretty soon after the release, the record was withdrawn. Only to appear later with the Ripperton version replaced by a hastily recorded sound-alike.

Another high profile case was a little known record by Rap artist Biz Markie. The track was called ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ and featured a 10 second loop from the Gilbert O’Sullivan track of the same name. This became a test case for digital sampling when it was taken to court in 1991. O’Sullivan’s publishers won the case with the judge in summing up, quoting from the Ten Commandments. ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’.

Pretty soon after this case, publishers and record companies became aware of this new phenomenon and clauses began to appear in every new contract that was issued to bands, DJs and artists. The record companies were keen to take no responsibility for the content of the record and to ensure that the artist cleared any samples that appeared on recordings prior to their release.
But even with these clauses in place, there were still outstanding issues to resolve. Records by the likes of Snoop Dogg and Doctor Dre would simply not exist were it not for the God-like genius of legendary producer George Clinton, who is still fighting to contest royalties from a number of artists that sampled P-Funk riffs from Funkadelic & Parliament.

Making A Mockery

So what help does the Law offer to struggling composers keen to make a living from what is after all a somewhat restrictive 12 note scale?

Recent updates include a law that recognises ‘parody’.

A work that evokes an existing work while being noticeably different from it and constituting an expression of humour and mockery.

This is clearly aimed at the YouTuber generation, but it does offer a glimmer of hope that satire and parody may be recognised as a reason for plagiarism, rather than the obvious lack of originality.
However, this Law may be more help to the likes of Weird Al Yankovic or Flight of the Conchords-type parodies. Or the ancient art of musical imitation made popular in the 60’s and 70’s by artists like The Baron Knights, Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and the Not The Nine O’clock News team’s musical sketches. Of little use perhaps to today’s more serious musicians, producers and songwriters who are less inclined to include humerous parody in their songwriting.

In Summing Up

Hard as it may seem, the obvious thing for songwriters to do is to never copy other artists when creating music or composing songs. But this just isn’t feasible. And as these examples prove, plagiarism is almost a necessary tool, some may say an integral part of the musical process. But it’s knowing the point where enthusiastic inspiration has spilt over into the realms of forgery. Then having the musical ability to pull back from that abyss and taking another route. Investing some pure originality into a composition. And only using other people’s work as a springboard to something new may be the key to original composition. After all, it seems that songwriting and music making owes as much to its rich, dynamic history as it does to it’s as yet unwritten future.

The Cost of Music – A Filmmaker’s Guide to Cutting Costs on Soundtracks & Scores

The Cost of Music – A Filmmaker’s Guide to Cutting Costs on Soundtracks & Scores

Professional and semi pro filmmakers are aware of the huge impact a great music score can make on their production. But the temptation is to cut costs on music so that more of the budget can be invested in the costly visual & post production side of film making.

 

So how do you trim your music budget without compromising the quality of the score?

Here we offer some tips and tricks on the best way to reduce costs while making sure that your score has the maximum impact on your audience.

Hiring a Composer

There are a number of different ways to add music to a film production. The director could hire a composer & liaise with him or her on every aspect of the score. Together they could spot the various scenes that require added emotional impact & discuss the hiring of an orchestra & specialist musicians to add reality and depth to the music. But all this freedom and flexibility comes at a cost. For a feature length documentary a professional composer’s fee could be up to $30,000 (Danny Elfman costs a little more!) and hiring an orchestra can be a drain on money and time, with sessions adding two or three weeks to recordings and in some cases doubling the allocated budget. However, for some directors a ‘gun-for-hire’ composer may be a necessary expense. This way they can ensure that they will receive personal input on their score, and be able to liaise with the composer if things don’t sound exactly how they’d imagined.

So hiring a composer is flexible & can add a unique quality to the production. But there are also many other options to consider.

Using Published Music

In terms of cost, placing published commercial music in your film is undoubtedly the most expensive solution. Permission needs to be granted by the songwriter (through the publisher) as well as the performer (through the record label). Hiring a rights lawyer to clear permission is only part of the expense. Both publisher and record label will have entirely separate agendas that will conspire to maximise income from their release. And the more a director sets his sights on a particular song, the more expensive they will make it to grant permission.

If a film includes published music without clearing it first, there may be penalties later. The more successful a film becomes, the more costly the penalties are once the clearance problem has been identified, with fees being based on the amount of screenings at film festivals, theatres and on video sharing sites.

There is also the issue of content. Many publishers will refuse clearance due to the religious, sexual or violent nature of the film’s content. Without knowing this, negotiations may have already begun and with a music lawyer on an hourly rate it’s easy to see how clearance issues can soon send the budget spiralling out of control.

Unless there’s no option, it’s sensible for directors to steer clear of published commercial releases in their score.

Using Stock Music

Stock music (AKA library music or production cues) may not be the most flexible way to score a film, but it’s certainly one of the most cost effective. Contemporary stock music is often tailor made for such projects, whereby a central musical theme will have been edited into suitable durations and incidental underscores so that the filmmaker can choose an off-the-shelf solution that is effective and compelling.

Many of today’s stock music producers are themselves film & TV composers which means they have the necessary experience and resources to turn out lush, intricate cues that predict many of the key emotional states expressed in the narrative arc of a typical high end feature film.

Adventure, melodrama, comedy, documentary. Most styles are catered for and often the only drawback is the amount of choice facing a director when he begins his search.

To get the best music filmmakers will need to visit the best and most reputable sites and libraries.

And the better the catalogue, the more expensive the music becomes. However that’s generally a sign of good quality. And whatever the cost, it will be a fraction of the fee for a composer.

And stock music also comes with one huge advantage. If purchased from a reputable site or catalogue, the cost incurred will also include an extensive license. This could include worldwide usage and limitless reproduction in perpetuity. So the director is able to curb costs on music supervisors, lawyers, composers, orchestras and musicians as well as instantly gaining access to all the paperwork required for music rights, copyright and distribution. All this will be included in the license. Saving them time, money and lots of future headaches when the film is distributed worldwide.

On the downside, the score won’t be exclusive. Other filmmakers can access the same music. But if it locks in perfectly with the narrative of a film, then however many other people use it, it will never sound exactly the same. Because of the unique combination of the music, visuals & narrative storyline of each particular project.

If you do decide to use stock music / production music, you could do a lot worse than starting right here at Shockwave-Sound.

The Final Cost

So, is stock music the most effective option for the pro and semi-pro filmmaker?

From the three options above the answer would be yes. However to score a feature length film or documentary with original stock music may require up to two hours of cues, which could end up being expensive. Thankfully, many catalogues release collections with many tracks of similar themes or a complete narrative arc. This greatly reduces the cost of buying each track individually.

As for quality vs. price, it’s worth considering that very few scores are made up of tracks that have been downloaded for $0.99!

Other Options

Public domain music is music with lapsed copyright. Some very interesting music has entered the public domain, particularly from the 1920’s and 30’s and it’s a good resource for eclectic and unusual recordings that may spark the imagination. Blues, swing, ragtime and a lot of contemporary music that is out of copyright. It’s worth spending time listening to what’s out there.

However, it’s sometimes unclear as to whether the performance rights are in the public domain as well as the rights to the composition. If one or other remains under copyright, it will present unforeseen problems if a director is set on using a specific recording of the music.

What they do in Hollywood


Director John Carpenter composed the score for many of his own films

Sometimes directors choose to score the film themselves. Legendary Hollywood director John Carpenter has provided the score for sixteen of his major motion pictures including Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween. David Lynch is also a director who often performs and is deeply involved in the musical scores of his own feature films such as Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.

Such is the importance of dramatic scores that directors will go to great lengths to get the music they want. Quentin Tarrentino wanted so much to have Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Stuck in the Middle’ for the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs that he fired the music supervisor when they couldn’t license the track. He then employed a music supervisor who got him the rights to the song and the famous scene was brought to life.

Some films employ a device called diegetic sound, where the score is made up of the naturally occurring sounds in the scene. A radio playing, a jukebox, a live band. All adding to a much more naturalistic approach rather than the more self-conscience written score.

Some scores go even further than that. The Coen Brothers’ film, No Country For Old Men had very little recognisable music at all. The score consisting of occasional tones & frequencies that were so in tune with the scene as to be unrecognisable as actual music. Often more like feedback or processed versions of the natural ambiences already present in the scene.

Martin Scorsese uses end to end published commercial music for his movie scores. Often a heady mix of Doo Wop, Phil Spectre, Motown and his favourite band, The Rolling Stones. Although recent films have unearthed buried gems like ‘Wheel of Fortune’ by Kay Star & ‘Cry’ by Johnny Ray from Shutter Island. ‘Bang Bang’ by Jo Cuba and ‘Dust My Broom’ by Elmore James from Wolf on Wall Street. As a music curator, Scorsese is creatively fearless and his hugely popular films of course have a massive budget set aside for licence fees.

All of these directors have a unique way of scoring. And it’s useful to study each director’s approach as well as the different techniques they employ to score each of their movies.

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island score features many obscure gems

A few more ideas

There are other options available for scoring a film or compiling a soundtrack. Filmmakers often turn to family, friends or colleagues when it comes to music production.

Unsigned bands are also a consideration. Although experience and reliability are often not their strong points.

Perhaps the most exciting score may be a combination of many of the above suggestions. One or two bespoke cues from a hired composer, alongside a number of licensed themes from Stock Music catalogues. And then some eclectic choices from public domain or unsigned bands to add some unusual and unique qualities to the production.

Whatever you decide, hopefully some of these ideas will help create an exciting and innovative score for your next creative film project.

About the author: Simon Power has made
over 50 short films and documentaries for the music technology website Sonic
State. He has also removed & replaced copyrighted music on a number
of commercial BBC releases. In these articles he offers advice and tips
about using music in your low budget film and audio/visual projects. You
can learn more about Simon and his projects at his website, http://www.meonsound.com/
Music for the Boxset Generation

Music for the Boxset Generation

by Simon Power

Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Nashville, The Sopranos. American drama series are a huge influence on the way television looks, feels and sounds in contemporary entertainment. A big part of that enjoyment comes from their music: The soundtracks & scores. In this article we take a look at the music used in some of those series and find out what makes it such an essential part of the viewing experience for the boxset generation.

Game of Thrones (HBO)

music composed by Ramin Djawadi.

Synopsis

Based on the fantasy novels, A Song of Fire & Ice by George R.R.Martin, Game Of Thrones is set in the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos with storylines encompassing civil unrest, exile & the impending threat of a very, very long winter.

The music

An important part of the mood setting in Game Of Thrones is its long title sequence and theme tune at the beginning of every episode. A mechanical 3 dimensional map unfolds alongside Djawadi’s evocative music. A rich orchestral theme featuring cantering Eastern style cinematic percussion, a solo cello and assortment of brass, string & woodwind instruments. This theme sets the tone for the narrative and returns in a variety of versions throughout the series.

GOT is heavy on complex dialogue which tends to govern the role of the music. Moody orchestral swells offer support to the atmosphere of the dialogue, helping define the importance of what’s being said, rather than overwhelming it.

During battle scenes the music comes to the fore, often heavy orchestration with deep resonant percussion.

Although it may be played on real instruments mixed with samples, there are very few obviously synthetic sounds to detract from the medieval feel of the series.
In fact, with its austere orchestral washes, the role of the music could be termed ‘transparent’, in as much as it’s sympathetic to the dialogue and offering a supporting role to the storyline.

Aside from the incidental score, the series also buddies up with a number of indie bands. The National, Sigur Ros and The Hold Steady giving a contemporary feel to the music palette. A good way to reach the Game of Thrones audience on another level. Offering a connection to the present day through familiar artists and bands.

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 Breaking Bad (AMC)

Music composed by Dave Porter
Music supervisor: Thomas Golubic

Synopsis

Walter White, a Struggling chemistry teacher, is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and turns to a life of crime in order to support his family’s future before he dies.

The music

Hugely successful cult series Breaking Bad has an entirely different approach to its score and soundtrack with the music taking on a much more upfront role during the series five seasons.

There are a number of different ways in which the music appears in the show. Firstly there’s composer Dave Porter’s contemporary sounding synth based cues that appear during key moments such as scene setting, great drama, tenderness or suspense. Unlike traditional orchestral music, Porter uses synths and electronic sounds mixed with real instruments like guitar, piano and woodwind.

With a variety of arpeggios, swells, breakbeats and loops the score takes on a much more contemporary feel in line with producers like Trent Reznor, Brian Eno or Mogwai.

The second way that music appears is with published music tracks by established & unknown artists sprinkled through each episode adding an almost ‘music video’ feel to a scene, the music becoming any bit as important as the visuals it accompanies. Anything from 60’s Lounge jazz or Hip Hop, to indie rock or Mexican Mariachi music. The variety of music used is dynamic, eclectic and quite often full to bursting point with humour and irony. Take for instance the scene where we see meth addict & prostitute, Wendy S. going about her daily business to the jaunty overtones of The Association’s Everyone Knows It’s Windy!

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Nashville (ABC)

Executive music producer, T-Bone Burnett
Managing producer, Buddy Miller

Synopsis

Nashville chronicles the lives of a variety of fictitious singers from Nashville, Tennessee as they deal with the ruthless cut throat world of County Music stardom.

The music

Nashville is an example of a series where songs are being recorded and performed as the drama unfolds and are often lyrically and musically intertwined with the on screen drama. It’s an example of how music, visuals and narrative can be gelled together to appear almost seamless.

The added incidental music is of course Country flavoured as well A few bars of acoustic picking as we scan across the Nashville skyline. Or a well judged slide guitar lick in a minor chord to signify moments of melodrama. As a kind of self fulfilling prophecy, the soundtrack albums have become best sellers making the music almost as popular as it appears to be fictitiously in the series!

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The Sopranos (HBO)

produced by David Chase

Synopsis

New Jersey mobster, Tony Soprano turns to psychiatry as he struggles to balance the conflict between his home life and his job as boss of a criminal organisation.

The music

Perhaps the original series that kicked off the boxset generation back in the late 1990’s, The Sopranos was hugely influential with its bold portrayal of the American Dream turning into a spiralling nightmare. If you were a fan, you’ll remember the dust-ups, the shoot-outs, the car chases, the brutal assassinations. But it may surprise you to learn that there was no original music composed for the shows in its entire six series run.

The music choices were all carefully chosen popular songs that fitted the mood perfectly, often in complete opposition to the on screen violence or gory melodrama. This approach to scoring was a fairly new device on TV and was perhaps more in line with the feature films of Martin Scorsese who features end to end popular music in his gangster films like Casino, Good Fellows and The Departed.

One recurring use of music in The Sopranos was a well placed eclectic song playing as the end credits rolled out. Elvis Costello, Ben E. King, The Chi-Lites, Van Morrison. Even John Cooper Clarke’s Chicken Town featured in this highly coveted spot.

Then of course the show’s popular signature tune, Woke Up This Morning by Alabama 3. Chosen when producer David Chase heard it on daytime radio while driving to work.

 

So just within these few examples we have seen widely diverse ways of using music in a TV series. The supporting role of Ramin Djawadi’s orchestral score in Game of Thrones, Dave Porter’s synth based incidental music for Breaking Bad, Nashville’s total integration where the music becomes part of the show and The Soprano’s reliance on popular music to make up a memorable score.

There are of course many other examples. Mad Men’s heady mix of 60’s pop, Boardwalk Empire’s prohibition era Jazz and Blues. Even The Handsome Family’s eerie title track to True Detective.

All these and many more add flavour, depth and atmosphere to the excitement of American TV dramas enjoyed on TV’s & other devices around the world by a new breed of dedicated fans. The Boxset Generation.

About
the author: Simon Power has made over 50 short films and documentaries
for the music technology website Sonic State. He has also removed &
replaced copyrighted music on a number of commercial BBC releases. In
these articles he offers advice and tips about using music in your low
budget film and audio/visual projects. You can learn more about Simon
and his projects at his website, http://www.meonsound.com/