Increasingly, clients don’t just want your music. They want the opportunity to ruin your music, and waste hours of your life into the bargain.
No job is perfect. Every career has its good and bad aspects, and if you can somehow manage to feed yourself by making music, you are already light years ahead of the vast majority of people who have ever picked up a guitar. But there are inevitable down sides to writing music for this business we call show. Your computer might crash, your clients might hate your work, your inspiration might be as thin as a budget airline hostess’s smile, or you might just be sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.
But there is one job that media composers hate above all others. One part of the process that invokes only rage, boredom and the feeling of being a slave to a pointless corporate endeavour. And that is delivering stems. Ask anyone: this part sucks golf balls through a garden hose, for lots and lots of reasons.
For those who have managed to avoid this particular horror, it’s increasingly the case that when you deliver a piece of music to a client, they will ask for all the individual component parts as well as the main mix. So your finished project is no longer just ‘Main Theme Final Mix.WAV’, but is also ‘Main Theme Final Mix — Hi-Hats.WAV’ and so on until your hard drive is full, your web server has melted and your appetite for life itself has drained, to the point where you start to stare wistfully into the middle distance considering if it perhaps isn’t too late in life to retrain for a career in agriculture as someone who w***s off cattle for a living.
The big question, of course, is what your clients will do with the stems once they have them. Presumably they want the option to do their own mixes and submixes of your music. Perhaps they’ve been told to get from you as much flexibility as possible in case of unforeseen future use when you are no longer available (having presumably left the music industry to pursue other opportunities in bovine relief). Or perhaps they simply want to play record producer and mess about with all your tracks in GarageBand themselves.
Ignoring the mind-numbing boredom of the task for a minute, the technical aspect of providing stems is a challenge in itself. For example, do you include reverb on the stems you deliver? What about all your expensive mastering processors, compressors, limiters and so on? Should you master each stem individually, even though that’s going to sound very strange? Or do you just give them everything dry and hope that whoever eventually mixes your work knows what they are doing? Either way, no part of this is going to give your clients the best possible version of your music, and we probably shouldn’t be afraid to point this out to them.
There is also a darker side to stems. Some composers have found that not only do they hear hideous and at times unrecognisable mixes of their music, but there are some unscrupulous companies happy to take elements of your work, mix it with something else, retitle it and register themselves as the writers, thereby robbing you of all future royalties. Obviously these are isolated cases, we hope, but in a world where we are perpetually trying to shore up the value and worth of our work, it’s important to challenge people who view every stem as a sort of sample CD to be used and abused (and profit from).
There are sometimes genuine reasons why we deliver stems, and some clients really treat them well (for example, video games companies, in my experience, care more about audio than almost anyone). However, my advice is to ask your clients why they think they need your stems, what they are going to do with them — and whether the very best person to make your music sound great might, in fact, be you.