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Notes From The Deadline

TV Music From The Inside By Paul Farrer
Published May 2009

Only in the perverse world of music for the media could composers be asked to rip themselves off for money. It's time to take a stand against the rise of the soundalike.

Notes From The Deadline

One of the world's biggest music companies contacted me recently and asked if I'd be interested in contributing to a library music album they were putting together. They wanted to make an album with a mixture of original music and soundalikes. They sent me the list of the tracks they wanted composers to 'be inspired by' (industry‑speak for 'rip off') and I couldn't help noticing that three of the tracks on the list were originally composed by me.

It certainly made the follow‑up phone-call a touch awkward.

I'm A Celebrity Double

Imagine you are a TV producer looking for a famous presenter to host your new show.

You might have a short list of perhaps three potential celebrity candidates, and if the person (or 'talent', as they are known) at the top of the list isn't available or costs too much, you move to talent number two, and so on until the job is filled. What you absolutely do not do is call a lookalike casting agency and say "Do you have anyone on the books that is the spitting image of either Ant or Dec? Or preferably both?”

Yet, strangely, this is the approach regularly taken with music for media. You want to use a U2 track for your chewing‑gum commercial? Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, it will probably cost you more money than the national debt of a mid‑sized Central American economy. So who you gonna call? Some schmuck with a studio who does soundalikes.

Soundalikes: the fake Rolexes of the music world.Soundalikes: the fake Rolexes of the music world.Soundalikes are music for media's dirty little secret, and most composers will at some point in their career have been paid to come up with an original track that gets as close as possible to an existing piece without risking any calls from lawyers. This really is the lowest point of life for the composer, both spiritually and artistically. I have happily written music for corporate videos for an agricultural company selling vials of frozen bull's semen, but nothing makes me feel more like a filthy whore than being asked to "infuse an entirely original track with the spirit, pace and emotion of a (financially unavailable) existing copyrighted work”.

Do TV producers hate their audience so much they think they won't know the difference between the original, much‑loved, instantly recognisable works that they wouldn't pay for, and some nasty knock‑off? You think your audience is going to swallow that enormous fake Rolex watch?

Inspiration Or Desperation?

I have been on both sides of the fence. I've had people do sneaky 'versions inspired by' some of my tracks, and I've been asked to do sneaky 'versions inspired by' other people's. And I will say that it is our solemn duty as composers to try to persuade our clients to trust us and allow us the freedom to give them something better than a knock‑off: a unique work that will tick all their boxes and still be truly original.

Or failing that, in the words of an ex‑client of mine, "Just change a few notes and I'm sure no‑one will ever notice.”