Movies about music are undoubtedly good for the record industry, but is the favour returned?
As an industry, music production tends to treat its past with reverence. Whether it's a periodic homage to Joe Meek or Phil Ramone, an extended historical article on a well-known recording studio, or a Classic Tracks article about a timeless masterpiece, the history of music recording is detailed and deep. And that's just the popular media — the History Channel of music production, so to speak. The AES archives abound with scholarly works on some of the more obscure niches of the business, ever since Thomas Edison tracked his first nursery rhyme.
As if to underscore that, the last several years have witnessed many films that recall key moments of pop-music history, and in the process intimately chronicle the activities of recording studios. Sometimes the studios stay in the background, as FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound did in last year's Muscle Shoals, which rewound the narrative between Rick Hall, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hood and a cast at times as pugnacious as they were talented. Sometimes, the studio was the star of the show, as in Sound City, Dave Grohl's paean to a lost palace of sound in Los Angeles. Muscle Shoals won the Grand Prize at the Boulder International Film Festival; Sound City made it a bit further up the awards chain, earning a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media, as well as a nomination for a Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing for a documentary. The crown jewel among these successes was the late-2013 look at background singers, 20 Feet From Stardom, which won this year's Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards, among a dozen other significant film-festival wins.
But those have been the big successes, helped financially by filmmakers' deep pockets, in Grohl's case, or by attracting the right kind of attention — 20 Feet is currently under development as an hour-long scripted TV series, as well as a Broadway musical, with backers including Mick Jagger.
Others are still trying make the rent, however. The Wrecking Crew, Denny Tedesco's well-made panegyric to the gang of spectacular session musicians that included his father, the guitarist Tommy Tedesco, as well as drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Carol Kaye, has for the better part of a decade been confronting the scourge of music-industry bureaucracy in the 21st century: licensing fees. That's the same problem that's been keeping Howard Fischer's They Died Before 40 off the big screen. This tribute to victims of jazz's chronic scourge — many of its most brilliant purveyors tend to die young and not particularly gracefully — has been navigating a maze to clear the 50-plus pieces of music that are critical to the film's thesis, not to mention another 600 or so still photos and graphic images that also have nearly as many copyright holders. Even the ones that are in the public domain require scrupulous vetting to make certain of that status, lest one assertion of copyright violation bring with it the stipulated $150,000 penalty, if the case is won.
Fischer, a lawyer who once represented a number of jazz artists professionally, has been trying to get the film past the year-long festival licenses he's secured for many of the tracks. He toyed with the idea of using the fair-use doctrine, which permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders for (mostly) non-commercial purposes such as commentary, parody, news, research or scholarship — but decided against it. This was probably wise; if a documentary film serves as a competing product with the copyright holder's own work, it is less likely to be considered fair use, and major publishers tend to view any product besides one that they can directly monetise as a competing product.
An attempt at crowd-funding licensing fees fell short. If he could find a less restrictive licence structure, he believes he could use private showings to raise the capital he needs for a full commercial license. "But it's Catch-22,” he told me. "If I could get it out there I might make the money I need to pay the full licence fees, but I can't. It's frustrating.”
After years of private showings, Denny Tedesco was able to conclude a successful Kickstarter campaign for The Wrecking Crew, which attracted about $60,000 more than its stated goal of $250,000. That's allowed him to pay for licences from the Musicians' Union, as well as publishers. He's now in search of a distributor, but the travails of music licensing may have dented the film's momentum a bit. Instead of being at the perceptual forefront of this wave of music documentaries, The Wrecking Crew risks being subsumed as a slew of these films are released — a trend that owes a lot to Standing In The Shadows of Motown, which came out in 2002 and which likely had an easier time of licensing, since most of the music stemmed from a single source.
The problem is that performance licences are a complex proposition and a moving target. You might get them for limited applications, such as film festivals for a year, but once you move into commercial territory over the course of time, costs tend to go up rather than down, and any hint of initial buzz can cause rightsholders not yet committed to ask for larger fees. The irony is that the hardest thing to get for a music documentary is the music.
That's unfortunate, because we're at some kind of historical moment in modern music's fitful narrative. The players of the second half of the 20th century — the one that saw music production and recording become multi-million-dollar businesses despite the shakiest economic model since Soviet collective farming — are beginning to fade. No disrespect to the Millennials who are following them, but they look at music differently, as they should, raised at a time when data and music have achieved a weird kind of perceptual parity. One that makes what these films manage to capture all the more important to be available, as inspiration for the next time magic manages to happen.