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Sounding Off: Original Music Being Undermined

Nigel Beaham-Powell By Nigel Beaham-Powell
Published July 2002

Is the work of media composers writing original music being undermined by people using unprocessed material from sample CDs, and passing it off as their own work?

Last year I had a meeting with a producer about writing the music for a TV documentary that would accompany the launch of an extremely successful feature film. The meeting went well, I made some suggestions about how the music might go, sent him a CD of appropriate material, and heard nothing more.

SOUNDING OFF 0702: Nigel Beaham-Powell.Several months later I was at a BBC party with a number of established TV and film composers and, as ever, we were swapping notes. Fellow composer Steve Marshall asked us if we'd seen this recent TV documentary that had just been broadcast, bemoaning the fact there was a sound from the Disorted Reality sample CD plastered all over it, and used in its original state. The composer's credits were two names I'd not heard of, and we all sighed collectively. It turned out this was the same documentary project I'd pitched for.

In this case, a common-or-garden sample CD available for £59.99 had been used as 'originally composed music', and the royalties from the broadcast would go straight into the composer's pocket. However, what kind of copyright are we dealing with here? Are we all complicit in this situation? And, does it even matter?

Let's look at it from the producer's point of view first: do they care where composers get their material from for their soundtracks? The short answer is no -- it's generally only other musicians in the business who recognise the source material. Provided the music is doing the required job in their film, the producer is satisfied.

However, there's always a clause in the contract between producers and composers stating that 'the work of devising, composing, preparing and writing the music ... shall be wholly original to the composer.' This acknowledges the craft of actually being able to write music, albeit sometimes in a parodic style, and legally protects the producers from plagiarism. If the composer has stolen the music, it's the composer, and not the producer, who will be sued.

So where do sample CDs fit into this picture? And what's the composer's point of view?

There's no doubt that sample CDs have been a boon to media composers. You no longer have to play your idea on an out of tune piano, and with contemporary orchestral multisamples, it's much easier to give an indication of what an orchestra will sound like. Some of the processing on dance music sample CDs would take an age to do in your own studio, and a lot of loops sound finished, which is exactly the problem.

The Distorted Reality sample CD is really the copyright of Eric Persing as he, in copyright law, owns the original recordings. He's chosen to license his work to the army of composers, musicians, and dance artists around the world to help their music sound better -- or, in a takeaway fast-music world, simple to make. Obviously, most would-be composers should attempt something creative with the material, rather than simply passing it off as their own.

Does this matter, then, you might ask? Sound is sound, and with the value of copyright under threat in a digital age, is it any different to having 683,000 12-bar-blues songs or a mass of 19th-century lieder that all sounds pretty much the same? Making music becomes truly democratic: you fiddle around with a bunch of stuff on a computer and call it your own. It's an enjoyable process, but not one that produces music wholly original to the composer.

This isn't to say that the creative use of loops is a complete no-go area. I have no problems with drum loops, although I think it's far better to create your own with a drummer or percussionist, where possible, and pay them an agreed fee for any re-use of the material. A standard 4/4 rock loop might as well come off a sample CD because it's inherently so dull anyway. And I think a Distorted Reality drone is a great sound, but you absolutely must layer it with other things, change the pitch, mangle it with processing, and then write something with it. Should you use an orchestral sample loop, make absolutely sure you write a new tune around it, preferably with acoustic instrumentation. But be very careful: others will have been there before, and you don't want to sound just like them -- do you?

So why did a group of media composers collectively sigh at the use of the Distorted Reality track? Because, quite simply, it was too easy -- and it was a threat. Anyone with a pile of sample CDs could have done that, even the producers themselves. Someone unscrupulous could easily ignore the small print licensing the material from Spectrasonics, and this could lead to the spectre of a dubbing suite with free music, or music that's the copyright of the producer, which could ultimately marginalise the craft of writing original music.

About The Author

Nigel Beaham-Powell has been writing TV and film music with Bella Russell since the '80s. Together they have won many awards for their work, which includes animation films (Moby Dick), ITV drama (The Chief), and documentary series (The Western Front and Ultimate Guides). Their most recent material includes Wildlife On One: Seals and the BBC Easter special, The Pharaoh's Holy Treasure.