Production music will never be glamorous, but it can be very lucrative. As head of music production at one of the UK's largest libraries, Tim Geraghty is in the perfect position to offer advice to SOS readers with an eye on this market.
Finding an 'in' to the seemingly lucrative world of TV and film music seems to be high on the priority list of many of our readers, but as with any encounter with the commercial face of music, you can waste a lot of time beating on closed doors. Even when you manage to find an opening somewhere, you may find that what's wanted differs significantly from your impression of what's required, so it pays to get the story straight before you start. To find out how the library music system works, I spoke to Tim Geraghty, the head of music production for BMG Production Music, a subsidiary of BMG: the responsibility for library music, or production music as many now prefer to call it, resides with BMG Publishing UK.
Their UK office runs around half a dozen different production music labels, the main one being Atmospheres Music, though they also have Match Music, the Atmosphere archive label, the Explorer world music label and so on. Before unleashing my list of questions on Tim, I asked him to describe the library music industry itself.
"We are like a microcosm of the whole music industry and function as publisher, promoter, record label and distributor, but we don't make our money by selling the CDs, we make it from people licensing our copyrights. Our basic function is to provide music to TV and film-makers, advertisers, corporate video makers, Internet services — anyone who wants to use music as part of their production. We produce CDs and send them out to our clients, numbering several thousand in the UK alone, and they know that by filling in just one MCPS form, they can use that music for anything they like. The CDs are distributed free of charge and monies are collected by the normal MCPS/PRS mechanisms. The deal is that we take 50 percent of the publishing and royalties and the composer gets the other half with no hidden deductions. This is pretty much a standard contract for library music. Little money changes hands prior to a piece of music earning royalties, though we usually pay the composer a small initial amount towards production costs, which is non-recoupable by us, after accepting their work.
"Being a global company, we exploit our composers' interests throughout the world, and in some areas, money is collected directly by our agents where a mechanicals collection mechanism doesn't apply. In the UK there is a standard ratecard price set by the MCPS for all library music, dependant on how the music is used. For example, a corporate video for in-house use only might cost £30 for 30 seconds, while a network advert might cost two or three thousand pounds. Obviously on broadcast use the PRS income can be considerably more than the MCPS licence fee. Imagine a network TV commercial that is repeated 10 times a day for a six-week campaign — it can all add up to a pleasant surprise.
"For the composer it's all about setting up a income stream, because with library music, you'll typically get paid around a year after a track is first used. Eventually you build up enough material to generate a steady flow of income, but in the first instance, you may see nothing for quite a while."
The biggest challenge for library music companies is getting clients to listen to the music they provide: TV production houses and advertising agencies are flooded with CDs from all the major production music companies, so how do BMG make theirs stand out? "We have a very strong reputation, which is vitally important," insists Tim. "Different companies have different ways of dealing with their clients. Some blanket-bomb them with CDs every week, while we prefer to send out fewer CDs each year, but ensure the music is up to a very high standard.
"Our discs are themed — one of our latest releases is called Lush Chilled Strings, which uses the BBC Concert Orchestra string section alongside lounge beats. There are of course regular 'yoof' discs, which in effect represent a snapshot of whatever musical styles are current in the charts and on the indie circuit. Again these will be themed into, for example, two-step garage, hip-hop, R&B and so on. When it comes to choosing what styles and themes we produce, we go by what our clients feed back to us — what's new, and what will be profitable. We ask ourselves 'Do we really want or need another ambient world music disc (groan), which every other library has and which isn't particularly hard to produce anyway?' The bottom line is that good, fresh inventive tracks get the most use, and the production values have to be as high as on any good commercial release."
The more specifically BMG can theme the music on their compilations, the more the busy end user is likely to try it; and the easier it is for the client to get the music, the more likely they are to use it. "We categorise into sub-genres like emotive, ethereal, hardcore, arthouse, weird and so forth," explains Tim. "We also use technology to present the library effectively on the Internet, using an intelligent database where a client can enter their search criteria and then get a shortlist of tracks that might be suitable. Then they can download the MP3, WAV or AIFF version directly into their system if appropriate, or they can come to us for a hard copy if they don't have it already."
So, if a Sound On Sound reader wants to get their music into a library like BMG's, what do they need to do?
"I've been doing this for 10 years now and have evolved my triad theory, which means every piece has to have a good balance of composition, production and engineering," says Tim. "You have to be able to write music — there's a lot of poor music on TV and we don't want to be associated with that. Just because library music is functional doesn't mean it shouldn't be produced to the highest standard possible. The highest accolade you can get from a client is when they phone up and ask you if you're sure what you sent them is library music because they think it's a commercial track. The difference in production values between commercial and library music is getting closer all the time. It's about manipulating sounds rather than using presets, it's about not settling for a loop off the latest Time + Space disc but rather writing your own. It's about dusting off the guitar or Rhodes and actually recording a performance rather than endlessly cutting up that one riff!"
There are few absolute rules about how a library piece should be structured. "I'd rather feel I've got a nice piece of music here,'" says Tim. "I can always edit it myself if necessary, using the Pro Tools system in my office. However, I suppose one golden rule is that library tracks should have endings — fades are no good. If there's no sting or end, it makes it very hard for the client to use it. A client may only use four seconds of a track as a sting or a bumper, so it's worth writing proper endings. Ideas need to be developed pretty quickly, so if the piece is three minutes long, you don't want a one-minute introduction — you have to set your stall out pretty quickly. We include 30 and 20 second versions of the tracks on the CDs — which the composer might provide or we might edit.
"Underscores, or tracks with just the underlying backing section are sometimes used, as are no-drums mixes, but more often than not, the clients are happy with the mix we provide — it is after all the way the track was made, and if a customised version is needed, our composers are happy to remix or rework a track. However, usable edit points are useful so the producer or editor can pick logical places to cut their visual to. The clients also tend to have experienced audio editors, so if they need to chop out a few bars or even reverse a section, they can do that themselves."
Budgetary constraints and the possibility of making retrospective changes to a mix or arrangement mean that most library music is created on computer-based DAWs, and that much of it is based on MIDI and sampling rather than live recording, but this is far from universal. "Most of our composers use computers now, but this doesn't mean they are producing entirely electronic compositions. In the past when the first good sample CDs came out, a lot of people used sampled acoustic sounds. The problem with these is they're not unique and tend to crop up everywhere. The emphasis now is very much on originality of sounds, acoustic or otherwise.
"I love to work with acoustic instruments — that's one of the joys of the job. I might be doing a jazz trio project one week and then a hardcore techno job the next. Unlike some other companies, we work very closely with our writers in their studios during a project so you get a good working knowledge of all the varied systems, Logic, Cubase, Radar, Pro Tools and so on. It's very varied, but on the whole a lot of things are computer-based because its convenient and we don't have the budget to go and record epic Hollywood-style soundtracks for every CD, although that's what every library music composer would really like to do — a big Hollywood film score! But clients don't really expect that any more, and in reality, many major film projects are electronically scored. Where acoustic instruments are needed, there's no reason for the composer not to record them into Logic Audio, which seems to be what most people use these days — you don't need a big studio unless you're recording an big live performance such as a 20-piece string section."
A common misperception is that library music composers should be able to work in every musical style under the sun. According to Tim, it's better to know your own strengths and stick to them. "There are only two or three people I know who are 'Jack of all trades' — they're very rare to find and the better ones own half of Surrey! I use people who I know have strengths in specific areas. Sometimes I get a demo CD sent in and there's the drama/mystery track, the hardcore rave track, the jazz track and so forth, but by and large, that's not a great indication of what the composer is about. It's better to be focused and work in the genre that you know, not send in a CD of tracks you just happen to have had lying about for ages. Ultimately, I know what I like and within the various styles, I use the best people I can find."
In the past, a lot of library music consisted of 'soundalike' material, designed to mimic the hits of the day. Is there still a demand for this sort of thing? "I won't lie and say there isn't," admits Tim. "Clients use popular songs as reference points, and they may ask for something that sounds like a particular song, but you have to keep a sharp perspective on the difference between 'influenced by' and plagiarism. The last time I remember a big demand for soundalikes was when the last Moby album enjoyed a lot of media saturation, but at the moment it's things like this year's Ibiza sounds and a nice resurgence in ska beats."
Dance music is particularly popular at present, and is finding its way into all sorts of unexpected areas. "I'm just working on a children's music project, where the demand has moved away from a clarinet and a beardie strumming an acoustic guitar, and instead there are several dance-style compositions. Of course you still get the 'Spot The Dog'-type music as well, but now it's running alongside a fun underground garage tune. We have to listen to what our clients want, but also give them options. The bottom line is the more our compositions get used, the bigger the royalty cheques for us and our composers."
If you want a company like BMG to consider your music, the best thing to do is simply to send in a professional-looking and -sounding demo. "Send in a CD!" says Tim. "I have two other producers working with me and between us we listen to everything that comes in. It doesn't matter whether it's mastered or not, but it has to have good recording and production values as well as good music. They should include proper contact details, and it is very, very important that the work should contain no uncleared samples, whether they are 30 seconds or three seconds long. Our contract stipulates that if we get into trouble for a track that contains a copyright sample that hasn't been cleared, then it's the composer who coughs up!
"I've also had people send in music that they wrote for a TV series and so they automatically expect to get a deal, but we all know there's a lot of music on TV of questionable quality, so that attitude doesn't mean very much to me. It's really down to whether I like the material and think it will excite the clients."
"I haven't seen a DAT tape in ages now," says Tim Geraghty. "Most things come in as audio CDs or as 24-bit WAV files that I can load directly into Pro Tools for mastering. On a technical level, the delivery format to the client varies: some people will insist on using the CD or even want 24-bit WAV while others are happy with a compressed MP3. That's their call.
"Mostly it's still stereo, but we have invested in reprocessing some of our material for surround applications, and if there's a specific demand for a certain piece of music in surround, most of our composers would be happy to remix something at the drop of a hat, often for no charge, because they know it will make money later. It's not something we're asked for a lot in the UK. In the US, the TV companies are more likely to be interested in surround."
Tim works closely with his composers to fine-tune their output for the market, and also to ensure that compilation CDs by different composers are mastered consistently. "We have around 20 writers who are producing material constantly, with perhaps 20 more working on specialist products. When it comes to mastering, there are some people who do a good job and send in a virtually finished project whereas with others, we handle the mastering here. I'd say we master around 80 percent of what comes in, with some of the other stuff just needing a little EQ'ing.
"What I don't like to get is a mix that's been Finalized to death because then there's very little else I can do with it, and often, over-mastering is an indication of poor content, hence the old mastering adage 'you can't polish a turd'. The material is going to be put through the broadcaster's dynamic processing anyway, which can be as brutal as a Finalizer on 'full beam', as it's much the same thing. That's not to suggest there's anything wrong with the Finalizer or any other piece of semi-pro mastering hardware — it's just their use in the wrong hands that causes me problems. In fact I often use the TC Works Master X five-band compressor plus their EQ for mastering in combination with the Maxim limiter. Used with care they produce great results, although I have to admit with special projects its always nice to push it through some analogue Pultecs! The mixes from the various composers tend to vary a little depending on what monitoring system they have, or on the way their room sounds, so I have set up a number of correction curves and stored them as presets for correcting mixes from specific regular composers."