MUSIC: Filling silence with affordable sound

Considering the funds with which non-fiction producers usually complete their projects, it's inevitable that music budgets are often, let's say, modest. Music is that last stop in post-production, so it's inevitable that producers sometimes want to cheat it a little to pay for unplanned special video effects, observes Lyle Greenfield, president and founder of Bang Music, a 15-year-old New York sound institution with over 2,000 pieces
November 1, 2004

Considering the funds with which non-fiction producers usually complete their projects, it’s inevitable that music budgets are often, let’s say, modest. Music is that last stop in post-production, so it’s inevitable that producers sometimes want to cheat it a little to pay for unplanned special video effects, observes Lyle Greenfield, president and founder of Bang Music, a 15-year-old New York sound institution with over 2,000 pieces of original music in its library. For doc-makers, working with a small music budget is as common as getting a hair in the gate.

But producers need not fret, there are ways to get music without resorting to making it themselves. With some foresight, research and flexibility, filmmakers can get great tunes for a 30-minute doc for as little as US$5,000. Still, for those working with paltry music budgets, Big Foote Music executive producer and co-founder Ray Foote forewarns: ‘Don’t expect a string orchestra.’

Foote says his doc scores generally range from $5,000 to $45,000, the average being $10,000 to $20,000. At New York-based JSM Music, where PBS’ EGG the arts show was scored about two years ago, president and ceo Joel Simon estimates he charges doc-makers 10% to 20% of his traditional fee for advertising clients, depending on the subject matter and resources required. Over at Amber Music – which uses about 15 composers, including Will Richter and Mike Hewer – owner and president Michelle Curran says, ‘If [a producer] wanted 90 minutes of music, it should theoretically be $1,000 a minute, but I don’t know if that ever works out.’ That may seem steep, but it’s pocket change compared to Curran’s average charge for ad clients: $25,000 for 30 seconds of music.

Anthony Vanger, owner and creative director at New York-based Ant Music NY, estimates the average budget for doc music is roughly $10,000 to $15,000, depending on whether wall-to-wall music is needed, and how comfortable the producer is using sampled strings rather than live musicians.

But determining doc music rates is not an exact science – there are many variables considered when setting fees. At Amsterdam-based MassiveMusic, which does music composition, sound design, music research and licensing, owner and CEO Hans Brouwer has a cut-and-dry method when charging commercial clients. For soundtracks, it involves a set production fee and a buy-out fee that’s dependent on the medium and number of countries in which the commercial will be broadcast, as well as the length of time it will be aired. (Brouwer has been paid up to $800,000 to license a single song for one commercial.) The company remixed James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’ for a Gateway campaign in the u.s. about a year ago – the first official Godfather of Soul remix ever created from the original track, says Brouwer.

The fees for doc jobs, however, are handled differently. Brouwer asks: What musical style does the producer want? What is the story? How many musicians are required? How big is the company behind the film? Is it already sold to cinemas and tv? What is the overall budget?

Brouwer hypothesizes that to do the 35 or 40 minutes of music typically used in a 60-minute doc, he would charge at least $25,000 – his discount for doc-makers. Compared to the three or four days Massive composers spend on 30-second ads, a doc score could take a week and a half.

Divvy the dough, then stick to the plan

Securing tunes should start in the pre-production stage, advises Andrew Robbins, director of the film/tv division at Megatrax Production Music in Hollywood. ‘When you lay out your overall budget, allocate money knowing that circumstances always change during the production and post phases of the project,’ he says. That way, any repair fees or the aforementioned special effects won’t mean producers have to snip at the music budget and settle for less sound than originally planned.

Once the music budget is set, producers shouldn’t be embarrassed by it – it’s their message, not their moolah, that will help get music companies on board. ‘Money can’t buy a personal interest,’ says Sarah Gavigan, owner and creative director at Ten Music in L.A. ‘If you’re convincing someone to create a piece of music for your film or show, you really want them to be passionate about it. Once you get that passion, the money’s not going to be an issue.’

In New York, Foote, whose company scored Dan Klores and Ron Berger’s 2003 doc The Boys of 2nd Street Park, agrees. Although Big Foote usually ends up out of pocket on doc projects, he anticipates working on more. ‘The reason we do them is the lack of creative politics, the energy and passion filmmakers bring to the process, and the ability to build our reel and show we can do more than just ads,’ he explains.

Although it’s usually not a cost-efficient step for a major player like Amber to score docs, Curran says, ‘If somebody came in with a 90-minute ‘get Bush out’ doc, we would do it because that means an awful lot to us.’ For example, the company, with offices in New York, L.A. and London, ‘called in favors’ to license ’60s music for director Ralph Arlyck’s new doc, Following Sean – a $700,000 feature that catches up with the now-grown four-year-old boy Arlyck filmed in Haight Ashbury in 1969.

Tips for getting cheap tracks

‘If a filmmaker came to me with a 90-minute piece and $10,000 and told me they wanted Johnny Cash, that would be impossible,’ says Ten’s Gavigan. Indeed, Ant’s Vanger notes that if producers want to buy popular music, they’re going to pay tens of thousands of dollars per song. And, while they may get the rights for North America, if the film goes to DVD, they will have to renegotiate. At Megatrax, Robbins confirms that the range of rights the doc-maker needs impacts their music licensing fees.

Always keen on back-end opportunities, record labels may take the possibility of a soundtrack into consideration when evaluating projects, adds Vanger. Sales of a successful soundtrack can more than offset whatever revenues are lost upfront. ‘If you deal with a big publishing company, you’re going to have to justify the bottom line before they give you anything,’ concludes Jeff Elmassian, creative director at Los Angeles-based Endless Noise, the company that did the sound for Nike’s Stomp-like basketball commercial in 2001.

In order to avoid record labels altogether, Vanger suggests finding up-and-coming composers who are looking to expand their reels. If the musicians are motivated and willing to score a doc, they may do so for under $7,500, he says.

If a producer is lucky, composers or music suppliers will waive upfront fees in turn for screen credit and exposure, says Megatrax’s Robbins. Whether or not this happens, Elmassian stresses that producers have to ensure they work within a musician’s genre boundaries.

It’s also beneficial if the producers have a certain tone in mind before contacting a music house, says Massive’s Brouwer. This helps eliminate false starts when the company begins searching through its library for appropriate songs. In Massive’s case, its library contains roughly 1,000 unused tracks. ‘If the director wants a jazzy, laid-back style of music, then we’re not going to look into surf punk,’ explains Brouwer.

A burgeoning, cost-effective trend in scoring films is sound design – the middle ground between music composition and sound effects. (Elmassian cites, for example, the understated, ambient background used in Errol Morris’ Fog of War.) ‘It can be a very creative, fulfilling way to underscore your movie while not having to license and deal with publishing and those expensive costs,’ says Elmassian. If a prodco hires a composer for three weeks, he says it can save a week of their time if they use sound design. In turn, that allows them to focus more on music composition. For a 30-minute TV doc with 20 minutes of music, Elmassian estimates half the score can be done using sound design.

With so many music options to consider, Bang’s Greenfield makes a last point about cost: ‘We have reality-based half-hour and hour shows that cost less than $50,000 all in, per segment. So many things about technology and the proliferation of media have reduced the hard costs of getting something done, and have reduced the time it takes to get those things done.’ That’s music to the ears of cash-strapped doc-makers looking to fill silence with sound.

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.