The Argument for Original Music
We invited Ron and Shawn from Audio Verite to give us their take on when to hire a music composer or buy ready made stock music.
Having the right music in your project is essential. This is borne out by even a casual assessment of how much money companies spend on music for their promotional materials year after year. But so often these days, in media produced outside of larger corporations, money is spent on graphic designers, editors, art directors, copywriters, animators and more while little or no budget is set aside for the music. Why is this? After all, those larger companies don’t spend money frivolously.
With the advent of free streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, music has begun to look “cheap” to us. After all, we can go to YouTube and find virtually every piece of music ever written (in many cases uploaded illegally) and play it for free.
Parallel to this, stock music libraries have grown exponentially in size and popularity. What used to be a potentially intimidating or time-consuming process has become as simple as going online and buying a t-shirt. So while you can’t buy a stock editor or a stock animator or even a stock script, you can buy stock music. While this is a great development for smaller, independent creators, it is a double-edged sword. Because of the potentially low prices and wide range of choices, it often results in music becoming an afterthought, reducing a crucial part of the presentation to a fiscal decision, rather than a creative one.
Of course, there are some cases when stock music makes the most sense. When the music is painting in broad, general strokes and doesn’t feature prominently, often a prefab track will work well. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is reality TV. It seems like there are 10 new reality shows created every minute! They use wall-to-wall music most of the time and are produced quickly under pressure of insane deadlines. The editors need music immediately, and they need a lot of it, so they go into a project with a large cache of stock music ready to go. The music used in these situations functions as underscore, often with no more than 15-20 seconds of any particular track being used. They push the action along and fill out the show, but the music generally amplifies the situations onscreen in the most obvious way possible (e.g. funny part features stereotypical comedy music, while a drunken argument might feature action style music that James Cameron or Michael Bay might find too over-the-top for their latest film). But when they need something specific, like a theme song for the show, they turn to a composer or custom music house.
Another situation in which stock music thrives is when the project is built around music chosen beforehand. The editor/creator can cut the video to the music. The chosen track(s) will provide the high points, low points, builds and pacing. And the tone of the presentation should match the music perfectly, thus enhancing the final product. A great example of this is trailer music. Most of the music heard in trailers is pre-made especially for that genre. But once you enter into specialized areas, and shop for higher quality music that is compelling enough to be featured prominently, the price begins to rise, which can sometimes blur the line between stock music and custom music. So if you want to do something in a style that features music and you have access to the perfect track that you want to represent your product, great! However, more often than not, you have a ‘perfect’ track in mind, but it is out of reach or not accessible. Not coincidentally, one of the most common custom music jobs a professional composer is tasked with is producing a track that is similar to an existing piece of music to evoke the same vibe or feeling the original produces without copying it directly.
So this brings us to situations where stock music doesn’t always work so well. If there is a change in mood, tone or pace in the presentation, or if the music needs to follow the action on screen, stock music can be woefully inadequate. Many times stock music is used where custom music should have been. In advertising for example, the project is often in latter stages of development before music is even a significant thought. Unless music is chosen beforehand and the video is created/edited to a specific track, there will be all sorts of issues to be dealt with in terms of timing, tempo, mood etc. Not only that, but it can be incredibly difficult to find a single piece of stock music that changes much at all. After all, one of the cornerstones of the stock music genre is consistency of tone and mood. The end result of using such tracks is often a compromise of the original vision.
Finding a track (or possibly more than one) that fits all the beats, sets the right tone(s) and begins and ends where and how it should is a daunting task. When you hire a professional composer or custom music house, they are well versed in dealing with these issues smoothly and effectively. Sometimes you might need to pick up the pace a bit or change moods in a section of the ad, and that requires a lot of backtracking, editing and manipulation to achieve when using a pre-existing track. Often the production ends up going the other way, compromising or altering the content of the ad so that things sound “right” with the music that has been chosen late in the process. A small investment in custom music can avoid this situation completely, ironically often saving time and money on the back end.
An obvious, but sometimes overlooked advantage is originality and branding. If you picked out your graphical logo from a stock media site, then hundreds or thousands of other folks have the same logo. The same goes for your music. That same song you picked out for your project is likely on many others. Whether it is a logo ident, jingle, or simply new music written expressly for your project, the benefits of originality are many.
Take this a step further and think about some of the big brands and networks today that have their own jingle. For example, the famous 3 note NBC logo, the “I’m loving it” music from McDonald’s, the “We are farmers” jingle sung at the end of every one of the Farmers Insurance commercials and the 20th Century Fox music that plays before all of their movies. There are thousands of small businesses that use them in local ads for branding as well. Furniture companies, lawyers, cab companies and more have their own jingles that represent their business and help them stand out from the rest. Many are memorable and memorable goes a long way to winning someone’s business and trust. For example, if one day you happen to need a car service, that catchy and ridiculous jingle from a local company will likely be the first one you think of and call.
Hiring a composer brings with it all the benefits of hiring any professional in their field. They do this all the time. They are intimately familiar with the language of music and how it interacts with video. They will be able to bring perspective and creative spark to your project and offer knowledge, expertise and enhancements that can’t be provided any other way. So the next time you are planning a project, consider setting aside budget for original music. You’ll reap all the benefits of a service tailored to your specific needs and perhaps even save valuable time and resources that could be better focused elsewhere in your business.
Ron Passaro and Shawn P. Russell are the founders of Audio Verite. Both veteran composers and producers, they bring together traditional and cutting-edge sounds and draw from one of the most dynamic music communities in the world.