Dan Carlin, The New Business of Film Scoring

For the past decade, the music industry has been facing a new digital era. It has generated new outlets for talent, and overturned the familiar stepping-stones for success. The film scoring industry has been affected too. A plethora of new composers are converging on the industry from all angles and discovering new paths to make a livelihood in music—with compositions for major and independent films, synch licensing for TV, and video-games.
The music-gaming industry, in particular, is quickly becoming a new avenue for composers. In 2007, revenues in the video gaming industry were up 43 percent to nearly US $18 billion, compared to film revenues of $9.6 billion. Also, many composers find that there is more creative freedom working for the gaming industry because in the film industry scoring is always done in post-production and Hollywood continues to cut down the time allotted for score development to save expense.
We interviewed Dan Carlin, Chair of Berklee’s Film Scoring Department, to get the full view. Carlin won an Emmy for outstanding achievement in music editing, and his second Emmy nomination was for outstanding achievement as Music Director. Carlin is also a member and Chair Emeritus of the Board of Trustees of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). Here, he reflects on the Internet and the new business opportunities within the world of gaming, independent films, and synch-licensing.
How has the film scoring industry adapted to and been influenced by the evolution of the digital era and the changes it has inflicted on the record industry?
Dan Carlin: What happened to the recording industry is going to be difficult for the motion picture industry to either ignore or avoid. The first thing the film business should learn from the mistakes that the recording industry made is that it’s not smart to sue your customers. Rather than trying to see the Internet as an opportunity, the record industry resisted and tried to deny what was obviously a revolution. The motion picture industry has paid close attention to that because the same opportunities for piracy and illegal downloading apply. I support the efforts to protect copyright and I’m not minimizing the need for doing something about illegal downloading. However, the solution the record industry came up with was not adequate and as a result the industry is in huge trouble. The motion picture industry is trying to avoid that, of course.
Another thing that’s happened is the change from analog to digital and the preparation, production, and distribution of music for film, television, and now video games. The progression has created real challenges especially for us in academia. Fifteen years ago it wasn’t necessary for students to take tech classes, though some were available. Now, if you’re a film scoring major, we would be remiss if we let you graduate without a working knowledge of specific computer tools, software, middleware, and hardware that enable you to produce mock-ups.
How has the change from analog to digital affected the actual scoring process?
DC: John Williams is the only composer I know who still only uses a piano, manuscript paper, and a bunch of pencils, and who doesn’t have to deliver a mock-up. He can get by with that because he is working with one of the most brilliant filmmakers of our time, Steven Spielberg, who is also a major film score aficionado. I don’t know of any other directors who will settle for anything less than a highly refined mock-up of the score before it is recorded. And now, the directors want the mock-up to be so good that it can be used in the temporary soundtrack for screenings to preview audiences. At these previews, the score heard by the audience is comprised of “temp music,” which includes both music from previously released movies (selected and edited by the music editor) and the mock-ups (prepared by the composer). These temp scores are used because studio execs don’t want to spend the money for a full-blown scoring session on a film in which major editorial changes are still being made. Later, after the previews, when the film is closer to being “locked,” the composer has a much better shot at producing a complete and fluid score that will require minimal changes by the music editor.
This business of temping and creating mock-ups has had a couple of major ramifications on the industry. First, because the director is the person who collaborates with the music editor in developing the temp track, he or she becomes “married” to it. That is to say, the director becomes so accustomed to this soundtrack that when the composer brings in original material for the final, the director has trouble accepting it. So most composers feel compelled to mimic the temp track in a way that doesn’t exactly copy it, but at least does not depart from it in any major fashion. So, as you can see, this places a severe artistic restriction on the composer. The result is that we now have much less innovative scores being produced.
This is why it is so advantageous for the composer to get mock-ups of his or her own new music edited into the temp track very early before the director can fall in love with something (or someone) else. Another great advantage of mock-ups is in alleviating anxiety prior to and during the actual recording session. This is because one of the scariest parts of scoring for the composer comes in worrying about whether the director will like what he or she hears. The composer does not want to start trying to solve major complaints while an expensive 75-to-90 piece orchestra sits waiting for the composer to become creative on the spot. However, if the composer has prepared and played mock-ups for the director ahead of time, there can be no surprises. The suspense is eliminated, which enables the composer to approach the scoring session much more comfortably. The musicians and crew pick up on that, and everyone performs better.
In what way will the Internet open up possibilities for the film scoring industry?
DC: I think the Internet is going to provide the greatest hope for all artists, whether they’re composers, filmmakers, painters, or poets. I believe because we’ve allowed the corporations to dictate what art we see, people are now grateful that the Internet has enabled them to search for the type of art they not only can enjoy, but can learn to enjoy. We see all the time that people who don’t necessarily think they like a certain art form–say opera or poetry or jazz–react very positively when exposed to that form. Also, when you see an artist perform well, you generally respond positively to his or her artistry. Their style or product may not be something you are interested in buying, but at least you get it, and you appreciate the creativity involved. For so long, corporations, through their marketing efforts, have established what a specific demographic will have the opportunity to see or hear. If the corporation determines that there is no market for a particular art form, they don’t hire anyone to perform, record or distribute it, so it fades away.
But now the Internet is changing all that. I think the same thing will hold true for the visual media as well, whether it’s documentaries, short- and long-form narratives, or international and local films. Technology always has played a major role in the evolution of the film industry, and now that artists and craft workers have more access to—and control of—that technology, the audience has increasing exposure to a broader range of product. In sum, I think you have to say that people are wrong when they say that music, for instance, is in trouble, which then portends big trouble for movies. No, what’s in trouble is the traditional business of music and the traditional business of film and television. These art forms remain healthy and in demand. The change—and it is revolutionary—is the way in which such art is created, produced, delivered and consumed.
Will the Internet affect the ways in which composers are compensated?
DC: Well, composers currently get paid in two ways. First, they get paid upfront by the producer or production company that hires them to work on the film, television project or game project. Second, they get paid royalties. For instance, if you were to write the score for a film that later aired on TV, you would receive an upfront fee as well as a broadcast royalty. And if you’re one of the talented and lucky film scorers who also writes an original song for a film that becomes a hit on radio, you will be paid royalties for those broadcasts as well. So, one piece of art can pay you back multiple times. In Europe, composers also receive royalties when their movies are played in theaters; unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in America. Here’s the dilemma right now: when a film (or piece of music) is illegally downloaded on the Internet, the creators receive no compensation. This is particularly unfair to songwriters, who do not receive an upfront fee and who rely upon royalties to earn their living. So, lots of smart people are trying to figure out the best way to provide fair compensation to artists and other creators. Because this is such a big issue, it will get solved—but, before it’s over, there will be a lot of blood on the floor.
Will the rise in independent films create opportunities for film composers?
DC: I think the increase in indie films is a great trend. But the difficulty in that industry is in finding distributors. It has really been tricky for people to get lower budget films distributed and seen, but again, the Internet is changing all that. A challenge that we’ve had is that the major studios have relied so much on their marketing department to determine what kind of movies are going to get made. They have narrowed the age-range of their target audience to the demographic with the most expendable income, which is, basically, teenagers. And so, those of us who aren’t teenagers find less and less reason to go to movie theaters. As a filmmaker, you must realize that unless you’re making a movie that’s catered to that large demographic, you have trouble finding anyone willing to finance or distribute it. But again, as we rely more and more on the Internet, new distribution channels are created, and the Internet distribution costs are much smaller. This is a great trend because it means that there is going to be plenty of work for composers. I’m very optimistic because the Internet is going to impact us in ways that we haven’t even figured out yet. It’s going to create terrific opportunities for documentary filmmakers and other entrepreneurs and artists because they will be able to find and cultivate their audience in ways that they haven’t been able to do in the past.
Has synch licensing over-stepped its position, and will it eventually overpower film scoring?
DC: Well, when you look at The Sopranos for instance, they used a lot of songs in lieu of underscore, which started a trend that you now see in many TV shows. However I’m not sure that it is going to remain the custom for long because, first of all, it’s not cheap—unless you’re hiring new artists to write original songs. If you want to use current or former hit songs that already are familiar to the audience, it’s very expensive. In addition, just as you have to hire a composer to write an underscore, you have to hire someone to pick, license, and edit those songs. Synch licensing can be effective, but I see it as a stylistic choice now, not an evolutionary trend.
How is the landscape of the current job market?
DC: The motion picture and television industry has always been cyclical, plus we were hit with a really tough writers’ strike this year. The film-scoring industry is still suffering the ramifications of that, especially now in post-production, where the bulk of the music-people work. Unfortunately, there always is reshuffling that goes on after a strike, and we wind up with fewer jobs. However, there are still opportunities in film music, it’s just that with the increasing development of new technologies, those positions are changing. For example, now, there are few scores in TV that use a live orchestra. Because new technology has enabled composers to create increasingly realistic mock-ups, the need for session players (studio musicians) has decreased dramatically. On the other hand, because composers now have to be able to sit in their room with their gear and produce these mock-ups, a whole new industry has been created for programmers, synthesists, and composer assistants. Technology is changing so rapidly that most composers don’t have the time or energy to keep up, so they need workers who can help them do that. Thus, graduating students who have learned the concepts behind these new programs and who can comfortably keep the gear running are in rising demand.
How about the video-gaming industry?
DC: If I were a young composer starting out now I would definitely try and get into video games. Many successful film composers are trying to get into this field because it offers a new artistic challenge, and it’s a huge industry. People spent more money on games last year than on any other form of entertainment. And the music for these games is approached differently than it is for films and TV; it is more of a dialectical process. The interaction between composer and director is also more active. Where in the creation of a typical score for a 90-minute movie, the composer is lucky to get six weeks to write a score, in video games, the process goes on for months, sometimes years.
The creative process is also much different when compared to film scoring. In the latter, there’s the advantage that you can look at the dramatic arc of the story and see it as a complete work. From the very beginning, you know where you are headed and where you need to wind up. The film dictates to you where to build your score and how it will evolve in a dramatic fashion that complements and lends credence to the emotional reach of the film. But when you’re composing for a video game, you don’t know where it’s going to wind up because it’s interactive. You have to be careful not to paint yourself into a corner; the music has to be prepared to shift in any direction. Video games create a vast stage for creativity, and it is pouring into other fields as well. For instance, composer Tommy Tallarico is doing huge business going around the world and performing his video-game music with major symphony orchestras in SRO venues that provide accompanying laser shows and interactive audience participation. I think he’s booked to perform at Boston’s Symphony Hall in ’09. So, there’s this huge demand for a new art form and most people aren’t even aware of it. Here at Berklee, we already teach a technology course on video-game sound, and we are starting video-game composition classes in the fall of ’08.



One Reply to “Dan Carlin, The New Business of Film Scoring”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *