Music Supervisor Tanya Sweeney gives essential advice to filmmakers working on modest budgets on how not to ruin a film with shoddy aural afterthoughts.
Films are made in Ireland on a huge range of budgets. On one hand, we have witnessed epic wonders, like Reign of Fire, take over our soundstages and post-production facilities, yet on the other hand, there is an ever increasing presence of low budget gems, made more likely with a smaller yet perfectly formed audience in mind. These films, among them Disco Pigs or The Crooked Mile, while arguably produced with slightly more care and affection than the Hollywood blockbuster, are made with an eye firmly on the purse strings. Often, problems and glitches are solved ‘creatively’, without the luxury of being able to spend money, thus creating the stuff of production legend. Furthermore, low budget productions and the crews that work on them seem to be more spirited and familial.
Having worked as a music supervisor on several low budget features for the past four years, I have seen my fair share of off-camera production dramas, not least in my own department. I have also been fortunate enough to be part of some truly amazing production teams, and in some cases have had a front seat while some truly remarkable films unfolded.
When it comes to low budget filmmaking, there is one particular aspect of production that will cause problems on the music front: the money. When creating a music budget, it is perhaps best to ignore the fables where a huge recording artist ‘believed’ in a film so much that he either did the score for free or allowed use of his signature tune for a nominal fee. Having worked with plenty of these artists, it is fair to say that they can be a pretty mercenary bunch, or at least their representatives are. It’s easier to put a little more into your music budget so that the songs you want can be cleared without too many headaches. On a recent production I worked as music supervisor for Film Four: the music budget on a £1 million feature was roughly £15,000. Furthermore, the director wanted David Bowie, Blondie and lots of chart dance music to be featured in the film. Generally speaking, this can’t be done without a host of miracles.
There are a few rules to getting the music right for a low budget film, and for getting the most out of your meagre budget:
Consider your music as early as possible
Ideally, ideas about music for the film should be brought to the table in pre-production, during budgeting. Many producers and directors tend to leave thoughts about music until post-production, so they can play with songs and match them to scenes during their time in the cutting room. The only problem is that timing becomes an inhibiting factor – often, the right composer might not be available at short notice, some songs take months of negotiation to clear, the composer is given a short window of time with which to create the score, there may not be time to correct oversights or glitches. It’s perhaps a better idea to begin discussing music choices right before the shoot and have someone clear them while shooting is going on. Needless to say, songs that are being used during playback (for example, if an actor is singing a song) will need to be fully cleared by the song’s publisher before the day of shooting.
Another advantage of considering music so early on is that securing the right talent can affect your chances of getting financed. Okay, so having Coldplay score your film won’t get you a greenlight if the script, actors and other elements aren’t attached, but it will go a long way in making your project more memorable to financiers, and will give your project some much-needed kudos. On another project I worked on for Film Four Lab, entitled Body Song, having Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead on board to score the film while searching for finance made a huge difference.
Is your film going to be music-heavy?
Will it need plenty of source music? It will if it’s set in a nightclub, or a hip bar. Often, if the script is contemporary, it helps to envisage that there will be some source music used. On the other hand, there is less, or no need for source music in a period piece, as these films tend to be score-driven. The trick is to budget accordingly in terms of how much music is being used. Generally speaking, on a ¨ 1 million feature, where some score and some source will be used, it is advisable to set aside around ¨60,000 for music.
It is also a good idea to get a rough idea of song/composer prices as you do the budget. While record labels and publishers expect the film’s producers to make an offer with which to start negotiations, often when clearing for film use (that is, clearance for use in all media worldwide, and in perpetuity), a song by a very popular band or artist can cost up to ¨150,000 with little opportunity for negotiation. Artists in this category include Madonna, Van Morrison, Michael Jackson, or Elvis Presley. Songs by Blondie or David Bowie are often quoted by the publisher at around ¨20,000 for the publishing rights alone (there are two sets of rights that need clearing; the master rights and the publishing rights). Once I attempted to clear a Badly Drawn Boy track for use in an ad and was informed that the song would cost around ¨40,000 for 10 seconds of use. Obviously these prices are starting points from which to begin negotiations, but these should give you an idea of how much you can expect to spend if you want to use well-known tracks. Of course, your overall production budget is a determining factor in how much you will pay for a song, and if you are in the low budget category, you will get off much lighter.
For films under ¨500,000, expect to pay ¨4000 per track (¨2000 for master, ¨2000 for publishing) for a mid-sized song. For films from ¨500,000 to ¨1 million, expect to pay ¨8000 per track (¨4000 for master, ¨4000 for publishing) for a mid-sized song. For films from ¨1.5 million – ¨3 million, expect to pay up to ¨16,000 per track (¨8000 for master, ¨8000 for publishing) for a mid-sized song.
Use available talent
One way around this spend is to use up-and-coming artists or local bands to drive your soundtrack. Today’s up-and-coming artists are of course tomorrow’s stars. In addition, many are desperate to add film work to their CV, and will pose very few problems for a filmmaker. When I worked as the music consultant on Goldfish Memory, I was very fortunate insofar as the producer and director (Breda Walsh and Liz Gill, respectively) were very open to this idea. Not only did they get plenty of great quality music within the confines of their music budget, but the highly evocative soundtrack to the film is a perfect reflection of what’s hip and new in vibrant young Dublin, which is of course the backdrop of the film.
With regards to the pricing of actual composers, again, you will pay more for John Barry or Clint Mansell than you will for a novice with a Casio. It’s up to the director to decide whether it is worth paying more for the right composer, while bearing in mind that the composer and score can make or break the film.
Similarly, using production/library music can be a simple way of getting music into the film without too many headaches. Library music doesn’t need artist approval, unlike most source music, and it can be paid for simply by filling out an MCPS order form, and every genre is available in this format. It is particularly useful if a scene needs classical music, as it eliminates the need to record an expensive orchestra or to clear an existing recording from one of the major labels.
The step-deal option
If money is too tight to mention (and it often is on an Irish feature production), another option would be to use step-deals or back-end participation deals with labels or publishers. If your film cannot be made without ‘White Christmas’ but the prospect of spending half the budget doesn’t go down too well with your executive producers try proposing that you pay a certain amount of money on signature of the synchronisation license, then another amount when the film breaks even at the box office, and a separate amount when the film makes ¨1 million producer s net profit. There are several variations on this deal, and it is always worth investigating this possibility with record labels and publishers.
Tricks of the trade
There are several tricks to be mindful of while making films, which make a difference to your music budget. For example, a way of getting around using a lot of music for pub/bar scenes would be to get your sound designer to create plenty of talk and ‘fruit machine’ sounds. In a birthday scene, instead of singing ‘Happy Birthday’ (which costs a lot to clear), it may be an idea to get your actors to sing ‘For (S)He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ (which costs nothing to clear). It is also a good idea to see which classical songs are out of copyright; amazingly, while the general rule is that a song is out of copyright 75 years after the death of the composer, some classical compositions that were composed hundreds of years ago are still in copyright (for example, ‘Nessun Dorma’).
Finally, one word of advice would be to use a music supervisor while doing feature film work. Many Irish producers find this to be a ‘luxury’ or an unnecessary spend in a feature film budget, but generally having one on board your project can be highly effective. Many music supervisors have contacts at all the major record labels and publishers, and this is useful when it comes to difficult negotiations. Furthermore, they are being constantly kept up to date by labels and publishers of the musical stars of the future.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 91 in 2003.