Almost twenty years ago, my colleagues in the production music business encouraged me to run for a seat on the ASCAP Board of Directors. In fact, they not only encouraged me, they gave me some seed money to run a real campaign: postcards, letters, videos, the works! No one had ever really "campaigned" for a seat on the Board before, and few outsiders like me had ever been elected. But I was lucky enough to win a seat.
It has been a privilege and a unique opportunity for me to serve on the ASCAP Board. It's hard work and requires quite a bit of time, energy and engagement. The stakes are high, because the decisions the Board makes affect peoples lives in a very direct and fundamental way. So it's critical that Board members really understand the issues and think about their impact on music creators across the spectrum.
ASCAP is one of the best organizations that music creators have ever devised, and it serves as a bulwark against the shifting sands and rough waters of the music industry. It's home to more than a half million writers and publishers. And for an organization that processes a billion dollars a year, it's pretty nimble and adaptive. But there are legal and practical limits to what ASCAP can do.
So in addition to my service on the Board, I recently helped organize the Council of Music Creators (CMC), a non-profit organization that serves as a pure voice for music creators of all kinds. We're proudly independent, not funded by industry folks, and not afraid to speak out on the issues of the day.
CMC’s online advocacy campaign is called Music Answers. It's a grassroots initiative, designed to help music creators understand the issues that face them, and learn how they can get involved in protecting their own careers and those of the next generation. The website includes reports, articles, and several short informational videos I made that cover various aspects of the industry and the issues we're facing.
Music creators can't just write music any more. We need to understand how the business works, where our particular talents and skills fit in, and how we can protect ourselves and fellow writers. We can't just hope that everything will work out the way we want. We have to get out and push, along with everyone else who values creativity.
I think most writers understand this. It's getting harder and harder to make a living in music, and the anti-copyright folks are suiting up for a battle against us. The decisions that get made in the next few years will determine how the music industry works for the next fifty.
So I'm running again for a seat on the ASCAP Board. Ballots go out in February. If you're an ASCAP member, please make sure you vote. If you know someone who's a member, I hope you will encourage them to vote too, and vote only for the candidates they know and support. Thank you.
Ask most video producers about "performing rights" and you'll usually get an uneasy stare. They know such rights exist, but exactly what they are, who needs them, how to get them and who pays for them are a mystery to many. So here goes:
The copyright law gives music owners the right to perform their work publicly, or to authorize others to perform it publicly. By "publicly," I mean any audience that consists of more than a close group of friends or family. Anything larger than that is considered "public."
So if your video contains copyrighted music, and you put your video up on the internet, or on broadcast TV, or on a cable station, or at a film festival or your company's annual sales meeting, someone needs to license the performing rights. Maybe it's you, maybe not.
Most television broadcasters and cable networks have agreements with licensing organizations like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC that collectively represent hundreds of thousands of composers and publishers. These "Performing Rights Organizations" or "PROs" offer blanket licenses that cover all the music they represent. So if your video is going to be broadcast or cablecast on a station with PRO licenses, you'll be covered by their license.
Sometimes, though, stations or networks will decline to take a license from the PROs. In this case, the stations or networks may ask program producers to obtain the performing rights for all the music in their programs directly from the music owner.
Restaurants, hotels, skating rinks, convention centers and even businesses that play music for customers or even employees also need to make sure they have licenses to perform music.
What about the internet? Technically, performances on the internet are public performances, and need to be licensed. Some of the larger sites have licenses with the PROs, but for smaller sites, you'll want to make sure you have the necessary clearances. Check with your music supplier if you're not sure.
The last thing anyone wants is a phone call about copyright infringement.
There is nothing in the world more powerful than the right combination of music and images. It's almost pathetic, how we can be so easily manipulated. Even the meanest and toughest among us can be brought to tears in just a few seconds. It's amazing.
So it's no wonder that smart producers use the power of music to leverage their message. After all, music tells the audience how to feel about what they're seeing.
So what is the music in your video telling your audience?
Some producers seem to think that music is like audio wallpaper - something you put in the background that no one really notices, but that fills the gaps in the voice track. Wow, is that wrong!
Whether you realize it or not, the music in your video is doing something. If it's boring, your audience will be bored. If it's distracting, your audience will be distracted. If it's fast and your visuals are slow, your audience will be confused. If it's too grandiose for the occasion, your audience will be suspicious. And if it just pounds away in the background, your audience will tune out.
Not what you want!
Here are a few basic tips to help you get your music working for you!
1. Pick your music as early in the process as you can. Find a piece that captures the essence of what you're trying to say, and stick it in your timeline before you start to edit. You'll find that editing to a music track can help create a more interesting and customized look and feel.
2. Change the music often. Most production music tracks run between 2 and 3 minutes for a reason: they get boring after that. Please don't just loop the track to make it longer. Let your audience take a breath, change the music, keep them interested.
3. Find the right balance. Music that's either too loud or too soft will distract your audience. If you find yourself constantly turning down the music, chances are you've got the wrong piece. Try something else.
4. Alternate Mixes can be great. Many production music tracks come with several mixes, such as "no melody" or "no percussion." These can be great for complex, technical presentations where certain music elements can be distracting.
5. Classical music is classic. When nothing seems to be working, or if your audience demographic is all over the map, classical music can be a great problem-solver. Just don't make the mistake of using new recordings of classical music without a license - even recordings of Bach are covered by copyright!
6. Silence is golden. Nothing grabs the attention of an audience faster than dead silence. If you have an important payoff point to make in your video, consider having no music at all, just for a moment. It's super effective.
Among other things, I play the guitar. I got my first acoustic at age 5. Actually, it was my brother's, but I borrowed it so often it became mine. My parents gave me my first electric guitar when I was 11 (a decision they probably regretted later) and from then on, I was hooked.
In high school and even in college, I played my guitar pretty much every day. I formed a series of bands, did the arranging, played guitar, keyboards, bass and drums, wrote contracts, and counted and distributed the money to my band mates. But I was never what I considered a "great" guitar player; I always let other guys play the fancy lead guitar parts. I eventually went on to study composition, played oboe in college and dabbled on sax and clarinet, but never stopped playing the guitar.
So when I stared to write my own music, a lot of it was guitar-based. There were certain kinds of figures that fell easily under my fingers, and I was good with rhythms. One of the first pieces I wrote - for what would become the Omni library - was a track called "Drag Racer."
"Drag Racer" is built on a pretty simple "lick" - a musical phrase that repeats itself several times during a song. I added drums, bass and acoustic guitar to the electric guitar part and mixed it together. It had energy and drive, and I thought it was cool.
A few years after we started Omni, we arranged to have our music distributed in Great Britain by a friend, John Gale. John wrote to me one day with great news: the BBC had chosen Drag Racer as the theme for one of its shows called "Snooker."
Having not the faintest clue what Snooker was, I quickly forgot about it. How was I to know that Snooker was an immensely popular sports show, and that the theme for Snooker would become practically a national anthem in England?
One of the things production music composers and publishers learn quickly is that you can never predict which track will be a "hit" with users. But today, there are literally hundreds of videos on YouTube featuring guitar players demonstrating their proficiency by playing Drag Racer. One music critic called it "the most evocative guitar riff of all time." An exaggeration, to be sure, but a nice one.
A few weeks ago, just before the fortieth anniversary of the Snooker program on the BBC, a film crew arrived in Port Washington to do a short story about the man who wrote the famous guitar theme for Snooker. My five minutes of fame.