This article orginally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
By Michael Raine
It’s a tough reality that more music is being consumed now than ever before, but it’s no easier to make a living as a musician. That said, because of the ocean of content on the internet, there are windows of opportunity for musicians looking to make a buck. One of those is production music libraries.
Production music libraries are curated collections of exclusive tracks, mostly instrumentals, that are licensed for use in almost any video medium – movies, TV shows, video games, advertisements, apps, and the infinite types of videos found online. The composition style differs significantly from standard songwriting, but for a musician with a solid understanding of music’s job in a video and the necessary recording skills, composing for production music libraries can offer some helpful income.
“Four-hundred hours of footage are added to YouTube every minute. So, the need for production music is insane, if you think of it that way,” points out Kate Cooper, music producer at Shutterstock Music and its Montreal-based subsidiary, PremiumBeat. “You know, production music has historically been given a bad rap and, historically, it hasn’t been the most exciting stuff. But, the thing with production music – really good production music – is you don’t really notice it when it’s there. It just elevates an emotion. But you certainly notice it if it’s not there.”
In Cooper’s opinion, composing music for a specific project (film, ad, show, etc.) is actually a little easier than composing a good track for a music library. When composing for a specific project, “you can write based on the images you have in front of you. There are obvious cues and edit points, and there’s obvious things happening in the narrative without the music that speak to how the music is created,” she says. “Whereas, with library music, you have to keep in mind that, ideally, the track is going to be used many times, so it has to apply to or work in multiple applications. So, you have to avoid things in the track that are going to make it sound more custom. Off the top of my head, that is things like huge breaks or stops that come out of nowhere or big builds that come out of nowhere. It has to be a little more nuanced in that it can apply to lots of things. That makes it a little trickier for the writing, I think.”
Typically, as you would probably assume, most production music composers come to it with backgrounds as singer-songwriters or playing in bands. In Cooper’s experience, “if you play in a band and you’re the person who records the demos, that’s the person that historically became a producer. But that is also the person who begins writing stock music or library music because they’re figuring out that they can make tracks pretty easily on their laptop with a bunch of plug-ins and a little bit of gear.”
When it comes to getting a foot in the door, it’s really as simple as submitting some tracks. Of course, before creating a useable track, it takes some learning and research. Many production music companies, including Shutterstock Music and PremiumBeat, accept track submissions through their websites. “We have a team that reviews it, and we get inundated with submissions, but we do go through everything,” says Cooper. “That being said, I think it’s really important that when you get to that submission state, you want to be putting your best foot forward. I would say that the best way to get into it is to find other composers online. There are forums and even if you just watch an ad on television or you watch a film, find out who that composer is and contact them. See if you can shadow them. You know, just kind of how you used to become a producer back in the day. You find out who you like and you try to make coffee for them. But I think it’s a little easier now because you can jump online. I work with amazing writers and people reach out to me and I often reach out to [the writers] and say, ‘Can I put you in touch with this person? They’re trying to figure out how you got this to sound like this.’ I think the great composers that I work with are always happy to talk and meet people, because it just opens doors. So, just be a friendly and inquisitive person and I think that really helps.”
A typical track in the library is about two-and-a-half minutes, but it can vary all the way up to 10-minute meditation tracks, for instance. But, in addition to the full track, the libraries also require short versions – often 15-, 30-, and/or 60-seconds – as well as loops. For video editors who, for example, often need to turn around an ad in less than a day, having pre-edited shorts and loops is invaluable.
What many new composers find most difficult to get used to is the general structure of production music versus standard songs. “Structure is different because things need to happen and they need to happen relatively quickly as compared to a more straight-ahead pop or rock song,” says Cooper. “You know, most production music websites, you can download a preview of the track. I always encourage writers, when they’re starting out, to download a preview, pull it into their DAW, and then use that as a template. That’s what I have found to be most helpful for composers… With production music, the simpler and more straightforward, the better.”
[Pictured: Kate Cooper, music producer at Shutterstock Music & PremiumBeat]
In terms of gear, getting into production music doesn’t need to be overhead intensive. According to Cooper, the basic requirements are a decent converter, a professional-level DAW, a good microphone, and a suite of plug-ins. “I think it’s really reasonable to get into it, especially with some of the more subscription-based plug-ins like Slate,” Cooper says. “It comes down to plug-ins and learning how to use them and use them well.”
Regarding money, the obvious motivating factor for musicians, production music can be a solid source of additional income. Some composers make it their full-time job, while others use it as a side gig, recording tracks in between other projects and tours. Composers do not need to meet any kind of quota. “We have a non-exclusive deal. The tracks they write for us are exclusively ours, but they’re able to write for whoever they want,” explains Cooper of Shutterstock Music and PremiumBeat. “In fact, we encourage people to write for whoever they want because we all just want musicians to succeed and make money. I do know that other companies have exclusivity, but I’m not sure which ones. I think having the non-exclusivity is really helpful because it gives artists and writers the freedom they need.”
The production music companies often work with composers on a buyout deal. To make the licensing of tracks to projects easy, the composer must own the composition and master recording rights to their music. Also, to avoid licensing hassles, tracks cannot include samples. The buyout deal means the composers receive a flat fee to sign over the ownership of the track to the production music library; however, the composers often keep their writer’s share of the performance rights. So, if the track is placed, they will receive royalty payments from their performing rights organization (i.e. SOCAN). “Over the last few years, the PRO revenue we’re making has really gone through the roof, so that keeps our artists really happy, too,” adds Cooper.
As far as what sells best, it’s happy, uplifting tracks. The stylistic preferences have changed over time, according to Cooper, from a U2- or Coldplay-type of adult alternative/stadium rock kind of vibe to, currently, more indie-pop with lots of delayed synths. “Think of a Google ad or an Apple ad – anything that is super clean, has a sort of corporate edge to it, but that also could be considered cool. And, of course, it’s uplifting.”
“That’s one thing that is really important in production music. You kind of have to think, ‘Where would this be placed?’ We do have scary music and Halloween music and sad music, but the majority of uses are, I think, generally to sell products or sell movies or sell emotions. But the emotion that people come looking for the most is uplifting and happy stuff.”
For her parting advice, Cooper simply tells musicians to give it try. “Many of my friends who are amazing musicians, I spent months convincing them. Like, “Just give it a try!” And now, a couple years later, they come to me and are like, ‘You’ve changed my life. I can pay my mortgage’ or ‘I’ve bought a car.’ I think, historically, this has been a murky side of music, but I think it is becoming clearer and clearer that it is a really decent way to make a living, and not only do you make a living, you get better at what you do. I think it’s great.”
Michael Raine is the Senior Editor of Canadian Musician.