News Column

Six steps to soundtrack success

August 10, 2013


Aug. 10--In the music industry, record sales are at about half of what they were a decade ago and still falling. There are a lot of reasons for that -- piracy, the online revolution, the rise of other entertainment alternatives -- but there's no disputing that the end to this decline is not in sight. So what's an aspiring music careerist to do?

For a lot of artists, one way forward is getting your compositions into film, television or commercials. Then you might wind up working with someone like Alan Ett, who runs AECG -- a group of Los Angeles-based companies that produce and license soundtrack music. It's a field that's growing more crowded by the day.

"There used to be just a handful of companies doing this," said Ett, a UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus who grew up in Greensboro. "But thanks to the demise of physical record sales, film and TV placements turned into a hugely important revenue stream. So it's gone from a niche to where every label in the world is your competitor."

Payments for placements can range from pennies to thousands of dollars, depending on the usage. If you're not already a major name, you'll start at the lower end of that scale -- which doesn't stop anyone from trying to break in.

There's no single right way to get started, but here are some general guidelines from a few people in the game:

1 Never forget anyone. Evan Olson played with the 1990s Greensboro pop band Bus Stop, and he's been doing soundtracks for 20 years with credits ranging from "Friday Night Lights" to Hershey's chocolate commercials. Many of the assignments coming his way are from contacts he made decades ago.

"As cliche as it sounds, it's all in who you meet and who you know," Olson said. "Get your name around, and if you're lucky, someone will hear something through someone. For 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid,' I was referred to that by a mutual friend whose band used to play the same circuit my old band played."

Vaughan Penn, whose major placements over the years include songs in "Grey's Anatomy" and this year's HBO movie "Love Wrecked," traveled a similar road. Penn works out of the Charlotte area, but she also takes regular networking trips to Los Angeles and Nashville for in-person networking with her contacts -- some of whom go back to the 1990s, when she was taking walk-on roles for shows like "E.R."

"You really have to nurture your relationships," Penn said. "The people who took my first few placements, I've stayed loyal to them. Find the people who love you and get you, instead of playing a business game with everyone and hoping something sprouts somewhere."

2 Work to be great, not just good. Once you get somebody's attention, you'd better be ready to deliver the goods. The sobering reality is that while a seemingly infinite number of people want to be soundtrack composers, not many are good enough. Ett's firm gets submissions from dozens of aspiring composers a week. He says it's "everything from, 'I've been writing for such and such TV show, movie, ad, and I'd like to write for you,' to some kid who just graduated from Berklee and wants to get into this." Few make the cut.

"The good ones are so few and far between, it's amazing, and a lot of it is because most people are lazy," Ett said. "The ones who really get in and do it like they mean it, they're rare. I was the guy getting up at 6 a.m. to practice my sax, going until 6 at night, doing the gig, going to sleep at 2 a.m. and getting up the next day to do it again. If you're not willing to do that, you will not succeed because someone else will."

Even if you're ready, willing and able to do the work, it probably won't happen overnight. Get used to that.

"If you're lucky and work hard, your name will get around," said Olson. "But then you have to build a reputation for being dependable and delivering the goods, and people will come to you. It's not something that happens right away, but it only happens if you're working and working and working. I'll hit lulls where I think I'm done, months with nothing. But then all of a sudden, too much is coming in."

3 Be able to sound like someone else -- but not too much. It used to be that budget-minded music supervisors would look for "sound-alikes" -- music that sounds like some well-known artist or song but is just different enough to avoid copyright infringement (while costing a fraction of the original). Thanks to a number of court cases involving Black Keys, Tom Waits and other artists, however, sound-alikes have become legally shaky.

"The Black Keys recently won some big settlements about this," said Ett. "And the funny thing is that band is completely derivative. All their licks are stolen from somebody else. They're fantastic, but a big part of that is because their music feels familiar. Everybody's always done music 'in the style of,' starting with every blues artist ever. So that creates a further challenge."

Part of that challenge involves extra steps for composers. For example, Olson was asked to score a Mercedes-Benz commercial in the style of a particular popular country song.

"I ended up having to write chord charts and talk to a musicologist they hired," Olson said. "And after that, I had to change one chord so it wouldn't be too much like the song they wanted me to emulate."

4 Learn what details are important and pay attention to them. Over time, Olson has learned how to sell his music as much by what it's called as how it sounds. One example is an HBO series called "Cathouse," which is about a brothel; the show's producers are always looking for instrumental music that's "about sex," and Olson is happy to oblige.

"You can call an instrumental 'Three Pretty Birds Singing in the Park' and get nothing," Olson said. "Or 'I Wanna Have Sex With You,' and suddenly they're interested. Music supervisors get thousands of songs, and they'll ask you to send it with keywords about themes so they can search their database that way. It helps to have the right title."

5 Remember: The ones you don't get might be for the best. You won't get everything you try out for, and it helps to be philosophical about it. For example, Brad and Phil Cook of the band Megafaun very nearly wound up as the advertising face of Geico car insurance.

Geico asked the Cook brothers to audition and cut a series of spots with upbeat bluegrass tunes and the same jokes you see in the "Happier than ..." ads on TV now: "How happy are the folks who save hundreds of dollars switching to Geico? Happier than Dracula volunteering at a blood drive." They didn't get the gig, but the two players who did actually look like the Cook brothers.

"I guess we didn't quite have the delivery they were looking for," Cook said with a laugh. "But maybe we inspired them to find dudes who could do the same thing, only better. Yeah, the money for that would have been nice. But in hindsight, at least we don't have to deal with being known for the next two years as the dudes from those obnoxious commercials everybody is sick of."

6 If lightning strikes, be ready. Megafaun had quite a run last year with "Hope You Know," a song from the local trio's eponymous 2011 album. The group has had enough success with placements to be signed to a licensing firm, which got that song into a few TV shows. The day after "Hope You Know" appeared in the season premiere of the NBC series "The Firm," the band heard from an ad agency that wanted to use it in a Toyota ad -- during the Super Bowl, no less. It aired not long before Madonna's big halftime show.

It was around the same time that Dave Burris, a Triangle native best known for his stint as co-executive producer of the CBS show "Survivor," got in touch with Megafaun. He'd heard the band's 2009 album "Gather, Form and Fly" and decided the music would be the perfect score for his upcoming film "The World Made Straight." After a year and a half of back and forth, the band recorded the soundtrack in a marathon couple of days last month.

"We got a copy of the movie with some placeholder music, and it was 57 musical cues," said Megafaun's Brad Cook. "We just went for it, did all of them. Three of our songs are in there -- 'Longest Day,' 'Kauffman's Theme' and 'Bella Marie' -- plus 54 cues between 30 seconds and 2 1/2 minutes. All instrumental, no singing. We kind of came up with a few themes to cycle in and out, also an end-credits song, another for the penultimate tragic scene. It was a really awesome experience."

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or


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