Monday, March 27, 2006

I share an office with our TV show’s music supervisor. Like everyone I’ve met here so far, he’s totally cool. Doesn’t seem to mind me shouting obscenities at my slow-ass internet connection keeping me from blogging, or while I try out my voice-over lines, saying the silly puns aloud.

That’s ‘cause he usually has his headphones on, listening to music on his computer, going through a library of cleared songs. “Cleared” means that the network has a synchronization license and thus, can use that performance for any program it airs. Since we use a lot of quick music cues on our show, he’s got a lot of work to do. But that’s the fun part -- choosing the appropriate sound for each moment of action.

Someone else already had the task of procuring the legal rights to each of these recordings. That ain’t fun. Trust me, I know.

When my friends and I produced our independent film, we needed a lot of music, too. The movie required almost back-to-back rock songs playing… 25 to 30 tunes in total. First we had to compile our own huge collection, a jukebox of up-and-coming musicians. Finding struggling bands in LA is easy – all the waiters are actors, but the unemployed people hanging out all day are musicians.

Actually, through word-of-mouth, we got demo tapes from all over the country. And some of them were really good. We producers had fun rockin’ out, having our editor lay in each recording and seeing how the sound often made the movie look better.

Then for some reason, I landed the job of getting the right to use these songs. We wrote up (with the help of an entertainment lawyer) a very simple synch license. And I went to each of the bands to get ‘em to sign. I’d rather shoot a snuff film starring myself than go through that again.

Okay, some bands were fine. They said no problem and signed, or showed it to a representative who said no problem and they signed. I didn’t even mind the ones whose reps told me they didn’t want to sign. We were offering no money, just a credit -- same as everyone on the film: cast, crew, producers, etc. -- in return for the license. We wouldn’t own the song in any way, could only use it for the film (a soundtrack album, if it were to be produced, would be negotiated in the future), and we had no net profit points to give out, but promised in the unlikely event our film hit it big a la The Blair Witch Project, we’d offer some compensation in good faith. But some bands had already made money for film work, and felt this was a step backward for them. I understood. Last thing I wanted to be was Snidely Whiplash demanding sign!sign!sign! while twirling my mustache.

A timely yes or no and I was happy. But not so with the wishy-washy flakes, or complete morons intimidated by the written word that wasn’t their insipid lyrics. A lot of these bands had terrific songs but terrible attitudes. They’d say, “Come to our show, and we’ll talk about it…” So I did and then they wanted to go party first. So I did and then they wanted to talk about tomorrow when the Stoli and Jaeger wore off. This was all they knew. And so the circle of no-life continued.

We were trying to lock in the film’s audio and were still getting jerked around by these schmucks. I remarked that their stupid derivative ditties weren’t worth the aggravation. Who did they think they were? I tell ya, they weren’t some hot local band with a record deal, well-produced tracks… and genuine talent. They weren’t The Muffs.

The director and I had separately discovered The Muffs and then coincidentally told each other, “Hey, I heard this awesome band the other day!” Their music is basic rock-n-roll with a hard edge. Perhaps they could be described as a riot-grrl band, but they’re not a chick group. Although their lead singer is a cute chanteuse who wears demure dresses while belting out her angry lyrics or screaming your ears off. Very sexy.

A few numbers from their Blonder and Blonder album would have fit nicely in our movie. We had even cut a temporary trailer using their song “Oh Nina” and it seemed perfect.

So I called the record company on the CD cover -- I think it was Warner Bros. -- and got transferred all over Burbank, leaving messages with everyone, explaining what we wanted and just got the run-around. I figured it was futile, but what the hell, I tried.

Then one day I got a message on my voicemail. It was a sultry, slow, raspy voice. “Hey, Mike. This is Kim from The Muffs. I hear you wanna use our songs. Go ahead, Mike. I hope you like ‘em and they work for your movie and all… You can call me back if you have any questions, but don’t call too early, ‘cause I’ll be all sleepy, y’know?”

I have to admit, I felt like one of those crazy fans from the days of Beatlemania at the airport who made eye contact with members of the Fab Four. Maybe I was just loopy from this whole synch license scenario. But when I told the director about the call, he was fuming with jealousy.

“I can’t believe Kim from The Muffs called you.”

“Kinda sorry you had me handle this music shit now, ain’tcha?”

I called her back and we chatted for a while. And she was great -- funny, easy-going... But that didn’t help with the movie. She didn’t mind us using the songs, but couldn’t sign the agreement. “I’m not the one to talk to,” She said. “You gotta talk to our music publishers. That’s how it works. I’m sorry. And I gotta warn you: They’re dicks.”

Yeah, well, musicians and management never get along. Who knows what those flaky band members said about me with my fancy-schmancy one-page contract. The publishers couldn’t be that bad.

I found out they wanted a ton of shit before they’d even consider it. A copy of the script was understandable. Most musicians asked for that, to know what their song was used for. But also things like detailed descriptions of the volume and levels and exact final footage of the scenes they would go with, not to mention thousands of dollars per minute of the song. It would’ve worked out to more money than we spent on the entire production. And they stated all this in such a cold business-like manner. Completely opposite to what I had been dealing with so far. Kim didn’t tell me about the publishers asking for my first-born child, too. What dicks.

Fuck it. We found some other songs and completed the film and it turned out very well.

Years later, I was walking past Tower Records, and heard “Oh Nina” being performed live. The Muffs! I went in and saw they were promoting their latest album. After grooving to a few oldies and new tunes, I went over to say to Kim face-to-face.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I remember you and your movie! Didn’t I tell you the publishers were dicks?” When she was right, she was right. “We have our own publishing company now, so next time you want to use our songs, get in touch with me.”

Good to know.

As I sit here writing this, I can see our music supervisor with his headsets on, culling through tunes, without having the headache of clearing ‘em. If I get to do another film, that could be me… at least with one cool band.


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