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Writing Music for Media Clients
By Karl Kalbaugh
The purpose of this article and accompanying sound samples is to let
other musicians hear the evolution of the music after each change
request by the client; my reaction to those requests; and the
resulting music. I hope, too, that any musician thinking of writing
music for a client, might be spared an emotion side swipe when said
client wants changes to a tune.
When it comes to writing a tune for a client, there are two operating
philosophies I want to share with you up front (and these will hopefully
evident in the MP3 sound samples):
1. He/she who pays you is always right;
2. There is no accounting for taste (either YOURS in the
client's eyes or your client's in your eyes).
The music accompanying this article was written for a non-broadcast
membership video for a large association in the Washington, DC-area.
During an initial meeting I gave the producer of the video a copy of my
CD "Terra Nova" as well as a demo of music done for other clients.
A few weeks later I was contacted by the client. We talked about
stylistic parameters. Some of the words used included "upbeat"; "third
world" (I knew what he meant, but that clued me in as to not being real
familiar with different music genres); "while keeping a foot in the feel
of a standard industrial-type film".
The result of that discussion lead to "
Version 01". Upbeat for sure! The
world element was present in the subtle tabla groove in the
background. I used tabla in this way, because, in my heart, I felt that
he did not really want "world". The tune itself is gospel/funk
influenced -- as a lot of my music tends to be. The producer began
editing video to this tune. Refinements were expected. And indeed, it would
benefit from a good mix. Two weeks went by.
Somewhere within that two weeks, the producer spoke to HIS client -- who
felt that my initial music did not hit the mark. I was expecting this
because rarely does a composer hit it on the first try. They still
wanted "third world", but also they directed me to a certain web site
and told me to use that as a sample. "Hmmm... very Mood Food or William
Orbit-ish, " I thought to myself. Okay, so, a kind of neo-prog world.
The result was "Version 02". Instead of the funk piano line, I recorded
a funk koto line. Turned out as a kind of Peter Gunn meets Blade Runner
with the honeymoon in Japan.
The producer calls the next day. "We think sending you to that website
might have been a mistake." Obviously, what I got out of that sample
music was very different from what the producer and his client got out
of the music. "But we want happy. Go to stand by. We'll send you a tune
that will really serve as a solid sample of what we want."
In a few days I received an MP3 of a Fat Boy Slim tune. "Not the whole
tune," I was told. But rather an eight bar bridge. Frankly, I was
shocked. This sample contained no world influences nor was it "happy".
I felt pretty de-railed. Stumped, even. I kind of "extrapolated" what I
could from what the producer was telling and what feel I could get from
the FatBoy Slim sample.
The result of this "extrapolation process" is "
Version 3a". Generally, I
was pleased with it, as it had a "striving toward the future" kind of
feel, mostly generated by the big orchestral chords moving from B-flat
major to G-major.
"We like it," the producer said. "Except get rid of the farting bass
line. And it needs to be more happy"
Less than an hour for that change and the result is "
Version 3b". An
extra element was added to make the tune "happier": the use of a choral
sound that emphasized the major third of any given chord. In my book, if
you want "happy" you want lots of major thirds!
Comments returned later that day: "the bass is too nasal. Its better,
but we want more of a traditional bass sound. Could you also take out
that sizzling guitar solo?" Okay, will do. I was not at all surprised by
the comment on the guitar solo. The bass, however, gave me some pause. A
traditional electric bass would mean some heavier EQ and compression to
make it "pop".
I get around that concern in "Version 3c
" by, indeed adding heavier
processing, and by playing part of the riff an octave higher. You'll
notice this three bars after we hear the orchestral chords the second
You'd think all is well having gone through three revisions of "Version
3". Nonetheless, comments did come back: "we like the groove, but not
the sci-fi "Metropolis" feel of it. Could you change that? We want
happy". That meant re-writing the melody, I warned the producer. I'd
like to have an extra day to pull it together. The producer reluctantly
agreed. "Version 4" is the result of that extra day and was the final. A
light horn accompaniment replaced the giant orchestral chords. Piano
took the lead. That lead, upon re-listening, is somewhat reminiscent of
the theme from the "Peanuts" cartoons.
In spirit, the tune had made full circle back to my original Version 01,
containing elements of gospel influences. The same figure is heard in
Version 01; which morphs into the koto line in Version 02. The
orchestral exclamations of the Versions 3 are also based in that gospel
motif, but expanded into major chords and slowed.
Although I like all versions, Version 3b is my favorite, despite the
Although this process was spread out across several weeks, all told,
this project took about two 8 hour days to complete, paying $2000 (I
don't like to talk money, usually, but, it may provide a reference
point for musicians wanting to compose for clients).
Karl is an audio mixer and sound designer currently sub-contracting to
Georgetown Post, Washington, DC. His compositions have been heard on
Discovery Channel programs as well as political ads throughout the US.
Karl also reps the "Free Agent" Music library (music from fellow Evor
members) to his clients