Music & Pictures (Part 6)
Part 6: It's A Wrap! Composer/musician Robin Lumley packs away the manuscript paper, switches off the Steenbeck viewer and submits his final thoughts on writing music for films in this concluding episode of his series.
Musician, producer and film music composer Robin Lumley continues his six part series designed to take the mystery out of writing and recording music for films and television.
Well, all good things must come to an end, and this is the sixth and final part of this series on how to put music to picture, which I hope you've enjoyed, and has been constructively useful to you. I reiterate my closing remarks of last month, inviting you to write in via the magazine for personal advice. I know I'm taking a risk here in being deluged with letters, but it's worth it. As I've stated, there is no way in (the old Catch 22 syndrome) unless something special happens, and if you're any good, maybe I could help that situation to occur.
To look at the title of this piece... 'It's a wrap! ' is film crew speak for the end of a shoot, and I believe that it refers to covering the cameras with their canvas or plastic wrappings, prior to them being packed away in the truck. Well, this 'wrap' is to tie up the loose ends, and leave you with a set of remarks to precis all the rest of the foregoing series. I've been fairly brutal in previous months about the difficulties of getting in, and I don't intend to pull punches at this late stage.
For example, although I have strayed into the area of screenplay writing, and here I mean the words, not the music, it can take an inordinate amount of time. You can come up with an idea that you feel may make a really good TV programme, and either find yourself gazumped, or simply delayed for what seems like ever, whilst budgets are argued, and availability of principal participants are thrashed out over their diaries, and also for the monies they are likely to receive. Meanwhile, the poor music writer (and the pun is deliberate) has to hang around in a kind of enforced limbo until all is sorted out. If the writer has been asked to contribute at the outset, in other words, at an almost foetal stage in the birth of a programme, rather than being asked in when all is shot, edited, and dubbed, then he may find himself committed to a film that may never get made at all, and if it does, may be two or three years in the making or birth pangs.
This is yet more depressing stuff (I can almost hear you cry!) but a fact of film life, inescapable, and intrinsic to the industry. It might be as well to point out the difficulties facing the film's Production Team before they even pick up a telephone to dial (you) the music writer's number.
Such difficulties may range from purely budgetary, when an idea is very good (says everyone) but too expensive in conception. So, go away and re-write at a lower level of cost. You do that, spending weeks re-working the expensive bits, only to return and be told that there is no 'slot' available now for at least a year, seeing that crew/director/producer are tied up since you went off to re-write, and won't be available till 1990!
The point I'm making is that, apart from doing TV commercials, the film music writer for features or TV films generally has to work over a very long time-scale simply because the evolution of any filmic project tends to take an inordinate time in its gestation. So the music writer has to contend with very long-term plans indeed when it comes to plotting one's future financially, and must also be prepared to accept that many ideas are still-born on the storyboard, as it were. But one has to go for an idea when the phone rings, if it interests you, almost on the principle of throwing enough mud at the wall until some of it sticks.
Of course, not every film project requires the music writer to become involved so early (and thus may not be used at all) but it's good to be invited into a scheme soon after its commencement, because you'll make a better job of it if you've understood the workings of the director and screenplay writer from the outset, and every subsequent development thereof.
This also applies to commercials, but being so short, the time-scale is telescoped considerably, and with an advertising agency commissioning the film on behalf of a retail client, they usually want the whole thing finished yesterday anyhow!
Trying to sum up a series such as this is quite difficult... I've really said most everything, as we've covered a basic history, discussed technology and techniques of composing and recording, and spent large areas of print discussing pitfalls, and generally trying to put you off altogether. But the buzz of sitting at home and hearing your music on national television, or sitting with your packet of Maltesers in a West End cinema and seeing your name on the credits, is not only an ego-boost, but far more importantly, a career lift, and more kudos to your CV for later.
The money, as always, is unlikely to be that good until you dabble in the realms of the Big Movie; a chance that comes rarely to even the busiest and most successful of composers. Sometimes, one can be lucky enough to be responsible for a part of a music score like the title song eg. Phil Collins' Against All Odds, or Paul McCartney's Live And Let Die, where neither composer actually did the running score, but only the logo song, which in both of these cases went on to be a record hit as a tie-in, as it's known.
Sometimes this side-effect can go on to be the biggest earning component anyway, through a successful soundtrack album. Take West Side Story or The Sound Of Music for instance. The films were huge box office successes, but the records have proved evergreens, going to multiple pressings and releases without ever showing signs of being deleted.
But these are unusual cases. I hope that some of you will aspire to such heights one day, but most of us will have to be content with a steady turnover in commercials and the odd TV series or one-off film to keep our coffers lined, albeit thinly at times!
There are relatively few folk kept properly busy in the realm of film music composing. Rather, as a norm, a writer gets perhaps one or two commissions a year, plus a few ads thrown in unless he really becomes 'flavour of the month', and so consequently has to cover himself as a professional by doing other things - sessions, records, publishing library stock, or all the myriad other ways of making music pay for you, yet still retaining the excitement of actually doing it.
I think the fun factor, or job satisfaction, is extremely important, nay vital, to the work one contributes. If you lose your love of actually doing it, and simply slide, as familiarity breeds contempt, into a mental attitude whereby your musical work becomes a 'job', then as night follows day, your work and ultimate satisfaction, will evaporate as dew into the sunshine.
Sorry to wax somewhat lyrical, but maintaining freshness of input is indisputably the biggest factor in engendering further commissions, and their successful discharge.
You will have noticed that Part Six is more of an essay on attitudes and somewhat esoteric factors of holding court, but I feel that this is an essential way to close this series... giving you food for thought. I suppose that some of these closing remarks could be equally applied to almost any form of artistic activity, especially when that activity provides one's income as opposed to being merely a hobby, and it's hard to maintain the status quo. My love of building small-scale model railway engines I'm sure would disappear if I had to do it for a living, as opposed to a spare-time activity!
So there you have it. It's been a pleasure to pass on what I can during the past six months, and again I'd say, write in to Sound On Sound and I'll try to answer any queries personally. Meanwhile, I'm off to start work with a silly band called 'Loud, Confident And Wrong', with Peter Skellern, Graeme Edge, Morris Pert, Fog Lyttle, and another contributor to this worthy periodical, Dave Etheridge.
So take it on, this music and pictures game, and the best of luck. Remember, talent will out!! Just make sure yours is in that league!
Feature by Robin Lumley
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