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Sync licensing has become a significant source of revenue in the music industry…and there are certain ‘tastemakers’ and reps who put your music into the right hands to be heard. But what if you’re not a touring artist represented by a label or publisher? What if you’re in a band but are sick of touring or an aspiring bedroom composer who wants to write full-time? Here is my story and a basic guide on how to get started in the sync world.
As a kid, violin was the only thing that kept me sane. I grew up in Oklahoma playing classical violin, bluegrass and Irish “fiddle,” guitar, a bit of piano, drums and eventually bass. I moved to Los Angeles when I was 18 and went to the Los Angeles Recording School to learn how to record as a tool for writing and producing music. I learned about tape machines, soldered cables, ran Pro Tools and learned how to mix and master tracks with outboard gear and plug-ins. After school, I recorded punk bands in my first studio in Silverlake and played violin and bass in various projects.
I reached a turning point in 2010 when I met the bass legend, Darryl Jones (Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Sting, Madonna, to name a few), at an Ampeg seminar at Sam Ash Music in West LA. With some luck and assertiveness and, by luck, I mean, I waited in line for an hour to talk to him after the seminar, Darryl ended up teaching me bass lessons for two years. When I started my lessons, I thought I was going to be the next bassist for The Smashing Pumpkin…because that makes sense. TSP was my first concert when I was 11, and as sweet and poetic as it would have been, playing bass as a hired gun in a rock band I’ve loved since the 3rd grade didn’t quite pan out.▼ Article continues below ▼
Music has always been my life, but I never wanted to be a full-time engineer, and after going on the road with bands for a couple of years, I realized I didn’t want to tour either. So, how was I to continue as an independent music professional without taking the traditional artist route? Internal Dialogue: “I know! I’ll write full-time and eventually start a music company!” Right….easier said than done. But, nevertheless, I left my bands and started writing songs for synchronization work. I literally cold emailed music catalogs and submitted songs to production music libraries. I think at the time the music we were writing was vastly better than standard production music, so people responded right away. Eventually, we were called to write custom music and score to brief for ads, themes for TV shows and sonic branding.
Eventually, I found myself curating writing sessions, co-writes and composing teams. After a couple of years of doing this, I started 411 Music Group and launched a small indie catalog of one-stop artists in January 2014. From there, we built underscore, sound design, and trailer music catalogs. We started co- and sub-publishing US and international catalogs and later built a traditional publishing arm to sign writers to publishing deals and act as a sync agent for larger catalogs. Easy, right? Nope, not at all, not for a second. I thought breaking into the music catalog and publishing world was going to be easy. After all, our music was better than everyone else’s and we were already getting called to write for specific opportunities. After cold emailing, calling and annoying music supervisors for a solid year, I realized this was going to be difficult. Did that stop me? Of course not. I’ve always been irritatingly persistent, which is honestly why we are still around today. That and great writers. I currently oversee creative business development at 411, secure global partnerships and head up our custom music division where we score promos, trailers, video games, ads and on average about 8-10 TV shows per year.
One of the biggest challenges in transitioning from artist to composer is the concept of writing for someone else. As a composer, you are required to deliver music based on a defined set of parameters, and you need to do it on-time, under tight deadlines and with no guarantee of acceptance. You are required to make revisions, interpret notes from producers who don’t necessarily have a background in music and somehow turn what they say into a palpable composition which conveys the proper emotion, pacing and arc of a scene.
With all of this being said, there are a few things you can do to boost your chances of consistently working as a composer:
If you are a great singer/songwriter but can’t produce or record, pair with someone who can. Find partnerships that balance your business/creative processes and expand your reach for creating. If that means splitting your writer’s share with a producer who is recording you or signing with a publisher who will push your career forward, make an informed decision and take the risk. You can’t do it all. It’s good to do a bit of soul-searching to discover how you want to spend your time. If the answer is writing, then focus on being a creative and find the right team to take care of the other stuff.
If you can’t record, learn. Most of our composers are self-sufficient and can deliver a piece of music to us single-handedly. We know the writers who can turn a track around in an hour, and they are the ones we call in a pinch.
We know amazing producers who can’t deliver. Some are too slow, some lose sessions, don’t want to print stems, make revisions or take notes. The easier you make other people’s jobs, the more you will work. With that being said, it’s important to know your value. If you are doing a $5,000 job and sitting on version 65 with 5 more rounds of notes to go, you’ll quickly realize it’s important to set parameters of expectations during the contract stage before you start a project. For custom music, I tend to negotiate a predetermined amount of cues or mintage with a set amount of revisions. If it goes over, an additional budget kicks in. You wouldn’t expect a camera operator to work overtime for free, would you? Build these types of overages into the agreement.
Whether you have mix settings for your drums, synths, guitars, orchestral or rock sessions, having templates built before you start a project can streamline the creative process. This creates consistency in workflow and allows you to get your ideas on paper, so to speak, instead of spending half your night searching for the right synth plug-in for your next pop song or EQ setting for your strings.
People don’t necessarily think of sound design as a creative outlet. Well, let me tell you, it is. The process of sound design creation can launch you into exploratory soundscape heaven, creating new textures, sounds and elements you can use in your writing and license out for trailers and promos. Not only that, sound design can bring in the bucks. One carefully crafted sub hit could potentially pay your rent for a month. This is a learned skill set and isn’t as simple as picking a plug-in preset and hitting a key on a MIDI keyboard. Do some research on how trailer music and sound design is built, and then take a microphone with you when you leave the house in case you find inspiration in the sound of a train passing by.
And now for the process of scoring a TV show. When we start a new project, I typically meet with the producers, editors, directors or music supervisors to go through the initial creative. This usually starts with a rundown of the show, concepts for sound, whether we’re going to score to picture or deliver cue packages, what genre we’ll be writing, and then I’ll make suggestions based on the scope. Every show is different. For example, on “24 Hours to Hell and Back,” we refer to the different genres as “Gordon Rock,” “Gordon Tension,” “Gordon Emotional,” which is different from the “Undercover Boss” sound. Gordon Ramsay shows tend to have more tense action drama, whereas in UCB you may cry. In season one of “24 Hours,” we used pots and pans instead of drums on the percussion parts for all of the kitchen sequence cues. And, because the entire show is based on a 24-hour time period, we wrote cues at 60 and 120 BPM to align with the timing and concept of the ticking clock. “Chrisley Knows Best” has a particular “Orchestral Dramedy” cue formula which works for the family. Sting outs and edit points are particularly important on this show to punctuate the comedy.
In the end, just get your music out there. Send it to publishers, sync agents, music supervisors, wherever you can, but do your research first. Don’t send hip-hop to a music sup who is working on a period piece which only uses archival music. It takes a massive vessel to steer music into the right direction for media content and to monetize this music so everyone can earn a living. Writing is a muscle. The more you practice, the better you will get. It’s not an exact science. Keep creating, and if all else fails, write a bunch of Noise Rock.
Kristen Agee is a classically trained violinist and currently the CEO of 411 Music Group, which she founded in 2012. She has been a featured speaker, and spoken on panels at the ASCAP Expo, Canadian Music Week, SXSW, AEMCON, LACM and MIDEM. Learn more at http://www.411musicgroup.com
Photos by Preston Thalilndroma