Songwriters and film music

Share this:

I’ve been a music publisher for more than thirty years and during that time, I’ve worked mostly with songwriters and artists who write, perform and record their own songs.  I’ve been asked many times by such songwriters if I can find them work scoring films so I will focus here mainly on tips that might help anyone from that background.

It’s not all about you

Unlike writing for your own album and your own audience where you can express yourself, in your style, making your statement, scoring a film is all about the director’s vision. You’re working for him and must adapt accordingly.  

The demands of the narrative and the director determine the pace, mood and style of the score. Your function is to tell their story not your own. If your partner leaves you, you may write a bluesy song for your album. If they leave you while you’re scoring a happy scene you’d better write “happy”!  

Of course, in my experience, you will only be commissioned if the director likes your overall approach and style as evidenced in your work as an artist. For example, Mike Oldfield, whom I published for many years, was commissioned to score The Killing Fields. The director Roland Joffe and the producer David Puttnam were fans.

As a composer and recording artist Mike was the biggest control freak I ever encountered. In a good way! He composed alone, played all the instruments himself and approved every detail of every album he recorded and every live show he performed. Mike did however get great satisfaction from working closely with Roland Joffe and delivering his vision of the sound of the film. They talk about it here.

Because it has no lyrics it’s not automatically a soundtrack 

Many artists are told their music sounds “filmic”. Mike often was. But instrumental music or songs with lengthy instrumental passages can’t just be imposed on a film and become the score.  The score is far too important to the impact of the film for that. If you’re fortunate enough to have an opportunity to score a film you’ll quickly realise it’s much more than just writing music without lyrics, however good you are at that. 

Composing a score involves precision

Your A&R manager might suggest you halve the length of the intro so Spotify listeners don’t skip your song (costing you and your label streaming royalties) but you may choose to ignore the advice. It’s your album.

If the director gives you a sync point where they want a musical punctuation mark or emphasis you have to give it to them.  It’s their film.

You may not have all the necessary skills 

You may be hired because the director likes your albums and believes your music will fit like a hand in a glove but you once you’ve started you may feel that a particular scene requires, for example strings. If you can’t write string parts, do what you’d do if you were making an album for your band- ask for an arranger to do it for you. Perhaps you will play the part on a keyboard and ask them to arrange it for strings or a full orchestra. And be prepared for the director to say he wants keyboards anyway or for the producer to say it wasn’t budgeted! 

There are secondary usages for your score

You will compose a score to suit the needs of the film and the vision of its director but once it goes out into the world there may be other uses for which your music might be requested and used. It might be used in a commercial, it might be sampled for another artist’s album. All secondary usages generate licensing and performance income. 

Your publisher may not require your approval to license an extract but you may have sufficient leverage to demand it. I recall being asked, as the publisher of Ennio Morricone’s score to The Mission, to license an extract for a commercial. I rang his manager to seek approval and got as far as “I have had a request to use this piece in a commercial for…..” when I was interrupted and informed “The maestro composed this music for a higher purpose. It is not a jingle!” 

I replied “I thought I should run it past you as I‘m sure can negotiate a licence fee of at least £100,000”.

Without hesitation, the manager informed me “You are the publisher. You must decide”

Never be embarrassed to approve your work being used in another context which might benefit you financially.

In conclusion

Scoring a film is demanding work, carried out in a team under the instruction of the director to his vision and always in the service of the story and the picture on the screen. The score can be immensely important to the success of the film, enormously satisfying to the composer and, if you’re lucky, very lucrative.  

Share this:
Steve Lewis

Steve Lewis

Steve was hired by Richard Branson in 1969, while still at school. Virgin was simply a mail order retailer of albums and the total headcount was about eight. There were no shops and the label didn't release its first album, Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, for another four years.  He worked during school holidays and after school doing whatever he could to make himself useful. It was priceless training and he gained experience in all areas of the music industry as Virgin entered each new sector.  From 1974 to 1978 Steve ran Virgin's artist management company, after which he joined the board of Virgin Records as Deputy Managing Director (1978 to 1983). Richard next asked him to run Virgin Music (Publishers) Ltd which he did until 1992 when EMI bought the Virgin Music Group. In 1993 Steve was appointed CEO of the Music Division of Chrysalis Group PLC, responsible for establishing a new front line label, The Echo Label and supervising the Group's other labels, publishing companies and studios. Steve left Chrysalis in 2001 to write a novel (which remains unfinished) and established Stage Three Music, a publishing company, in 2003. Steve and his investors sold the company to BMG in 2010. Steve continues to work as a music publisher and sits on the boards of several music tech companies as a non executive director. Find more info on Linkedin or on Steve Lewis' website.

Leave a Reply