Music Libraries : What’s the Deal?
Music libraries are a superb entry point and training ground for things to come. Writing for catalogues and agency-based stock means you get to hone in on the styles and genres their clients are requesting. It also means fine-tuning the trends, those sounds and building a working template for these identifiable sounds. When you amass some placement credits from a number of TV-show placements, it allows you to branch out a lot deeper into more commissioned, bespoke projects.
Furthermore, returns can be good. If you hit those markers and get the right music up there, it can mean the potential for a LOT of placements, i.e. credits. As cliché as it sounds, placements mean rewards. You will get experience, the ‘chops’, the contacts and some quite respectable cash returns.
…and the Cons
Writing for music libraries is quite time-consuming. It is a monster that does need feeding very often. The stock music market changes often and trends come and go. It can also seem like a lot of work for little return from the offset but please bear in mind, you are adding this work to your overall plan of action and it is best treated as a supplemental form of income until it shows itself to be a much stronger contingent for your resources and daily attentions.
On balance, I would say that there are more pros than cons if you learn to do this right.
Can I make a living from library music as my main source of income?
This is one of the questions that has no definite yes answer applicable to everyone. There are many variable factors at play and with so many people writing for libraries it is impossible to say with any certainty that this is something you can invest all your working hours in and see the returns you need to survive day-to-day.
A couple of decades ago, music libraries were not buckling under the sheer volumes they are now. The crowd you are fighting with is 100-fold what it was all those years ago. The typical home-PC is now powerful enough to get anyone into a basic position but guess what? This is also available to everyone down to the 16-year old with their dad’s home PC, a MIDI keyboard and a few virtual instruments, a lot of which can be found for free these days.
Therefore, you will need to work harder than everyone else, produce higher quality music than the next guy, be more committed, more focused, do more research and want it more!
If you have an edge or an angle, you have an added asset not everyone has. If you play live guitar and you can sing, you just cut down your competition in half in one swoop. As good as any virtual instrument or soundset is, it is not as gritty, real and organic as the real deal. If you play more than one instrument you have a big arsenal of places you can go where others don’t and when they do, they will only sound half as good as you do.
Make sure you become fast and proficient and you don’t go to pieces when you are asked to do more than 3-4 things at any given time. Be flexible with your time and attitude. If someone wants that extra mix or Mongolian-hairy-yak version of a cue you spent all night writing, then do it with all the edits and 30’’ and 60’’ versions before the morning comes!
Make all those sacrifices. If you need to invest in better technology and tools for your studio then somehow you need to bite the bullet. Doing so will mean that you can take on the next gig and be armed for future encounters.
A lot of libraries do not pay anything up front. This can be simply because the budget for music is very low and the producers cannot pay everyone to pitch for the job. The key to making this work for you is to achieve as many placements as you can. This, combined with getting 100% of the back-end royalties will make for a very respectable income in the long run.
Sometimes – as I have done myself in several cases, you might want to sacrifice more of the backend royalties on the basis that I can gain a lot more placements (i.e. credits) by sheer volume and not waiting for the bigger and better deal and having my music sit unused for a long time!
In other cases, I might be able to get 100% on the backend returns but I have had to wait months for my catalogue to be raided and those elusive cues placed.
Another key factor to making this work is playing in various ‘fields’ simultaneously. I play across several, knowing all their methods of working and frequency of placement etc. according to the shows they work with and rates of pay.
Making a sole living out of this is brutal! You don’t get to drop off the face of the earth for two weeks on holiday, you need to be highly competitive and ultimately take the knocks as they come and move forward. It can take a few years to get the material to bolster your catalogue of works, making extra contacts and establishing a good reputation with those you hook up with.
I have been very lucky to some degree as I write for up-front money as one stream, royalty-free music for another, and just royalty returns for others and I keep them all moving constantly. You maintain what you build. So it is a constant environment of creating opportunities, maintaining what you spend all that time building and striving to be better, faster and more ‘on-the-ball’ than the next guy.
How do you approach potential libraries and what is a good ‘pitch’ strategy for someone yet unproven in this field?
The overall factor that is sometimes bigger than the music itself, is charm and approachability.
If you are nice to speak to and easy to communicate with from the first talk you are on a good road! No one likes working with a smart ass, regardless of how good the music is. You will not get a chance to prove how awesome your music is on-screen and how much money it will make everyone unless you get past the first post!
If you have no earlier history this is not a big an obstacle as you would imagine. Other people’s perception of writing music for TV for example, is a mixed bag; most assume that you are making phenomenal money left, right and center and that you are flying across the world every other day no matter what level you are on this work! However, it is really not like this when you are looking to leave the starting blocks. It is much easier to break into than you would imagine. The shows being produced per week are countless, the amount of pressure the show producers are under is insane and deadlines are cut-throat and relentless.
So, if you submit some cues to a music supervisor or agent who deals with a lot of libraries as a mediator, and it happens that your music is what they need for the next episode of Show X, then that’s your in!!! It can be as simple as that.
I now work with several library companies and each of them are very different in how they work and how an approach worked ‘for them’. In one instance it was pure timing; I scoured the net for opportunities and someone was asking for music for a Discovery network show. A type of tension cue was needed and I happened to have a ton of them literally just sitting there doing nothing. I had nothing to lose by submitting to their call. I was very polite and kept my email short and professional. You are neither begging for the chance, nor you are so high and mighty that they owe you a meeting or a car outside your door! You just take a shot. In this particular case I got an email back within 5’ minutes and was told they would pass these cues over to the library who in turn green-lit these to submit to the music supervisor for the show. He loved the cue and wanted 10 more just like it! And bingo!! Out of the blue came an ‘in’. They had their backs against the wall, I appeared with 10+ cues that filled the brief and that was it.
Working successfully in this line of work is also a matter of constantly doing your homework and researching similar shows as the ones you are asked to write for. You write again and again with your fingers crossed and some of these cues get picked up.
Another ‘in’ for me was a composer already signed to a library that recommended me to them. The owner asked me to call him at a set time so that is exactly what I did. We hit it off within seconds. I kept it short and sweet and just relaxed. What’s the worst that can happen? So just be friendly, be yourself. When you do get to meet or phone these guys make the most out of it! Nothing comes across via email but when you meet or talk, you do get that shot to be charming! So use this for all it’s worth.
Even when you do strike a deal, it is important to keep your ear on the ground, keep looking for those chances and act upon them appropriately. Have a very great-looking website that is very easy to use and make out on all platforms, including mobile and tablet-based platforms. Everyone is looking and listening on the move. So, make sure that those web-based audio preview sites are working!!! Make sure that the quality of your work is good enough for audition purposes and that navigating your site is a pleasure and not a chore! Don’t feel the need to over-animate or clutter what you are trying to show off. How fast do you like to browse and find solutions yourself??? It is the same for your client…Why should they feel any different? If your name above the door looks messy, too busy and half of it doesn’t work, it is not a great first impression and I personally wouldn’t be fighting my way through this to find your music!
How much music should I have online? Should I have different tracks in different libraries? Can I even do that or do the libraries what exclusive deals?
It is a mixed bag with many libraries wanting different specifics to their deal. Some prefer exclusivity whilst the rest can happily work with non-exclusive music.
Should you have your music spread among various libraries? ABSOLUTELY! This is the key to ensuring longevity when writing for varied markets and making sure you cover as wide a base as possible.
Each library/agency, works with a set of clients that are after a specific ‘sound’. After working with a library for some time you will learn to recognize the areas/genres that are ‘performing’ and are making money and you will need to adjust your focus based on the responses you get and the trends you see appearing in the market.
Having the ability to sell non-exclusively clearly gives added mileage to your work but you will find the exclusive deals more lucrative as one-off deals upfront can really make a big impact on your immediate situation. Making money from library music is no easy talk by any means! It is a calculated play on what you thing will sell and sell again, constantly making a small revenue stream against that one-off deal that secures bigger money upfront over a finite period.
Working with several libraries, you adapt to their needs, their system of working and what specific market they are tailored for. For example, you ma find one library agency has a strong ‘band’ and ‘live’ element to their client base. A lot of teen and music network-commissioned shows use a great deal of these cues which are always thin on the ground when directly compared to ‘out-of-the-box’ home-studio VST tracks. So effectively, your mind-set has to perfectly hone in each library’s needs.
A lot of big-network clients do specify exclusivity for the music of their shows. They really do not want to switch on the TV, flip a few channels and hear the same cues placed elsewhere. Some of the bigger cable networks also work this way and prefer an identity to their final output that isn’t being diluted by the same work being heard elsewhere.
In some cases, the network and/or show supervisor works with several different shows and wants to have a specific deal with a music library, allowing them to license a bunch of cues and drop them into the show. In other words, they like to have the ‘exclusive take’ on a batch of cues.
Do you pay attention to current trends when writing? How do you strategize for the highest potential usage of your catalogue?
YES!!! Researching your library/agency is probably one of the most simple but overlooked strategies there is.99% of those big library companies like to brag about who they’re hooked up with. It’s a two-way street as they want strong composers batting for them and the world to know all those big client names they have under there belt. It’s as competitive as you imagine it is.
Trends and fads are transient.They can last a few months, in some cases a year to 18 months and just rarely, a fleeting passing phase. But study and break down everything you hear.The structure, instrument choice, tempo,melodic content or lack therein and understand what is selling over and over. Writing for popular big selling trend cues means working very fast.And none of this stuff is going to have a life span like more safe, tried and tested staple music that’s used regularly .You need to get a batch of this music and hit the ground running.
Places such as Audio Jungle are a perfect proving ground for this. When I first signed on, all I did was listen to the top authors who had sold several hundred of a certain cue.
Sometimes there is just a feel or a magical combination of sounds etc that just works. So break it all down and almost become a little analytical of it. To a degree it helps.It enables you to see inside the machine and what all those cogs and gears do. And then start hitting this yourself.
I know that when I write for certain genres, that some are always going to be reliable and sell. The most popular are the tension/action cues and the comedic quirky cues. But as safe a bet as they are, a 1000 other composers are also playing it safe in your back yard. So you then end up with a saturated market and a genre specific issue.
So, trends can be for that short duration, your ploy to stick your head out of the crowd and break in.
I have around 600 cues in my catalogue and I would say over 2 thirds of those are signed and published. All of those bread and butter cues will always find a home at some point.It’s a continuous steady stream of traffic and due to the rate of placements I’ve been lucky to get, I’ve benefitted from having a solid reliable reputation.
Your odds of your catalogue being ventured into become greatly enhanced by this. It’s pure common sense. If you’re someone who comes up with the goods time and time again, your catalogue becomes the most important thing you have.
This is why I write at high volume.Your standing and reputation plus the ratio of placements based on this, means you’re batting average is greatly increased, which in turn means more fluid returns over and over. The way to make sure you do get placed over and over? Listen to the brief. It you’re not sure and need more info, ask and ask again. Research as much as possible to placed cues that are in this ballpark. Again, break it down and understand the basic mechanics of why they do work and go for it.
When you start getting briefs that you do nail, you have a happy boss, happy clients, and you’ll move yourself into the prime spot on the shop floor. Same principle as when you walk into a big chain shop and the good stuff is eye height on the best shelves with all the promotion around it. That’s effectively you and this market place. If you sell often and you’re reliable, you move closer to the front of the store and get more exposure, which means more chances of pitching for the bigger gigs.
If you aren’t selling well, you can end up further back in that store, less fuss being made of you and a bigger fight to climb back into the selling region you came to crave and love!