Music Industry

5 Ways to Get the Most Out of Working with Production Music Composers

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Sam Wale

Read this article as it was originally published by Hypebot:

Production music – music created to licensed for film, television, radio and other media – is an underappreciated but hugely important corner of the music industry. Veteran composer Sam Wale of ALIBI Music shares some of its secrets.

Two things typically happen when you cross a professional milestone: First, you do a little happy dance (or maybe gasp in surprise!), and then you use the opportunity to reflect on what got you there and how it might help inspire the next shining moment. For me, this exercise came after wrapping ALIBI Music’s

, a feat that had me vacillating between gratification and disbelief.

I had been composing for the music library long before I assumed my current role as VP of Production, so I was already tapped into the mindset of the composers we work with, but seeing the culmination of this collective effort was really something else entirely. Sure, we were a little engine that could, but there was a method behind the madness… a distinct path that not only got us to 1,000, but also held that collection to a standard in its diversity and structure.

Now, as I look back on that process, I can boil it down to five ways I was able to get the most out of working with production music composers… best practices I plan to carry with me to 2,000:

1) Provide good reference tracks

As a composer myself, I know what it’s like when a client just starts giving me loads of descriptive words to explain what they want. “What about something kind of rocky and hazy and cool, maybe with a swaggering beat?” They’ll suggest.

Um, wait… what?

I’ve learned to avoid inevitable confusion and further questions (AKA time drain) by finding a good set of reference tracks before I get anyone started… a few sonic examples that give them a clearer idea of what we’re going for. Ideally, I like to start with a written description and at least three or more reference tracks for any new project, so that composers can hear the common themes between them and then take inspiration from different elements of each one to create something unique, rather than focus too closely on a single example.

Sometimes it can just be a vague example of the kind feeling we’re trying to create, but having those reference tracks as a starting point is a really important thing for me and most of the composers we work with.

2) Choose the right people for the right projects and let them do what they do best

And then it’s about choosing the right people for the right projects and letting them do their thing (AKA creative freedom). I try to find composers who are experts in their genres and, ideally, more experienced at it than I am, so I can rely on them for authenticity.

I’m not experienced at producing hip hop, for example. I don’t listen to a lot of it for my own enjoyment, so an experienced hip hop producer will be in a much better position than I am to create something authentic, or even just identify whether or not something sounds fresh or legit.

Choosing correctly like this means I’m not having to tell composers how to adjust their guitar tone or what vibes are missing from their tracks, but can rather focus my energy on things like making the music more sync-friendly, which brings me to my next point.

3) Balance that creative freedom with a sync-friendly structure

Giving composers creative freedom is one thing, but there’s also making sure that it fits the unique format of our library, so I try to strike a balance that both delivers the theme of the album and achieves what our clients are looking for when syncing our music to trailers, promos, commercials and other content.

To do so, there are a few formatting nuances I have to explain to most new composers that they learn when they work with us over time. With the typical artist tracks you hear when listening to music for enjoyment, for instance, choruses (or sections) can repeat and sound exactly the same two or three times, which is fine for that purpose. In what we do, however, it’s not really fine because our tracks are designed to be cut up and used, so there’s no point in us having two completely identical sections within a track. The second chorus needs to build on the first one and the third one needs to build on the second one, which may be as simple as adding in a tambourine or an extra layer of strings or more cymbals – something to keep it building so that the track evolves and grows, creating anticipation.

We also try to make sure every track ends on a climax, regardless of the genre, so the energy just sort of swells up and stops, making a good finish point. If you’re looking at the energy level on a graph, it can fluctuate up and down, but it should start in the bottom left and move generally up and to the right. While this may be a bit harder to achieve with more chilled-out genres like ambient electronic or piano music, it’s about making the general energy level increase overall and finish on a high rather than tailing off into a low.

The third sync-friendly instruction we give composers is giving their track structure cut points. In popular music, it’s normal for songs to keep going and going for a continuous flow, but with our tracks, we try to add in two or three little breaks. They can be quiet musical breaks where everything builds up and stops for a couple of beats and then comes back in again in a deliberate way. This is useful because it gives editors multiple options to cut and makes a track almost like its own little tool kit, especially when combined with the alt mixes and stems that we provide.

4) Work with a mix of trusted and new talent

I feel fortunate to have built a core team of versatile composers that already know what we want and have been working closely with me for years. While not employed by

in an official capacity, many of them are making their main living through the music they write for us, so they’re always ready for new projects. We also have a stream of fresh content coming in from new composers who apply to write for us. After a very selective process, we’ll have them do a few tracks for us, or maybe an album or two, as we wait to see what generates interest.

I have found that the ideal balance is having a core team that gives us consistency and reliability, while our revolving door of fresh talent gives us new sounds that keep us fresh.

5) Keep up with your own craft

And, finally, one of the biggest best practices I’ve learned is to keep up with composing myself, making sure to set time aside for my own craft. This helps me keep my head in the game and makes me better at giving technical and creative feedback to the composers we enlist. There was a time slightly after I was hired at ALIBI when I found myself composing less and less as the company got busier and busier. I then got to the point where I was finding it really quite challenging to know what to recommend to other composers. Once I got back to composing regularly and writing more music for

, I recognized how that puts me in a better position to do my job and – in return – get the best possible work from production music composers.

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