Composition – the Black Sheep of Sync?

Why Commissioned Music is No Longer Licensing's Poor Relation

Words by Paul Sumpter, Friday 6 Oct 2017


Why is it, so many new clients we meet for the first time have such reservations about commissioning composed music? Or a preconception that the art of crafting a piece for a specific project, is somehow a second rate option (or worse still not a viable option at all)?

How, when year on year budgets are tightening, did we arrive at a situation where clients continue to shell out four or five times what they need to, to sync an existing piece, when they could have something 100% tailor-made, for a fraction of the cost? Is it five times as good? The answer is, well, sometimes. But more often than not, no. Not necessarily.

In almost every other field of industry, custom-made is the purchasing pinnacle. Fine dining vs the ready-meal. An Ikea flatpack vs the bespoke Italian piece. So what the f**k is going on with music?

In this post, we’ll take a look at the reasons behind these preconceptions – and challenge the underlying culture and history within the creative visual industries working with music, which has lead to such an unnecessary (over)-reliance on licensing. And more importantly, why now, that shouldn’t be the case…  


The Bespoke Delusion: How did we get here?

Until the end of the 20th Century, music in advertising was largely the domain of jingle writers, churning out pretty inane ear-worms, that ploughed uninvited into viewer’s living rooms. They weren’t of course all bad, but the vast majority were cheesy, one dimensional and sought no other purpose than to grab your attention, to make us all buy more stuff. It had little or no emotional context. Musical hard sell. And it grew tiring for consumers. As the 80s and early 90s wore on, this approach earned itself a stigma for being out of touch and lacking credibility – a hangover we still suffer to some degree today.

As we approached the turn of the millennium, following the catastrophic crash in record sales due to MP3 piracy, publishers and labels increasingly began looking sideways to sync placements as a way of recouping recording costs. Licensing became more affordable. At the same time, the advent of improved technology began to usher in an age where more people than ever before had access to be able to create semi-professional-sounding results without ever really having the ability or finesse for how music and film interact so intricately together. The growing ubiquity of sample packs (royalty-free beats and riffs), meant it was suddenly all too easy for so-called ‘composers’ to throw a few ready-made loops together and call themselves a songwriter or producer.

An already competitive marketplace became squeezed and oversaturated.

Factor in an explosion in the number of digital channels hungry for vast quantities of cheaply-available music to fill the hours of endless new airtime and it was a toxic cocktail. Many working in the field got lazy. Quality suffered at some weak links in the chain.

Tracks were sloppy. Everything sounded the same. Music just became sonic wallpaper.

Like the cowboy builder, a culture grew whereby so much commissioned composed music became (and still is) ‘cut corner’, lacked pride and more importantly substance

And it gave the rest of us a bad name… With supply now seemingly far outreaching demand, composition budgets began to dwindle and the emergence of free demos took root, driving down quality further still. It became more viable for cost-conscious producers, to allocate low (or no) budgets for music composition, which slowly became the norm. Those prepared to undertake projects for these fees (or for free) were more often than not the least skilled to tackle the job, frequently inexperienced students or hobbyists. Results of which only in turn reinforced the stereotype of commissioned music as second rate. Compounding the issue further still was the often cursory level of engagement client-side with the work being presented. Clients hadn’t had to invest anything in it’s creation and as such, there was no vested interest in seeing it succeed.

Throw in super-tight turnarounds (the result of composition being at the end of the post process) doing nothing to help give any composer the best opportunity to really deliver, and it all became a vicious circle.

It would take another ten years before this trend would begin to subside, spearheaded by a new entente of individuals and creative-led startups like us, rallying against mediocrity and driven by the knowledge modern audiences craved more meaningful content. Loyalty and authenticity were the new creative currencies. A wider breed of musicians, film-makers and digital artists began to champion a sustainable collaborative way of working, placing the emphasis squarely on the originality and quality of the work being produced, as opposed to how cheaply it could be delivered.  


So here we are…

We feel passionately that too much bespoke composition work delivered to clients these days, still just isn’t up to the task. And how can we expect to oust deep-seated preconceptions if that continues to be the case? When we speak to new clients, too regularly they tell us the pitches they have back from other composers all too often feel generic, derivative and particularly within advertising, ‘addy’ or like ‘ad music’.

Ultimately they just feel a bit, well….underwhelming. They just doesn’t stack up against commercial releases.

And we know why…

Usually it boils down to a few key ingredients being woefully absent. Most notably, tracks lack integrity, authenticity, ‘realness’. These submissions masquerade on a pastiched, superficial level, relying on uninspired clichés (what we refer to as ‘music-by-numbers’), lacking the deep understanding and passion for the detailed nuances of a genre, both in terms of the musicality, performance and studio production, to really resonate with the listener. It’s the musical equivalent of fast food. Quick, cheap and lacking in real substance.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Shit’s moved on people. Snoop Dogg is releasing material solely for TV. Trent Reznor just did the music for a BBC4 documentary. Music composed for TV and advertising is big business. It means everyone needs to up their game. And we see that as a good thing, as it drives standards up. No more insipid soundalikes and half-baked pastiches ta very much. Well certainly not from us anyway.

We have an unerring belief that music for ads doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) sound like ‘ad music’

We don’t like the term commissioned music. It’s just a bit cold and prosaic. We much prefer bespoke. Because that’s exactly what it is, for us. Custom-made to exacting standards with every last fine detail, considered and executed exactly as intended to be the perfect accompaniment to a film. But that’s just us. I guess not everyone writing music to picture sees it that way… Nobody gets into music to sell ice creams, or be the soundtrack to the latest online viral (or at least they shouldn’t). You do it because something stirs you to pick up a guitar or start singing, on a borderline primal level. But there is no reason why just because you work to a brief, you can’t produce stunning innovative music. If you actually give a shit about what you do. If you take pride.

And there in lies the rub.

Too many companies see it as a job, in a service industry and not as a vocation. And you can hear it a mile off in their work.

We’re fiercely proud of what we do. Every note we play, we believe in. First and foremost, we’re actual musicians and producers ourselves, with years of real gigging, international touring and studio experience cutting our teeth. We’re not ‘media composers’. We’re composers that just happen to enjoy the intricate marriage of sound and the moving image as well. We work tirelessly so that all our output is absolutely one thing. Real. Not passé. Not jaded. Lovingly made with fresh ears, attention to detail and vigour. We build our own instruments if we need to and go into the field to record new samples, so the sounds in our work are always original, exciting and engaging.

We know how to and care about getting something to sound the way it should. Whether it’s an enormous grime sub bass or an authentic 40s big band arrangement, we understand the subtleties in both the composition and production to make the idea sing. I mean, it’s just got to sound like an actual fucking record, right? It’s not rocket science.

For preconceptions towards bespoke composition to change, we as composers and producers must prove our metal by delivering jaw-dropping work that exceeds even the most demanding of expectations each and every time the phone rings

We understand that there will be times when licensing that big hit is absolutely the right call. It brings a different kind of kudos. With certain tracks, or certain artists, you effectively buy into a pre-made set of connotations, that only comes from a track being in the public consciousness for a period of time. It’s all about the big name and what that name brings to the party. Like buying a Prada handbag, it’s less about what it looks like, more the label plastered across it. And we know that on projects with lots of moving parts, it’s easy to sell “this is trending, so it’s cool” up the line. It may take the pressure off the creative process, but this can all too often overlook the track’s suitability to the film or the creative idea behind it,. It’s all to easy to default back to trawling through Spotify or HypeEm confusing audience familiarity with kudos, particularly when there are reservations about the composed music process. And that’s the problem – the process itself.

We get it. Briefing and feeding back on the seemingly abstract nature of music can be tricky and seem impossible to adequately articulate what you want the music to do, leading to frustration. But we work exceptionally hard to make the process pain free, can-do and as straight forward as possible, speaking to you in your language, not jargon. We even wrote a step-by-step guide on How To Write The Perfect Music Brief to demystify the whole shebang – download it here).

We recognise that the briefing phase of any project is almost, if not more, important than the actual writing and recording. If we can gather a clear sense of what our clients are after, we are entirely confident in our ability to produce it.


Suits you Sir

To use an analogy, licensing, either existing label or library material is like buying a suit off the peg. You could buy it from East Street Market or from Alexander McQueen, but it’s a pre-defined cut – one to fit all, often intended only for the mass majority. It might by luck, just happen to fit an absolute treat, and congratulations if it does. But it takes nothing into account for your individual body shape or how best to contour it.

Bespoke composed music on the other hand, is like employing a Savile Row tailor, measuring and understanding every last detail to create something unique and entirely personal

Everything has been created exactly to what the wearer wants and needs.

The rewards for the investment of energy are far greater and ultimately more ‘ownable’. That track is entirely one of a kind, yours and yours alone. It won’t end up appearing on another film or commercial. In marketing terms, it’s a powerful brand asset.


A World of Pure Imagination

Work with the right people, and with a bespoke composition you can do literally anything you can imagine. There are no boundaries. None. With existing tracks, you are constrained by what you have in front of you to work with. You have very little control over tempo, pace, transitions, instrumentation, lyrics etc. For example, the track might start out great, but then it falls flat as it doesn’t develop or build anywhere near enough. And as such the film feels underwhelming at the end.

With bespoke composed music, you can dial in all of these details to taste. Need a musical sounding drop out for 36 frames? No problem. Track fighting with a VO? No worries, let’s sculpt our mix and arrangement to leave a hole in the centre for it. More energy to help a poised edit skip along? Let’s add some rhythmic interest here and there. The overall result is wonderfully dynamic audio and a streamlined process.

But here’s the thing, unlike buying on Savile Row, generally having something composed will likely be less expensive than licensing a track ‘off the shelf’ from a publisher or label

Yeah, seriously. So where’s the logic here?


Reddies at the Ready

Licensing an existing song, even from an up and coming artist or band, can comfortably run into six figures. Having something written especially for you will likely be a fraction of that cost, even when factoring in agreed industry rates (such as PCAM) and usages. Easily. So actually, nine times out of ten, it’s a less expensive option. Touch.

Publisher red tape and artist approvals can add time and admin headaches to the creative process and production schedule; we’ve known plenty of instances whereby a creative team has built their whole film around the sync of a track only to find they can’t clear it.This doesn’t happen with bespoke music.


Waxing lyrical

We know that clients often turn to licensing as they look for a song with a very specific theme to outline their narrative arc. But sometimes it’s just better to build that message from scratch rather than searching for something that nails that almost impossible balance of combining lyrical content with style, genre, pace, dynamic contour, cost to licence etc. We are frequently asked to song-write to a brief, and when we do it’s absolutely fundamental that our finished track feels like the perfect find, not like it’s been specially composed. Too often companies over-score the ad, or go about writing a lyric that’s way too literal – it’s heavy handed and gives the track away from the outset. It pulls the audience out of the story. Ultimately, as always, it has to sound real, not forced.

So when we write lyrics, we often build them around a metaphor which provides depth and context to the visuals without being obvious. There are always ways of underpinning the creative behind an ad, without beating the viewer over the head with it.


Case Study 1: Kerrygold The Wetter the Weather, the Better the Butter 

Our brief on this TVC was to create a fully authentic, original early 60’s RnB song that carefully threaded an idea of rain into a positive lyrical theme. There were numerous sad examples of lyrics about rain (“raining in my heart”, “teardrops keep falling on my head” etc) but the challenge here was to construct a rain metaphor that was uplifting and feel good, whilst still being true to the language and melodic character of that era. Here’s what we did.

We drafted in the wonderful Acantha Lang on lead vocals, who brought her sultry New Orleans delivery to the lyrics and melody we had scored, accompanied by some lovely deep barbershop doo-wop BVs, produced via some crafty Varispeed pitch effects (recording the lines higher and at a quicker tempo, then slowing the tape back down to the original tempo). Adding a simple arrangement of guitar, bass, piano and strings all faithfully recorded and produced in the pain-staking detail of an early sixties style – loose, warm yet with a lovely valve grit – and of course in Mono, brought the idea to life and added the necessary character to this charming spot.


The Vintage Dilemma

Clients often find themselves in a position whereby they love the timeless nature and gritty character of an old song and its recording, but they can’t stretch to licensing the original. But they’re also understandably hesitant in trying to have something produced that can deliver on the classic sound of records from bygone eras.

Too many music production companies stab around in the dark, with the resulting track sounding unconvincing and like a watered down derivative, neither fresh and new enough to be exciting nor timeless enough to be nostalgic. Neither. Beige. Bollocks.

When we are asked to write something authentic to an era or genre, we are aware that it is not just the melody you write, the chord progression you accompany it with and the beat that kicks it along, but the specific instruments idiomatic to that style, and teh production details nailed down to the last detail. Doing a late 60 psych-rock garage track? Well we’ll need a big 28inch Ludwig kick drum for that. Looking for early 90s rave sound? No worries, lets fire up the Juno. Looking for a 30s MGM type score? OK, that string section should be 24 pieces not 64 etc. Plate or spring reverb? What tape width to track through? Which microphone to record the vocal with? Mono or stereo? This stuff matters.

All of these details combined make all the difference between the music feeling 100% real – like the film’s producers have unearthed a wonderful hidden gem – and not like a hashed-together cliche because they couldn’t afford to licence an original.

Clients can have the best of both worlds: the timeless sound of yesteryear, lovingly and painstakingly recorded and produced, coupled with a custom-fit to the specific length and narrative of the film. And at a fraction of the cost. Win-win.

For clients who still have reservations about composition, there is one approach that is undergoing something of a boom at the moment that can represent a great halfway-house between bespoke and licensing. ‘Re-versioning’ or the cover version.



It can be a nice introduction to working with new musicians, as through the lyric and song form already being present, there is already something of a framework to build out from.

Of course, the best use of re-versioning, is one that takes the existing track and re-invents it entirely tailored to the needs of the film, as this balances audience familiarity, with a fresh forward-looking approach to the song guided by the mood the director is looking to forge.

Lo-Fang’s version of You’re The One That I Want from the Grease OST for Baz Luhrman’s award-winning Chanel No 5 ad always sticks in the mind as a great example.

So what are we to conclude?

We all know that there’s a cornucopia of options out there when it comes to the music for your project, with plenty of upsides to using a well-known hit in your latest film (if you can afford to) or a piece of a library music. And we’re not advocating for one moment, that all projects should have commissioned music composed (that’d be no good for the ailing music industry either).

But we do feel a mindset shift is necessary so that composition gets a fairer crack of the whip. Getting something made that’s just for you. Only for you. Just the way you want it.

It’s a special sort of feeling in today’s disposable fast-paced culture. And we don’t do it enough.

We’re all too often sold convenience as substitute for substance. Why accept lacklustre imitations or “that’ll do” or “there or there abouts” just because it’s quick and easy?

We already know from speaking to forward-thinking directors and producers that there is a healthy appetite for this sort of highly skilled, artisan music. But often that appetite is accompanied by a hesitancy born out of habit or of underwhelming past experience. We as modern writers have to reclaim the industry we work in and work harder than ever to disprove these preconceptions. We have to burn the bed those that went before us made us lie in.

Hopefully you haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater, when it comes to considering composition for your next project. Because the if you still see bespoke as the poor relation to licensing, then the truth is you simply haven’t worked with the right musicians yet…

Posted by
Founder & Creative Director

Friday 6 Oct 2017

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