How to Get Fantastic Music for Your Indie Film

A musical spell for your movie magic.

 

“Give as much direction as you possibly can – the more the composers know, the more likely it is the finished product will fit with your story.”

Here at Lights Film School we connected with the folks at Marmoset, a full-service music agency based in Portland, Oregon, specializing in pairing music with motion picture, video, and film content. They’ve worked with independent filmmakers and established brands alike, among them Apple, Nike, and Adidas, to name only a few.

We asked Marmoset if they’d be up for sharing more about their services and experiences working with filmmakers, so as to equip Lights’ students and readers with a deeper understanding of how and where music fits into the filmmaking process.

But first, check out Marmoset’s 2016 reel:

Hello, Marmoset Team! Thanks for taking the time to share your perspective on the relationship between film and music! We love your work and are excited to learn more about it.

Let’s start with a big picture question to help frame our discussion: what is the role and goal of a film composer? What about a music supervisor? How are these positions different? How do they overlap?

A film composer, in a way, is in charge of bringing the unspoken elements of a film’s story to life through music. An exceptional composer can make the audience feel the exact emotion that the director is shooting for, creating a powerful story. From 5-minute shorts to award-winning feature films, music is an integral part of the filmmaking process.

Music supervisors play a huge role in this process. While they’re not the ones making the music, they’re in charge of choosing the perfect song for a scene, or finding a composer or artist who can create one. Oftentimes, supervisors are only given a few words to describe the type of feeling a director wants to emote through music. It’s then on the supervisor to translate whatever direction they receive – however broad or precise it may be. Whether it’s deciding on how to soundtrack the height of a dramatic film narrative or choosing the right song to accompany a viral brand campaign, music supervisors use their encyclopedia of sonic knowledge and knack for storytelling with sound to determine the right match.

On occasion, the two worlds collide. If a music supervisor is tasked with finding a song for a scene and can’t seem to find an appropriate existing song, he or she can work with a composer to try and bridge the gap. However, this usually requires a producer to act as a middle person to facilitate the process and translate the creative brief. This route is referred to as original scoring.

When working on an original score, music agencies will work with you to shape and alter the sounds of an existing song, or craft an entirely new composition that perfectly pairs with your film. The only catch to this magic solution is that custom songs and compositions tend to be on the higher end of the budget spectrum. However, if a tailor-made song is the missing piece for a standout film, it might be well worth it. If you decide to go this route, it’s important to give as much direction as you possibly can – the more the composers know, the more likely it is the finished product will fit with your story.

Fantastic overview! So you offer both licensing and composition services at Marmoset. What’s the difference? What sets your licensable tracks apart from the plethora of stock music available?

We’d also love to hear about workflow when it comes to a filmmaker collaborating with a Marmoset composer – generally speaking, what does this process look like from beginning to end?

Licensing has to do with using an existing song, whereas composition involves a musician creating an original piece for the given project. All of the music Marmoset has available for licensing is written by real artists and composers who are passionate about sharing their art with the world, while stock music generally refers to music that is made quickly and solely for the purpose of being used in advertisements or film. Our Artists & Repertoire Team carefully chooses every artist and song that is added to our roster based on its quality and potential to be licensed for picture.

Every project has its unique challenges and characteristics, but they all start out the same. When collaborating with a Marmoset composer, a filmmaker comes to our Original Music Team with a brief explaining what kind of song they want. It’s then up to the producer and composer to translate that brief into a song and hand it back to the filmmaker.

The turnaround for this process could be as soon as 24 hours or as long as a couple weeks, depending on the project and the needs of the filmmaker. It normally takes a few trips back and forth for the song to reach perfection, but when it does, it’s magic.

Some filmmakers create “musical moodboards” for their projects to help communicate mood and tone. Do composers do something similar when brainstorming around a new project? In other words, is there an experimental period during which a composer tries to “find a film’s voice”, or is the creative process usually more regimented? To what degree is this determined by a project’s budget?

“Musical moodboards are amazing for composers to see before diving into scoring. In the past, I’ve had filmmakers send me a mood reference video and editing material all married to existing music, which helped give me an idea of what they had in mind. This is a great way to get inspiration, get stoked and get cranking on a project that may require a little extra R&D to find a film’s voice. While there’s no one way to do things in the creative world, A/V moodboards have been really effective and efficient with helping each party involved get on the same page, especially when capturing a very specific aesthetic.” – Marmoset Composer Graham Barton

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We love that you work with real bands at Marmoset to create your licensable music! How do you find and choose the musicians you work with? How should filmmakers go about making such decisions for their own projects?

“Thanks so much – we take great pride in working with real bands and artists. Finding new artists to bring into the Marmoset fold works in a few different ways:

  • We receive lots of submissions from artists via our website. We are pretty selective, but we do actually listen to every one.
  • Secondly, our amazing family of artists we work with often will recommend artists that they know to us and help make those connections.
  • The largest aspect for finding new artists to work with is scouting by our A&R team. We are constantly tracking what kind of music filmmakers and creatives are asking us for, watching trends in the music industry and looking for interesting and up-and-coming new artists.

A couple of elements that we always keep in mind when looking for music that works well with picture include energy and narrative arc. With energy, we are looking to see if the song helps move along the story of a film. A song’s narrative arc is dependent on whether the feeling and overall intensity of a song notably changes. Oftentimes, filmmakers are looking for a song with an ascending arc – something that starts smaller and gets bigger toward the end of the song.

We are proud to work with a great range of bands and artists – from working class, independent artists to more well-known bands. We always want to have the music that our clients are looking for, while also trying to pull licensing music away from some of the clichés that it is often associated with, and push it toward cooler sounds and more authentic artists.” – Steve Shroeder, A&R Catalog Curator

In your experience, how is working with an independent filmmaker different from working with a larger brand? How is scoring a commercial different from, say, scoring a film? What are the similarities?

“There can be a lot of differences between working on music for independent filmmakers versus brands. Of course, it will vary from project to project and depends heavily on the creative vision, budget, and scope of what you’re working on.

With longer-form films, there’s more room to explore, find common themes, and have flexibility in the range of music. The music becomes part of a larger narrative; it’s more patient than what you get with brands who need to get a point across much quicker and are under more pressure to keep the viewer’s attention. It can be easier to take risks, go for deep cuts, and get a little weird.

With ads, there are often more people weighing in on the decision-making process, which is why it can be harder to sell riskier or more outside-of-the-box ideas. The timelines and budgets are often largely different between independent films and brands as well. Some films take years to finish, some brands will choose their music in a day. It’s really just a different workflow, but both forms can be rewarding to work on.” – Emilee Booher, Filmmaker and Marmoset Music Supervisor

At what point in the filmmaking process should a filmmaker bring a composer or music supervisor onboard, and in what capacity?

A composer’s involvement and timing really varies from project to project. Sometimes, filmmakers will have a temp track in mind during pre-production and leave it until post-production to find their final song. Other times, filmmakers may be inspired by a certain piece of music and focus their production around the triggers of the song: when to build tension, when to exhale, and for how long.

For example, in a short film project called Book of Matches, filmmaker Matthew Ross pre-shot brief vignettes and presented them to Marmoset artist, Kyle Morton, to score:

In this case, all of the filming was done beforehand and Morton used the film as inspiration for his compositions, resulting in a beautiful combination of sound and picture.

Speaking of collaboration, in order to facilitate communication with a composer or music supervisor, what music terms, concepts, and considerations must a filmmaker be familiar with, at a minimum?

The basic terms to keep in mind when working with a composer or music supervisor are mood, energy, and arc. These descriptors will tell the composer or supervisor what type of feeling you are trying to emote with your music, providing them with a creative compass.

To break it down:

  • Mood. The mood of a song is exactly what it sounds like – the aura and emotion that encapsulates the piece. What type of feeling are you trying to portray? Bright, anthemic, burdened, inspired? Whichever emotion you hope to get across, make sure it is manifested in the song you choose. Knowing your mood will also help determine the other key elements of your song.
  • Energy. We think of energy as the intersection of tempo, pacing, and performance as they relate to genre. If “arc” is the path of a song, “energy” is the driving force that moves it along the path. Producers, directors, and editors often come to us with a rough idea of what they’re looking for – they need music that has a specific speed, pulse, or vibe to it. In music licensing, there are placements for all types energy – anything from slow and ambient to high-energy. Often times, it’s these elements that help define the overall spirit and intensity of what’s happening onscreen.
  • Arc. The overall path or trajectory of a song is so important that we trademarked the word for it. It’s called “arc,” and it describes, in simple terms, how a song gets from its start to its finish, plus where it travels along the way. “Arc” is usually described using words like “ascending,” “descending,” “multiple crescendos” or “steady.” Sometimes, we thinks of the arc as a way to describe “events” within a song – is there one clearly defined peak, or multiple smaller peaks? An arc may meander on a journey… or start out low and calm, only to rise up in a swell of inspiration. Crafting a well-defined arc will help one understand the story, theme, or character involved in a song.

If you can outline according to at least these three guidelines, you’re well on your way to finding the perfect song.

We love this breakdown, guys! Well said.

Just to clarify, is it ever acceptable for a filmmaker to direct with abstract “feeling words” – for example, “can we make this sound happier?” – “I’d love for this bit to be really dark, really sad” – “what would happen if we pushed this into kind of comical territory?” If so, are there any concrete phrases for directing the feeling of a piece; any concrete communication strategies to minimize miscommunications?

“It’s great if a director has the vocabulary to discuss specific musical concepts in music jargon, but it is by no means necessary. Music is nebulous and subjective.

In many ways, the role of a music supervisor is to translate and interpret non-music descriptions into a useful creative brief. The best way to avoid miscommunications when talking about music is to share references. It’s easier to communicate about specific tones or structures when you reference specific songs that have the vibe you’re looking for. ‘I love the way the guitar sounds in ’Hazel Street’ by Deerhunter, but that song is too somber.’ That’s great direction.” – Madeline Dowling, Marmoset Music Supervisor

What’s the most frustrating thing for a composer to hear from a filmmaker? Said differently, what constitutes a “bad note” and what constitutes a “good note”? How specific should a filmmaker be with their feedback?

“Part of the composer’s duty is to be able to ask the correct questions of the filmmaker and possess the translation skills necessary for both parties. Though many times, frustration comes from a lack of communication between filmmaker and composer, and understanding how the music should interact with a scene.

The filmmaker and composer are thinking both big picture and small in their own way, and it’s easy to get hung up or emotionally attached to a piece of music, an edit, a certain revision, etc.

For the best results, I always like to suggest the filmmaker explain exactly what isn’t working with a music revision in question and to work backwards from the goal communicated. Whether a change in music will require a single instrument to be removed or the entire theme of the piece be replaced, establishing the goal versus nitpicking and head-scratching until the revision(s) is perfect will usually yield the best and most efficient results.” – Graham Barton, Marmoset Composer

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What is the relationship between music, sound design, and picture? For example, is it ever a good idea to start composing before picture lock if a filmmaker is eager to work with an original song during the edit? What happens when?

“Music, sound design and picture are all essential elements to creating a particular environment or feel. Sound design is one of those underrated parts that can go unnoticed, but it is actually crucial to making a piece feel immersive and experiential. When sound design and music succeed, a viewer can effortlessly cruise through a piece without even noticing everything that’s playing into it. That’s how you know it’s good; it all becomes one experience. Nothing stands out too much or overpowers another, unless intentionally so.

As far as the timeline for how things should be completed, there really is no set answer. It all depends on the project and the vision of the director or creatives. Sometimes having a solid idea for music and sound can help drive the way a piece is edited. Other times, the visuals are what steer the direction the music and sound take.

Most often, all the elements end up evolving together. In my experience, it’s always good to think about the music and sound design from the inception of any project.” – Emilee Booher, Filmmaker and Marmoset Music Supervisor

Any tips for filmmakers in the editing and sound design stages of their projects? For example, are there special creative or technical considerations that might impact the music’s direction and/or workflow?

“It’s better to overcompensate than under-compensate during production to allow for more flexibility in the soundtracking stage. Having a few extra seconds of footage might be the difference that makes or breaks whether you are able to use the song you really want to use.” Josh Brine, Filmmaker and Marmoset Visual Content Director

At risk of over-simplifying, how long does it take to compose and record music for a short film? What about for a feature film? How many revision rounds might one anticipate?

This process varies from project to project. Depending on the demands and length of the film, it could take weeks, or even months. The bottom line is, it’s important to allot a generous amount of time and flexibility when it comes to your soundtrack, because it can make or break the film.

Finally, any words of advice for musicians aspiring to work as film composers?

We thought it might be best to ask one of our composers to give their two cents on this one:

“Write music everyday. Also, with most any type of paid composing you want to do, the work comes through making connections and friendships, right? With film, it’s all about making friends.” – Paul Damian Hogan, Marmoset Artist and Composer

Indeed it is – film’s essence is communal and collaborative, after all! Thanks so much for sharing your time and insights with our students and readers, Marmoset Team. This is a great introduction to the world of movie music!

For more from Marmoset, head on over to their website.

 Michael Koehler, with


Need to make a movie before you can set it to music? We’d love to be a part of your filmmaking journey here at Lights Film School!

Check out our in-depth online filmmaking course, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.

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