There is no such thing as “fair treatment”

My decade-long run as a composer at All My Children ended a year ago, when ABC canceled the show after a million years.  That was a great gig for me.  The people were nice, the money was fantastic, and I could work at home.  Most importantly, I could do other things like learn how to be a college professor, which I started doing in 2003.  However, all things must pass, and like every other job I’ve had in my career, AMC bit the dust.  With all of my newly-found free time, in the last year I’ve been able to write Welcome to the Jungle (the book, not the blog) and make my first ever solo CD, and as I write this, I’ve pretty much wrapped up both of those projects.  Now, as the school year starts, my freelance brain is starting to churn with activity.  I’m sure all of you can relate. If you’re not working on some kind of job for a period of more than seven minutes, the insecurity gland is activated, causing the brain to flood with thoughts of starvation, bankruptcy, and living in a van down by the river.

So, I’m now looking for opportunities to get back into some television writing, along with working on promoting the book, launching the CD, and teaching school.  I have a friend who works for a production library company that pitches music to television shows that are in production.  They have good relationships with a number of shows on both cable and network television.  This particular guy is a longtime colleague and close friend.  I know him to be an honorable man, so I’m lucky that I don’t have to worry about getting shafted or anything.  I spoke to him on the phone yesterday, and he outlined the details of what he was looking for.  He is currently supplying music to one network game show and two cable reality shows, and I would be able to write cues for any of them “on spec,” meaning that I could put in the time, write the music, be paid nothing, and have no guarantee that anything would be used.  There would also be no upfront money.  ALSO, this company would own the rights to the music for five years, during which time they would have the right to pitch it wherever they thought they could get a bite.  We would split any licensing money down the middle.  Got it?  OK, now put any judgements on hold for a little bit.

When I first met this guy, it was probably 1998.  He was producing for another library company, this time for a network that was tired of paying licensing fees.  So their idea was to create their own sports library and then use it for their own shows, thus avoiding the expense of licensing outside music.  At any rate, the deal in 1998 was that I got paid $750 per cue to write, record, mix, and edit sports music, also on spec.  If they hated the cues, I didn’t get paid.  They owned the music forever, and kept 100% of the licensing.  I did pretty well as far as my rate of acceptance went.  I probably wrote 100 cues for that job, and I think two of them were rejected.  On the other hand, that network met with a lot of resistance from the producers of their shows, most of whom wanted to use whatever music they felt worked on a creative level rather than being forced to use the network’s library just because it was cheaper for the network.  So ultimately, there wasn’t a lot of back end for me from that gig, because the music never really got used.  I did make good money for my time, though. So over the course of about a year, that job actually paid my living expenses.

These days, the production music business is flooded with people who are willing to work for very little up front money in exchange for the possible reward of performance royalties.  What with the record business going up in flames, a lot of musicians and bands are doing whatever they can to work in the industry.  The competition is ridiculous compared to a decade ago.  Supply and demand drives rates up and down, and in this case, with so many musicians willing to  work cheaply, rates hit the floor. So, is it “fair” that music library companies want composers to supply them with music at no cost when as recently as 10-15 years ago, they were paying hundreds of dollars per cue, up front?  Well, I contend that there simply is no such thing as fair, and the sooner we all get over that, the better for our careers. What’s fair is what’s right for YOU, right now.  How badly do you need the work, the experience, the money?  How much time do you have?  When I first started out writing TV commercials, I took EVERY JOB I COULD GET.  I don’t think I turned anything down for at least five years.

Everything changes.  Everything is relative.  Right now, I’m pretty jazzed, knowing that I have a shot to write for a network show FOR NOTHING UPFRONT, ON SPEC.  I’m confident in my ability to deliver some great stuff, and I know that it will get into the right hands with a good pitch from my friend. That’s what makes it worth it for me.  I’m getting an inside connection, so the spec aspect isn’t as much of a down side.  To me, getting a high quality “shot” is something I’ll take a chance on every time.  To mix some baseball metaphors, if my batting average is decent in this situation, I have a good chance at scoring some hits and getting into the rotation.  I’ll take the performance royalties that regular play generates. Now I absolutely have friends that would NEVER do something like this.  They would consider it unprofessional to ever do anything on spec, to put their time in and not be paid for it.  That’s an individual call that everyone needs to make for themselves.  But it’s not about “fair” or “unfair.” It’s just about what’s right for the individual.

Personally, I’m not going to dwell on how things used to be, or some theoretical concept of fair treatment.  I’m going to evaluate this particular situation based on what other situations are available TO ME, TODAY, and see if this one is worth getting involved with.

I’ll keep you posted.

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