Can you make it sound like “THIS?”
I have heard those words, phrased in a few different ways, for about thirty years. In a way, my professional success as a freelance composer has mostly stemmed from my ability to listen to a piece of music and then write another piece of music that captures the essential feel or attitude of the first one. Even when I was writing, producing, and recording what ended up being several hit records on a major label with Pajama Party, it’s not like I was at the forefront of the dance music world. I was listening to what was out there, trying to figure out exactly what it was that people were grabbing onto, and then attempting to put my own spin on it.
With some kinds of work, though, sometimes a line gets crossed. People aren’t asking you if you can listen to something and then put your own spin on in. They don’t want your damn spin. For whatever reason, they are asking you to create something that sounds EXACTLY like “this.” One reason could be budgetary: they would LIKE to use “Born to be Wild,” but the client doesn’t want to spend fifty grand on the license. Can I do a track that sounds very much like it for five or ten percent of that? Or, even worse, the client is willing to pay the money for the latest hipster band’s single for a shoe jingle, but that band doesn’t want their indie cred sullied by an association with a corporate monster like Nike or Adidas. In that case, I have to be REALLY careful, since the band has already been approached and has declined the offer. Unlike the first scenario, there are now additional copyright landmines to be navigated, and legally, if the shoe company gets sued, they will dump responsibility on the ad agency, who will dump it on the music house, who will dump it on ME, the composer, who was only trying to make a living by doing the client’s bidding in the first place. So, in my attempt to compose what the NY commercial industry calls a “ripomatic,” it becomes my responsibility to figure out where the imaginary line in the sand is between what the client wants (which really is the hipster band’s song) and my own (hopefully, from their viewpoint) extremely close, but legal “copy.”
Mix clients would always bring records to the mix sessions, asking me to make their music sound like “this” (the music on their CD of choice). When I was a staff songwriter at Famous Music (the music publishing arm of Paramount Pictures), they would pass around a list of big name artists who were “looking” for songs for an upcoming album. My publisher would always try to get me to write something similar to whatever that artist’s last hit was, under the assumption that he or she (and their label) was looking to recreate that hit on the next record.
There are always times when someone wants you to put your creative impulse aside and do something that “sounds like THIS.” That’s the gig. Unless you are an artist cutting a record, your creativity is in service to someone else. The director. The ad agency. The client. The music supervisor. The boss. Mostly, that’s been OK with me. I enjoy different genres, so when somebody asks me to do some “retro 70’s disco,” I know what they mean, and having lived through the era, I can go to work merely by referring to the jukebox in my head. That’s creative. That’s fun. “This” varies from job to job, so I’ve enjoyed moving from being Mozart to Hendrix to Smashing Pumpkins to Tito Puente. And I can understand why I’m doing what I’m doing. Mozart and Hendrix aren’t available this week. Smashing Pumpkins broke up. Tito Puente is also hitting those timbales in the sky. And licensing their music might be out of the reach of most end users. So I haven’t minded it in the past when I’ve had to try to mimic someone else’s musical signature.
However, I’ve been in this business a long time, and I’ve decided that I can afford to call my own shots and turn some things down. Recently I was offered a gig that involved imitating some cues that were written by another composer who the music supervisor loved, but who wasn’t able to deliver the volume of music that was needed for that show. My job would have been to write material in the style of this guy, who was, frankly, just another guy like me who the supervisor happened to have gotten used to. I decided that I’m retiring from that end of the business. From now on, I’m happy to write music in styles, in genres, in any format, size or shape that the job calls for. But I don’t think I want to copy anyone else’s work anymore. I’m just going to be me.