As musicians become more and more comfortable selling their music to commercial interests, the shouts of “sellout!” have given way to another charge: game changer.
Photography by Andrew Waits.
I don’t give a shit,” says composer Dave Gross. “You want to use my music in a porno? Fine. I’m just a guy in a basement.”
It’s true. Instead of pouring his heart out in clubs and coffeehouses like an indie singer/songwriter, Gross holes up in his West Seattle grotto, surrounded by Simpsons memorabilia and a greyhound curled up next to his chair, just a fifty-year-old playing a violin. But as he plays the notes with his right hand, his left taps a computer keyboard, causing cascades of startlingly realistic non-violin sounds: epic choirs, lutes, shakuhachis. Working solo, Gross makes most modern synth orchestras sound like crude 1980s Casiotones.
THE OLD GUARD: From his basement work space Dave Gross composes made-to-order soundtracks that recall popular hits or familiar sounds for companies searching for the right mood for their product.
As a composer for the Seattle stock music company Sound Rangers, Gross creates the musical equivalent of Louis Vuitton knockoffs. A self-proclaimed chameleon, he traffics in imitation, composing music for his company’s catalog for businesses to license for use in media projects. For years, customers have turned to musicians like Gross for tunes that evoke a preexisting musical landscape. They usually want music that’s “like” something — like the Postal Service, like John Williams, like the soundtrack to Six Feet Under.
Gross is out to create music that is both unique and familiar. This is the model that gave the world the jingles that he so loves. And it is one that is becoming more and more of an anomaly in the world of music licensing, the marketplace where music is bought and sold for commercial use.
As independent musicians have become less and less wary of lending their music to commercial interests, the catalogs of music licensing firms have been expanding as quickly as the rest of the mammoth media universe. The result is a new world of stock music. The old guard of experts like Gross is giving way to a cavalcade of musicians eager to have their original work plucked from those catalogs and used in the next video game, commercial, internet video or television drama.
he term “stock music” is loaded with negative connotations. It’s most commonly known as the worn-out copy of 100 Royalty-Free Christmas Trax at the public library, or the cheesy techno underneath the boss’s PowerPoint about corporate synergy.
“Stock music is like fast food for people who need lots of music for no money and don’t care so much about the taste,” says Sandy Wilson, music supervisor at the label Light in the Attic, who is responsible for lending the work of the label’s artists out to commercial interests.
Modern musicians prefer to distance themselves from such connotations, but as more of an artist’s income is generated through music licensing, the line between appropriated artistry and cultivated commercialism is becoming blurred.
“This is a time when no one is getting signed, no one is selling CDs and no one knows quite what to do,” says Andrea Wittgens, a Seattle musician who started contributing to the catalog of local music licensing firm Audiosocket two years ago.
THE PLAYER: Andrea Wittgens is particular about where she puts her music. “There are some things that I have to ask, like, ‘Do I want my art on there? Probably not.’”
A far cry from the jingle-obsessed basement dweller Dave Gross, Wittgens plays gigs, writes lyrics and is trying to make it as an original artist.
“Licensing is the saving grace for a lot of musicians right now,” she says. “It’s an extra revenue stream and it’s good exposure.”
Her biggest sale was a song used for a promo clip on the cable channel Lifetime. She got $1,700 — a decent fee for most musicians, though not enough to build a career on. Not even old stock-music hands like Gross can make a living solely from catalog music.
But like most musicians, Wittgens is better off with her troves of old music in a catalog of songs available for licensing than with her works lying unused on her hard drive.
“It’s cool to have one of your old pieces that you’ve forgotten about put to good use,” she says.
The danger, says Wittgens, is that licensing success may start shaping an artist’s creation of new material. “It’s a slippery slope. You almost are tempted to compose things you think might be picked up.”
ittgens’ music resides, with that of thousands of others, in a database at the offices of Audiosocket, located at the top of a narrow flight of concrete stairs, on the third floor of an old building overlooking Lake Union. In this sparsely decorated office, at a desk with a half-eaten bag of sunflower seeds on it, sits Joseph Schneider, Vice President of Catalog.
Wearing jeans, a crisp white shirt and black-rimmed glasses, Schneider looks like Ira Glass on casual Friday. His computer monitor is a matrix of hundreds of genre titles, moods, types of song fades, sound effects and other measurements, all designed to classify a song with surgical precision.
THE NEW GUARD: In his corner office, Joseph Schneider oversees an enormous catalog of original music submitted by independent bands hoping one of his clients will choose their song for a campaign.
“When people say to me, ‘you must love your job,” he says, “I tell them it depends on the song.”
And there are a lot of songs. In ever-increasing numbers, musicians are submitting everything from their bedroom instrumentals to their latest singles — with vocals — to Audiosocket’s catalogs, ready to attach their music to commercial branding, TV shows, video games, internet videos, films and more. A few Audiosocket employees sort, manage, and obsessively classify thousands of songs per month, and then license these tracks — more than twenty-two thousand so far.
On the afternoon of our visit, Schneider’s monitor blares hip-hop beats, funk and some semi-comprehensible, heavily filtered rapping. He listens.
“I’m getting the VH1, the MTV…” he says, trying to explain, in words, the feel the music is giving him.
The song, assigned the genre name of “urban,” is energetic and well produced, but something is wrong.
“It sounds forced,” Schneider says. “It sounds like it was made specifically for a catalog.”
Which, of course, it was.
Schneider’s job is somewhat ironic: He must find music for a catalog that doesn’t sound like it was made for a catalog. Any musician can submit music at the click of a hyperlink. Schneider and his colleagues accept about 30 percent of the music they receive. Audiosocket’s clients are as diverse as ESPN, Victoria’s Secret, HBO, Greenpeace and MTV.
Companies like Audiosocket, New York’s Pump Audio and Portland’s Rumblefish have discovered that by acting as an intermediary between thousands of insatiably creative musicians and an insatiably hungry 21st-century media environment, they can make good money in an industry that is now worth ten billion dollars a year.
The music you hear on TV used to be made to order by folks like Gross. Now, Schneider says, it mostly comes from this new massive stock market of previously recorded music.
Audiosocket doesn’t just compile 22,000 tunes, it categorizes the music by style and mood so clients can find the right song instantly. And what are Audiosocket’s secret classification criteria? Schneider refuses
“It’s the equivalent of giving you the keys to the Caddy,” he says.
hen the work of independent musicians began showing up in car and clothing ads about a decade ago, fans and music makers alike started shouting, “Sellout!”
Tom Waits expressed their anxieties best in a letter to The Nation in 2002. “When I was a kid,” he wrote:
If I saw an artist I admired doing a commercial, I’d think, “Too bad, he must really need the money.” But now it’s so pervasive. It’s a virus. Artists are lining up to do ads. The money and exposure are too tantalizing for most artists to decline. Corporations are hoping to hijack a culture’s memories for their product. They want an artist’s audience, credibility, good will and all the energy the songs have gathered as well as given over the years. They suck the life and meaning from the songs and impregnate them with promises of a better life with their product.
By the time Waits weighed in, though, the rules had already been irrevocably bent. And these days, musicians view licensing as a necessity if they are to continue making art, rather than as a yoke that restrains it.
One of the greatest success stories in this regard is Chris Ballew, the primary songwriter for Seattle’s mid-’90s alt-radio mainstay Presidents of the United States of America.
“I’ve been making instrumental music my whole life,” Ballew says. “I’ve always recorded everything that came out of my head.”
Independently of his band, Ballew submitted his recordings to Pump Audio’s stock music catalog in 1998. Eleven years later, he is considered one of the most successful catalog contributors to date. His eight hundred or so stock pieces are everywhere.
“You literally can’t turn on the TV without hearing one of his tracks,” says Schneider.
“It’s like a little top I spun in motion, and I never have to spin it again,” Ballew says. “It just goes on and on.”
The fees and royalties from his catalog music amount to 40 percent of his income.
“It’s currently putting my kids through private school.”
hile the means of production are different for the new and old monsters of stock, one thing is consistent in all realms of the music licensing world: making a living is becoming more and more difficult.
For stock composer Mark Petrie, making money off licensing your music is “a numbers game.”
“I tell other artists that it’s only worth it if you have a lot of tracks,” Petrie says. “For someone to have a decent income, you have to have about a hundred tracks in the catalog.”
The market is becoming oversaturated, says Ballew, and licensing checks to artists are shrinking.
“Now the pie is bigger but the pieces are getting smaller,” he says.
“People are developing new ways to consume music faster,” adds Schneider. “I sometimes wonder if there is a brick wall at the end of all this snowballing.”
But in one sense, the licensing business is coming full circle — back to live shows. Audiosocket holds live-music showcases to show off their artists, such as Wittgens’ recent show at Nectar in Fremont.
“I’m someone they push a lot,” she says. “Maybe I’m really searchable.” Nectar seems a long way from Dave Gross’s West Seattle basement, but the distance is getting shorter. He and Wittgens have both thrown their art into the ether, not knowing on what commercial, TV show, brand or other medium it may find itself. They’re just hoping something comes back.
“The days of calling someone a ‘sellout’ and saying ‘you did what?!’ are over,” says James Keblas, the director of Seattle’s Office of Film and Music who sees the addition of companies like Audiosocket as an essential component of the area’s music industry. “Now what’s important is making a living as an artist or musician.
“As long as it doesn’t interfere with your creative vision.”