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Interview with GREG DEBONNE, music supervisor for MTV, VH1, The Discovery Channel, BRAVO - Oct 11, 2010

ďI know artists who arenít just doing it for the art, they want to tailor their music for maximum synch licensing potential.Ē

picture Are you interested in licensing your music for use in TV? We get the lowdown on how exactly to go about it from Greg Debonne, music supervisor for a raft of popular television channels, including MTV, VH1, SPIKE, The Discovery Channel and BRAVO.

Debonne reveals that the smart music supervisors are always on the lookout for new music, he also talks about how to find the right Ďsuperí for your music pitch, how to pitch it correctly and why itís never a good idea to badger them once you have done so.

What got you into music supervision?

Iíve been involved in music all my life. Prior to music supervision I was an associate producer of reality television shows. An AP job on reality television shows has morphed but back in the day - the early 2000s - you actually had some reality shows on MTV and VH1 that were music-oriented, and as the AP I had to handle all of the clearance for that as well - the liaison between the production and clearance. On shows where there was a music super[visor], I would assist that music super because I knew the MTV and VH1 systems of doing things so well. It was a natural segway for me to go into music supervision.

How has it changed the way you listen to music?

Iíve always listened to music from an arrangemental and orchestral standpoint, but now I listen to music relative to whatís going to work well to picture in that regard as well. Iím listening to the phrasing of every instrumental element individually, as well as combined, assessing just how easy it is for a music editor to cut that piece of music to picture underneath dialogue, assessing its compositional value and the dynamic ebb and flow in that regard, as well as other aesthetic nuances.

How can artists find out about new projects and their related music supervisors?

Different artists have different ways of going about it but I know people who literally get online and find out who is the music supervisor of what shows. People look up shows that Iíve done. ďOh, whoís the music supervisor on that? Greg Debonne. Iím going to Google Greg Debonne.Ē

Thereís also the approach of where you simply know a music superís name and you contact them and say, ďHi, are youíre looking for music?Ē It always helps for an artist to know what that music supervisor is looking for stylistically.

Now, there are some music supervisors who only want what theyíre looking for at the time, pertinent to whatever project theyíre working. Me, I wonít turn anyone away if itís good and potentially viable for future use. However, if itís not applicable to whatever project Iím working at the time, I may not get to it right away.

How do you find new music?

When I am hired to do a particular series I look at the needs of that show. I have a conversation with producers and then I set about putting together a music project for that series thatís solid from the outset, even though I know Iím going to be adding to it and there are going to be needs that come up throughout the post-production process, which is what music supervision usually is. After a series has been shot and itís being edited thatís when the music is being applied.

I have a lot of go-to sources. I also look for new sources as well because, especially with a lot of reality programming, which is wall-to-wall music, you can really wring dry sources that you like. You canít keep using the same material over and over again even if itíll work - you need to keep it fresh. Producers can want their show to have its own definitive sound. You need to keep bringing in new music; so you look for that new material according to the stylistic parameters of the programming.

Is it realistic to think that artists can approach music supervisors directly or are their chances higher going through a company/library/publisher etc?

I can only speak for myself, as well as from the standpoint of what I gather from certain key licensors that have been doing this for a long time. You can contact a music supervisor directly, especially if that music supervisor is smart and into constantly improving their cache of music.

The music super needs the artist/composer as much as the artist/composer needs the music supervisor. If that music supervisor is smart, they will look into what that person soliciting them has to offer. If itís fine, then theyíll accept it for criteria they may have at the moment relative to their day-to-day needs. I donít turn people away; however, I do know certain licensors who have told me that when they have approached certain music supervisors, the answer they get back is ďOh, I donít accept submissions, except by an agent, a library or a publisher, etc., etc.Ē

Do I think that artists have a better chance of having their music licensed if it is with a library or a non-exclusive sync-house? Again I can only speak for myself. No, actually. It comes down to the actual music and the quality of it and how applicable and/or viable it is to the current needs of a programme. It makes no difference to me whether itís being pitched to me by a non-exclusive sync house, a library, an agent, or whatever. Itís either right or it isnít.

What catches your attention when you receive a new submission?

As much as I want to be a purist who doesnít really care what the presentation is like provided the music is right I must say that receiving something with a professional label on it makes a difference in catching the attention.

That means itís not a CD-R with a Sharpie written on it and a 8.5 by 11 piece of paper in there with type-written track titles - a sheet Iím probably going to lose. A professional label has more definition by nature and itís more concise on the eye and mind.

What captures my attention doesnít have to be big fancy presentation but it should be sent professionally and cleanly. That will get my attention because I know the potential licensor has taken their time to do it right. Quite often, itís usually reflective of the attention to detail that theyíve put into what counts the most: the music itself.

Ultimately, what captures my attention in a submission is the artistry and craftsmanship of the music being presented from every angle. That means composition, arrangement, orchestration, production, engineering etc., and, of course, the soul of it. All of that captures my attention and adds up to an aggregate impression.

What is the best way to submit music - CDs, MP3s, links, etc.?

It varies. You should find out from the music super is what format they prefer. I know people who donít want CDs - they donít want clutter - and would prefer to have it sent as a >YouSendIt folder. I also know people that only accept music on CDs.

If some potential licensors solicit me, I will tell them how I prefer it be sent. Not on a prima donna level or anything, but rather, ďHey, can you send a CD and make sure theyíre AIFF source files at 48k because thatís broadcast standard? And can you send me a disc because it acts as a physical reminder of your music.Ē

Sometimes on occasion, it will be, ďWell, we donít really want to do thatĒ because maybe theyíre too cheap to pay for postage. They might insist on sending it to me online via a YouSendIt folder. Which is fine if the particular music is applicable to the project Iím doing at that time. If itís not, I may like it, I may save it to one of my drives with all the best intentions of getting back to it but because itís not in a physical format, I may forget all about it. Thatís why, personally, I really do like to receive either a custom drive or a disc of some kind Ė something physical, tangible.

Regardless of whether itís sent on a disc or a drive, I prefer high quality source files. Anyone can up-convert an MP3 to an AIFF in iTunes, but then youíre degrading the file. For example, TV broadcast standard is AIFF at 48k. Those are large files - a CD quality audio file is AIFF at 44.1k (kilohertz).

I always prefer licensors to send me broadcast standard AIFF at 48k, or even WAV at 48k. If they send me CD quality, meaning itís at 44.1 where I have to up-convert, thatís okay, but it is nice to receive an already broadcast standard source file from the licensor. I do know of a couple of production companies whereby, for whatever reason, the music supers there want MP3s.

MP3s are fine for previewing, but theyíre a compressed file format thatís going to be applied to programming that gets even more compressed for air. Either send me a drive, DVD-R or CD-R. The more material youíre sending me, the more advantageous it is to receive it on a drive. If itís a relatively smaller cache of music that will fit on a DVD-R or two then itís okay and fine to send me a disc. Again, I like the physical reminder.

What should someone not do when trying to get their music licensed?

Thatís hard for me to answer. Just off the top of my head, I would say if youíre a potential licensor and you send someone some music, itís okay to follow up once in a while maybe to say, ďHey, just wanted to make sure you received it,Ē but donít contact insistently or constantly because thatís not necessarily going to get you anywhere.

Is there any difference in the musical needs for reality based TV shows to, say, film or TV sitcoms?

Oh yeah, and on a number of levels too. First of all, you have to understand that you are working with different sets of production values depending on the level of programming. If youíre comparing a major network prime-time drama with really good production values to a reality TV series, there are certain things you can get away with on programming that has higher production values that you cannot get away with in shows with lower production values, i.e. reality programming.

For example, if you watch reality shows, you will notice that with the field audio there is a lot of extraneous noise. When it comes to the post-audio mix, they try and rectify the problem - they try to fix these problems, ameliorate them, but itís still a lower production value.

So if youíre working on a motion picture or a major network prime-time drama with good production values, you could have a sound recording, a piece of music in there with drums and vocals, but because youíre dealing with better production values and more ability to have separation of elements, there is more time and wherewithal to get it right as applied to picture and the goal of complementing the scene. You can have a piece of music along those lines that nonetheless doesnít conflict with the content.

But in a reality programme, to give a prime example, there will be pieces of music whereby the arrangement and orchestration have to be a little more minimal - particularly with regard to rhythmic phrasing - so as not to step on the content because the production values are cheaper.

For example, drums tend to eat up a lot of mid-range and the dialogue audio can be so shoddy in reality programming that there are going to be a lot of times when you canít have too obtrusive a snare, otherwise itís going to step on the content. You need all the midrange you can get for your dialogue because of the bad audio on tape, so youíre often working within a tighter set of parameters as to what you can get away with applying to the scene in a musical sense and still have that music complement the content as opposed to compromise it. Thereís just a certain set of criteria with respect to whatís going to work well on a programme with cheaper production values.

Ever notice how when you watch a film, and there are two people sitting in the car and theyíre talking and thereís a song on the radio, somehow the song is complementing the scene and itís not stepping on the dialogue? Well, in reality programming you most often couldnít get away with that. Why? Itís the production value with which youíre dealing.

What sort of money can be made these days with placements? Has the value of music changed?

Yes, actually it has. To answer your first question, back-end royalties paid from your performing rights society can be lucrative from the usage in TV. As you know, each country has one. In America, there are three: ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. You want to be affiliated with a rights society in the country in which your music is being played. If you are with the society in England, PRS, but now live in the States yet are still with PRS, what you want to do is switch to either ASCAP, BMI or SESAC, or at least have a sub-publisher of some kind in the country where youíre getting most of your action.

You need to actively make sure that your compositions are registered with that performance rights society, making sure that your name, your publishing entity, and the titles of your compositions are accurately noted on their website. Whenever your music is played, the use of your music in a programme goes on the cue sheet. Subsequently, that music cue sheet goes to the performance rights society, who in turn will track the use. If your composition is registered then you will get paid on the back-end.

Vocal uses pay more than instrumental uses. The longer the use, the more you are paid. Other factors come into play, i.e. whether the programme is on a network or cable channel, number of re-airs Ö

There are several factors that affect how much youíre being paid. In a nutshell, the more your music is being played, the more royalties add up. Itís always good to look at your royalties as an aggregate because all those little ten-dollar payments - forty dollars here, thirty dollars here - add up. If as the licensor youíre actively pushing a catalogue, the larger catalogue you have, the more money you stand to make on the back-end from your performance rights society for those uses relative to royalties.

The other way that a licensor makes money is by upfront synch fees, meaning that when a music supervisor wants to license your music, there is an upfront fee that can be negotiated.

Now as far as the value of music is concerned, keep in mind that music is a medium that, for whatever reason, is constantly being devalued. Because we work in entertainment, we know that the entertainment industry is set to try to devalue whatever they can on a certain level. In a realistic sense you have to strategise and structure your business model as a licensor to adapt to certain realities in the business, depending on who the licensee is and what level of programming or entertainment it is for which the licensee is interested in using your music.

Music is something that everybody thinks they know about, so sometimes there is a cavalier attitude about it. A recording artist friend of mine, >Chris Darrow, once pointed out that music is the most abstract of all the art forms out there because it is intangible. You canít see it, you canít touch it, you can only hear it. Therefore it makes it that much easier for people to overlook its actual value.

So, music is constantly trying to be devalued. Itís becoming increasingly hard for the independent licensor to get a fair upfront fee for using their music in a programme. That doesnít always have to do with the music supervisor being a weasel and trying to get the music for free. The reality is that when youíre the music supervisor you have a certain budget with which to work for that programming and it isnít always ideal. If itís lower budget programming you still have to make that show work.

There have been many times on cable programming that I donít license something because I simply donít have the budget or I canít justify the expense for their catalogue. If I can offer that licensor an upfront synch fee and justify the dollars then I do.

That is one area where it can be beneficial for a licensor to have a publishing deal because the publisherís job is to maintain and maximize the value of the catalogue. The other side of the coin is you can always forego placements in that way as well. There are certain licensing opportunities where, if the money is too little, the publisher might say ďabsolutely not.Ē Itís not really the licenseeís decision or even position to tell the publisher what they should or shouldnít quote. A publisher or publishing administrator can give an artist or composer some leverage. They can also make it difficult to get as many placements for that licensor as well, depending upon the situation.

With your combined experience, if you were to tell musicians that are trying to make this their career, is there one thing you could shed light on that would have made a difference had you known then what you know now?

I canít say in a blanket statement what somebody should or shouldnít do as an artist because it depends on what that artistís individual goal is. For example, one time a songwriter asked, ďIs there anything I should be doing to make my music more placeable in programming?Ē My answer was, ďWell, it really depends on what your goals are. If your goal is simply to be an artist, then I would say Ďno, just do your music.í If itís placeable, great. If it isnít, oh well. If youíre doing it with the primary intent of making it the best piece of art possible then thatís what youíre doing.Ē

I also know artists who are a little more mercenary. They arenít just doing it for the art. They actually want to tailor some of their music from the standpoint of arrangement, structure and all, for maximum synch licensing potential. If youíre that kind of person, then I would say, know specifically what your goals are and that will determine the best course of action to take. Just know what your goals and intentions are and know how to define and articulate them to yourself, so that you can take the most pragmatic approach to achieving what it is that you want to achieve.

Interviewed by Aaron Bethune

Next week: A&R Chris Anokute on turning Katy Perry into the teenage dream

Read On ...

* Karyn Rachtman, music supervisor for Pulp Fiction and Spongebob, on placing music in film
* Music supervisor for The Beach and Moulin Rouge, Laura Z.Wasserman, on featuring unsigned artists on film soundtracks
* Ann Kline, music supervisor for West Wing, on the mechanics of music licensing for TV