The Creative Decisions, Ownership Inquires, and Collaborations Behind Film Scores
Carter Burwell, the film composer responsible for the music in True Grit and Seven Psychopaths, calls film scores the “subliminal connective adhesive” in a movie. Film music fleshes out the story in a movie, intensifying each and every color, and guiding the audience’s emotions. Nothing makes a story more present than setting it to music. Sometimes, a film’s soundtrack is the audience’s biggest takeaway. Collaboration between the film composer and the filmmaker is essential to ensure, creatively speaking, the music sets the same tone that the director had in mind in shooting the picture. Besides creative issues, legal issues regarding ownership and rights to any results and proceeds arise both when music is licensed for a film and when music is commissioned for a film.
Motion picture music falls into three basic categories: underscore, pre-existing song or song and original master recording. Each of these three distinct types of music in film involves very different negotiations, contracts, and considerations, and produce very different backend participation considerations. Underscore is essentially the background music in a film; like John Williams’ Flight to Neverland, when Robin Williams remembers how to fly, or the music playing when Elliot pedals E.T. into the night sky, in E.T. There are also songs written specifically for a movie that might play during the credits or at the start of a film, like Diane Warren’s “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” for Armageddon. Filmmakers might also license pre-existing songs or song and original master recordings, for use in their movie. For example, Zac Braff licensed selections from The Shins, Thievery Corporation, Iron & Wine, and Frou Frou for the film Garden State. 
Underscore and songs specifically written for a film involve commissioning or hiring a composer to write music for a film. This may also require the production company to bring the composer and sometimes an entire philharmonic to a movie studio to record. Where there is a pre-existing song or song and original master recording, someone involved in the film obtains a license to use the songs and places them in the film.
Writing New Music for a Film and Using Licensed Music
Putting The Label In Place:
Movie producers will typically put a record album in place for their film’s soundtrack months before the film is released. When music is licensed for a film, soundtrack rights are also usually not secured until after filming, but also months before the film is released. Once the movie is finalized, that soundtrack ends up in a record store and may also be available online. The soundtrack is treated like an individual record or album. These albums can consist of original songs written for the film, pre-existing tracks licensed for the film, and new versions of existing songs that were re-recorded for the film.
Filmmakers often have to consider whether the film music is more appropriate for a major label or for a soundtrack specialty label, and choose accordingly. Once the label is identified, a deal has to be negotiated, setting forth all of the provisions for release dates and what is going to be available online. Then the music is recorded and the album is prepped. Often times, the studio will want a release date as soon as possible, even weeks before the film release date, because then the album is a “teaser” for the film. Digital releases, which are less costly and quicker to produce, are becoming more and more popular.
The Creative Process:
When work is commissioned, composers usually enter the creative process towards the end of the film, typically at the same time the film is being edited. Only if the music is diegetic, or when the actors hear the music within the scene, is the composer on set any earlier. There are a few films, most of them documentaries, where a director will edit his film to fit the flow of the music, such as Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi; a film based on composer Philip Glass’s music. This also happened, in E.T., where Spielberg edited the finale to match the music of long-time collaborator, John Williams.
Once the composer is involved, the composer and the director choose and sequence which pieces from the film they want. After the composer and director sync dramatic events on screen with musical events in the score, then the composer will begin writing the music. In partnership with the traditional writing music notes on paper by hand, some film composers sequence music using new digital software. Once the music is written, it must then be arranged for the orchestra to be able to perform it. The composer will flesh out a piece of music made for a single line, and give each member of the orchestra a role. Sometimes the orchestra performs in front of a large screen depicting the movie, and often to a series of clicks called a “click-track” that changes and assists the composer with conducting the orchestra to match the film. In other instances, songs are “needle dropped” or added into a specific scene or part, added for emphasis but not considered part of the score, like “My Heart Will Go On”, from Titanic.
Today, most movie music composers work as independents and have less time to complete a score. Digital technology and temp tracks allow filming, editing and music composition to overlap, so a complete score can be completed sooner. Today’s film composers have to be creative and practical artists: genius musicians also are adept with music and audio mixing technology.
Sometimes film composers are asked by directors to follow temp tracks, or imitate a specific style of a previous score. Structuring is also a major element in some movies. Structuring is when different parts of the score begin to play when particular characters are on screen. Additionally, film music often tends to follow aesthetic trends and structural developments in popular music. Some studios are known for consistently making films that showcase stand out scores, while some films have barely audible soundtracks. Before the film is released there is also the film trailer to be considered. If the score has not been finalized or composed, the trailer can be cut to music from another film or artist. In any event, setting a film to music involves incredibly detailed creative choices about when and where to place cues, crescendos, decrescendos, and more.
Licensing Music for Your Film
When music is licensed for use in a film, filmmakers only have a license to the music, which does not entail ownership. In this case, the filmmakers have to obtain all necessary synchronization and public performance licenses from copyright proprietors of music and lyrics. Licenses must also be obtained on pre-recorded music from the owner of the master as well as from the copyright proprietors of the music and lyrics. These rights are often owned or controlled by different entities (such as a publishing company and a record company).
“A license to incorporate a composition into a film is known as a “sync” license. A license to use a particular sound recording is known as a “master use” license. A license to a composition does not include a license to a sound recording of it, and vice versa.” A film producer who wants to use an existing song in a motion picture must secure the permission of the music publisher. Once an agreement is reached as to a fee, the producer signs a synchronization or broad rights license, which gives the studio the right to distribute the film theatrically, sell it to television, use the song in motion picture theater trailers or television and radio promos, and sell videos. Then the synchronization fee received by the music publisher is shared by contract with the songwriter. The term of the license is virtually always for the entire copyright life of the song unless the film is a documentary or other noncommercial film intended for only limited theatrical release.
Commissioning Music and Ownership:
When a composer is commissioned to write music for a film, the composer is typically paid a fee based on the length of the work, the number of performers, the budget of the commissioning party, and the composer’s reputation. The composer owns the commissioned work and all rights to its use under U.S. Copyright Law. The composer derives income from the licensing fees paid for use of a work in performance, publication, and recording. The commissioning party (the filmmakers) may negotiate certain rights, such as the exclusive right to give premiere performances, the exclusive performance rights for a limited period, and the right to make the work’s first commercial recording. Provisions regarding soundtrack and album royalties are necessary in order to protect the composers and the orchestra, especially if the success of the soundtrack outlives the film.
Film soundtracks also demonstrate one way in which the film and music industries coincide. Both are conforming to new technology and the digital world. While the costs of filmmaking have skyrocketed, filmmakers can make a profit out of exploiting just the soundtrack album. Soundtrack albums create additional income from ancillary sources such as radio, television, cable and theater performances, worldwide mechanical royalties from tape and CD sales, download and streaming royalties, and commercial advertising fees, among many other sources. The collaboration between filmmakers and composers, while creative, raises some challenging legal issues. Whether all of the songs are licensed for use, or original compositions, a film score tells the entire movie, without the actual movie. “In several ways, film music has long been simpler than concert music – it needs to work faster over a shorter time period, it might be competing with other sounds and dialogue, and it is not there to serve an intellectual purpose but generally an immediate emotional purpose.”
 Rockwell, John (21 May 1978). “When the Soundtrack Makes the Film”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-08-10.
 George Burt, The art of film music, Northeastern University Press.
Featured image by Pedro Sánchez under the GNU Free Documentation License