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Monday, May 21, 2007

The Problem With Selling Out

by tristero

Atrios finds nothing wrong with bands selling their tunes to the movies or to commercials, given that it is, after all, important for musicans to make money and making money with your music isn't that easy. Well, on that point, Duncan will get no argument from me.

But I think he over-simplifies the issue. There is music to make a buck with. And then there is music. Rarely do the twain meet.

Some examples: it's a little known fact that the "World's First Supergroup" - Cream - did a beer commercial. Yes, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker wrote and recorded a beer jingle. Frank Zappa - yes, that Frank Zappa, did anti-drug PSAs (public service announcements) in the late 60's (he was a well-known tee-totaler). And why not?

OTOH, there's something a little...icky about the thought of Nirvana licensing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as the soundtrack for a Right Guard commercial. Or the Daily News grabbing the rights to "A Day In The Life" for a tv spot ("I read the news today, oh boy." That's right, folks! Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Read the news today. The Daily News! Now, with expanded sports coverage!). And as far as I know, neither Cream nor Zappa have licensed their "real" music for commercial purposes (or have done so very rarely.

In fact, this is a situation I have found myself in several times. And sure, I'm more than ready to license my music. With a few exceptions, notably Voices of Light, which simply is not available for commercial exploitation at any price. Why? I don't know. I just feel uncomfortable about it.

But even that has an exception because there was indeed one time that I did license the piece. There lies a tale, because it was one helluva exception.

Kathryn Bigelow and Walter Murch wanted to use excerpts from VOL in a new film, called K-19: The Widowmaker. I had met Bigelow and respected her enormously as a director. And Murch - my God, Walter Murch! - in the film biz, Walter Murch is one of a handful of Real Ones, a poet, a genius, a savant. It was Murch who, legend has it, edited a film Coppola had written off as an unreleasable disaster, lived and even slept with the film for months on end, and the result was The Conversation, one of the great masterpiece of 70's cinema. It was Murch who edited the sound on Apocalypse Now with such beauty and musicality it was almost symphonic - I once attended a lecture he gave on the helicopter scene where he played only the four-channel machine gun effects and then showed how the helicopter sounds were blended in. It was absolutely mind-boggling). And that's only two random highlights from one of the greatest, most productive careers anyone has ever made in film.

And Walter Murch was interested in my music! Of course, I wanted Kathryn and him to use whatever they wanted. I almost felt under an artistic obligation.

And how did they use my music? Did they respect its integrity and careful construction? Of course not. We're talking about artists here. Walter hadn't edited my music. He had recomposed it, overlaying entirely different sections on top of themselves. He had also gone to the trouble of re-mastering some of the mixes. It was an entire re-imagining of my piece.

Now, I would have retched had a commercial producer dared to alter even a millisecond of my music. And believe me when I say that retching all the way to the bank - no amount of money makes it worth it (well, almost). But Murch and Bigelow - not only did they dare, they flaunted their alterations. If I had been truly horrified, I certainly would have said so, although I truly was flabbergasted when I heard what they did (mostly amazed that Walter had found wonderful harmonies that hadn't occurred to me). But they are deeply accomplished artists that I love, they knew what they were doing, they wanted to use my work, and that, as far as I was concerned was the end of it.

Yes, of course I was paid decently - not extravagantly, as these things go - for the license. And of course, the payment was a factor in letting them use it. After all, I don't run a charity organization that donates to Hollywood films. But it was hardly THE factor. That was Murch and Bigelow.

I totally understand being angry when a piece of music you love turns up as part of a soundtrack hawking doggie yum-yums., even if I might have trouble articulating a plausible reason. Interestingly, The Doors are famous for having a very strict policy regarding the licensing of their music which has led to much bad blood between John Densmore (the drummer who insists "JIm wouldn't want the music exploited") and the other surviving Doors. But many of you know that there's one conspicuous exception when a Doors song was licensed. It's heard prominently at several points, in a great film that benefitted tremendously from the contributions of one Walter Murch.