Film Music 2010 (or a lengthy preamble to a simple set of points any fool could make in under 200 words)

Before I post the latest list of late Dec. / early Feb. soundtracks (new & imminent), this is probably the best time to blather about soundtracks in 2010.

Blather A: Memories & Perspective

Not the best-of, most notable, best soundtrack label stuff, but just an opinion or two on trends from the vantage of someone who started collecting for amusement (buying Jerry Goldsmith’s The Swarm as jokey film memorabilia using bottle money), got hooked on the music (the original Twilight Zone series scores), appreciated and found a need to write about the music (starting with From Silents to Satellites, aka Music from the Movies), and enjoying straight Q&As with composers and music producers about what they do (er, what I’m doing now).

One reason I don’t like best-of lists is because if it’s a tally of the top 5 or 10, even within a category, a lot of good music gets left off. Then there are the albums that aren’t the best but are simply fun to spin, and the guilty pleasures – flawed scores that still mandate a good listen because they manage to put a smile on the face.

The best example is BT’s Stealth, which may or may not have been written as a tongue-in-cheek send-up of bombastic 80s action scores. It’s not great film music, but there are precious moments where the tragedy is Important, where the desperation is Xtreme, and the loss of a wingman is Devastating, and those wailing, vintage Zimmerish moments – with tragic vocals - have me laughing and falling off the chair every time. It’s the best guilty pleasure in my eyes, because it also sums up why director Rob Cohen is a goofball. He’s sincere, and approaches his characters with gravitas, but neither Stealth nor Fast and Furious are the commercial art he believed them to be after signing off on his final cut.

In any event, let’s move on, because lingering on Stealth just isn’t healthy if you’re not in the mood for its odeur de fromage extreme.

Blather B: Changes, Gambling, and Old Music

The biggest change over the past 2 years is how the pressing run of physical CDs being released has dropped among the major and mid-level soundtrack labels.

It’s less affordable to have stock sitting on shelves for years, and the re-use fees for limited runs are more favourable, so the runs average 5000 and 3000 for major names and titles, and 1500-1000 for smaller runs. Then there’s the 750-500 runs that either disappear fast, or actually take a while to disappear from distributor and merchant shelves because people aren’t familiar with the scores, aren’t wholly crazy about the composers, or there’s a genuine generational split among film music and film fans.

New composers are safe from being marginalized because their work is fresh and labels have it easier in the promotion department because trailers, reviews, and home video releases are still available online, keeping a title available in the market’s consciousness as it moves from theatrical to ancillary markets within a few months, now that the window between the two streams keep getting tighter.

A film and its corresponding score maintain a certain saturation level in media outlets, ensuring the music and the composer are easy to find online. If Screen Archives Entertainment lists a new title, just cut and paste the name and label number into Google, and there’s a good chance further info will pop up. It’s easy to research a title, a composer, and get some early feedback before committing $20 on a CD, making it less of a gamble.

Of course, that begs the question: Are people willing to chance an unknown composer instead of the familiar for twenty samolians?

I’d assume – and maybe I’m wholly wrong – that Hans Zimmer is gold within the soundtrack market because many of his protégés have gone on to solo works, so fans of Zimmer will easily find a similarity of style among John Powell, Steve Jablonsky, Trevor Rabin, Klaus Badelt, and Atli Örvarsson. They’re all part of a specific sound producers love, and by being embraced by the industry’s most commercially-minded producers, their music is almost guaranteed some kind of commercial release.

Here’s another variant question: How many film music fans are willing to chance cash on a pricey Italian import of a composer they’ve never heard of, nor music to a film that’s never been released in English?

If merchants like iTunes and eMusic, and labels such as MovieScore Media or 2M1 Records are examples, on average $8.99-$11.99 gets you a digital album of music by (primarily) a new generation of composers. To me it’s akin to flipping through LP bins at Peter Dunne’s Vinyl Museum and trying new names for $7-$4 and enjoying the same discovery process of gems, and the possible favourite composer.

Most of the Golden and Silver Age composers – music spanning the thirties to the sixties, ideally – came from the big studios, because few independent films existed outside of the studio system. There were productions aimed at drive-ins and the rare indie production, but the kind of large-scale orchestral scores from the movies playing incessantly on TCM came from Hollywood, via studios who had their own record divisions – Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount-ABC, Decca, Colpix / Colgems, United Artists, MGM – that are now owned by a mere handful of multinationals.

Some of the scores may have fallen into the public domain realm, although the 75 year limit within the U.S. still puts a strong limit on what can be released outside of the labels who own the master tapes; indie labels still have to be patient, diligent, and stubborn in negotiating with the major labels to get a classic Hollywood film score out there on CD for what’s become an even ‘nichier’ market.

The bottom line: to get the best source materials, producers still need the cooperation of the studios. They own the physical material if not the current rights, and they’re the ones taking care of them and allowing indie labels and music producers to partake in the music restoration process, which simplistically is good for the studio, the soundtrack label, and the film music fan. The release of an album pushes a catalogue title back into circulation within the media outlets / internet and allows for a curious search of an actor or a film to yield a link to an available score.

Blather C: The “Hmmm” Factor

I link film and film music reviews to the IMDB so people can get further info, and I provide soundtrack info on the composer and possible soundtrack release (via because if you like the score and composer, I want you to know what’s out there, so you can decide whether it’s worth buying the music on CD, MP3, or a beat-up old LP from an online merchant. That’s the ideal.

It’s extra resource information, but it’s also part of the discovery process that for me harkens back to flipping through those record bins. Something catches the eye, you pause and flip back, lift up the object, and inside your brain there’s a noise that goes something like “Hmmmmm….”

That experience didn’t disappear when LPs and CDs started to wane in shops; it’s all there in online shops and label / distributor websites. You still drool when musical candy goes on for pages and pages, but as vast and as international as the music choices are, those big classic Hollywood scores tend to be missing, and that’s perhaps due to a peculiar holdover from creating the physical product for collectors.

The CD is audiophile, and MP3 or Flac are secondary formats. It’s a perception that probably won’t change because there’s a line of thinking instilled in collectors and audiophiles that says ‘If I can hold it in my hands and it’s heavy, it’s real.’

If I hold a 180 gram vinyl version of a Charles Mingus album, my brain says ‘BETTER’ because to an extent it might be (warm analogue sound, piped through a vintage amp and turntable does sound very, very good), but it also comes in a big box with a booklet that essentially proclaims ‘This is special. Hug me. Put me on your shelf, and be proud.’

That’s sort of what comes with buying a CD of any score. The physical thing is part of appreciating the music – on your end, as the listener; and from the album’s producer, who wants you to know what you just bought is also special to him / her.

The problem is the collector angle means limits placed on runs, on availability, on ease of acquisition – things digital merchants and labels don’t have to worry about because the music is still there. There’s no worry it’ll disappear within a few days or weeks or months, and if at some point they consider a CD release, that 500 copy run can’t be perceived as wholly collector-oriented.

I once had a massive CD collection, and sold off the collectibles – the obvious 10-year old CDs long out of print and very hard to find, in particular. Some were sold for top dollar, others fair market value, and then there was this mass of music you simply couldn’t convince anyone to buy because it just wasn’t within the realm of Rare, or wasn’t remarkable.

That’s the conundrum of collecting anything: some titles will become rare and will accrue in value, but most won’t, which is why in the end when you buy a CD, you buy it because you love the music and the composer. Collecting every kind of soundtrack out there won’t morph into an investment; it’s just a lot of stuff, most of which has little dollar value in a digital age.

Having 5000 CDs is like having 5000 laserdiscs, and when you die, your family will really, really hate you for leaving them with stuff they’ve no idea how to unload in order to give you a decent send-off. They may cremate you, but pour your dusty grey fuzz into a used jam jar just for payback.

Blather D: The Marginalization Has Already Begun

Going back to the digital labels who have offered equivalent CDs, I’d buy CDs of Mchel Britsch’s Pandorum and Christopher Gordon’s Daybreakers because those scores will get regular play, and I want the best sound because the music and engineering are superb. However, for those wanting to save space and having no disdain for digital formats, those albums are still available online in non-limited digital formats.

The same can’t be said of the classic Hollywood films, and I’m sure soundtrack album producers have wrestled with the problem of whether to go CD, CD + digital, or just digital.

Perhaps there’s a perception that digital cheapens the importance of a classic score, or perhaps it’s stubbornness in not letting go of that mentality in which one must cater to the collector because it’s the only viable market: it’s specific, and has a history of buying.

The problems: Who is exactly buying those classic scores? And does catering to the collector market marginalize the music of the forties, fifties and sixties to an older or wealthier clientele?

Are younger film music fans losing out because their buying habits are largely digital? Or does a physical product hinder a label’s chances at penetrating different generations of film and film music fans?

In any ideal world, if you punch in “Poltergeist +Jerry Goldsmith”, the home video and soundtrack album should pop up, with links leading towards FSM’s new 2-disc set. Same if you type in “Night of the Living Dead +soundtrack album” and yet Zero Day Releasing’s home page to buy the CD.

Taken further, if you punch in “Roy Webb +Enchanted Cottage”, there should be an available digital album of the acetate of this small, lovely score to a forgotten 1945 RKO film, except that’s not the case, and I wish the music of Webb, Paul Sawtell, Albert Glasser, Lyn Murray, or many of the brilliant, classically trained composers of old Hollywood were available digitally because the desire isn’t to have a physical object on the shelf – it’s to listen to the music.

The same goes for the mass of Italian composers whose work is sometimes limited to 500 or 750 copies. If these albums are in fact available digitally, the labels haven’t properly advertised the alternative resources.

Why would Italy’s GDM or Cometa limit any Ennio Morricone score to 500 copies? Shouldn’t the effort that went into the CD release of Cometa’s Tre nel mille be extended to the widest possible spectrum of music lovers, and not 500 people?

If a CD pays for the costs of producing and mastering a score for its definitive commercial release, then the digital version should be like a back catalogue title, earning pure profit after the limited CD run has sold out. It just sits there online for $9.99 for anyone to buy, perhaps for a 3-5 year period.

Perhaps part of the stigma also includes the fear of instant bootlegging & file sharing. If a digital copy exists, anyone can share it, and there’s no profit, but if it’s a physical product, it’s harder to disseminate, and yet Varese Sarabande does issue digital versions of major albums on iTunes in addition to CDs.

If digital = lack of security, then digital score albums would disappear from iTunes, but that hasn’t happened. James Newton Howard’s The Tourist is available for $16.95 as a CD, and $9.99 digitally. It’s a newer, bigger, costlier album than John Williams’ Family Plot, which is available only as a limited $19.98 CD.

Since The Tourist hasn’t disappeared from the iTunes roster, why not make Family Plot available digitally for $10-15? It’s a Hitchcock film, and Hitchcock movies never go out of print, so it should be a catalogue title, like Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho.

The biggest add-on for CD buyers is postage, and any international purchase means shipping and possible customs charges, making a $20 CD potentially $30. Shipping rates are also vary from seller to seller. Some labels clearly make extra profit from their higher shipping rates. They may indeed use the profit to cover immediate production expenses for a new or in-the-works project, but for the consumer, it boosts the cost of a single disc unnecessarily.

Blather E: Yes, there is a conclusion

The plus side of 2010: another broad array of film music available on CD, digitally, and LP, with many rare and vintage 80s and 90s scores getting their due from major and indie labels alike.

The negative side of 2010: the term “limited,” which denotes an amount restricted to a specific run (actually, that’s a reasonable application of the term), but also as one-time release (whereby “limited” ultimately marginalizes perfectly good music over the long term).

Amazingly, those are the key points of this blather. My hope is that it might provoke a producer or two to experiment with giving classic scores broader, multi-format releases. That would ensure anyone can still flip through ‘virtual record bins,’ even if the digital version is available within a 2-5 period.

Audiophiles have the option of snapping up the CD, and everyone else can acquire a digital version until the negotiated rights expire. The era of a $25 CD, if that even includes shipping and customs duties, can probably be sustained, but it’s outmoded. That price point may reflect the economic realities of producing a physical disc, but it can’t be the best distribution model.

The possibility of older composers such as Hugo Friedhofer, Leith Stevens, Alex North and / or portions of their substantive work being forgotten in 5-10 years isn’t good. Historians, critics, and composers might know of them, but to see them fade farther into obscurity isn’t good. No one is served in the end.

Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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