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Transforming Songs into Soundtracks

August 18, 2014
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Today, as royalties from conventional music sales (CDs, digital downloads, etc.) are increasingly dammed (or damned), placing one’s music in film soundtracks, TV underscores, and commercials is increasingly valid, and there’s a constant need for instrumental tracks. In fact, many established artists who once looked upon such work as “selling out” are now looking at it as “buying in.”

But soundtrack deals are also good for emerging artists of all ages. In this arena, the “new A&R” is accomplished more through the ears of film and television music supervisors—not record label personnel—and music-licensing agreements are usually transparent in comparison to old-model record deals, making it easier to track royalties due from the company. A fee is also negotiated in front, so there are generally no surprises or disappointments for either party.

Want to take advantage of these somewhat inviting music-revenue opportunities yourself? Well, here’s my simple, three-step method for creating “instant soundtracks” from your current recorded repertoire.

Step One

Select “finished” songs that have good song structures— lead and background vocals, catchy intros, riffs and hooks, verses, choruses, bridges, and outros—and that are ready for the competitive marketplace. Congratulations—you have completed step one. I told you this was easy!

Step Two

Now, choose a song, go back into your home studio, mute the vocals, and record new musical instruments to emulate the vocal lines. (The backing track can remain completely “as is.”)

In casting what instrument is most appropriate to portray the melody, experiment with what will express the spirit, vibe, and aesthetics of the original recorded piece. In the event that you have harmonies and/or counterpoint vocals on the original version, you may want to choose different textures for the solo instruments that bring those parts to life in the soundtrack version. If the melody needs some tweaking with the new approach, do what you feel is more effective for the soundtrack version. Always be open to trying what works best. A human voice is the ultimate instrument for expression, and, without it, you may find new phrasing and/or notes that are more appropriate. You may end up liking the new instrumental track even better than the original version with vocals, as it expresses the song in a whole new way.

Step Three

Mix your new version with as much care as you took with the vocal version. Let the instruments be your new voice to tell the story, but expect that story to be interpreted as anything the director, music supervisor, or publisher hears it to be. They all have imaginations, and may find your material to be appropriate for something very different than your initial image of the song. That is one of the great thrills of this area of the industry. By losing the literal context of the words, songs can become universal in new ways. So, after finishing this step, you have just composed a film score by recycling your own ideas—effectively doubling your chances of finding a healthy revenue stream for your song. Well done.

Scott Mathews is a record producer, composer, vocalist, and multi–instrumentalist whose music has sold in excess of 20 million units, and has generated more than 30 RIAA Gold and Platinum Awards in the pop, alternative rock, R&B, country, blues, and dance genres.

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