Like many songwriters based in L.A., I’ve had publishing companies offer to discuss deals with me to get my music placed in film and TV soundtracks. Along the way I’ve heard things like this:
“Your song is really beautiful but it will never get placed because it’s too personal and limits where we can put it.”
“You shouldn’t use the word love in your songs because it will be difficult to place it.”
“Your songs stand out too much; try and write some stuff that blends into the background better.”
My experience is not unique. I’ve heard similar things from countless writers and artists who have had varying degrees of success in the industry. Music supervisors, the gatekeepers to music placement (or “syncs”) in TV and film, are asking and encouraging songwriters and recording artists to churn out generic, uninspired music with no real message. Music that is not too personal, with topics not too specific, and preferably a sound that doesn't stand out and better blends into the background.
Why are they doing this? On several occasions over the last few years, I’ve talked to music supes who have told me that although they really liked my music, they wondered if I would be willing to write something that was more vague and less personal. That way, it could give them many more options to apply one of my songs to different settings in their various projects. They have admitted to me that, for the most part, they don't care about trying to place one memorable song in one spot that could have a big impact; they would rather have something less impactful that they could use to hedge their bets.
This is the music you're being exposed to. Songs that are uninspired, but cover enough vague territory that they will eventually end up somewhere. And because TV and film placements are one of the few remaining parts of the industry that can offer artists a chance at a real payday, more and more are tailoring their music to the supervisors' needs.
Soundtracks were something that people used to get excited about
I was nearly one of them. Lacking much commercial success, I attempted to adapt to their lyrical ideals with some new music I had been working on. In the process I became severely depressed and unsettled. I felt no fulfillment as I did with every other batch of music I wrote. Around this time I had undergone some difficult personal experiences, the kind that I have always written about, which has in turn made me feel better and I believe gave listeners something they could relate to and hopefully find comfort in. And music supervisors are telling me I should hold back and not share that?
It doesn't have to be this way. The soundtracks of older movies I love were just as integral a part of the movie as the acting or the plot. The emotion conveyed by the singer intertwined with the emotion of the actors onscreen, as opposed to just sitting in the background. Soundtracks were something that people used to get excited about, because the best ones were filled with great, unique songs. Songs with substance that were written about what the artist was going through, which is why we still know many of those songs today.
But today's music supervisors, for the most part, play it safe. They would rather have a library of plastic, superficial musical designs than make the effort to seek out truly original artists with something to say.
I am not saying there are no music supervisors out there that are seeking out genuine tunes. But too many of them have encouraged a current generation of songwriters to take a simple musical formula and apply a vague, impersonal lyrical concept, all for the sake of some bragging rights (“I'm on TV!”) and a smaller and smaller paycheck. For now, that paycheck can still be many times what an independent artist could ever hope to make from touring, streaming or record sales, so many are willing to adapt more and more to the current trends and sacrifice the essence of their own artistic expression — forgetting that expressing what they feel is the reason they started writing songs in the first place.
I don’t know anyone who got into music as a teenager with the dream of writing background tracks for a TV show that on one is going to remember.
Artists, don’t adapt to what someone else is telling you for the sake of getting a bullshit sync. The money will be gone soon and it will not make you feel better about yourself in the long run. Have the courage and vision to produce only what you truly believe in. As an artist, you have the ability to convey marvelous insights about the human condition, and a musical voice capable of projecting them. Fuck any publishing company or music supervisor who tells you to compromise that.
Patrick Duniven is a singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles and leader of the band Duniven.