Sunday, October 30, 2011

High on hope vs music synchronisation

Last post I introduced famed pianist Liberace’s popularisation of the phrase “Crying all the way to the bank”. The context may have been different, but the usefulness in relation to the modern music industry is the same.  This week Lost in Musik published the second part of their essay on the state of the economy in the electronic music scene. Amidst tales of Ghost Writers, engineering jobs and making money from touring as a DJ was the other possibility for making money by “music synchronisation”, or the licencing of tracks to video games, films and advertising uses. Apparently lucrative, but obviously a somewhat rare event for a producer overall. Selling out in such instances is always viewed as a problem, but there is another dark side to this practice that also deserves discussion.

Now that producers and their publishing companies know there is money to be made from music synchronisation there is a tendency to try and milk it for all its worth. The one off licencing of a track could relieve financial pressure for a long time to come. While there will be little sympathy for product advertisers or mainstream commercial projects trying to siphon the potential of a track to effectively make themselves more money, the  cost of licencing can be high for artistic ventures seeking the right to use a track in a film. A case in point is “High on Hope” a film by Piers Sanderson.


High On Hope - documentary trailer from Piers Sanderson on Vimeo.

The film is a documental history of the burgeoning rave scene in Blackburn, Lancashire in the early 90s and features some extraordinary footage of the warehouse parties taken on a home video by Preston Bob. Shown at several festivals to much acclaim, including the Barcelona In-Edit Festival where it will screen again this year after having won a prize. However, the larger distribution of the film has been impeded by the publishing company’s financial demands to licence the music. While within their rights to command a price, it is arguably questionable to restrict exposure to their music which could potentially increase sales and interest. Furthermore, one of the major criticisms of the music industry in the times of piracy and MP3s has been their lack of foresight and flexibility of business model in dealing with new ideas and potentials for spreading and listening to music.

“High on hope” is currently seeking donations and/or additional financing to officially licence the soundtrack to enable broader release of the film. Donations of £10 will receive a DVD and a link to the film when officially available and can be made at the films official website.

I talked briefly with director Piers Sanderson about some of these issues this week, though more details about the making of the film and problems can be found at the above link.

Floatinghead: Despite winning numerous prizes, you have still found it difficult to find funding for the film. Is this down to the crisis you think or perhaps a certain malaise amongst investors to fund documentary films?

Piers Saunderson: “The problem is that there is a cost to clearing the music and distributers of low budget, niche films are not able to take the risk on paying any money upfront. If the music was cleared I have 3 really good distributers who all want the film. They just don't have £30,000 to lay out for it.”

Floatinghead: You mentioned in one interview that one of the reasons for the (relatively) high price of licencing the music was that the publishing companies want to recoup as much money from tracks as possible to offset the losses of filesharing, for example. Can you comment a bit more on that maybe and do you think they are in a sense working against their own interest by penalising a smaller artistic project such as yours compared to say, a larger or more commercial venture like advertising or gaming etc?
Piers Saunderson: “Yes that is my theory. The music business has lost a huge slice of its income in an area it can’t control - file sharing and who listens to their music - so they are making sure they get maximum revenue from areas that they can control like syncing music in films. As a producer of a film I cannot hide if I use someone's music, I have to pay. I understand this mentality to a point but I have another way of looking at it. There has never been so many films made as there are at the moment, digital technology has meant that it is easier and cheaper to make visual content. Why don’t the publishers open up their back catalogues and allow film makers to use the tracks that haven't had any interest in for years. They could charge a small fee say £50 instead of £1000 and allow them to sell the film through selected distribution film sites (like I-tunes) and have an agreement with the producers and distribution platform to account to the publishers just how much income it’s made and they get a % of total revenue. Surely that is better than making it prohibitively expensive for small independents like myself to use the music. Just think of all the old house music that they still control that isn’t being used. Next year the International Music Seminar in Ibiza have invited me to do a panel with the publishers where I will challenge them over their current business model. It will be interesting to hear what they say.”

Floatinghead: You already have agreements for all the tracks used in the films, but there is no track list yet. Is this intentional to keep the audience in suspense or a legal issue? Is there any plans to try and release the soundtrack as a CD for example?

Piers Saunderson: “No there is no mystery, there is a track listing somewhere on the Facebook page. If I don't get the required funds needed to clear the music I will go and find 15 tracks that don't have a publishing deal anymore and re do the soundtrack of the film. I don't want to do this as I think what is there works really well at the moment. However I have used the biggest warehouse tunes of the time so perhaps it would be cool to do it with more obscure records. Yes I would like to do a Cd as well but my fear is that will just put the costs of licensing up even more.”

Floatinghead: “You did a secret warehouse screening of the film in Moscow. was that because of legal issues or was it a kind of "marketing" ploy to capture the spirit of the film?”

Piers Saunderson: “It was something that the festival organised. It was a brilliant idea. People phoned a number on the night and got directions to the location just like back in the day. It’s something I would like to do myself  when I release the film. I don’t think they have the same concerns about music licenses in Russia ;-)"

Floatinghead: What next for the film? Will there be more screenings or is the next step dependent on the last funding step? What will you be doing afterwards? Are there any plans for making other films?

Piers Saunderson: “I am still hoping that enough individuals will get behind the donation scheme to raise the money to clear the music. With very little publicity I have had nearly 100 people donate over £1500. What has been really lovely is that it’s come in from all over the world - Japan, USA, Europe, Russia, South America, Australia and New Zealand. I am sure that if enough people find out about this I will get the required donations. People can give just £3 and they will get a free download when the film comes out. That would mean I need £10,000 people to donate to hit the target. When you think about how many people this scene touched worldwide it’s an attainable figure. What has been nice though is that the average donation has been £15 which means that we could do it with just 2000 people. Now all of a sudden that doesn't seem too big a number at all. As you can see I am an optimist, I would never have tried to make this film if I wasn't. I believe in the story, I believe in the ethos of the time. I believe it will happen.

Yes I am trying to make other films. I have been in development with a UK broadcaster for a year on an idea about video games and I hope to do another music documentary at some point, I just need to get the publishers onside before I start it.”

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