Interview with Gregory Debonne
Greg’s credentials can be found on numerous reality shows with networks including MTV, VH1, The Discovery Channel, SPIKE, A&E, Lifetime, BRAVO, to a name a few. As a music supervisor with experience as a composer/arranger in conjunction with session work on production music cues, Debonne also is a well integrated member of the Los Angeles music community. To top it off he has perfect pitch!
We want to thank Greg again for taking the time to answer our questions on a Sunday night.
There is a lot of great insight here!
What got you into Music Supervision?
I’ve been involved in music all my life. Prior to music supervision, I was an associate producer of reality television shows. An AP job on reality television shows has morphed, but back in the day -in the early 2000s- you actually had some reality shows on MTV and VH1 that were music oriented whereby as the AP, I was also kind of the music coordinator as well. I had to handle all of the clearance for that as well, the liaison between the production
and clearance. On shows where there was a music super, I would assist that music super because I knew the MTV and VH1 systems of doing things so well. It was a natural segway for me to go into music supervision.
How has it changed the way you listen to music?
I’ve always listened to music from an arrangemental and orchestral standpoint, but now I listen to music relative to what’s going to work well to picture in that regard as well. I’m listening to the phrasing of every instrumental element individually, as well as combined, assessing just how easy it is for a music editor to cut that piece of music to picture underneath dialogue, assessing its compositional value and the dynamic ebb and flow in that regard, as well as other aesthetic nuances.
How can artists find out about new projects and their related music supervisors?
Different artists have different ways of going about it. But I know people who literally get online and find out who is the music supervisor of what shows. People look up shows that I’ve done. “Oh, who’s the music supervisor on that? Oh, Greg Debonne. Well then, I’m going to google Greg Debonne.” So, there’s that approach.
There’s also the approach of where you simply know of the music super’s name and you contact them and say “Hi, are you’re looking for music?” That music supervisor will get back to you and either say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It always helps for an artist to know what that music supervisor is looking for stylistically. Now, there are some music supervisors who only want what they’re looking for at the time, pertinent to whatever project they’re working. Me, I won’t turn anyone away if it’s good and potentially viable for future use. However, if it’s not applicable to whatever project I’m working at the time, I may not get to it right away.
How do you find new music?
When I am hired to do a particular series, I look at the needs of that show. I have a conversation with producers and then I set about putting together a music project for that series that’s solid from the outset even though I know I’m going to be adding to it and there are going to be needs that come up throughout the post-production process, which is what music supervision usually is. It’s in the post-production process. After a series has been shot and it’s being edited, that’s when the music is being applied.
I have a lot of go-to sources. I also look for new sources as well because especially with a lot of reality programming, which is wall-to-wall music, you can really wring sources dry that you like. You can’t keep using the same material over and over again even if it will work; you need to keep it fresh. Producers can want their show to have its own definitive sound. You need to keep bringing in new music; so you look for that new material according to the stylistic parameters of the programming. That’s how I would say I go about finding new music. Hopefully that answers your question.
Is it realistic to think that artists can approach music supervisors directly or are their chances higher going through a company/library/publisher etc?
I can only speak for myself, as well as from the standpoint of what I gather from certain key licensors that have been doing this for a long time. You can contact a music supervisor directly, especially if that music supervisor is smart and into constantly improving their cache of music. I think the music supervisor needs the licensors, meaning the music super needs the artist/composer or whatever as much as the artist/composer needs the music supervisor. If that music supervisor is smart, they will look into what that person soliciting them has to offer. If it’s fine, then they’ll accept it for criteria they may have at the moment relative to their day-to-day needs. I don’t turn people away; however, I do know certain licensors who have told me that when they have approached certain music supervisors, the answer they get back is “Oh, I don’t accept submissions, except by an agent, a library or a publisher, etc., etc.”
Do I think that artists have a better chance of having their music licensed if it is with a library or a non-exclusive sync-house? Again I can only speak for myself. No, actually. It comes down to the actual music and the quality of it and how applicable and/or viable it is to the current needs of a program. It makes no difference to me whether it’s being pitched to me by a non-exclusive sync house, a library, an agent, or whatever. It’s either right or it isn’t.
What catches your attention when you receive a new submission?
As much as I want to be a purist who doesn’t really care what the presentation is like provided the music is right, because ultimately I don’t care, I must say that receiving something with a professional label on it makes a difference in catching the attention. That means its not a CD-R with a Sharpie written on it and a 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper in there with type-written track titles, a sheet I’m probably going to lose. A professional label has more definition by nature; and it’s more concise on the eye and mind.
What captures my attention doesn’t have to be big fancy presentation but it should be sent professionally and cleanly. That will get my attention because I know the potential licensor has taken their time to do it right. Quite often, it’s usually reflective of the attention to detail that they’ve put into what counts the most: the music itself.
Ultimately, what captures my attention in a submission is the artistry and craftsmanship of the music being presented from every angle. That means composition, arrangement, orchestration, production, engineering, etc, and of course the soul of it. All of that captures my attention and adds up to an aggregate impression.
What is the best way to submit music, CD’s, Mp3’s, links, etc..?
It really depends on the music supervisor. I know people, who don’t want CDs. They don’t want clutter. They would prefer to have it sent as a YouSendIt folder and so on and so forth. I also know other people that only want to accept music on CDs. It really varies. One thing you should find out from the music super is what format they prefer to have it sent. Because if some potential licensors solicit me, I will tell them how I prefer it be sent. Not on a prima donna level or anything, but rather, “Hey, can you send a CD and make sure they’re AIFF source files at 48k because that’s broadcast standard? And can you send me a disk because it acts as a physical reminder of your music.”
Sometimes on occasion, it will be, “Well, we don’t really want to do that” because maybe they’re too cheap to pay for postage; I have no idea. They might insist on sending it to me online via a YouSendIt folder, which is fine if the particular music is applicable to the project I’m doing at that time. If it’s not, I may listen to it, I may like it, I may save it to one of my drives with all the best intentions of getting back to it. However, because it’s not in a physical format, I may forget all about it. I may forget that I stashed it on my drive. That’s why, personally, I really do like to receive either a custom drive or a disk of some kind – something physical, tangible – although not every music supervisor feels the same way.
Regardless of whether it’s sent on a disk or a drive, I prefer high quality files, source files. Anyone can up-convert an MP3 to an AIFF in iTunes, but then you’re degrading the file. For example, TV broadcast standard is AIFF at 48k. Those are large files. By the way, a CD quality audio file is AIFF at 44.1k (kilohertz). I always prefer licensors to send me broadcast standard AIFF at 48k, or even WAV at 48k. If they send me CD quality, meaning it’s at 44.1 where I have to upconvert, that’s okay, no big deal, but it is nice to receive an already broadcast standard source file from the licensor. I do know of a couple of production companies whereby, for whatever reason, the music supers there want MP3s. Mp3s are fine for previewing, but they’re a compressed file format that’s going to be applied to programming that gets even more compressed for air. Either send me a drive, or a DVD-R or CD-R. The more material you’re sending me, the more advantageous it is to receive it on a drive. If it’s a relatively smaller cache of music that will fit on a DVD-R or two, well, then it’s okay and fine to send me a disk. Again, I like the physical reminder.
What should someone NOT do when trying to get their music licensed?
Well, that’s hard for me to answer. Just off the top of my head, I would say if you’re a potential licensor and you send someone some music, it’s okay to follow-up once in a while maybe to say, “Hey, just wanted to make sure you received it,” but don’t contact insistently or constantly because that’s not necessarily going to get you anywhere.
Is there any difference in the musical needs for reality based TV shows to, say, film or TV sitcoms?
Oh yeah, and on a number of levels, too. First of all, you have to understand that you are working with different sets of production values depending on the level of programming. If you’re comparing a major network prime-time drama with really good production value to a reality TV series, there are certain things you can get away with on programming that has higher production values that you cannot get away with in shows with lower production values, i.e. reality programming. For example, if you watch reality shows, you will notice that with the field audio there is a lot of extraneous noise. When it comes to the post-audio mix, they try and rectify the problem; they try to fix these problems, ameliorate them, but it’s still a lower production value.
So, if you’re working on a motion picture or a major network prime-time drama with good production values, you could have a sound recording, a piece of music in there with drums and vocals, but because you’re dealing with better production values and more ability to have separation of elements, there is more time and wherewithal to get it right as applied to picture and the goal of complementing the scene. You can have a piece of music along those lines that nonetheless doesn’t conflict with the content.
But in a reality program, to give a prime example, there will be pieces of music whereby the arrangement and orchestration have to be a little more minimal, particularly with regard to rhythmic phrasing, so as not to step on the content because the production values are cheaper. For example, if there are drums, which tend to eat up a lot of mid-range, and dialogue also is in the mid-range because that’s where it tends to sit, the dialogue audio can be so shoddy in reality programming that there are going to be a lot of times when you can’t exactly have too obtrusive of a snare, otherwise it’s going to step on the content. You need all the midrange you can get for your dialogue because of the bad audio on tape, so you’re often working within a tighter set of parameters as to what you can get away with applying to the scene in a musical sense and still have that music complement the content as opposed to compromise it. There’s just a certain set of criteria with respect to what’s going to work well on a program with cheaper production values; that’s all.
Ever notice how when you watch a film, and there are two people sitting in the car and they’re talking and there’s a song on the radio, somehow the song is complementing the scene and it’s not stepping on the dialogue? Well, in reality programming you most often couldn’t get away with that. Why? It’s the production value with which you’re dealing.
What sort of money can be made these days with placements? Has the value of music changed?
Yes, actually it has. To answer your first question, back-end royalties paid from your Performing Rights Society can be lucrative from the usage in t.v. As you know, each country has one. In America, there are three: ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. You want to be affiliated with a Rights Society in the country in which your music is being played. If you are with the society in England, PRS, but now live in the States yet are still with PRS, what you want to do is switch to either ASCAP, BMI or SESAC, or at least have a sub-publisher of some kind in the country where you’re getting most of your action.
You need to actively make sure that your compositions are registered with that Performance Rights Society, making sure that your name, your publishing entity, and the titles of your compositions are accurately noted on their website. Whenever your music is played, the use of your music in a program goes on the cue sheet. Subsequently, that music cue sheet goes to the Performance Rights society, who in turn will track the use. If your composition is registered, then you will get paid on the back end.
Vocal uses pay more than instrumental uses. The longer the use, the more you are paid. Other factors come into play, i.e. whether the program is on a network or cable channel, number of re-airs…. There are several factors that affect how much you’re being paid. In a nutshell, the more your music is being played, the more royalties add up. It’s always good to look at your royalties as an aggregate because all those little ten dollar payments, forty dollars here, thirty dollars here, add up. If as the licensor you’re actively pushing a catalog, the larger catalog you have, the more money you stand to make on the back-end from your Performance Rights Society for those uses relative to royalties.
The other way that a licensor makes money is by upfront synch fees, meaning that when a music supervisor wants to license your music, there is an upfront fee that can be negotiated.
Now as far as the value of music is concerned, which was the other part of your question, keep in mind that music is a medium that, for whatever reason, is constantly being devalued. Because we work in entertainment, we know that the entertainment industry is set to try to devalue whatever they can on a certain level. In a realistic sense, you have to strategize and structure your business model as a licensor to adapt to certain realities in the business, depending on who the licensee is and what level of programming or entertainment it is for which the licensee is interested in using your music.
Music is something that everybody thinks they know about, so sometimes there is a cavalier attitude about it. A recording artist friend of mine, Chris Darrow, once pointed out that music is the most abstract of all the art forms out there because it is intangible. You can’t see it; you can’t touch it. You can only hear it. Therefore it makes it that much easier for people to overlook its actual value.
So, music is constantly trying to be devalued. It’s becoming increasingly hard for the independent licensor to get a fair upfront fee for using their music in a program. That doesn’t always have to do with the music supervisor being a weasel and trying to get the music for free. The reality is that when you’re the music supervisor, you have a certain budget with which to work for that programming and it isn’t always ideal. If it’s lower budget programming, you still have to make that show work.
There have been many times on cable programming that I don’t license something because I simply don’t have the budget or I can’t justify the expense for their catalog. If I can offer that licensor an upfront synch fee and justify the dollars, then I do.
That is one area where it can be beneficial for a licensor to have a publishing deal because the publisher’s job is to maintain and maximize the value of the catalog. The other side of the coin is you can always fore go placements in that way as well. There are certain licensing opportunities where if the money is too little, the publisher might say ‘absolutely not.’ It’s not really the licensee’s decision or even position to tell the publisher what they should or shouldn’t quote. A publisher or publishing administrator can give an artist or composer some leverage. They can also make it difficult to get as many placements for that licensor as well, depending upon the situation.
With your combined experience, if you were to tell musicians that are trying to make this their career, is there one thing you could shed light on that would have made a difference had you known then what you know now.
I can’t say in a blanket statement what somebody should or shouldn’t do as an artist because it depends on what that artist’s individual goal is. For example, one time a songwriter asked, “Is there anything I should be doing to make my music more placeable in programming?” My answer was, “Well, it really depends on what your goals are. If your goal is simply to be an artist, then I would say ‘no, just do your music.’ If it’s placeable, great. If it isn’t, oh well. If you’re doing it with the primary intent of making it the best piece of art possible, then that’s what you’re doing.”
I also know artists who are a little more mercenary. They aren’t just doing it for the art. They actually want to tailor some of their music from the standpoint of arrangement, structure and all, for maximum synch licensing potential. If you’re that kind of person, then I would say, know specifically what your goals are and that will determine the best course of action to take. Just know what your goals and intentions are and know how to define and articulate them to yourself, so that you can take the most pragmatic approach to achieving what it is that you want to achieve.