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How A Visual Artist Taught Me To Earn A Living Through Licensing

Peter Calandra is an acclaimed Broadway and movie composer based in New York City who has scored over 50 films and written over 2000 compositions. He has performed as a musician on Broadway for shows such as The Lion KingLes Miserables, and many more. He is a professor at Queens College, CUNY and late last year he released his latest album First Light. Below Peter reveals how his experiences with a renowned NYC visual artist taught him about alternative revenue streams and how to make the creation of art profitable. 

How A Visual Artist Taught Me To Earn A Living Through Licensing

Many musical artists don’t think about how to generate alternative revenue streams to supplement the money they make selling albums and playing gigs. Many artists avoid thinking about the business aspects of the industry in a more broad way than simply “play a gig and get paid”. This is a subject that has interested me for many years, as the financial roller coaster of being a professional musician can be very trying at times. When I was younger and working as a full time keyboard player, I could be playing in a big Broadway or Off-Broadway show one day, and the next be just another unemployed musician scrambling to earn a living after the show closed. But then I met Larry Rivers, the man who taught me how to merge art and commerce to generate revenue. My experiences with him have greatly influenced how I approach earning a living as a creative artist.

Larry was a well-known NYC based artist. He came into the public eye in the late 1950’s early 1960’s. His work filled the void between the Abstract Expressionists like De Kooning and Pollack and the Pop Art of Andy Warhol. But before he was a painter, Larry was a jazz musician. He was a saxophone player and went to Julliard where he used to practice with Miles Davis. His life was incredibly vibrant and creative on multiple levels and he had a huge circle of well-known and accomplished artist friends, from poets and authors, to musicians and other painters. Even with his successes as a painter, he never gave up music. When I met him in the mid-1980s, he wanted to put together a small ensemble to perform around New York City. I performed in this group - The Climax Band - for 17 years until Larry passed away. It was an incredibly fascinating experience, as I got to perform with all sorts of artists - from Don Cherry to Allen Ginsberg - when Larry set up special events with his friends.

Before I go any further, I would like to disabuse anyone of the thought that art cannot be marketable. Over the 17 years that I knew him, Larry painted some truly amazing pieces. He created art, but he also earned a great living. 

One of Larry’s most famous works was a piece entitled Dutch Master And Cigars. It was a combination painting of a cigar box, a take off on a work by Rembrandt. One thing he did was to create a series of paintings that were variations on the original. Another thing he did was to make a series of prints. Nothing special about that. Many artists sell numbered prints. What Larry did that I thought was very interesting was to take time and doctor each print by hand to create a unique piece that he also signed. This way instead of just having a static print that would have a small value, he created personalized, individual variations on the work that did not take much time to do and had a much higher value than a mere copy.

He was also commissioned to create a series of large murals titled “History Of Hollywood”. That work is a montage spanning four 8’ x 10’ panels, painted with Hollywood’s memorable moments. In creating that work he made many sketches of the scenes. He used these sketches to assemble mock-ups of the murals so he could study the flow and proportion of the piece. Once that was set, he created the actual paintings of the scenes. Once completed, these images were projected onto the 8x10 canvas and recreated to assemble the final project. By the time he was finished with the 4 panels, he had created an additional seventy-five drawings, which was then able to sell at art gallery shows.

The main concept here is that Larry used the creation of a piece of art as the foundation with which to derive quite a bit of additional content that he could use to generate revenue. He was creative in the making of the artwork and also creative in exploiting those materials.

You can do the same thing with music. But in order to take advantage of many alternative sources of revenue, you need to be a member of a PRO (Performing Rights Organization). There are several different PROs to choose from, but I’d like to take a minute here and discuss how they actually work. First let’s start with this concept. If an entity uses your intellectual property to generate profit, you have a right to share in that profit. The PRO’s function is to collect and distribute that revenue.  The way this works (and this is changing now with things like “direct licensing” and internet based models) is that the PRO would negotiate a licensing fee with a broadcaster based on advertising sales each year. Then, based on how much music was reported on cue sheets by the broadcaster, they figure out a ‘per minute’ pay out to the content creator. The 3 major networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) always have the highest payout and the cable networks are smaller as the advertising revenues they collected were less than the networks. Then there were different payouts based on usage. For example, instrumental background music pays less than a vocal song and a theme song pays more than both.

In recent years there has also been a shift to paying out a per-minute rate that also factored in the Nielsen ratings of a show. For example, I have had two tracks (both written in the early 2000’s) that have been used as highlight music on NBC’s broadcast of Football Night In America since it’s inception in 2006. As NFL Football is easily the highest rated programming in TV today, it pays out at a higher rate than other music. I have had on NBC that has lower ratings. Primetime shows typically have the highest rating and should generate the highest royalty payments. In Network TV, the primetime rates used to be set but even those have moved to the ratings influenced calculations. What I have outlined here are the general principles but to be certain you should contact your PRO for the latest guidelines.

When I started to make the transition from being a full time player to composing for a living, some of my first projects were creating production music. I helped to create libraries for NBC Sports, Fox Sports, Killer Tracks and other companies. Back then, most of these companies paid money upfront for the music. The composer would retain the writer’s share of the PRO money and the company would retain the publishing. These tracks would be compiled onto topical CD’s (Drama, Comedy, Acid Jazz, Sports Highlights, etc.) and then shipped out to broadcasters and production companies for licensing. If your track was used, you would get a small licensing fee (depending on the Production Music Company) and then (if proper cue sheets were filed) receive “performance royalties” paid out by BMI, ASCAP (Performing Rights Organizations), etc. Between 1998 and 2006, I composed somewhere between 600 and 700 tracks. While this wasn’t really glamorous work, it was still great experience. Creating these tracks really helped me hone both my production and composing skills, as it required me to not only be a composer but to engineer and mix each track. It also gave me a chance to create a ‘portfolio’ of music I could use when submitting for the film projects I started working on in the early 2000’s.

The idea here was to create as much content as possible (similar to Larry), get it out into the marketplace (the airwaves) and let it generate income. After a couple of years work, this music was sent to enough places and started to earn me ‘performance royalties’ through my PRO, Broadcast Music, Inc (BMI). At first it was just small amounts each quarter but it soon became a very nice supplement to my paying work, which was very helpful in paying bills between projects. I still receive quarterly royalties on many tracks I composed 15 years ago from performances both here and overseas.

These types of production music companies have undergone consolidation over the past few years. The upshot of this is that the opportunity to have a budget to create this type of catalog no longer exists. My composing career has evolved so that I no longer have the time to work strictly on library music. Additionally, any down time between film and TV work is spent creating music for my own albums.

Still the name of the game is to create numbers and get them into the marketplace. How can one do that while still retaining a busy career composing? The first way is, as often as possible, retain ownership of the music created for any project. Give your clients an unlimited non-exclusive license to use the music you have created for them but you own the copyright to the music. I started doing this over 10 years ago for all of the independent films I scored, and now sometimes, I can even get that for projects produced by some of the networks I write for. This way you can accomplish multiple goals, create work for your clients and then repurpose that music to license out for placement.

Let’s look at a few ways that can be accomplished: I wrote music for a really cool 8 episode series on National Geographic titled “Unlikely Animal Friends”. They wanted original music for the show but had only the budget to actually score 3 of the 60 minutes episodes. The deal I worked out with them was that I would score a few scenes of each episode and then create a custom library of music in styles they felt was appropriate for the project. I was also able to create a certain number of short ‘bridges’ (music to bridge the transition between scenes/stories or to go in and out of commercial breaks). By the time the project was finished, I had created about 100 two minute tracks in a wide variety of styles and made multiple mixes of each (Full Mix, Narration Mix, Rhythm Section etc.). After the project was over, I went back in and reworked the shorter bridge pieces so that they were at least 60 seconds long. This added another 20 tracks to the total for this project.

I consider my personal albums and my film scores as my more artful endeavors. I love telling stories in sound, and films are a great platform for that pursuit. One thing that Larry Rivers did when he was working on a project was take as many of the materials used in the creation of his works and use them to create additional content. What I do after finishing up a film score is go back over each cue and see if either the cue or elements of the cue can be repurposed to create a library cue. Some of the things I look for is if a cue has a consistent mood. What I’ll then do is go through the piece and if there are any unusual time signatures or other facets written to accommodate the picture, I will smooth these elements out. This is helpful when transitioning a piece from a film cue to a piece that is useable elsewhere. Then I go thru the cues looking for elements I can extract to use as the basis of a new piece. This would be rhythm guitar part, percussion/drum groove, an interesting ostinato, a chord progression or an interesting texture; anything that can be used as the basis for a new piece. With

the tools available in modern DAW’s, it is also very easy to change tempo and key with very little, if any, negative effect to the sound. I do this with all my own album music as well. This greatly speeds up the time it takes to create new music for use in the marketplace. This is why it is important to own as much of the music you create as possible, as it makes it easier to do this with no future legal worries.

There are many companies that are looking for music to license for TV and Film placement. In this scenario, the company would represent your music (not own) and promote it to their clients. You would retain the Writer’s Share of the PRO Money and they would keep the Publishing Share. They would also split any upfront fees they get. Also in this scenario, your music would be retitled so that it would have a unique name for both Writers and Publishers registration. Never give up the rights (ownership) to your music under this scenario for any reason. A Google search will bring up the names of many licensing and library companies. I would suggest researching them to see which are the best fit for the music you create. One thing I would also advise is that if a company asks you to sign an exclusive agreement with them to represent the tracks you submit, that exclusivity should be contingent on meeting certain financial benchmarks. What good is it to have hundreds of tracks tied up for 5 years with a company that does a poor job of placing that music? I would suggest that you tie up your music for no longer than 2 years. If certain financial benchmarks in that time period are not met, the exclusivity agreement is no longer valid. The idea here is to generate as much content as possible and find ways to get it on air, not to up the title numbers for a music placement company.

I’d also like to talk about what unfolds after you get music on air. On cable TV, shows are often repeatedly aired (unlike network TV). This means that every time the show is aired you will get a royalty (assuming accurate cue sheets are filed). For example, the Unlikely Animal Friends series is on air almost every quarter. Nat Geo also sold the series to over 20 countries. The upshot of this is that instead of thinking about what the budget is for a project, one should start to also think of the long term revenue that could be generated over the lifetime of a work as it gets out into the market. I composed the theme song for SNY’s Geico Sports Nite. It is a highlight/recap show here in NYC that airs every night at 10:30 or after any live sporting event. The show is repeated sometimes 7 times each day. That ends up being thousands of performances of the theme, bumpers, cold open and highlight music all generated by the theme song and variations created for the show. The material covered in this article is by no means exhaustive but hopefully has exposed you to some new concepts for earning a living as a creative artist. Also realize that the music business is constantly evolving and it seems that as time marches on, the rate of change accelerates. Keep this in mind if you venture into this world and make adjustments based on what you experience. Feel free to contact me with any questions about this.

How A Visual Artist Taught Me How To Make Money Through Licensing

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