By Jan Hoeglund
One of the most frequently asked questions that we get asked from our clients is "How do you get into the trailer industry?" Since we have already interviewed a few successful trailer composers, we thought it would be wonderful to also take a look at the industry from the other side of the fence. Enter Jake Versluis of Position Music.
Position Music is one of the premier addresses in the trailer music world, thanks to the impressive roster of composers that call Position Music their home: Jo Blankenburg, Jack Trammell, Danny Cocke, Varien, Tom Player, James Dooley and many others. Jake handles A&R for the trailer music power house and also manages his own acts at his management company Verse Management Corp. His clients include Danny Cocke (composer), who we just recently had the pleasure of interviewing.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your background and how did you end up in the trailer music industry?
The short story is that I attended the University of Florida and I was part of the college representative program for Atlantic Records while in school. I moved out to Los Angeles after I graduated and I’ve been out here ever since. I worked on the artist management side for many years working with REN management managing the band Incubus. I also started developing and managing a young composer named Danny Cocke. We started having a lot of success with his music in the trailer world and that led to me working for Position Music as a Creative Director. Position Music is a music publisher that signs deals with artists and composers and then focuses on getting the music in TV, video games, trailers, film and advertising.
How has the world of trailer music changed over the past ten years?
It’s changed in a few ways. There are more companies and composers doing it now than there were 5 or 10 years ago. Couple that with the fact the technology for writing and recording has gotten better and cheaper and it’s no surprise that the trailer space has become competitive and perhaps even a bit crowded. The style of music used in trailers continues to evolve. It’s not the same now as it was 10 years ago. All you have to do is go watch a trailer from Spiderman (Toby Maguire) and compare that to a current trailer like “Insurgent” to hear the difference.
Another way it’s changed is that 10 years ago you needed to record live orchestra for your music to be considered premium trailer music. In 2015 the samples are so good that often times it’s hard for the average movie watcher to tell the difference between live and synthetic strings and brass. For this reason you could say the barriers to entry, and specifically the cost to enter the trailer music world, has come down significantly.
Has the traditional three act structure of trailer music changed at all? If so, how?
I think certain editors and studios will always feel safest with the traditional three act structure, so there will always be demand for it. But the most important trailers, the ones that really grab your attention in a way you’re not used to, are the ones that use music really creatively. I would say that if you’re a composer that fully understands how the three act structure works for trailers then step out of your comfort zone and try creating something out of left field. The really smart editors will understand what you’re doing and it will set you apart from everyone else.
What type of trailer music gets more commonly placed? Epic vs dark electronic vs sound design vs ... ?
This is subject to change based on what is currently hot in the marketplace. Here’s an example: the movie studios have announced the release dates for their superhero movies through the year 2020. There will be over 20 superhero movies during the next five years. To me that says that there will be demand for dark superhero type cues.
How did you experience the change in trailer music after the Inception trailer was released (Braaam)?
Much like the pop music world, that sound and aesthetic became a trend and the movie studios were asking for music like that for a few years after the Inception trailer. Then, as always happens, the studios burned the sound out and the industry had to move on to something else. But the Inception trailer will always be a moment in time, and it may have been one of the first trailers that really ignited the public’s consciousness about trailer music and about how important and cool it is.
Do you consider orchestral music when it is not recorded with a real live orchestra but with samples? Does that type of full orchestral music get placed often these days?
We do consider music without real orchestra. Real orchestra is the steak sauce to the steak. If you’re a really talented composer and you can write excellent music, then your music will find a home with or without real orchestra (as long as you understand how to use the right samples well). On the other hand, if you haven’t put in your time writing and really learning your craft but you go record your compositions with live orchestra it won’t matter. Real orchestra itself doesn’t make the cue. If you have a really well written cue and THEN you go record with live orchestra, then man WATCH OUT because the industry won’t be able to get enough of that music!
What is the most commonly requested style of music these days for licensing? Do you get requests for tracks that sound like a very particular artist/song/score/etc.? If so, which one?
You know, we compile a list every quarter of the most requested songs and styles of music. And of course that list changes every quarter. It’s not rocket science - spend time with the Billboard top 200 and “emerging artists” chart and you’ll see what the studios want as well. If an artist is really talented and ALREADY creating music like the artists on that list then that music will likely be sought after. But I would advise an artist NOT to go create music that is derivative of the top 200, trying to copy a sound in hopes that they get their music licensed.
What are your thoughts on the "Loudness" trend and that drums/hits need to be loud and very much in your face?
Fundamentally, I don’t have a problem with drums and hits being in your face if that actually helps sell movies and video games. But I do have a problem with the fact that in the last two years I’ve needed to bring earplugs to the movie theater because the trailers and in some cases the movies are just too dang loud. The thing about hearing loss is that in many cases you don’t know your hearing has been adversely affected until a few years after the damaging incident(s) have already happened.
Should a composer focus on a very particular style or have a really wide repertoire of styles?
Focus on your particular style. If a composer tells me he/she can do a lot of styles really well I usually lose interest quickly. I’ve watched composers for years and I’m aware of what it takes to be great at what you do. If there are two composers, composer A and composer B, and composer A came up through the industry learning great songwriting and production from big time artists like Nine Inch Nails and Linkin Park while composer B came up through the USC music school ranks going the traditional route than those two composers are going to have very different approaches to composing. OWN your style and be the best you can be at it.
Are there particular trends that you see within the trailer music worlds (more sfx, heavy guitars, etc.)?
Right now the trend is less guitar and choirs singing in Latin (like in the early 2000’s) and is more sound design and SFX driven.
What would you say is the ideal number of spaces to leave in a track for the editors (4, 5 or even more)?
This is going to vary based on the type of music the composer writes. I’m actually hesitant to say there is a formula. Yes for the right type of cues it helps to have spaces in cues but if it feels forced then editors will pick up on that. I’d much rather hear a non-traditionally written cue than a cue where the composer sits down and the first thing he/she thinks is “Okay… I need to have three sections, with X amount of spaces, Y amount of rises and then when that’s done I’ll write another cue like that.”
Would you say it is better to focus on sound effects or on melody these days?
Melody. Always melody. Lots and lots of people can do sound effects, but if you can master how to write a compelling melody then you will be in a select group of composers.
How much do song titles and album art actually count?
The right song titles do in fact make a difference. It’s probably a psychological thing for the editors. Album art can count, but now that we’ve moved away from CDs and CD artwork and into digital distribution I’d say it counts for less than it used to. Having said that, we pride ourselves on our artwork at Position Music. I guess it’s because if you’re a creative person than you just naturally care about how all of your art is presented to the public whether that be music, song titles or artwork.
What is the sweet spot in song length (2-2:30min)? What is the sweet spot in album length?
Yeah you nailed it with the 2-2:30 time range. Just make sure it’s long enough to cover a whole trailer from beginning to end. If the song is longer than 2:30 that that’s okay too. Album length I’d go about ten songs.
How relevant is the hybrid orchestral sound still?
It’s still relevant. Less so than perhaps during 2010/2011, but knowing how to cross excellent melody with fantastic samples will always be needed. It’s still the case that there aren’t a ton of composers who can do both really well. Often times we have to have composers collaborate on a cue because one will be great with samples and production and another composer will be fantastic with melodies and live orchestra.
Could you list 5-10 Position Music tracks/youtube videos of recent tracks that you think are representative of the 2015 trailer music sound?
If you could give an up and coming trailer music composer advice, what would you tell them?
Do your homework. Before you worry about the best samples out there and needing to record with live strings, sit down and study WHY the great contemporary composers are so great and why their music is in high demand. And Youtube is your best friend. Use it to learn how to program properly, how to mix well, what samples to use and more.
Barriers to entry to the trailer music world are lower than they’ve ever been before, which is good. But that also means there’s more competition than there has ever been before. How are your cues going to stand out?