Selling Out

Selling Out

One week after returning from the ASCAP I Create Music Expo, I’m still imagining finding a way to actually make serious money off my own music without having to go through a lobotomy to readjust my weirdo stylistic proclivities. Inevitably, when I posited the idea of 36-tone commercial jingles, the head of one of the nation’s top commercial music libraries didn’t seem particularly thrilled with the idea. But I think it could work. What about 48-tone ringtones? Definitely an attention grabber.

However, part of the problem with my entering the commercial or ringtone markets is that I have almost no sense of how music actually functions in these settings. I don’t really watch T.V. I finally bought one that’s larger than my laptop screen and I just had cable installed. I’ve listened to a bunch of the samples on the commercial library site OmniMusic, and I’ve been systematically listening to music on the Weather Channel and CNN Headline News. While granted, there’s nothing in 36-tone or 48-tone or any other systemic non-12, there does seem to be some leverage for a little experimentation if it’s fast and the context is appropriate. Maybe an announcement of some real inclement weather could use my fantasy microtonal underscoring.

Then there’s the whole ringtone phenom. I pretty much keep my cellphone on vibrate except for when it accidently slips back to ring mode and plays the default—I’ve never figured out how to reprogram it—which is an awful MIDI version of the Latin-tinged theme music from Sex and the City. This always seems to happen at the most inappropriate moments, like when I greeted Charles Wuorinen before a panel we were both on last week. But still. All these other avant-garders are getting into the ringtone scene. Take a look at the list of luminaries who contributed unique ringtones to the American Composers Orchestra auction: Michael Gordon, Meredith Monk, etc. The Philip Glass ringtone is currently going for $450 and by the time you read this it will probably go even higher. So there are people out there who will pay for this sort of thing.

Now, mind you, the ACO’s ringtone auction is for one-of-a-kind sonic ownership, like buying your own Rothko painting. This is something quite alien to the always-replicable world of music. So only one person, who will pay $450 or more, will get to have this Philip Glass ringtone on his or her phone. And Glass is just about the most famous guy who does what we do. But imagine charging only ten bucks for a freaky 48-tone ringtone. Any “other music” fan would have to have it, right? Let’s say I can get 100 folks to buy it, which is very few people in the ultimate scheme of things and still fewer than the unfortunate 300 unit sales figure for many contemporary music CDs. That’s one thousand dollars for 30 seconds of music—twice the price of a low-end commission for 30 seconds of orchestral music and a lot less work.

But then again, how would I feel if I was at a concert and a cellphone went off, as they always do, and the music was interrupted by something I had composed? I’m probably better off sticking with just the T.V. commercial idea. But then again, isn’t it worse to have people run to the bathroom while your music is played?

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4 thoughts on “Selling Out

  1. Tom Myron

    I’ve got to say that at first blush this post made me really smile at the sense of entitlement that is such a defining characteristic of our little brach of the music biz. Here’s a guy who doesn’t really watch TV and doesn’t use a ringtone (aside from the Cage-ian “silent” ringtone that I’d have thought C.F. Peters would’ve been all over by now) who’s nonetheless wondering where his piece of the action is. But then it occurs to me that this month’s featured atheist has made a handsome living writing religious music and I have to ask myself, well, really, what’s the harm?

    As N.R. points out elsewhere in his interview (and he’s far from the first person to make this observation over the last 65 years or so) we really are a nation of specialists. A while back a young art school junior told me that he was really into avant garde photography & filmmaking but that he had no illusions about making any money at that stuff, so to earn a living he’d be a sports photographer. “Those guys”, he told me, “make serious bucks.”

    “Great idea”, I said. “What teams do you follow?”

    “Well, I’m not really into sports”, he replied. “The whole competition thing really turns me off.”

  2. Frank J. Oteri


    I’m sorry if you assumed I had a presumed sense of entitlement when I expressed intrigue at writing for commercials and cellphone ringtones even though I don’t watch T.V. and am a Luddite who prefers to have my phone on vibrate even though it doesn’t always cooperate.

    I did not intend to cast aspersions on folks who watch television. In fact, as I wrote, I just bought one. Plus I had cable installed. All I wrote was that I wanted “in” and that I was trying to figure out how to get there. It was all admittedly a tad tongue in cheek. I rarely talk about my own compositional hoo-hahs here but I thought my wannabe sentiments rang true for many other readers here and thought it might generate an interesting discussion.

    As for your anecdote about the sports photographer, when a pair of friends who are sports nuts asked me to write music for their wedding, I made sure to attend baseball games and learn something about the game and its structure in order to write them something that would be fitting and would ring true. As I am personally not religious, I have not and would not consider composing a piece of sacred music. That said, I can think of many moving examples of sacred pieces that were created under such conditions including Lutheran J.S. Bach’s Roman Catholic Mass in B Minor which was written in submission for a gig he never got. Their loss.

    But then again, to return to the secular realm, it might really be interesting to hear commercial jingles composed by someone who has never watched TV (I’m disqualified at this point) or a ringtone by someone who doesn’t even have a phone. It could turn into a Portsmouth Sinfonietta approach—which would at the very least be lots of fun—or it might teach us all something profound and provocative about these media. We should all be entitled to dream, no? What do other people think?

  3. Alex Shapiro

    I’m all in favor of Frank’s comment about people writing in styles that are foreign to their sensibilities. The result could be a train wreck, or something astonishingly creative and fresh. For those composers whose consciousness has been drenched in “the standard commercial music sound” that tends to perpetuate itself, there’s a risk of not thinking outside the taco shell and retreating to familiar instrumentations and approaches. Of course, this is largely because they’re effective ones. And because most commercial music is created on tight deadlines, without much time for making stunningly new and brilliant choices.

    But the beauty of a concert music composer trying on an idiom that’s alien to them– jingles, ringtones, video games, TV themes– is that they don’t come to the first measure with preconceptions and assumptions of what-goes-where; they use their ears to find something pleasing that seems to logically work, and in doing so might very well create a wonderful new sound.

    One example of this is the initiative– is it called Band Quest?– that the American Composers Forum created a while back, in which concert composers who have not written for wind band are commissioned to do so. And for the very reasons above: given the rather standard, well-trodden musical path that many (not all) seasoned band music composers take, commissioning someone who doesn’t know all the usual tricks of the trade often leads to a piece with a very different personality and sound, and adds something wonderful to the repertoire.

    For those reading who are interested in learning more about commercial media and how to find some opportunities to spread their compositional wings, I really recommend joining the Society of Composers & Lyricists, the professional association of film and commercial music artists. The SCL publishes an invaluable quarterly journal called The Score, filled with articles by working composers offering tons of information about many aspects of the business– not just film and TV, but composing for many kinds of media.

    Knowledge is power. But sometimes lack of knowledge is very creative!

  4. jodru

    I wrote a piece which incorporates cell phones in the performance. Before the concert, we invert the protocol and urge the audience to leave their cellphones on, because, of course, in the lobby, they’ve downloaded a ringtone that we’ve provided.

    At the appropriate moment, which is to say, the least appropriate moment in the performance, we start dialling from backstage, creating our little cellular symphony.


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