By Terry McDonald • June 23, 2021
Whether submitting to a production library, an online A&R resource or a song contest, being mindful of best practices will give your music the chance it deserves.
ULTIMATELY, QUALITY WILL TELL. A great song delivered minutes before a deadline or recorded with questionable sound quality is still a great song. It’s always going to be the music that will carry the day. On the other hand, making it hard for the judges to pick your submission doesn’t make much sense. Ever wonder what it’s like to listen to hundreds, or even thousands of songs to find the right piece of music for a film, or game, or even a playlist like ours (see the ASCAP Experience Digital #6 playlist)? Here are some thoughts from people whose companies are on the receiving end of your work, weighing in on how give your music its best chance of success.
Going to the Library
Our first ask was of Morgan McKnight, Executive Director of the Production Music Association. The PMA is the leading advocate and voice of the production music community. Production music (also known as stock music or library music) is recorded music that can be licensed to customers for use in film, television, radio and other media. She started with a warning: “The use of samples in your music will immediately result in a rejection from production music libraries, and even threaten your reputation. When working in the sync space, music has to be original. You want to make it as easy as possible for royalty collection, admin, etc. Also, make sure your pitch is personal. Don’t just spam out your music to everyone in the company. And have all of the paperwork together. Do your metadata, and use (sync licensing platform) DISCO links to pitch.” Morgan was great in that she canvassed a bunch of her colleagues, each of whom contributed a pearl or two of their own for this story.
Like Morgan, Christina May, Music Director and Film & TV Producer for Universal Publishing Production Music company FirstCom Music, didn’t mince words: "DO your homework on the company’s accepted form of submission. DO follow up. DON’T harass. DO include placements (credits, links to video, etc.) DON’T send massive amounts of music. Pick your top five in various styles."
Then there’s Joe Saba, co-founder of VideoHelper, whose #1 recommendation for creators pitching libraries is, “Understand whom you’re pitching to and what you can do for them. Way too many composers are interested only in placing their music, not caring to understand if it’s the right fit for a library or how a partnership can be developed. Spend some time on a library’s site and get a feel for their mission and sensibility. See if there are any gaps in the catalog or ways you can help them expand what they’re already doing. Most good libraries want partners – a thoughtful composer who treats the music and process with respect is everything in the long-term. An email showing that you get what a library is about and how your music can help is 1000 times better than ‘Here’s my awesome music. It’s awesome, right?’”
Ron Mendelsohn, President/CEO at Megatrax, was also specific about what his company is looking for…and isn’t. “Music creators must be able to record and produce commercial quality recordings on their own, or with their own team. We rarely work with songwriters or composers who do not have the ability to record and produce their own tracks. (And we won’t) work with music creators who are not willing to release music exclusively with us and not share their music with royalty-free or non-exclusive sites.”
Songs with lyrics that describe universal conditions, rather than specific personal events are easier to place. Mendelsohn recommends that “For vocal songs, I would encourage songwriters to write the hook first and make sure that it is sync-friendly,” meaning that the essence of the song should be applicable to any variety of situations acted out in a film, TV or advertising project. “Also, in terms of submission, we prefer receiving a link (to SoundCloud, DISCO, etc.) rather than a file attachment which tends to clog up our email inbox. Are there cowriters involved? (If so), have the song splits been agreed upon? If there are outside musicians/vocalists, have all of them signed release forms or are they available to do so? Have you registered with a PRO?
“Clearly communicate your strengths as a writer. Which styles/genres are your forte? This will help us place you with the appropriate album project. Have a professional website with samples of your work including video examples of previous placements. Do your homework. What are the current trends in music and pop culture? We are far more likely to consider an album based on current trends rather than another album of generic acoustic guitar music or heavy metal.”
Edwina Travis-Chin is VP, Music Strategy & Content at APM Music. APM is a creative music house and production music library renowned for its range of music. With over 160 diverse libraries, their collection has over 885,000 tracks. They also offer music replacement services, custom scoring and music direction for finding music.
Travis-Chin’s advice to creators: “If you are a composer, please don’t send me your entire body of work to audition. I generally find that a maximum of 10 tracks will give me a good idea of what you have to offer (so curate carefully!) and a concise presentation is still appreciated.
“Don’t send music without providing brief background information on what you are sending, even if it’s only describing the style of music or your particular specialty. If you want me to take the time to listen to your music, you should be willing to take the time to explain what I can expect to hear. I’ve had submissions that basically said, ‘Here’s a link to my music, I’d like to write for your library,’ and not much else. Needless to say, that did not get things off to a very strong start. And please don’t repeatedly submit your music if you’ve already been told that it is not suitable for my library. If you’ve truly had a breakthrough in your writing, then by all means, reach out again and explain what has changed. But, if you’re just sending the same content every month, you will not get the reception or result you’re looking for.”
As for insights into what gets her highest marks, Travis-Chin says, “I find it helpful if you include a good track title along with a description. It helps demonstrate that you have thought about the character of your music and are able to articulate that in words. It also makes it much easier for me to get a quick picture of what I might expect to hear, which can help make your music presentation more effective overall. Also, while it can be appropriate for some songs, I’m not a huge fan of tracks that just fade out and prefer to hear music that shows you know how to write a proper ending.”
She adds “Don’t claim you can ‘write anything.’ If you are highly proficient in multiple genres, you’ll eventually have the opportunity to demonstrate your versatility. But for your initial point of contact, focus on what you do best and share that.” And lastly, “Please be professional in your communications – you shouldn’t sound as if you’re just doing this as a hobby. Not only do I want to make sure that you will be able to supply good music, but I want to know that you will be good to work with on the business side of things.”
Getting Gigs Online
We then rang up Michael Laskow, founder and owner of TAXI, an independent A&R company that connects musicians with labels, publishers and music supervisors. On the first and 15th of every month, they provide members with a list of industry opportunities for music submissions. Screeners forward the most suitable material for each listing to the person who requested it.
Laskow started out with what might sound obvious but is clearly an issue for all of our experts: “The briefs or requests for each assignment we post are different. In too many cases, people just don’t read the brief carefully which results in them sending music that wasn’t what the client asked for. The brief calls for an introspective acoustic guitar-based instrumental and the creator sends a song with lyrics. And, if the brief asks for a lyric sheet, send one! People don’t.” How to make the most of the TAXI experience? “Read the request twice. Make some bullet points about the request. Make a checklist outlining the request, and make sure you get as close as possible to what is asked for.”
Also, “If you’re sending multiple songs, always put your best song first. One might think that the last song will leave a lasting impression. But the judge might not get there!” Asked about those judges, Laskow explained that at TAXI, “We have genre-specific experts who are vetted for giving feedback and selecting music. We even have different experts in some genres. Take pop, for example. There are judges for pop radio and judges for film and TV. What works for the charts may not work for a movie.”
Asked about competition among TAXI members for a particular assignment, Laskow says, “TAXI has its own ecosystem for submissions and a big misconception is that members are competing with other members when actually, they’re not. Anything that reaches a certain quality standard and fills the criteria gets sent. If 40% of the submissions are great, they are all submitted to the client. However, many creators will decide “I’m not going to pitch something that fits the request, because my song is so good that when they hear it, they’ll want to put it in their movie anyway. Nope!”
And the Winner Is…
Switching gears, we spoke with Ashley Stephens, director and event manager at Music City SongStar, the Nashville-based song competition. MCSS has been running contests and events for music creators twice a year since 2017. Song contests tend to be less specific about content, conferring awards in different genres. However, the imperatives for submitting are similar to those mentioned by the licensing folks.
Ashley says, “Although we do not disqualify a song submission for any creative reason, we do (need) the artists to follow the submission directions and to make sure all requirements are fully met. Entries have to be within the proscribed song length, for example. They can’t be missing lyrics or have lyrics that don’t match the uploaded mp3, and of course the mp3 has to play without technical difficulties, etc.
“A song could have a good story but be a bit confusing if there is no structure. Winning songs tend to tell a story that listeners can relate to or are touched by, whether it’s a holiday song that brings cheer, a song about falling in love for the first time, a song about experiencing a death, or anything really that the listener can connect with emotionally.”
Adam Stokes at West One Music Group was creative himself in responding to our questions about submitting music. Consisting of 12 labels, One West is a British global production music company that provides music to clients worldwide.
He offers, “Whether it’s an unprofessionally worded email, a broken web link, or being included on cc: with 50 other labels, there are many “no-nos” that I notice when receiving music submissions. However, I think it’s more effective to explain what I’m looking for rather than what I’m not. The most successful pitches I’ve received are where the writer has identified a clear opportunity for their music within our label, and has presented their music in a friendly, professional and easily accessible way.”
Stokes continues, “More often than not, we receive great music but turn it down because it’s just not what we’re looking for at the time. Do bear in mind, this example applies mainly to production/sync music labels, but the principles are largely universal. Write music that is well-crafted, authentic and true to yourself. Then, think carefully about which labels/publishers could be interested in working with you, in what way they can help you achieve your goals, and how to effectively present your music to them in a way that is appealing and professional.”
While each of our experts made specific points, they agreed generally how to best approach buyers, contests and judges. When sending your music, use links rather than downloads and test those links! Describe your music clearly and suggest how you think it fits with the request, assignment or library. And don’t be discouraged by rejection. Each of our contributors ended their comments with, “Keep writing!” or something to that effect. Remember, they want your music. They just need a little help in sorting it out.
Here’s an example of a pitch email done right (along with Adam Stokes’s commentary):
[Always try to address the recipient by name if you can! Think about who’s likely to be reading your message, look on the company website, socials, LinkedIn, etc.]
Great to meet you! I hope you’re doing well. I’m an LA-based composer/producer specializing in modern trap, pop and hip-hop. I’ve held West One Music in high regard ever since I heard your brilliant Percussion Promos EP on a recent Disney+ advert and would love the opportunity to work with you.
[Do some research on the label before getting in contact. Kind words will not go unnoticed, and if you’re paying attention to what we’re doing, it’s likely you’ll have a good idea of the music we’re interested in.]
I wanted to send a compilation of music I’ve been writing that I feel would be a great addition to your catalogue. It’s epic, percussive hip-hop with powerful vocals aimed at sports programming and high-intensity moments in TV shows. Here’s the link: [Insert easy-to-access link here.]
[Here, the writer has identified a clear purpose for their music and presented it in a way that sounds enticing and is easy for me to listen to.]
Many thanks for taking the time to listen through, and don’t hesitate to reach out if there are any opportunities.
All the best,