As a composer who writes for and supervises reality based TV, I’m constantly struggling to keep pace with video editors. No matter how much time I’m given to create or curate a catalogue for the show, it seems I’m always scrambling by mid-season to either write more tracks or license them.
In my experience, one hour of reality TV (usually wall-to-wall music) needs anywhere between 30-40 cues in varying styles and genres. This presumes that every cue delivered to editors for that hour (closer to 44 minutes without ads) will fit perfectly with the scene, which it never does. The ratio is more like 60 cues with hopes of 40 or so working in the episode. That’s a crazy amount of music especially if you’re working on shows that have a very specific target audience and require “cool”, non-commercial cues.
Which leads me to my next point. The appeal of music streaming services like Spotify and Tidal is that they categorize and curate music into playlists that not only expose people to new music but make it easier to dig into a particular sub-genre. Large A-list music libraries do this as well but much less successfully as they just plain run out of good genre specific tracks. For example, if your show requires a certain percentage of music that sounds like say…Aphex Twin, you’ll be hard pressed to find an album’s worth of good knock-off AT. The truth is, someone who doesn’t appreciate the bleeps and bloops of Richard D James will attempt to reverse engineer the sound which usually ends up sounding ridiculously conventional. And curators of these libraries rarely know good AT from bad, so they’re fine with zipping tracks into a folder, slapping a cheesy album cover on it with the title “Ambient Electro Glitch Vol 2” and adding it to their catalogue.
For a musical niche, enter the genre-specific composer, the kind that specializes in one sub-genre and does it well so that shows with a specific musical style guide can sound authentic. For Indie Post-Rock, Andy Othling would be a good example as he’s able to weave his reverb drenched ambient guitar tones into soundscapes that most musical libraries can’t offer up. Does it pay well? It depends on how well you market yourself and get the word out to producers, directors and other licensing agents. But if you’re looking for a straight answer, no, not at all because other than the project you’re working on who the hell else is looking for aphex twin in reality television? So you end up with a few cues in one show that really can’t be placed anywhere else.
There’s a choice that most composers make before they really dig into writing. Is this going to be a song, or a TV cue. Both serve a purpose but with the song comes a freedom to go anywhere and tap into deep seeded emotions that are more likely to resonate with an audience. The TV cue serves the picture first and the composers musical passions second. The sweet spot for film and TV lays somewhere in-between giving the producer what they ask for while staying true to yourself.