How to license music for use in trailers

In Part 1 of this series, I interviewed Carol Sovinski of audiomachine, a boutique music production house that creates music for film and game trailers.

In the world of viral videos, the art of film and game trailers has taken on a life of its own– and there’s good money to be made composing the “cues” for those previews.

But how do you get into the film trailer game, find licensing opportunities, work with studios, and deliver quality music on a deadline?

In Part 2, I interview Thomas Bergersen and Nick Phoenix from Two Steps from Hell, a duo of composers who united in 2006 to write music for film and film trailers (Brave, Madagascar 3, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Avengers, The Bourne Legacy, etc.). Their albums have been top-sellers in the iTunes Classical section for over two years, and recently their Google search popularity was on par with famed film-composer Hans Zimmer– no small feat!

I thought it’d be interesting to ask the guys in Two Steps from Hell the same questions that I posed to Carol from audiomachine to see how their processes or attitudes might differ. Here’s what they had to say:

An Interview with Two Steps from Hell

CD Baby: What IS trailer music? And why do studios use trailer music?

Thomas: Trailer music is really any music synchronized to a motion picture advertisement campaign, usually divided into full length (around 2 minutes long) “theatrical,” “international,” and tv spots (usually around 30 seconds long specifically for TV).

Since trailers follow a certain format, generally starting low key and building over the course of the 2 or so minutes of its duration, the music is produced to support that format. It is often orchestral and choral in nature. However, the music that we have written at Two Steps From Hell does not follow this format, rather the format of a typical pop song, which makes it more interesting to the typical listener outside of a trailer context.

We really try to write music that stands on its own feet, rather than something written to support picture. Very often if you can write orchestral music that is self-sufficient, it tends to be very suitable and functional when married to picture. TSFH has grown from being a music library catering to movie advertisement campaigns, into a full blown artist/band, and CD Baby has been a big part of facilitating this change.

What qualities is the customer, director, or studio looking for when they pick trailer music?

Thomas: It depends entirely on the movie, the angle of the marketing campaign, the preferences of directors, producers and marketing teams, etc. Usually they are looking for music that is impactful, not too complex in nature, or too busy in arrangement. It also needs to be fairly static dynamically, as it is up against a barrage of voice overs, sound effects and busy images. The music generally glues everything together and sets the mood/tone of the trailer.

Nick: We would like to believe that the studio is looking for some special music that will really grab the viewer/listener. But it is much more complicated than that. Often times, the music that fits with the direction of the trailer is what is chosen, even if the music is not particularly notable on it’s own. It’s like filmscore. Sometimes the best filmscores that really help to convey the ideas of a movie are not that much fun to listen to on their own.

Is music ever composed custom for the job? Or is trailer music usually all stock stuff in a library?

Thomas: It is sometimes custom music composed specifically for the movie trailer, but this is rare as the trailer production houses are fighting for the same job and have little time and few resources to have custom music created.

Nick: We are working on a couple projects right now that are score to picture.

Can the same piece be used in multiple projects?

Thomas: Yes, unless studios obtain an exclusive license.

Nick: Sometimes a studio wants a new piece never used in a trailer. Other times, they seem to like the familiarity.

Can you tell us a little bit about TSFH– its history, mission, what projects you’ve been involved with, and what sets it apart?

Thomas: Nick and I founded Two Steps From Hell in 2006 and initially released about 60 tracks. It took a while before we got any work, but eventually some editors started taking notice of us and decided to take a chance. I’d say we got really lucky, and we’ve grown steadily since. We try to write music that is just that.. music.. something that anyone who likes music can potentially enjoy, and we go about the process in a very meticulous and artistic way. For me it’s always been about bringing something new and innovating to the table. Something that people haven’t heard before, and something that I haven’t done before.

It was never my goal or dream to write music for trailers or movies. I wanted to write music for everyone to enjoy. Explore my creative mind, and try to push the envelope every time. If whatever I’m working on at the time does not inspire me, I will typically start anew. It is an incredibly difficult process, because there’s no reason to waste time on something that is not
challenging you in any way, but it is also very hard to come up with something that poses a challenge in the first place, so it becomes this endless procrastination scenario.

Mankind has always been about grandeur, and about doing the impossible. The pyramids, the gardens of babylon, man made islands of Dubai, and the tallest skyscrapers, fastest cars, biggest symphonies, etc. My approach to music has always been inspired by this compulsion to create something larger than life. You want to create something that people feel is not part of this world, something that makes them go “ooooh!”

Orchestral music moreso than any other music style seems capable of inspiring such reactions, and thus, for me, it is the natural palette of colors with which I paint. It is very coincidental that the type of music I gravitate towards is impressionistic and grand, and as such lends itself well to movie trailers. We are incredibly fortunate to have such a large following and incredible fanbase.

Nick: We are trying to meld art with commercialism and I think we have had some success doing that.

How do composers and artists get their music placed in trailers? Is it possible to do on their own? Or would they need to work with a licensing agency? 

Thomas: If you write something that people like, eventually it will get used for something or gain some kind of recognition. As far as getting the music out to people– you have to be creative about it.

How do you seek out licensing opportunities? Can you go through a day-in-the-life in terms of the tasks and emailing and phone calls and wrangling and composing and everything else that goes into matching the right music to the right project?

Thomas: We are fortunate to have a great partner, Extreme Music, who deals with most of that work, so we can spend our time coming up with new music.

Nick: We mostly just write music and everything takes care of itself. We don’t have an agent and Extreme Music handles the licensing.

Do artists who compose music for trailers usually release that music commercially? What is the audience for such music? How do those artists/composers promote their work? 

Nick: Not usually, but it has become more popular recently as the trailer music fan base has grown. I think we have reached out to other groups of people as well, like video game fans, filmscore fans and some classical fans.

Thomas: When Nick and I started TSFH there were very few people around doing it. The ones who were had been in the business for a long time, but were only just getting discovered by the “outside” world of fans of the genre. There was an underground community of fans who would trade exclusive content that had been leaked by various sources who had access to the music in the industry, and from that community we eventually saw a great explosion of interest and the emergence of a fan
base that practically begged all the trailer music companies to release the music to the public.

One by one trailer music companies responded to this outcry and eventually TSFH followed suit with “Invincible” and “Archangel.” “Trailer Music” has later been retitled “Epic Music” by fans of the genre. As far as promotion goes I can only speak for TSFH, and we have done very minimal promotional work. It is all word of mouth and exposure in major motion picture advertisement campaigns, world tv events, or video game trailers. Our fans around the world have also generated quite a bit of buzz with fan-made YouTube videos and fan art.

Nick: Fans were pirating the music online because they couldn’t buy it anywhere, so the natural next step was to supply the demand and release the music to the public.

Check out Two Steps from Hell‘s music on CD Baby!