How My Song Ended Up in a Movie

It was about this time 5 years ago that I had been diagnosed with cancer and had started 6 months of chemotherapy treatments.

Cancer, you might imagine, is a drag. And one of the most tedious parts of the process is the boredom. Sitting around hospitals, waiting for tests to come back…I’m a guy that likes to always be busy with 10 projects at once, so 6 months stuck in chemo was just not my speed.

I made up projects and goals for myself to get through those 6 months. One of the things I decided to work on was an album. It was a difficult time for my family, my friends and myself – and I like to think that music made it easier for all of us.

The Album

At the end of the 6 months I had a short collection of recordings, just 6 songs, and I decided that would be enough. In the end it was less about creating the perfect album, and became more about sharing some hard evidence that I had triumphed over cancer.

So out Straight Ahead came, digital only, in the summer of 2006. Cameron cleverly helped me get one of the songs into a popular iMix, and I sold a very modest number of copies of the album. I never made a great deal of money, but again, there had been non-monetary and even non-musical reasons for putting the album out there. I was satisfied.

The Offer

Skip ahead to summer of 2009. I was working as a music director at a summerstock theater in upstate New York. One afternoon an email arrives from a music licensing house. The email says that Sony Pictures is interested in licensing my recording of Nearness of You for a feature film called “Takers”.

I nearly deleted the email. I thought it was spam. It seemed like one of those “Nigerian businessman needs your social security number” kind of emails. And it has an attachment (always a dubious sign). Just to be safe, though, I sent the email to a cousin that works in film, asking him if it looked legit to him.

To my surprise, it turned out to be a legitimate offer from Sony Pictures. They were interested in my recording. They said that had a scene in the movie where one friend plays piano while another friend proposes to his girlfriend. They thought the recording was a good fit for the scene and they wanted to secure the rights prior to filming the scene.

The Source

My first question was: How did they find my recording? The answer: iTunes.

If you think about it, that is quite incredible. Just a few years ago, before iTunes was invented, it would have been unimaginable that a normal, non-famous musician could score a song placement in a major feature film without the help of an agent, radio play, a manager or a friend on the inside. If Sony is, in fact, combing iTunes for songs in their upcoming movies, we should sit for a moment and marvel at how resolutely iTunes has democratized our industry. You, dear reader, can get a song in a movie. Just pay CD Baby $35 and get your material into digital distribution, and you will have just as good a chance as anyone.

The Movie

I considered hiring a lawyer for the contract negotiations, but I decided to rely on the good advice of my cousin and another friend in the film business. Everyone agreed that the offer they gave me was reasonable, so I signed the contract and faxed it back.

The movie was filmed soon thereafter, and “Takers” was released a year later – just last month. In the scene, the recording is performed by Hayden Christensen’s character, “AJ”, as his friend Jake (Michael Ealy) proposes to his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana). They used about 1 minute of the recording.

I went to see the movie in Manhattan with Cameron and a few other friends. What a trip to hear my music on the big screen! What a thrill to sit with friends in a movie theater in New York City and see my name in the credits! How incredible is it that something that started with a cancer patient in suburban Illinois could end up in a Hollywood movie at that AMC in Manhattan?

Do Something

So how did I get my song in a movie? A little work and a lot of luck. My guess is that somebody at Sony searched iTunes for “solo piano ballad” or something similar.

Will I be able to repeat this stroke of luck? Can I give you advice on how you can do it too? I don’t know. It’s hard to predict what the good folks in Hollywood will be looking for in the future.

Obviously, though, none of us will have any hope at all if we don’t continue to make recordings and put them into digital distribution. So keep creating, keep recording, keep releasing – and see what happens. You never know what people will be looking for.

Or, as Cameron more succinctly summed up in The Art (of Act) of Doing, the best advice I can give is this: do something.

Job Profile: Music Editor, Producer and Composer Ethan Stoller

When David Hahn approached me about writing an essay about my career in music, it took me a minute to narrow down what it is I do exactly.  Though I’ve only been in the industry for about four years, I’ve accumulated several job titles: composer, producer, music consultant and assistant music editor.  I’ve worked on major motion pictures, independent films, television documentaries, commercials, industrial films, internet slide shows and a custom project for an NBA franchise.  So if I had to distill what I do into one easy phrase, I’d say I make music for moving pictures.

In my high school and college years, I thought I wanted to be a movie director.  I majored in writing in college, with supporting coursework in cinema studies.  I took a few semesters of filmmaking classes.  They were fun, but I never really loved doing it and frankly, I wasn’t that good at it.  The part of the process that I did love, though, was adding the soundtrack, whether I was recording it myself or using existing recordings.  Unfortunately, I didn’t realize then that I could make a viable career out of making music for pictures and I pursued the directing route.  I applied to only one grad school for filmmaking and they declined my application.  I was left with a pretty impractical bachelor’s degree and no ideas about what to do next.

I spent my twenties in a series of crappy jobs including telemarketing, bussing tables, substitute teaching, census taking, and ACT prep tutoring.  I finally settled into a job I could tolerate, driving for a messenger service.  What I enjoyed most about my messenger job was that I could listen to music all day.  I’d grab about a dozen CDs every morning (this was before iPods) and drive around Chicago flipping through my music collection.  I was content but unfulfilled.

On my 30th birthday, I received a $75 gift certificate to Guitar Center from a friend of mine.  I had been writing songs and noodling around with a Tascam 4-track, but never really did any serious recording.  I used the gift certificate to buy a piece of low-level recording software called Plasma.  I fell in love with making music on the computer almost instantly.  I started writing more and experimenting with sounds.  I didn’t have a clue about how to start a career making music, but I knew that I’d love to give it a shot if I had an opportunity.  And then I got one.

My sister-in-law, Meema Spadola, had built a career as a respected documentary filmmaker in New York and she was completing a new piece called Red Hook Justice that was slated to air on PBS.  As she was nearing post-production she asked me if I’d like to take a shot at writing the score for it.  The film didn’t require that much music (maybe seven minutes in total), and I promised her that I’d do my best but if I couldn’t hack it that I’d harbor no ill feelings if she needed to hire a “real” composer.  I learned a great deal working with Meema; it was my first glimpse at the fact that a film score is really a collaboration between the composer and the director.  Long story short, she was happy with my work and the film received glowing reviews from the media.

Working on the documentary was a great experience, but the compensation was hardly enough to consider quitting my messenger job.  I knew I may have had some talent, but I couldn’t figure out how to move forward in the industry.  I had read about a music production and music business “boot camp” school in Chicago called the Music Industry Workshop.  They seemed to offer the type of instruction that I would need to take the next step in my music career, but the tab would run upwards of $4,000.  Now, this is where having an amazing spouse really made my career possible.  My hard-working wife and I were lucky enough to have saved a little money, and she agreed that taking classes was my best chance to pursue a career in music.

Meema referred me to other directors in the documentary community and with the new skills I was acquiring at MIW, I felt confident enough to accept composing gigs from “strangers.”  I worked on a few more independent film projects and reached out to more people in the industry to learn about advancing my career in music.  I connected with an amazing composer in Chicago named Mark Greenberg who was independently making music for commercials.  Nothing happened right away but a couple of years after we met, Mark expanded his business (The Mayfair Workshop) to include more composers and he brought me aboard.

My big break came late in 2005 when I got a call from my friends the Wachowski Brothers.  I had known them since high school, long before they created The Matrix and the media tidal wave that followed it.  They were aware of my fledgling music career but they hadn’t yet found a good fit for me in their business.  Not that I was asking them to employ me; I was just thrilled at their success and happy to keep business and pleasure separate.  So the phone rang and Larry Wachowski said that they had been toying with the idea of using a funny little DJ track I made in the closing credits of their new movie, V for Vendetta.  I didn’t own any of the parts of the song they wanted and was amused that my little mashup creation would be featured in a major motion picture.  But when they told me that they couldn’t get the consent of all the license holders, I volunteered my services, offering to replace the mashup elements with original music.  I gave them the same out-clause that I had with Meema a couple years earlier: “I’m new at this and if you need to go another direction I completely understand.”  The song, “BKAB,” became a minor internet sensation and I started t receive e-mail from all corners of the globe (mostly) praising my song.  In addition to making more money than I ever had before in music, I was gratified to hear that complete strangers were enjoying my music.

Since then I’ve had the chance to work with the Wachowskis on other projects, including Speed Racer and Ninja Assassin.  On those films I got to try my hand at music editing, specifically working on the temp scores.  The temp score is a very detailed music track that plays with the film during the post-production process.  It is used for several purposes: to give the composer an idea of what type of music the directors have in mind for a given scene; it helps the directors and editors gauge the way a scene is paced and how it feels emotionally; and it allows the studio executives and test audiences to experience an unfinished film with a more finished feeling to it.   I worked as an assistant to two top-tier Hollywood music editors, Joe E. Rand and Joseph DeBeasi, and I will defer to them to explain the pleasures and pitfalls of a music editing career (I have enlisted Joseph to write an essay like this one for this website).  But I will just say that music editing is a viable career choice for any creative musician.

I have also continued composing.  I’ve worked on commercials and promotional materials for motion pictures.  Each project presents its own challenges and rewards.  As a composer for moving pictures, I find I have to be something of a musical chameleon, creating everything from hip-hop to tangos, country to techno.  Being versatile is probably an even better attribute than being good!  And as I found from the very first project I worked on with Meema, my job as a composer for pictures is to interpret the director’s vision into something audible.  If the director is satisfied, I’ve done my job.

Though I’ve only been able to finally work full-time as a musician for a couple of years now, I have gleaned a couple of nuggets of advice for others looking to follow in my path.  First, be prepared for the job you accept and be open about any limitations or deficiencies you might have.  If a director knows up front what you can offer them, they will likely work with you if they feel you can handle the job.  Never hesitate to ask questions.  No one will mind if you don’t understand how to do something, but you’ll catch hell if you pretend to know something you don’t.  That leads to my second piece of advice: be someone people want to work with.  Be flexible and friendly.  Be professional but have fun.  Most people I know would much rather work with the competent person that they like than with the genius who is an ass.

Don’t get too caught up in gear.  Be aware of what’s out there, but don’t feel that you can’t compete without the fastest processors or the sexiest preamps.  Compare your sound with the competition and make sure that you’re in the ballpark.  If you are lagging far behind, you will have to invest some capital.  With perhaps one exception, I’ve found that those investments usually pay for themselves.  Just educate yourself on which gear you need most to get the job done right.  There are many periodicals out there that can help navigate the gear-maze.  Read them.

When you are close to getting a composing job, talk about money before you start working.  Even when working with friends, get a written contract.  Good contracts make good friends.  Be clear on what is expected of you and what the timetable is for you to deliver.  Vagueness in these matters doesn’t help you or the process.  Once you are working with “strangers” they will expect you as a professional to discuss money matters up front.

My last piece of advice: be lucky.  Yeah, I know that’s a tough one.   I am lucky enough to have a patient, supportive wife and creative friends (with jobs!)  Of course, to make music for pictures, you need to know people making the pictures.  Find out who is making the movies and TV shows in your community and figure out a way to get on their radar without becoming a pest.  Sites like are designed to connect indie filmmakers with freelance composers,  You might have to work for free for a while, but be ready for that call from a producer with a budget looking for a fresh voice.

The Next Level – Getting Started As a Musician, Part 2

You’re out of the gate with your music career and now you are trying to get to “The Next Level”.  You’ve established yourself in one circle or another and you’ve come to realize that you deserve more money, recognition, and better gigs than you are getting now.

For starters, let’s refer back to my first article on “Getting Started”.  The first 3 issues need to be revisited: Honest Assessment, Gather Information, and Set Reasonable Goals.  Whether you are a part time musician looking to become a full time musician or you are a full time musician seeking to increase your gig schedule, we need to establish what constitutes “The Next Level” since it’s quite different for all of us.  Steps for getting to the next level are not a secret but they are uncomfortable and difficult to implement. There is no substitute for hard work and perseverance.  Very similar to getting started in the music business, there is also no single answer for getting to the next level.  Are you ready for “The Next Level?”  Assess your situation, gather some information, set a few goals and read on!

Practice More.  Is it time to update your playing?  Are you getting the same gigs with the same people because you are playing the same notes and licks over and over again?  Is it time to get back to some private study or find a new private teacher?  Try to cut down on the wasted time that occupies a larger than normal portion of your day and use it to get back into the practice room.  Talk to some accomplished professionals and ask what books or techniques they are working on at the moment.  Ask them what’s in their iPod and what they are listening to right now for motivation.

Increase your Versatility.  Are you playing the same job or same types of jobs because it’s all you can do?  Are you in fact limited to one style of music or one situation?  Maybe it’s time to explore some other possibilities. This is difficult because increasing your versatility may mean exploring some kinds of music or situations you are not familiar with and fall outside of your comfort zone.  For example, if you are world’s most undiscovered burning guitar player but you have one gig between now and Easter, what can you do?  How about get a lap steel or a pedal steel and learn a few country tunes?  How about making yourself available for solo acoustic gigs?  My point is that change is always fine, as long as it’s happening to someone else, right?  Time to look inward.

Learn to Read Music.  It’s 2008, it’s expected.  Formal training or no formal training, learn to read music.  It saves everyone time and money especially if you plan to do any studio work.  Reading music increases your value as a musician.  The more you read music the easier it becomes, don’t keep putting it off because it’s difficult at first.  Riding a bike was difficult and we all fell the first few times.  Get up, get back in the saddle, and figure it out.

Always be Prepared.  Are you ready for the “next level”? Whatever it may be? What happens if you get the call to audition for the gig of a lifetime?  Are you prepared?  I cannot stress the importance of doing your homework.  This can take on a bunch of different forms and it’s applicable to a lot of different situations, but it usually always comes down to learning the music.  Whether you are learning 3 or 4 tunes for an audition, or whether you just got a gig and you have to learn 3 decades worth of music, learn it.  Learn all of it, inside and out.  Don’t just be able to “get through it”, that’s not good enough.  Learn to “play it”.

Positive Attitude.  The music business is difficult, and it has politics like any other profession.  Sometimes the best players get the best gigs, sometimes they don’t.  An early mentor of mine always told me to worry about the gigs I did get and not to worry about the gigs I didn’t get.  The message is quite simple, but putting into play is a little more difficult.  Nobody wants to hire someone who is dark, miserable and has a poor attitude even if their playing is stellar.  Keeping a positive attitude and surrounding yourself with people who are successful, innovative and positive will increase your chances far beyond sitting in a coffee shop or bar complaining about the politics, unfairness and inequality in the music industry.

CD/DVD’s.  Do you have CD/DVD’s for sale?  Are you on anyone else’s CD/DVD’s?  Hopefully the answer is yes to both, if it’s not, get busy!  Are you promoting them or are they collecting dust in a closet somewhere?  Are you for sale on iTunes?  Nowadays there are many, many outlets for promoting music online.  Websites like CD Baby and Music Submit are filled with valuable information that is updated daily with information you need to get your product out there.

Increase your Exposure Online.  Sure we all have a website, a Myspace Page, a Facebook page, but is that enough?  What happens when you go to Google yourself in quotes?  If 1 or 2 websites come up, it’s not enough.  There are hundreds of websites, web rings, and link exchanges to join.  Increasing traffic to your website is only a start, especially if you have a CD to promote.  Reviews on other websites about you or your CD are also particularly helpful because they give you legitimacy.  Are you exposed in any other languages?  Do you have video’s on You Tube?  How is the quality?  What kind of comments are you getting?  I know I enjoy watching someone play in addition to listening to them play whenever possible.  Most of the time, video is a more accurate and complete representation of someone’s performance than audio by itself.

Increase your Exposure in Person.  How often are you actually out playing?  How often are you playing shows the public can come see?  How often do you go out to see others play?  Do you see what I’m getting at?

Web exposure is fine and extremely beneficial, but how often does someone get hired purely because of what’s on their website?  If you’re lucky, a website is where people go after they’ve seen you perform to find out more about you.  Make sure you are playing an ample amount of shows that showcase your playing in public.  Hang around afterwards instead of heading home.  On that same note, be sure to check out as much live music as possible.  You can greatly increase your chance of “being in the right place at the right time” if you increase the amount of places you visit.

Seek the advice of professionals.  Ask someone who is doing what you want to do how they got where they are!  It’s okay to pick someone’s brain a little, and even okay to steal and incorporate.  You can steal and incorporate a lot of things.  You can steal and incorporate music, marketing, and networking ideas in general.

Seek out Endorsements.  This is more difficult now than ever, but not impossible.  Endorsements in 2008 are more about marketability than playing.  It’s more about relationships with the companies and what you can do for them.  I have several friends that are not “big names” that do clinics for reputable companies.  They have good endorsements and their names get spread as a result.  They are all competent players and have excellent business skills.  Talk to reps at the NAMM show or visit some of your favorite companies online and try to gather some of the endorsement application requirements.  Don’t ever be afraid to approach a company’s artist relations representative to talk about your situation and your interests in promoting their product.

My last suggestion is a bonus suggestion and needs to be prefaced by a story because it comes from personal experience.  I was 22 or 23 years old and wrapping up my last year at the University of North Texas when I got wind that my absolute favorite local band was auditioning drummers.  I had been listening to this band for a year before I got to North Texas and all 5 years I was there.  I was very familiar with every single one of their tunes and I was ripe for the gig.  I practiced their music for the audition, but the truth is I knew most of it already since I had been listening and playing along to it in addition to attending their concerts for nearly 6 years.

I did more than the necessary homework because I had recently run into a string of bad auditions.  I had been denied a few gigs prior to this audition because I was young, ambitious, I hit hard, I overplayed, and I generally played too loud.  These are all very normal things for a young drummer mind you, but I was very conscious that this was obviously not working and not what people were looking for.  I went in to this audition very conscious of what was not working and decided to go ahead and use plastics instead of full on drumsticks for fear of being too loud.  During the first song, I really held back on the fills because I was very conscious not to overplay.  During the next 2 songs I was very cautious not to hit too hard because I was told many times prior that I was quite heavy handed.  After the final song I was careful not to let on how ambitious I was and how badly I wanted the gig.

At the end of the audition the band told me that they really liked my playing but they were looking for someone who was a little more ambitious, hit harder, played more fills, and generally played a little louder.

Be Yourself.  There is no sense portraying a false image, ever.