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Stripping Out – Not Stripping To – Music

A few months ago I reconnected with a friend of mine from law school who lives down South. She came to my last gig at Cornelia Street Café in July and we hung out at my Club the next day. Anyway, she inspired me to write a song in the style of a 60s pop tune about this, called “Who’s That Blonde Girl” but that’s another story and if you want to hear the song you can catch my upcoming gig at Cornelia Street on October 19.

Anyway, her boyfriend is a jazz musician and she’ll occasionally pepper me questions about the music biz or point out interesting news articles, like this one from NPR.

Part of the article dealt with why some popular TV series, especially those that used a lot of period pop music like WKRP in Cincinnati and The Wonder Years haven’t been released for home video.  It doesn’t have to do with any producer or actor disputes. Believe it or not, the reason is the music. It’s too expensive – or so the producers of those shows claim.

When I was at Boosey & Hawkes, I personally experienced both sides of the coin.  At the time, we licensed some pretty cool music, including Steve Reich and some other works to be used as underscore in The Sopranos. But when the shows were released on DVD, they stripped out the music – and not just the B&H tracks – and replaced it with cheaper library music.   It wasn’t that the music supervisors and clearance people weren’t aware of the need for home video rights.  Home video and other options are typically negotiated upfront.  But the surprising thing here was that the Sopranos people didn’t even try to negotiate with us. They just assumed clearing the tracks would be too expensive and replaced them.  This happens a lot in TV these days.

I find this troubling as the consumer is buying a product that is different from what they saw on TV and what they expected to purchase. Imagine if they stripped out James Gandolfini and put in some other actor for Tony Soprano and didn’t tell anyone? OK, the music isn’t as important as the lead actor, but try telling the directors of these episodes that their artistic vision is being altered for the sake of saving a few shekels.

On the other hand, we were able to get some hefty fees from the producers of Monty Python’s Flying Circus when they came to “renew” a home video license and my crackerjack synch licensing executive – or Senior Music Crisis Counselor as she preferred to be called – discovered there was no license to renew. I would like to think we’d have been a bit more charitable if those guys were up front about their past infringements rather than trying to slip one by us.

It doesn’t serve the creators of the shows or the public who wants the ability to enjoy them again to have a system where music has to be stripped out. Given the ability to negotiate options up front for home video and other releases and the possibility that less expensive music could be substituted, the producers, music publishers and labels should be more flexible in licensing these rights, especially so that classic shows that used lots of good music can be reissued and enjoyed by past and future fans.