Over the past ten years the soundtrack label Movie Score Media has in my opinion outshone many other such labels that specialise in the release of film music. MSM have been responsible for releasing somewhat obscure but at the same time innovative and groundbreaking film scores. The label has always championed new talent in the film music arena and brought to the attention of collectors numerous composers who would probably not have had their music for film and TV released. Label owner,composer and producer Mikael Carlsson is obviously the driving force behind this practice of releasing fresh and original soundtracks so I asked him about the label and basically how he worked.
What inspired you to become a soundtrack label producer?
Excellent music by lesser known composers! Before I launched MovieScore Media a little more than ten years ago, I was making a living as a news editor for 15 years with film music journalism as a hobby, first publishing my own magazine in Swedish – MovieScore – in the early 90s and then being heavily involved in the UK publication Music from the Movies for around a decade. I also formed the Film Music Critics Jury back then, which then turned into the quite prolific International Film Music Critics Assocation. As I was writing hundreds of CD reviews and conducting many composer interviews, I began to take more and more notice of excellent scores from smaller films by up and coming, not very well known, composers. I felt that this music deserved more attention, and that it oftentimes had much more to offer than the blockbuster soundtracks everyone buys. In 2005 I launched MovieScore Media and decided to switch from journalism to a full time devotion to music. The label was not my main focus in the beginning as I was also an aspiring film and television composer, writing music for some Swedish series, but the label soon became the most important part of my activities, and it still is.
So when you are looking for a score to release, what do you actually look or listen for?
It used to be quality of music only. I have released many scores for films that no one, including myself, actually saw. The music was great, and deserved to be heard by more people. Of course, from a commercial standpoint this is risky business, and I quickly learned two things: I needed to release music on CD – physical product – that would attract soundtrack collectors, and I needed to find a balance between musical quality and commercial appeal in the film title itself. The competition today is very tough, and it’s really difficult to find the right titles to release where all the right criteria are met.
What is the first step or steps when you decide that you would like to release a score, do you approach the composer or maybe the film company?
It depends. If it’s a score by a composer I know and maybe have worked with on previous albums, I probably reach out to him or her first. It’s quite rare though that composers are in control of the copyright, so eventually I am going to be in touch with the company that owns the music, usually the film company. It has become far more common in the past years that I am approached by composers too – the other way around.
Is it better if the composer of the score is involved when you are working on a release?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve only done a handful of releases where the composer was not involved, usually for rather sad reasons, i.e. the composer not being alive. If that is the case, I still like to have someone who used to work closely with said composer listen to my album cut for feedback. I remember that I was in touch with Eric Colvin on the Basil Poledouris album (”The Legend of Butch and Sundance”) and Blake Neely, Ilan Eshkeri and Steve McLaughlin on the Michael Kamen (”Back to Gaya”), for instance. For a current score, sometimes the composer already has an album cut ready for mastering, but the most common scenario is that I am sent the complete score and do the album cut for the composer to approve.
Have there been any scores that you wanted to issue but have been refused access to them by either the composer of the film company, and what were the reasons for this, if you can tell us?
Yes, there are many scores I’d like to release but there are sometimes many obstacles, and the most common one is that the film company simply is not interested. Many of them sit on great scores, but the score album business is generating too little money for them to be interested. Only on a couple of occasions has a composer refused to have a score put out.
Many soundtracks are limited to a run of 500 or less, have you ever thought I wish I had produced more, and what titles would you say are the better sellers for your label?
We ran into a problem with our release of ”Let the Right One In” back in 2008. At the time, we usually had our CD releases limited to 500 copies. But this particular title sold out so quickly and the demand was so big, that we decided to lift the limit as there were no contractual reasons for it. To this day, it’s one of our best selling albums and we decided to never do the marketing trick with limited editions again. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the albums we do will be available forever, in fact most of the CDs we do are only 300 units. Should there be a surprise hit, we are able to do more, but in most cases we don’t have that luxury.
Going back just a few years, the horror film score was something of a no go area for record labels, it was not really until films like the OMEN, THE HOWLING, SILVER BULLET, PIRAHNA etc that horror soundtracks started to get released, now we see a landslide of quite low key horror films having their soundtracks released, why is this do you think, film music collectors tastes or a younger audience watching the horror films?
For me personally, horror scores are quite often offering interesting writing. There are of course the whole jungle of ”cheap horror scores” which are just cliche, but the best of the music written for this genre is also some of the most innovative in film music as a whole. I really don’t know if there is a horror ”trend” actually. I think that the scores you mentioned got released more because of the era they come from – the great late 70s early 80s period, which a lot of soundtrack fans are attracted to.
You set up a separate label from Movie Score Media to concentrate on scores from horror movies, these have included a lot of works by composers who are relatively unknown to collectors, is this quite risky considering the current financial climate?
Yes, if the ”mother label” – MovieScore Media – is known for putting out some rather obscure scores (and I don’t mean obscure in a negative way), than Screamworks Records is even more of a niche label. The challenge is when you have a small film with music by an unknown composer which happens to be interesting and of high quality. Sometimes I see myself more as an artistic director than a producer, because in those cases the producer in me tells me that the commercial problems with such a product are too many. But the artistic director in me has a stronger voice, and that’s why you see some of these scores being released, even though they are small.
Have you ever embarked on a project and mid way through found that tapes are in such bad condition or there is a technical hitch etc that it becomes a non viable project?
Very rarely do I work with archival materials or vintage scores, so no, that has never happened to me.
Do you compete with other soundtrack labels for soundtracks at all, or do you set your sights upon material you know your customers will appreciate, or do film companies or composers come to you with their scores?
Clearly, I have my own niche, but the market today is oversaturated. When I started out ten years ago, it was much easier to get exposure for a release, and to have it pop up as an ”outsider” among the more high profile score releases. Today, also with the explosion of the digital music market, there are so many film music albums coming out every week. The average number during the first half of 2016 is 45 soundtrack releases per week. So yes, the competition is very tough and for a small niche label it’s a huge challenge to try and motivate the fan base to spend their money on our albums – even though the music is great, it’s only natural that they would first purchase music by the more well-known, perhaps even legendary, composers – and then you have all the new big blockbusters coming out.
How long does it take to assemble all the music and then produce an actual compact disc of a soundtrack?
It depends. The assembly itself doesn’t take long in most cases – the composer or film company delivers the complete score, usually online in digital format. But the actual editing process – editing, sequencing and mastering – can take at least a couple of days. In most cases I do all of this and the composer is then having a listen to it all, may come back with usually just minor requests which are fixed in a day. In a few rare cases composers are very detail oriented and then, of course, the process is longer. I trust my musical instincts a lot when I do an album cut, and sometimes the composer is surprised by the new shape of the score presentation. In 9 out of 10 cases that surprise is of a positive nature. They are happy to discover that the album has a structure and makes sense musically. But it happens that I go down the wrong path with a score, and then of course the composer has final approval and we tweak it. I would never put out a score without the composer being happy with the presentation.
Do you find that collectors are now downloading more than actually buying the physical CD?
iTunes is my biggest source of income, more than CDs, so yes, probably. You also have the streaming services like Spotify which is growing. The market is changing in quite revolutionary ways, but there are still a hardcore collectors segment that would only buy physical product.
WORRY DOLLS was one of your recent projects and releases, a wonderfully dark score by Composer Holly Amber Church, do you think you will release more scores by her, as I understand the CD has already sold out?
No, that’s incorrect, last time I checked there were plenty of those left. I hope that we can do more albums together, WORRY DOLLS was our second project after RITES OF SPRING that came out in 2012.
Is there any score you would like to release if you were given the green light?
That list would be too long to put in this article…
MOVIE SCORE MEDIA do seem to release newer scores or current soundtracks, would you consider releasing any vintage material like other labels such as KRONOS with their gold series or Hillside with the Italian westerns they release etc or maybe a series like GDI did a number of years back when they issued the Hammer scores?
Well, we have the Discovery Collection where we released almost 20 scores, including the last scores written by Basil Poledouris and Michael Kamen. I don’t know what qualifies as ”vintage”, but those are at least not current – those are mostly scores for films that came out at last a decade ago.
Would you ever consider releasing a best of MSM collection, like we used to see years ago with labels such as UA?
I have been giving that some thought, given our ten year anniversary this year. I don’t know yet if there will be any though… the hard part is to choose from over 300 releases!