When Things Get Real on TV, Music Pays Real Well
By Christopher M. Matthews via wsj.com
Some composers have gone into the reality TV business--arranging music for some of America's favorite shows. It may not be Mozart, but the royalties make up for it. Photo: ABC/Rick Rowell
Brad Segal, a child prodigy schooled as a pianist at the Juilliard School in New York, is devoted to his music. Classically trained, he also grew up playing the blues, so he can shift seamlessly from a Ray Charles riff to a Beethoven fugue.
Mr. Segal’s music needs that range. It set the scene for Kaitlyn Bristowe, the current star of “The Bachelorette,” as she chose between her final two suitors on the finale of the 11th season of the ABC reality show on Monday.
It isn’t exactly tickling the ivories on a Steinway at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, where Mr. Segal performed when he was in school. But the hours spent in a West Los Angeles studio composing for the hit TV series—and a steady flow of royalties from other reality shows—do pay the bills.
Mr. Segal, 51 years old, turned his prodigious talents to reality TV in 2003 and never looked back.
“Reality TV is not going away,” said Mr. Segal. “The fact that I figured out a way to not work 100 hours a week, and be in music and support my family, that’s a cool thing,” he added.
Mr. Segal, who runs a small production company called FineTune Music LLC, has worked on every season of the Bachelorette and 16 seasons of the sibling show “The Bachelor,” winning awards for his music. He says he works on about 10 reality series a year, including ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and Fox’s “American Idol,” and has carved out a niche for himself.
“We are known for our dramatic stuff and the tense, sweeping orchestral stuff,” Mr. Segal said.
It turns out the genre—enjoyed by some as a campy, melodramatic guilty pleasure, while deplored by others—has become a sure thing for various musicians, from the classically trained to long-touring rockers.
Musicians compete for the biggest reality shows, preferably those on prime-time network television, which score the biggest royalties. Most are independent operators, but some have formed formidable music-publishing companies that hire top talent and do more than 30 shows a year.
Perhaps the best-known composer in the industry is David Vanacore, who entered the field after years of touring with Cher and the rock band Poco. After turning down an offer to tour with Guns N’ Roses in the early 1990s because of road fatigue, Mr. Vanacore had a fortuitous meeting with Mike Post, a well-known television composer, who offered him a job as studio keyboard player.
“[Mike Post] said ‘I make money when I sleep [through royalties]’ and I said, ‘That sounds like a good idea, how do I get that job?’” Mr. Vanacore recalled.
Mr. Post began farming work to Mr. Vanacore, who would go on to compose for TV dramas and comedies for about five years. In 1999, Mr. Vanacore’s career changed forever when he was hired to work on “Survivor.” The CBS show, which is now in its 30th season, pits contestants marooned in an isolated location against one another in fending for themselves and competing in various challenges. The show was among the first profitable reality-TV series and is viewed as a groundbreaker in the genre.
It has also made Mr. Vanacore rich. “If you would have told me this 15 years ago, I would have said you’re out of your mind, you’re on crack,” Mr. Vanacore said.
These days his company, Vanacore Music, is a heavyweight in the unscripted television genre—and some documentaries—composing for hits including “The Apprentice,” “Big Brother,” and “Hell’s Kitchen.”
Musically, unscripted shows differ from dramas and sitcoms in several ways. While an average, hourlong drama might use 15 to 20 minutes of music, a reality show will likely have music throughout. That much music means that unscripted shows are likely to be a hybrid of original scoring and library music—recorded music that can be inserted by the show’s editors as needed.
Most reality music is written to prompt a very specific audience reaction, according to Mr. Segal.
“Nothing is subtle,” he said. “Three people could be sitting in a room talking about nothing. If you have some tension music, it’s of concern, if you have goofy music, you’re going for a laugh.”
Survivor, for instance, is heavy on drums and tribal-sounding vocals to play up the edge-of-the-world competition. Mr. Vanacore has created a library of theme music for the show that can be reused, but each season he also travels to the country where the show is being filmed, hires local musicians and records music for two weeks to be used just for that season. This year it was Cambodia.
“Survivor is all about the indigenous music,” he said.
Back home in California, Mr. Vanacore employs full-time composers who work in an 8,000-square-foot recording studio in Valencia.
Most composers, however, are more like Mr. Segal, independent operators who contract work out to other musicians. Some rent studio space or work from a laptop at home. Mr. Segal declined to discuss compensation but said his career has afforded himself, his wife and three children a comfortable life.
“Composers move out to Hollywood and say, I want to be the biggest film composer ever, I want to be Hans Zimmer,” Mr. Segal said in an interview. “But oh, wait, I’ve got to get a job.”
The industry could be facing an overhaul at the hands of none other than Mr. Zimmer, the Academy-award winning composer known for scoring director Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies and a laundry list of blockbuster films.
Two years ago, Mr. Zimmer joined with Russell Emanuel, a former punk rock band manager, to create The Bleeding Fingers Custom Music Shop. It is a production company focused primarily on unscripted television and based in a state-of-the-art facility in Santa Monica that includes 21 recording studios. It has produced music for shows ranging from the Discovery Channel’s “Alaskan Bush People” to the History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty.”
Mr. Emanuel, 53, previously upended the library music industry, when he recruited A-list musicians like Snoop Dogg, George Martin and Quincy Jones to work in a genre long considered a backwater for musicians. Now he is hoping to do the same with reality TV.
“I think it’s been pedestrian for a while,” he said. “There’s been a history of people in this area doing it in bedrooms and on laptops. We’re producing in state-of-the art studios, we just don’t spare the horses when it comes to production value.”