Podcast Basics

Breakmaster Cylinder On How To Compose Custom Podcast Music

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The “Mysterious” Breakmaster Cylinder (BMC) may be best known for creating the music for Reply All, Gimlet Media’s hit podcast with a listenership in the millions. The anonymous composer has also created music for The Pitch, Crazy/Genius, and Special Relationship.

Their domination in the podcast music scene led Luke Gordon from Syncly to sit down with The Master to help other podcasters navigate the the world of podcast music. BMC’s candid answers highlight how anyone, not just hosts signed with Gimlet Media, can hire a talented composer to produce custom podcast music.

Take a sneak peek into BMC’s process and then find answers to the most common questions about finding unique music for podcasts.

Luke Gordon: What function should podcast intro and outro music play?

Breakmaster Cylinder: “The music sets the tone in three notes. Or so I’ve been told. It should immediately feel like a place you’ve been before the second time you hear it.”

LG:  If I was to hire you to compose a theme, what do you want to see in my brief to you?

BMC: “I want to know your ideal theme song’s genre, tempo, instrumentation, mood, ratio of electronic to acoustic (instruments). Or some reference tracks and what you like about them.

I wanna hear all about your show, I want to know if you’re doing this yourself or if you’re with an organization, etc. It’s partially to find a price point on the sliding scale, it’s partially to just get a picture of you and this thing you’re creating.”

LG: What are the standard terms when hiring a composer for a podcast theme? Is it usually a buyout (i.e. the podcast owns the rights to the music) or something else?

BMC: “I prefer to do a yearly fee for the license to play it every episode. It will usually be non-exclusive (meaning other people can use the same track) because the standards for exclusive licenses are stupid expensive. Sometimes I’ll offer to do a buy-out (podcast producer owns all the rights of the music forever) but that requires some discussion.”

How To Find The Right Composer For Your Podcast Music

Finding a musician to compose podcast music starts with research. Professional composers usually have their own website with a selection of their work available. If you can’t find a dedicated website of their work, check out Soundcloud or Bandcamp for sample tracks. 

Once you find a composer that matches the sound you’re looking for, follow these tips to end up with an intro you love.

How do I brief a composer?

A creative brief gives the composer direction about how you want the music to sound. Things to consider when providing a creative brief to a composer are:

  • Style/genre (Rock, Orchestral, Cuban etc.)
  • Mood (motivational, mysterious etc.)
  • Duration (e.g. 20 secs)
  • Instrumentation (piano, electric guitar, bagpipes?)
  • Tempo (slow, mid-tempo, high-energy?)
  • Reference tracks (music that the composer can be inspired by but don’t ask for a copy)

Describing music is really difficult, particularly if you do not have a musical background. Although the best composers are good at interpreting musical descriptions from a brief, often the easiest way to describe what you want is to reference similar music. Ideally, find two or three tracks (or sections of a track) that consistently demonstrate the sound you are looking for.

Tell the composer how long the piece should be. If you know the duration needs to be an exact length, like 12 seconds for example, then let the composer know this is important as it can be tricky to make changes to the duration later on. 

Finally, remember that the music must be original so, unless you get permission you are not allowed to record your own version of any existing song, like “I’ll Be There For You” (the Friends theme). This is because, although you would own the rights to the new recording, the publisher owns the rights to the song (music and lyrics).

What rights do I need from the composer? 

It’s really important to set the terms early in your discussions with a composer. Here’s a starting point of things to consider discussing and agreeing on before commissioning the musician:

You need the worldwide rights, in perpetuity (forever) for both the song and the master recording. You can either achieve this by stating that, by paying the composer to produce the music for you, you will acquire all the rights in the music. This is reasonable practice but the composer may argue that they need to charge more money for this (which is also reasonable). 

Or, you can agree that although the composer retains the rights, he/she will grant you a worldwide perpetual licence to use the music in your podcast forever more. In this case, you also need to discuss whether you will have the exclusive right to license the music. In other words, if you don’t want the composer to license the music that you have commissioned to another podcast (or any other usage such as a TV commercial) then you need to own the rights or establish an exclusive license with the composer. 

How long does a composer take to produce podcast music?

As a guide, most composers produce 1-3 sketches (demos) of a 10-30 second theme within a day for you to consider. Once you’ve agreed on the idea, the composer takes another day to finalize the music. So in general, it takes about 1-2 business days to complete a theme up to 30 seconds. Add to this to the time spent briefing the composer and negotiating the final price.

Also, agree how many revisions of their work you want to request. From the composer’s perspective, it’s not fair that you make them change the piano melody or sound of the drums 50 times. As a rule of thumb, the demo you receive should sound 80% right and then you could suggest making three requests to change things.

Written by Luke Gordon. By the age of 17, Luke was making tea in some of the finest recording studios of London. After much knob-twiddling he found himself in front of the controls for the likes of Goldfrapp, The Cure, Pulp, Marc Almond and Stereophonics. Luke moved on to produce his own music, focusing on scoring for documentaries broadcast around the world on BBC and National Geographic as well as TV commercials for brands such as Coca-Cola, Mini Cooper and Tissot.

In 2019, Luke established Syncly Music which brings together a very international bunch of composers under one website and provides a one-stop-licensing-shop for anyone in need of music for podcasts or video.

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Craig Hewitt
Craig is the founder of Castos. When he's not busy podcasting, talking about podcasting, or helping others get started in this awesome medium he's hanging out with his wife, two children, and likely planning their next travel adventure.

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