Cannes Film Market

The rise and fall of French soundtrack composers

French soundtrack composers are feeling a double pinch in cinema

Soundtrack composer Philippe Sarde
Soundtrack composer Philippe Sarde

There was a time when writing for cinema had a certain prestige. There was also a time when writing for cinema usually involved being paid to do the work. Increasingly, however, composers are finding themselves totally squeezed on both fronts. In a recent article in the French daily Libération, Jean-Yves Leloup underlined the deep crisis facing the sector in France.

The problem is two-fold, and probably directly connected. On the one hand, songwriters and composers that suffered from the collapse of the recorded music business have been fleeing to movie and TV to sell their skills. On the other, the budgets allocated to music production are being slashed.

Soundtrack prices collapse

Alexandre Desplat, head of Venice jury
Alexandre Desplat Photo: Georges Biard

This twin attack on the sector has seen prices collapse entirely. The figures are grim. Leloup quotes figures from Patrick Sigwalt, Secretary-General of the Union of composers of film music (UCMF). Whereas about 2% of a film’s budget is allocated to music in the US, in France, he says only about 0.3% or 0.4% of the budget of the film is allocated for about twenty to thirty-five minutes of music. “In television, the situation is even more difficult,” he says. “For a 90 minute fiction, recent studies report an average budget of EUR15,000 euros. For a series, EUR9,000, for a miniseries, EUR3,000, and for documentaries, the collapse is total, since it fell to around EUR2,000 euros.” The figures are almost laughable, as they include the production and recording costs. The trouble is, people are accepting them.

One could argue that the situation is inevitable, as there is pressure on prices everywhere. But it is worth noting that this pressure does not seem to affect the salaries attributed to actors. In fact, the two main targets of cost-cutting exercises are composers and screenwriters. Coincidentally, they are probably the least represented craftsmen in the movie chain.

The publishing scam

The other aspect of the deal is that it has become customary for producers and sometimes channels to demand the publishing rights to music featured in their shows or movies from soundtrack composers. The job of a publisher is to protect and promote compositions, notably securing future uses. In that respect, handing the publishing rights of a movie score to the producer is a waste of time and probably even a conflict of interest. Precious few movie and TV producers have a clear understanding of what music publishing actually is, and simply use it as a way of taxing the composer. They often end up by doing an “administration deal” with a bona-fide music publisher as the complexity of the job sinks in. So their role is at best a middle-man and at worst coercion.