The Dumbest Thing I Hated Producing CDs: Warner Bros. Art Licenses
I feel like venting today!
But first, may I ask a favor? Could you take a second and visit my IMDB page? You don’t have to do anything, just go to the page. If you’re an IMDBPro member, please go to my “pro” listing (preferred). I want to see how high I can goose my “star” rating! (Mostly irrelevant, but some people actually check these things.) Thanks!
Okay, the rant!
I was very lucky producing the FSM CD catalog for 15 years or so (1997–2012). Great projects, great experiences—and by and large, great people to work with. I love the music and it was rewarding to present it to the public!
There were some annoyances, of course. And the single, most ridiculous, most expensive annoyance was, drum roll...
The way that Warner Bros. treated the artwork licenses for their soundtrack projects.
Possibly the other album producers who may be reading this are nodding along, “I’m glad he’s mentioning it, not me!”
For every other studio or label or institutional owner I’ve ever done a soundtrack deal with—and I’m no slouch—how you handle the art is simple: it’s free! It comes with the soundtrack license. You’re paying X thousands of dollars to license the music, so they throw in the artwork as a courtesy.
You do the license and at a certain point ask, “Can we please have the artwork?” And they say, “Sure, here you go.”
It’s not that logistically difficult, because every movie or TV show has its available “art assets” that are set aside and available for marketing purposes.
Sometimes there’s an accessibility issue. If it’s an obscure title, they may not have a lot of art on hand. We often ventured to the studio to look through physical assets—slides and transparencies—and maybe there was a nominal cost to make new scans. That’s reasonable. (The people who made these appointments at the studio archives were always super nice.)
Sometimes they just aren’t set up for this, so you buy some stills on the secondary market. Not a big deal.
Sometimes there are permission issues—for example, if a huge movie star had a clause in his contract he or she must approve likeness usages. Okay, a contract is a contract. The easiest solution was just to use the same posters and stills that have been seen hundreds of times, because logically the star signed off on those images.
And it’s not like we’re selling a million units. This is below-the-radar stuff.
Once in a while the actor contract was so specific that the studio said, “You need so-and-so’s estate to approve in order to use his art.” And the estate, as a matter of custom, wants money. I remember this happened with Burt Lancaster on The Train. So we said, well, that sucks, but we contacted the appropriate rep for the estate and made a token payment. It was a one-time thing, so okay.
And then...there was Warner Bros. Warner Bros.! My favorite place to do business, who were so good and generous with us for well over a decade. This was the one thing that drove us crazy!
On our first-ever Warner Bros. title, The Omega Man, for the artwork, the music business affairs attorney sent us over to the stills licensing people. And boy were they tough!
They said, straight up—non-negotiable—you have to pay for all the images you want to use: $750 for the cover image, $250 for each interior image.
And...they’d only licenses six images.
So what was customarily free, for unlimited art, for some intractable corporate reason became: $2,000 for not enough art to properly create the package. Hence we’d have to be creative, like the dialogue collage on THX 1138, above.
Or this on Wait Until Dark, a Mancini thriller score with two pianos, one of them a quarter-tone “out of tune”:
I was like, come on guys, we’re already paying for this!
Nope. They wouldn’t budge.
On The Omega Man, they made us get permission from Charlton Heston and Anthony Zerbe. This was entirely not a bad thing, because Jeff Bond got to drive up to Heston’s mansion and have the great man himself literally, physically sign-off on his images—Jeff can tell that story, he loved it!
They also sent us to Michael Wayne for The Green Berets. That did not go so well.
Fortunately this didn’t bite us on the historical M-G-M titles, the Turner catalog. Even though these movies and TV series (like The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) were owned by Warner Bros., they had been licensed to Rhino (who licensed them to us) prior to WB acquiring them, so free artwork was “grandfathered” in.
But on the Warner Bros. “proper” titles...this was so expensive, and annoying, and pointless. Every so often I’d plead my case, can we please not do this? And it always came back, nope. Pay up!
I guess the issue for the studio was that each department was responsible for generating revenue, and the executives were simply mandated to do this. But it sucked!
Later, we licensed from Rhino some Warner Bros. titles that Rhino had control over, because Rhino had the licensing rights for the Warner Bros. Records catalog. It’s a little confusing to explain, but Time–Warner, then the parent company of the Warner Bros. entertainment conglomerate, from 1989–2004 owned both the film company and record company. But in 2004 Time–Warner “spun off” (sold) the music operations. They should have taken the time to say, “Wait, the film company keeps the rights to the Warner Bros. movie soundtracks, and here’s a list”—but they didn’t.
So, when we did the expanded edition of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, for example, we had to get permission from both Rhino (who licensed us the WB Records. master) and Warner Bros. Pictures (who licensed the previously unreleased film cues) to do the CD.
On these projects, I put my foot down. I said this is ridiculous, the LP already had a bunch of stills on the jacket. We are not paying thousands of dollars just to use was already given to the record company to use in 1968.
I proposed paying only $25 per image to get new scans of anything that had been on the LPs. Somehow this was accepted, and allowed for a period of time. We’d document what was on the LP and find the corresponding images from the WB archives:
And...that’s the way it was.
Is this me just being grouchy? Well...I guess so.
From the studio’s point of view, they were there to make money, so they set the policies that made the most money. And the executives who ran the stills department carried out the policies—those were their jobs.
It just drove me crazy, and compromised the albums and cost me money—so I hated it.
I don’t know if they are still doing things this way.
In recent years, Warner Bros. has pivoted away from doing soundtrack album licenses at all, for a bunch of reasons that have to do with corporate ownership and directives, which I’m not really qualified to analyze—and even if I was, I’d probably keep my mouth shut.
Warner Bros. is a magnificent studio with a ton of film and TV music that they could monetize—and at the moment they don’t want to invest the resources into the legal clearances and research to do it.
But these things are cyclical, and hopefully the studio will “open up” again.
I really can’t predict the future, but I do want to reiterate how fortunate I was to release as much great WB music as we did at FSM, and how much I enjoyed working with the folks who made it all happen on the studio side.
Even the ones who soaked me on art costs!