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30 Minute Varese CDs: Label Response!

Edited by Lukas Kendall

It's been a sore point for collectors for a LONG time... those Varese CDs of new soundtracks which are "only" 30 minutes long. Why do they exist? How dare Varese do them! Somebody please explain!

The following is a letter by Mark Leneker which was answered personally by Varese's Robert Townson. Mark forwarded it to me thinking everyone should read it; I agreed. With Robert Townson's approval, we are printing the exchange publicly so that people get a sense of what's really going on with these 30 minutes discs.

Thanks Mark and Bob!

    From: mleneker@webtv.net (mark leneker)

    To: Soundtracks@varesesarabande.com

    I am a dedicated collector of soundtracks and scores, and also a frequent contributor to many important online BB's and websites (Film Score Monthly, Rec.Music.Movies, etc)

    There are serious discussions occuring on these sites that directly affect Varese, and specifically your handling of soundtracks and re-use fees. I am sure that someone in your company monitors these boards!

    I believe that Varese provides an invaluable service to both professional composers and musicians as well as collectors of the often under-appreciated film score.

    With this in mind, could you provide me (and many frustrated yet potentially loyal consumers) exactly how you determine why one disc might have 30 minutes of music and why another more or less.

    Is the score industry expensive to produce, have fees risen substainally and are profits become potentially low?

    Is there an chance of producing these same kinds of discs on a premium,limited run with longer scores? (a la the defunct Varese Club?)

    I am not trying to pry into the inner workings of Varese, but playing times and CD prices are a topic of TREMENDOUS and VOILATILE debate within the very consumer base you are trying to attract and maintain.

    Any information you could provide would be tremendously appreciated and might help to provide some kind of salve for the frustration and confusion coming from the community you are trying to serve. I believe an informed consumer is a better and more loyal customer...

    I thank you in advance for any information you can provide me.

    Sincerely,

    Mark Leneker

And the response...


Dear Mark,

Your note was forwarded to me and I thank you for writing it.

I will try to give you as much of a general overview of the re-use situation as time and space permits.

Let me begin by clarifying that the amount of music, and indeed every aspect of each CD release is something that is taken very seriously and given careful consideration. Varese Sarabande Records is not a faceless corporation. Varese Sarabande is not "Big Brother." With rare exceptions, the decisions of what we release are my own. The content of each CD is determined by myself and the composer. To this end we are both, however, forced to work within the economics of the industry. We want to release as much great music as possible but do have constraints. Over the course of a year, Varese Sarabande will release CDs of all lengths. Many 30 minutes CDs. Some 40 minutes. A number of 50 minute CDs. A few 60 minute discs. And a few more over 70 minutes. Just over the last couple of months there has been Moby Dick, Merlin, Othello and the new James Horner compilation all containing over 70 minutes of music. Obviously it is the 30 minute variety that creates a problem. Believe me, no one, no matter how dedicated a collector, is more troubled by the situation than myself. I am forced, time and again, to request that a composer cut his score, however long, however brilliant, down to thirty minutes. The economics enforce this. No CD exists by itself. The output of a year's worth of releases must turn a profit. They must pay for themselves to allow for the next year's releases. Each year the re-use fees go up by a few percent. We have now had enough increases so as erase much of the benefit of the 50% break set in place nearly ten years ago now. Unfortunately, it is impossible to go into the degree of detail that would fully explain how all of this works. No film or CD is a guaranteed hit. Furthermore, a successful film does not automatically translate to a successful soundtrack. I think it would be fair to say that neither Starship Troopers, Sphere or Small Soldiers turned out to be as successful as the film studios might have hoped. The point here is that these films are not the exception, they are the rule. It is the surprise three hundred million-dollar blockbuster that is the exception. We can not budget each album in the naive hope that it will be the next E.T. We must be prepared for the fact that it just might not be, and probably won't be.

Re-use fees, as they are, will be causing an increasing number of scores to go without any release all. The percentage of albums which simply are not paying for themselves is simply too great and growing. I am, more often that ever, being forced to pass on soundtracks that I would otherwise love to release. I used to be able to justify a release for some scores even when we knew, or expected, right from the beginning, that they would probably realize a loss. I could do this in the hopes that if they didn't lose too much, then perhaps some of the slack could be taken up by another release that may have done better than expected. These were musical decisions, not financial ones. I have relationships with many composers that will cause me to bend over backwards in order to help them get their scores released. There is, however, a limit to the number of loss leaders you can responsibly allow. The bottom line will show itself very clearly if the balance tips against you.

Did Jerry Goldsmith want a longer CD for Air Force One? He sure did. We both did. In fact, in this case we paid for an additional five minutes of music but still would have preferred to add more. Jerry very much wanted to add the Russian choral piece. The problem was that it was a big choir, overdubbed three times! Here re-use would need to be paid to each singer, for each overdub -- this on top of the 90-piece orchestra! If I remember correctly, adding that extra minute and a half would have cost about twenty thousand dollars.

Did Elliot Goldenthal want a longer CD for Sphere? Absolutely. Here the problem was compounded by the fact that he recorded part of the score in New York and finished it in San Francisco. To include music from the New York sessions we have to pay the re-use. For Elliot to have included even one minute of music from San Francisco, since it was a different orchestra with different musicians, would have started the re-use clock back at zero and doubled the cost of the album.

When we extended both of these releases by five minutes seemingly no one was any happier. To do this we had to absorb significant expenses. But still the problem remains. I should point out here, however, that a CD may be limited for artistic concerns as well, and very often is. Neither I or any composer I work with supports the notion that every minute of their score should be represented on CD. Even Spartacus, one of the greatest scores ever composed for film, would not be best represented by every note appearing on CD. Alex North, personally selected 70 minutes of his score for Jerry Goldsmith and I to record someday. Not one hundred and however many minutes of music he wrote -- 70. He was given no restrictions. This was a musical decision.

Michael Kamen's piano score for The Winter Guest could have been a 76 minute CD-- had there been that much music. There wasn't.

Jerry Goldsmith's Fierce Creatures score was recorded in London. No re-use. It could have been as long as we wanted. The score, however, was barely 20 minutes! To release a CD at all, even at thirty minutes, necessitated Jerry staying in London and additional 10 days to compose fifteen minutes of music just for the CD. He did this over the Thanksgiving holiday in 1996 and I don't think anyone even noticed.

Marco Beltrami and I were both aware that there would be some unrest due to tbe length of the Scream release. We are bound by union rules and must remain fiscally responsible with Varese Sarabande's money. We can not act like we are shopping on an unlimited credit card. As they always do, the bills will come in. Obviously both scores were in danger of disappearing into the phantom zone of unreleased scores. We saved as much of each as we could. The CD contains Marco's favorite thirty minutes of music from the films. Originally, we had included his song I Don't Care from Scream, but were forced to remove it at the studio's request. This cut our thirty five-minute disc back to thirty. Sometimes you just can't win.

I suppose all this is to say that we are doing what we can within the restrictions that are placed on us. We care very much about making the best CDs possible. I make it a point to include cut times on the inlay card for every CD I release. For anyone whose primary concern is duration, the information is all there for them to make an informed decision, before they buy the disc. No one can justly claim we tried to conceal anything about the disc.

Customers who are truly "regular customers" of Varese Sarabande Records will find themselves with a full array of variable running times in their collection. The reasons for this, as you can see, are as many and varied as the scores represented.

Again, many thanks for your thoughtful note. I hope you have found some of what I have said enlightening. Please feel free to disseminate any of this information that you wish.

Sincerely yours,

Robert Townson

Vice President

Varese Sarabande Records, Inc.


So... what do you have to say after reading this? Send your comments!

VareseBag@filmscoremonthly.com


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