"It's all in the (film) music": Interview with Lukas Kendall (Film Score Monthly) - Part 1
During the last decade, soundtrack collectors have experienced a real age of plenty. Until few years before, seeing many historic film scores released on CD seemed an impossible dream. But any collector who looks today at his or her CD shelves will quickly realize that the huge quantity (and quality) of titles released in recent years by the various independent record labels went beyond the greatest expectations. Film scores long coveted and desired by fans all over the world (to the point of becoming an obsession) are now reality in their hands. As almost always happens in the world of collecting of all kinds, there's an inherent obsessive aspect (the piece, the rarity, the limited edition, the title is expected for decades), but this is not the point. The work of specialty labels is mostly important for its historical and archival value: these wonderful releases reflect the love and respect for the too often overlooked work of many great film composers.
Lukas Kendall, the owner of the independent label Film Score Monthly, has been one of the pioneers of this golden era of soundtrack collecting (an era which, as he tells us, perhaps is already reaching an end). Like many of his generation (born 1974), the passion for soundtracks started at an early age. At 15 years-old, his already adventurous spirit led him to establish a newsletter, in order to get in touch with fans like him in the United States and around the world to exchange information, opinions and material. The bulletin soon morphed into a fanzine, but Lukas was keen to give it the profile and the tone of a real professional magazine. And so was born Film Score Monthly, the first US magazine devoted to film music. In addition to articles and reviews, interviews with composers and thoroughly researched pieces started to appear. During his university years, Lukas prepared and published the magazine directly from his room at the college. Meanwhile, subscriptions and copies circulation increased, as much as contacts and links with the Hollywood film music industry itself. Soon after becoming a real magazine with color cover and even more interesting contents, Lukas - who moved to Los Angeles at the end of the 90s - founded the magazine's record label (from which it takes its name, FSM) and began to produce a series of CDs devoted to historical film scores from Hollywood movies. The production schedule focused mainly on lesser-known, obscure and sometimes even surprising titles, but there are also legendary composers and many scores of great popularity in the catalog (the full list of all releases is available here). After 15 years and 250 titles released, Lukas Kendall announced the end of FSM as he moves on to his new career as an independent film producer (his first feature film, Lucky Bastard, is opening now in the US).
In this long interview (presented in two parts), Lukas - a film score lover like us - tells us about his work and his history as a record producer in all its aspects: the joys, the difficulties, the surprises and the constant, relentless commitment required.
ColonneSonore.net: Let's start from the end, Lukas. The 250th and final title of FSM as record label is a definitive release of a historic classic score: Jerry Fielding's The Wild Bunch. The press release states that you chose one of your personal favorite as the closing title. This score has also a particular history in terms of album releases. What were your goals in presenting this classic score in a definitive way? And what were the main challenges during the production of this title?
Lukas Kendall: The Wild Bunch has been on CD three times before—but when has that stopped us? The Japanese CD of the album master was just excerpts from the score (plus two specially recorded tracks, which we newly mixed for our release); the Screen Archives CD was from Fielding’s own monaural tape (running too fast/high-pitched); and the Warner Home Video CD was from the proper stereo masters but only had one disc’s worth of material. (It was also missing the “B” stem of the guitar and piano microphones on the “Main Title” and one of the versions of “Aurora Mi Amor.”) I had everything newly transferred from the Warner Bros. vaults and went through the scores and music-editing paperwork at the Warner Bros. music library to figure out all of the cues, overlays and revisions. I also went through the Sam Peckinpah collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to pull fascinating correspondence about the score’s creation. I am especially proud that we found the earliest demos of the score, which were on a mono tape at the Academy.
The biggest challenge with The Wild Bunch—and the reason it took so long—was that I had emotionally moved on to my next career (I have just produced a microbudget thriller called Lucky Bastard), and I just didn’t stay on top of it the way I should have. The licensing involved both Warner Bros. Records and Warner Bros. Pictures and took a lot of time and attention. We did the transfers and mixes a couple of years ago, but there were some subtleties of the licensing and the liner notes that took much longer than they would have had I been properly focused. It’s obviously a crucial title and not one to take lightly. At the last minute, Warner Bros. became concerned about the vintage banjo track, “Darkey’s Awakening,” and asked me to remove it, and I flatly refused. It’s from 1903—it’s public domain! Finally, they allowed it on what we call a “quitclaim” basis (more or less: “it’s your fault if someone sues”).
I am very glad we got this done and done properly. I wish we could have printed in their entirety the memos from Phil Feldman to Peckinpah we found at the Academy. At one point Feldman tells off Peckinpah, who wanted to fire Fielding, by saying that Fielding was your (Peckinpah’s) choice in the first place, and there’s no time or money to start over with someone new. Feldman, who initially opposed hiring Fielding but grew to appreciate his work (Feldman supervised the scoring while Peckinpah was on location shooting The Ballad of Cable Hogue), also argues that Fielding had not been allowed to do “his” (Fielding’s) version of the score— suggesting that this masterpiece was really a creative hybrid of Peckinpah’s and Fielding’s concepts. It makes you wonder what Fielding would have done if left entirely to his own devices. Frankly, I can’t imagine the score being better than the way it is.
CS: Now let's get back to the origins. When did you decide you wanted to go into the job of producing archival soundtrack albums? What were the reasons that pushed you into this path?
LK: It was a long time ago and I was in my early twenties, but I remember it seemed very sexy and challenging—you know, the “fortune and glory” of Indiana Jones. I think all soundtrack producers get a certain emotional sense of “ownership” from being the person who gets to present a classic score to the collectors. You feel like the fame and glamour of the soundtrack will rub off on you from all the people wanting to hear the music, even though it really doesn’t—it’s an illusion, and the feeling doesn’t last. But it was the natural step of evolution from running FSM the magazine. It was challenging and let me feed myself for some 15 years.
CS: Looking at the full FSM catalog, it's really impressive to note both the variety of the titles you put out over 15 years and the consistent quality of the work you chose to release. Every single major film composer is represented in your label. When you started, did you have a specific plan in terms of what you wanted to release? Or did you choose titles and composers on a single day-by-day basis?
LK: We did not choose titles on a day-by-day basis, but there is definitely a phenomenon that you have to “feed the dragon.” The dragon is the production schedule and you must feed it constantly. Fortunately, even 10 years ago there were dozens of dozens of scores at each of the studios that fans wanted, so it was easy to request them in batches from the different studios and have a slate of titles lined up for a year to two years at a time. My philosophy was always to feed the dragon, not to worry too much about how sexy or commercial any particular title was—the top-selling titles (like The Towering Inferno) helped pay for the obscure ones, and the obscure ones were devilish fun in how esoteric they were. I think Craig Spaulding at Screen Archives Entertainment coined that term, referring to the “dragon” of fulfilling mail orders. It’s still not the funniest thing he ever said; that was the time when we had a problem with a defective CD, I forget which one, and he muttered over the phone, “This is worse than when I was in Vietnam.” (Craig did in fact serve in Vietnam.)
I do remember trying to “collect” all of the composers and make sure we had everyone represented on the label, but by the time we got to Dusan Radic (The Long Ships) I can honestly say I didn’t care. We couldn’t even find a picture of Radic to put on our Web site listing of the CD so we used a picture of Mirror Spock, who looked oddly…correct. We used a picture of Cookie Monster for Fred Myrow. I was disappointed when we found real photos because I liked the gag ones better.
Incidentally, you could generally but not always predict which titles would sell—I was surprised at how well Kelly’s Heroes and Jeremiah Johnson sold, but any delusion of reaching a legion of, say, I Love Lucy fans (with The Long, Long Trailer/Forever, Darling) was quickly brought back to earth. Williams, Herrmann and Goldsmith were always the best-selling composers. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was the single best-selling CD.
CS: Could you explain exactly what is your role as an album producer?
LK: There are three components of producing a CD: the audio, the licensing and the packaging. The producer makes the arrangements to have all of these taken care of, working with the engineers (audio), attorneys/studio personnel (licensing) and liner note writers and art director (packaging). You’re not the boss of everyone: you’re the boss of people hired by your company, but in dealing with the studios, you are negotiating with executives and lawyers. You are getting on the same page with everyone and using your judgment as to what personnel can deliver within a certain timeframe with reliable quality to satisfy everyone’s expectations. You take X and use it to get Y done, and so forth and so on, until you have the finished CD. That’s producing—not just CD producing, but any producing. It’s about forging agreements and making sure tasks get done until the project is complete. Anyone can do it, though it takes a certain mindset to be good at it. It’s best to be obsessive and a control freak—but also flexible and pragmatic, which is kind of the opposite. The nightmare producer is someone who can’t keep track of anything, but rules with an iron fist. Those are the people to avoid in life.
CS: The choice of releasing obscure, lesser-known titles has always been a point of pride of FSM as a label. You unearthed some unexpected and unorthodox gems, including some wild, crazy stuff from very popular composers like Goldsmith, Williams and other top names. In this sense, what were the most surprising and fun titles to work on?
LK: I’m going to respectfully pass on scanning our catalog to come up with a proper list, but just popping to mind you mentioned Goldsmith and Williams, and we did a CD of the obscure TV shows Jericho and The Ghostbreaker that feature barely known TV themes and scores by those composers. That kind of thing always entertained me, discovering scores that were so obscure that most collectors had not only not seen the shows or heard the music—they didn’t even know it existed.
CS: The obscure things are probably the majority of the stuff you released, but we cannot overlook the fact FSM also released some high-profile titles from successful films like Gremlins, Poltergeist, Ben-Hur, Superman, the 1976 King Kong and others. Did you feel more “pressure” when you worked on titles like those? Or was it essentially the same as working on everything else?
LK: I am so obsessive that all of the titles are the same amount of work creatively, whether they are Superman or, say, Eye of the Devil. I always felt pressure to be a perfectionist. Some of the big-name titles you mention were harder because they had pre-existing soundtrack album deals that required us to license the projects twice: we had to license the previously released music from the record company, and the previously unreleased music from the film company. Gremlins was the worst case of this—it was absolute misery and took forever.
The titles you list above were actually easier for me personally because Mike Matessino produced the audio and I didn’t have to worry about that aspect of the job—I could concentrate solely on the business matters. Although the problem with Mike is that he is so in demand for his talents that it can take a while for him to become available.
CS: What are the hardest/most difficult aspects of your job?
LK: The hardest, most difficult aspect is always when there is uncertainty about whether or not a complete and/or better master might be out there, but you are waiting to find out. They say the best answer in show business is “yes”—but the second-best answer is a quick no. If someone comes back right away and says, “No, conclusively, it does not exist—it was thrown out in 1987,” then you can move on, at least, and release what you have. But from time to time we would be waiting for a widow or some go-between to go into some closet to see if it’s true that so-and-so really had a tape of some missing cue, and it would stretch on for years—I’m not kidding!
It’s so dispiriting to think you’re getting the complete masters for something only to discover that there is cue (or more) damaged or missing. Every time you received a delivery of the master tape transfer, you would hold your breath until everything was accounted for. It makes me think of the homicide cops on Homicide or The Wire who would get called to a crime scene and hope it was a “dunker” (slam dunk) as opposed to a “stone whodunit”—an easy clearance vs. an impossible case. We didn’t have to deal with life or death, just film music, but you would get the transfer and go, “Wait, where are the piano overdubs?” Or, “Where is the ending of the movie?” Or, “Why do these tape boxes go from reel 6 to 8?”—“Oh, reel 7 was lost to water damage in the 1994 earthquake because it was on the bottom of the shelf,” the studio says. Then, what’s the backup plan—did the composer have a copy? Is the composer a cooperative person? Is there a music stem? Was the pickup session vaulted at the record company or the recording studio by mistake?
Here’s a classic case of a CD that was held up, and in this case we had all the music, we just didn’t know what something was: Elmer Bernstein used one of the recording sessions of The Great Santini to record a march he had written to commemorate the inauguration of a friend as Chancellor of the University of California, Santa Barbara. But it wasn’t identified on the studio paperwork. It was just this random march that didn’t appear in the movie and was slated with a numbering system outside of the score itself. Here’s where 200+ albums’ worth of experience comes into play: we called Elmer’s orchestrator, David Spear, and between his recollection and the research of our friends at USC, where Elmer’s scores were donated, we were able to identify the selection and include it on the CD. Not to disparage my counterparts at the other labels, but I honestly wonder which ones of them would have gone to this trouble, as opposed to just including the music as a mystery cue, or dropping it entirely.
On the legal side: From time to time we would need to do a third-party deal for some approval required to complete a project—maybe from a vocalist, maybe because of an actor represented in the packaging. (This is why there are no movie photos on The Green Berets CD—because Michael Wayne, who had approval rights, was an uncommonly stubborn and difficult man, with all due respect to the deceased, who told me the liner notes made him want to throw up, and when we revised the liner notes and resubmitted, we never heard from him). On Raintree County, we had to pay through the nose to EMI and the Nat King Cole estate to use the Cole vocals. (Because really, how could we not?) I hated these situations and I have to confess a certain bitterness from having dealt with them so many times over the years: you’re in a hostage crisis, you have to pay the ransom, and not only does it take forever, but there goes your entire profit margin.
Similarly, you are often waiting for the studio to research something for you—someone who works there has to pull some ancient piece of paper to determine who controls some rights. Then you are at the mercy of personality. You’re in a Dilbert cartoon. Some people—not many—actually enjoy doing their work well. They like solving problems, pleasing people and contributing to quality productions. They are, alas, few and far between. On the opposite side of the pole, some people are just mean and lazy. They decide they don’t like your face or your voice so they come up with a million excuses to sabotage your projects. Most people are in the middle—which is to say, they’re human. They have a lot of work on their desk, they like people who are nice to them, they try to help but they have much bigger problems, so they don’t really care, and you just have to patiently wait for them to get around to helping you, if they have the capacity and the authority.
Probably the biggest recurring issue was who controlled the previously unreleased music to a score that had earlier been released on LP. Some contracts are written in such a way that the record label got blanket rights to use anything recorded for the movie. Other times, the contract specified a track list, and any extra music had to be newly licensed from the movie studio. I got quite wily at convincing people to simply send me a contract so I could review it myself and advise what was needed, but some people wouldn’t go along with that and I’d be at their mercy. I can’t tell you how many times I would ask the same question and get a different answer. There were a couple of times on the phone when, in order to try to cajole sympathy, I would explain I was in a Kafkaesque nightmare in an appeal for help—then it occurred to me to ask, “Do you know what that means?” And they would not know what “Kafkaesque” means, even though they were part of the system creating the nightmare. What can you do?
There was one record company that was the absolute worst. They didn’t understand that film scores were recorded as individual cues—M11, M12, etc.—and that these cues were used to make a record album. I’d add a previously unreleased track and they’d be like, “Who owns that? Where’d that come from?” Well, it came from the score that you control, from the master tapes in your vaults.
Can you tell that I am happy to be out of this racket? I am sure my mood will lift in time—I am very proud of all our work, and my colleagues—but I also believe in transparency and at this particular juncture I will confess I am really worn out. It’s human nature to expect that if you are good at your job, you will get a promotion or a raise—but the specialty soundtrack market is going in the opposite direction. There’s no kind of promotion or raise anyone can give you, and in fact the business is getting much harder and the money is getting worse.
CS: Well, I can only imagine how frustrating things could be sometimes. Nevertheless, in terms of the end result, do you have a personal favorite among the 250 titles you worked on?
LK: Off the top of my head there are certain scores from the “Silver Age,” as I tried to coin it, that resonate for me creatively: The Illustrated Man, The Omega Man, The Yakuza, Wait Until Dark, Logan’s Run. They have a certain mood and melody that I love. Most of the time I would get burned out on a score from listening to it so many times during the production and quality-control process but these managed to survive that process.
CS: The limited edition soundtrack market evolved and changed a lot since you started the FSM label. Back then, archival film score releases were substantially something related just to a handful of titles per year, mainly big successful Hollywood studio film scores. Now we have 5 or 6 new releases every month, coming from a variety of specialty labels. What were the main challenges in working within a niche that became more and more crowded every year that went by?
LK: At a certain point, several things happened—maybe not all at once, but the problem became noticeable during the autumn of 2008, the global financial crisis. It used to be that we labels could mine our relationships with different studios and seldom compete for the same title; then, it seemed like we were running into each other all the time. For the longest time, it seemed like collectors were always pleading for more albums, then at a certain point they started to say they could not afford all of the albums being released. They started to buy only the ones that were released in limited numbers, on the assumption that the others would still be available later. This is what is called the “tragedy of the commons,” in which people are incentivized to use up a common resource individually that would best be preserved by collective action. Labels are incentivized to release scores in fewer numbers and at higher prices in order to claim market share, which only shrinks the market because it is depleting the ultimate resource—the money and good will of the collectors.
For fun, Intrada used to put out an “April Fools’ Day” list of new releases, full of “Holy Grail” titles that collectors would never expect to be released. Today, they are all available: Star Trek II, Conan the Barbarian, Back to the Future—the list goes on and on. These titles went from preposterous fantasy to old news. So what do the labels release now? The answer is: anything they can get their hands on—they just have to feed the dragon. Today, the collectors pounding on the door for pet CD titles ask for things that not even I have heard of, if they ask for anything at all. Sometimes they even ask for things that are already available, they just didn’t realize it.
Look at the phenomenon of reissues: I did a CD of The Egyptian that we were not sure would sell well as it had already been available on an earlier (incomplete) CD and a re-recording—however, it sold very well, because it’s a popular score. Nowadays, labels regularly reissue not only scores that were on CD in the 1980s or ’90s, but scores that were on a CD from another specialty label only a few years ago. It’s crazy!
During the 2008 crisis, collectors noticeably cut back on their purchases, and I don’t think it ever recovered. Little things would happen, like longtime collectors passing away. Not only was that sad, because you got to know these people a little via the phone and e-mail, but I remember thinking, in purely mercenary terms (folks, forgive me), “That person bought all 20 of our CDs every year—that’s $400 in business that just disappeared.” (Please, forgive me for speaking this way of real human beings, most of whom we knew personally—they could not have been nicer or more supportive.) Incidentally, the hot sellers used to be the “Silver Age” composer—Goldsmith, Williams, Barry—and there was still a market for the Golden Age masters. Nowadays, everything is about the ’80s and ’90s (Elfman, Zimmer) and there is barely a market for the Silver Age—and the Golden Age might as well be silent film.
Moreover, the older collectors who pass away are not being replaced, because of another major change: digital downloads are here to stay. Most people over a certain age—let’s say 40—still don’t trust digital downloads. They don’t like lossy sampling rates, and they don’t trust that they own something if it’s just on their hard drive, as opposed to on a physical piece of plastic. But younger people don’t care. It makes no difference to them. The youngest collectors are perfectly content not just to download music, but to steal it blind. I remember when Napster was happening, thinking “it’s just rap, it doesn’t affect me.” But when I was 16 (in 1990), I had to buy everything. The most you could do to get free music was to trade cassettes with friends. Nowadays, people download entire box sets illegally—and they are not going to stop. Because, even if they wanted to buy everything legitimately, they simply don’t have the income that it takes to be a collector. CDs are expensive! How much money can someone really spend a month on soundtracks—$100? $200? $500? (Sidetrack: I can’t believe what comic books cost nowadays. They were 60 cents when I bought comics, so I could buy 10 a month for six bucks. Nowadays, they are $3.99—how can an 11-year-old find $40 a month for comic books? Talk about an industry that destroyed itself.) The CD producers, like me, are completely out of touch with the financial pressures that ordinary collectors face. Why? Not only are we incentivized to put out more product, not less—but we get everything (or almost everything) for free as a professional courtesy. We’re still collectors, but this was one of the great rackets about starting my newsletter circa 1991—I could get tons of swag, as long as I reviewed it.
I have warned my friends at the current labels that they might have a few more years left, but they should start planning on what to do next. Screen Archives is smart to transition to selling limited-edition Blu-rays and DVDs—they will have a similar problem when movies, not just music, are all downloaded in a few years (which is already happening), but for now they have a collector base that they know how to satisfy, so they have bought themselves some time.
CS: In this sense, how important has been to keep fruitful and durable relationships with the various film studios in Hollywood?
LK: I was very fortunate to have a long-running relationship with Rhino and Warner Bros. from roughly 2003 to 2010, with a fixed roster of executives who were very helpful and looked out for me. That was my bread-and-butter business. I could go to other studios for titles almost for the fun and challenge of it, but wouldn’t have to worry about where the bulk of my catalog would come from. Eventually I got burned out from trying to talk people into letting me release their crazy old scores, because of the competition from other labels and diminishing returns financially and emotionally.
Incidentally, a lesson on how the music business has collapsed: In the 1990s, if you wanted to license an entire album from a major label, they would only do a minimum of 10,000 copies. Then it became 5,000. Then they went to 3,000 (which is what we could deal with circa the early 2000s, even though most titles sold 1,500–2,000). Today, they will deal on the 1,000-copy level. That’s how desperate they are to mine every last dollar out of what they have left in the vaults.