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The Songs Sound Like Hits, but They Cost a Lot Less

Entertainment: Former heavy-metal guitarist finds a niche by providing original background music for television and films.

September 05, 2000|LEE CONDON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VAN NUYS — Originally all Marc Ferrari wanted to be was a rock star.

As guitarist for the heavy-metal groups Keel and Cold Sweat, Ferrari was signed to major record labels, recorded five albums and toured the world. Framed posters of album covers line his walls, with Ferrari posing alongside his bandmates in full head-banger gear: long, frizzed-out hair, mesh spider-web shirts and tight leather pants.

In fact, Ferrari was such the archetype that he was tapped to play a heavy-metal guitarist in both "Wayne's World" movies.

"I did the whole rock star thing for a while, but we never made any money," said Ferrari, 38. "After being on the road for six or seven years and coming back broke again, I got frustrated."

Not seeing much of a future as an aging, big-hair guitarist, Ferrari in 1996 plowed his life savings of $35,000 into an enterprise that would provide original background and incidental music for movies and television.

He called the company MasterSource, and to date he has placed more than 1,000 songs in TV shows and movies, including "As Good As It Gets," "Fight Club" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." The company is now generating revenue of about $750,000 annually, Ferrari said.

Although there are plenty of other music libraries on the scene, Ferrari said he was able to break in by filling a void.

Most of his competitors provide either well-known hits--which are expensive for film and TV producers to use--or provide anonymous-sounding "stock music" in various genres, like jazz or country and western.

Ferrari saw a need for songs that sounded like they came right off the radio, but without the big price tag. So he set about creating a contemporary library of songs, with vocals and without, in every style from rock to rap, from disco to grunge.

"Prior to 1996, if you were a filmmaker and you wanted a rap song in your movie, you had to go and license a major-label song," Ferrari said.

At first, Ferrari wrote most of the songs himself, but now he uses a group of about 40 songwriters--paying them a cut if their songs are licensed for a production. He then records the songs, assembling singers and musicians and overseeing the recording process.

The music is compiled on CDs and distributed for free to film and TV producers, who pay only if they want licensing rights.

Sam Diaz, manager for television music for Paramount Pictures, said he uses MasterSource on a regular basis. Before Ferrari came along, most music libraries provided only instrumental tracks. But Ferrari offered songs with vocals that reminded Diaz of real songs on the airwaves.

Typically the studio uses Ferrari's songs for background or source music, which is the sound coming from a TV or radio in a scene. Diaz said producers increasingly want that music to sound realistic--which means vocals.

"There are producers who feel anything with vocal interferes with dialogue, and there are producers who think anything without vocals isn't a song," Diaz said. "But more and more producers want vocals. Marc filled that gap by providing us with real songs with vocals."

Many of the studio's more youth-oriented shows use a lot of music. While a veteran show such as "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" can afford to license a current hit, others must make do with generic sound-alikes.

"On a smaller, newer show, we can't put in a Britney Spears song without crushing the budget," Diaz said.

While a major-label song can cost a show around $15,000, music libraries charge just a fraction of that.

Ferrari personally negotiates licensing deals for each song, with price hinging on factors including the type of show or film in which it will be used and the length of the sound bite. .

He sells not just to film and television but to companies making corporate videos, trade shows, airline video makers, theme parks, video game makers and commercial producers.

In some cases, Diaz will call Ferrari with a special request. Recently producers wanted a song similar to something the group the Black Crowes would do.

"Since Marc comes from a rock 'n' roll world, he knew right away what I needed," Diaz said.

The competition has noticed MasterSource, acknowledged Gary Gross, senior vice president and general manager of Killer Tracks, the production music arm of BMG Entertainment, a recording industry giant that also owns RCA Records and Arista Records.

"We like his stuff," Gross said. Ferrari has in fact produced some CDs for BMG, and BMG handles some licensing for MasterSource internationally.

Gross is not certain who first started using contemporary vocals in music libraries, he said, but Ferrari definitely has carved out a niche in the business.

"Film and television productions have always needed vocals. But they have typically gone to the publishing industry to get known songs. That can be very expensive," Gross said. "What [Ferrari] is doing is offering the same style of music at a reasonable price."

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