Throughout this week's Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, audiences have been treated to a host of films focused on musicians and music-related subjects. On Tuesday, a panel of filmmakers and composers sat down at the Crystal Theater to talk about the nuts and bolts of notes and bars.
"There's a whole realm of creative and financial challenges involved in the music part of documentary filmmaking," said panelist Jeanie Finlay, a director whose documentary about a British record shop, "Sound It Out," played at the festival last Sunday. "A lot of it can seem overwhelming if you're coming at it for the first time."
As the six panelists - three directors and three composers - made clear on Tuesday, the challenges involved in matching musical artistry with documentary realism are as diverse as the stories that those films ultimately tell, and as fast-changing as the technology used to make those films.
While the Internet has made more independent music available to directors, it has also crushed the traditional business models of major labels - leading them to toe an increasingly hard and expensive line on how music can be licensed for use in films.
Finlay cited one example of a song she tried to license for her 2008 film, "Goth Cruise," only to be told by the artist's label that it would cost 28,000 British pounds - approximately $44,000 in American dollars - for less than a minute's worth of music.
What is ironic is that most musicians, if approached directly, are enthusiastic to see their music featured in films, noted Mary C. Reese, director of the film, "Robert Williams Mr. Bitchin', " which screened on Monday.
"People are hungry to be a part of something that has meaning," she said. "Everybody wants to make a difference with what they do."
Composers, meantime, find themselves often walking a delicate balance between their own creative inspiration, the economic realities of slender documentary film budgets, and the preconceived notions of directors who come to them.
"Directors often have eclectic tastes, because most are artists themselves who love a lot of kinds of music," said Mark Orton, a Portland, Ore.-based composer. "It can be a difficult thing to extricate the (temporary) music that has become so built into the scene in a director's ears, and put something new in its place. That is a relationship that takes some trust."
Tuesday's panelists were peppered with questions from the audience, most of which was made up of aspiring and seasoned filmmakers. Some were eager to hear about the bottom-line costs involved in scoring a documentary film; others asked whether ambient music heard in the background of film scenes really needs to be licensed.
In most cases, the answers from the panel were the same: It depends.
Finlay said that the general key, as in any business, is to have a vision and press for it, while maintaining a healthy degree of flexibility.
"What I've discovered is that ‘no' quite often means ‘not yet' in the music world," said Finlay. "As the director, I believe and have seen that I can often lobby most passionately on behalf of my project, and especially if I can get directly to the musicians, they will say ‘yes' if they like what you're doing."