What happens when 11,000 (yes, eleven thousands!) music composers participate in a competition to write a music score for a scene from the HBO’s sci-fi series Westworld.
When in May 2020 the successful producer of audio libraries Spitfire Audio announced a music composing competition, I am pretty sure, that they didn’t expect how the whole thing would pan out.
The requirement was quite simple – download a 4-minutes scene from the sci-fi epic Westworld and compose a music score to it (a.k.a. scoring to picture). The winner could win more than $20,000 worth of Spitfire Audio Software. Another incentive was the fact, that the competiton would be judged by a panel of judges from the team at Spitfire Audio, and also the original music composer Ramin Djawadi and the show creators including Lisa Joy, Jonathan Nolan and executive producer J. J. Abrams! This presented a unique opportunity for the competition participants to showcase their work in front of real Hollywood heavyweights.
Participants had about a month to submit their scores, before the deadline in the beginning of June 2020.
Then judges had around three weeks to work, when the winners announcement was on June 27, 2020. Given the number of participants, this was a truly gigantic task. When you do the math – 4:16 minutes multiplied by 11,000 participants results in more than 31 days of music played non-stop!
It is not clear how judges managed to accomplish their task, but they announced the winner as expected.
And then the “shitstorm” ensued…
Dozens upon dozens of unsuccessful participants started to channel their frustration on the social media – here is just one of them. Twitter, YouTube and specialized online forums got full of heated discussions, where unsuccessful musicians just couldn’t get to understand the competition result.
To tell the truth, I was confused as well, although I didn’t participate in the competition. I think that the best way to explain such an uproar is through the words of my 7-years old son. His first impression after watching the winning entry was “Is this a video game? Because the music sounds like that.”
Here you have it! One of the most successful music software companies organizes a scoring competition for which it partners with some of the most successful Hollywood creators – and the winning music sounds, at time, like your $5 Happy Birthday postcard. The winning composer David Kudell used 8-bit sounds, well known from the games popular from the beginning of the computer era, and combined them quite cleverly with the traditional sounds used by the majority for scoring such an action flick.
I don’t want here to judge or evaluate the Spitfire Audio’s competition results though. The reason why I decided to write about this is, that I was really surprised by the heated discussion, even the amount of hatred this whole thing innitiated. The winner got accused of failing to play by the rules, of some kind of nepotism, and to top it off – he even got some life threats!
But there were also responses from the other side of the spectrum. These are probably the best represented by one of the superstars of the music scoring universe – Hans Zimmer. Just the fact that he fellt compelled to participate in this discussion, talks for itself. This is what he posted on the VI Control forum:
Carry on with your uninformed small minded criticism. It’s all here now in black and white for ever. The beauty of the internet. And as a reference of how I wouldn’t ever want to work with a single one of you. Nor you with me. Bad fit. It doesn’t even ever matter how good your music is or how smart you are… And since music and film-making are inherently collaborative, I can’t really see how any director will want to deal with that amount of entitlement and hubris.
So if there is something to learn from this experience, my bet would be on the fact, that in spite of the current abundance of music everywhere in our lives, it is still such a strong fenomenon, able to move our feelings to stratosphere. Doesn’t matter whether those feelings are positive or negative. What matters is that they do exist! Music still moves us!
And there is another ‘learning’ I have to keep thinking about. It is the sheer amount of the competition participants. Eleven thousands! Maybe I shoudn’t be surprised. Spitfire Audio has 137,000 subscribers to their YouTube channel. (Or Guy Michelmore – the film music composer I mentioned in my previous post, has almost trippled the number of his channel participants to over 147,000. Or Junkie XL with his 142,000. And quite a few others.) These are highly specialized YouTube channels dedicated to the film/video/games music, so I don’t think they can attract an average audience. Still their viewership counts in the hunderds of thousands.
So the question is – are those viewers all music composers? Maybe. A lot of them must be those proverbial ‘bedroom composers’ – people who have their home music studio as a hobby.
And in the case of Spitfire Audio, if maybe 10% of their YouTube viewers have some higher aspirations, so when they participate in a competition and don’t win – they get upset.
For the clarification – Spitfire Audio produces software libraries with sound samples of a traditional symphonic orchestra and orchestral instruments. These can be used as a music scetching or composing environment, where the final product is subsequently recorded by a real symphonic orchestra. They can also be used as a substitution of a real orchestra and musicians, especially if the budget constrains prohibit such an approach. The sound quality of the top libraries is so high (Spitfire Audio is just one of a number of similar companies), that you can literally compose and produce a full fledged symphony almost undistinguishable from a live orchestra recording. All that using only your computer.
This competition, and this particular music genre, is like a sophisticated Lego for audio “enthusiasts” – same or similar ‘sound blocks’ are constantly repositioned in an effort to make something impactfull or beautiful – although musical originality is hardly achievable given these circumstances. But from those 11,000 participants there must be at least few dozens talented musicians, whose music is really good, although probably will never get presented to a broader audience.
That I consider a net loss for the humanity. It would be great, if there was some kind of online venue, not just YouTube, or SoundCloud, where this type of music and musicians could get more exposure.