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Music is Storytelling, Too – Narrative Directors Roundtable


Music is Storytelling, Too

By Kathy Dismukes


“Music is a language that doesn’t speak in particular words. It speaks in emotions, and if it’s in the bones, it’s in the bones.” ― Keith Richards

Preach, bony Stone-y Keith Richards! The Narrative Directors Roundtable meeting this month was on how and why media-makers work with composers. Co-hosted by long-time media pros Robin-Noonan Price and Brian Pascale, the program featured a great mix of composers who talked about their artistic process and shared a bit of their work:

  • Charlie Barnett is a 30-year veteran whose talents are featured in his work as a concert orchestral composer, songwriter, guitarist, and pianist. An example of his work is the sophisticated, swingy musical experience he created for a Kia commercial starring Christina Hendricks.
  • Michelle Lockey is a multi-award-winning singer-songwriter, TV composer, blogger, and workshop leader. Her song “Your Footprints” is featured in Young Sheldon – First Look. You’ll see how it complements the previous music and closes the piece with energy and positivity.
  • Blake Althen is co-owner of The Human Factor and a composer, mixer, sound designer, and podcaster. He did the complex sound design and multiple mixes (including surround sound) that really build tension and excitement in the Vikings Season 3 trailer.
  • Laura Baron is an indie-acoustic musician just starting to market to media-makers. Hear samples of Laura’s award-winning jazz, folk, and ballad work.
  • Sam Casscells is a composer who’s also a film director. He recently worked with director Robin Noonan-Price on her 48-Hour Film Project entry. Since it was a silent film, music was even more critical to the storytelling.


A key part of the program was a discussion about the role of music in media. The panel agreed that music can translate a story into the emotion that’s at its heart. Sam noted that almost any story could be distilled into a single, central emotion. Jaws? It’s a story about panic, and John Williams’s music conveyed that with absolute perfection. Composers love helping media-makers tap into and intensify an audience’s emotional connections. They want you to see them as fellow storytellers who can enhance the entire emotional and sensory experience of your work.


We learned a bit of what it’s like for composers when they enter the marketplace. Reminiscent of the process for distributing films, music pros have a number of options. They can even take classes on licensing (Michelle offers a Music Licensing Bootcamp). One way they license their work is through sites like Taxi and SongTradr. They also pitch to producers, music supervisors, and publishers. Some composers become known quantities who build catalogs with the networks; for example, Blake has ~4000 tracks with Discovery. And some, like Charlie, become go-to composers that Hollywood producers and New York agencies tap when they know what they want.


Tips on Getting Great Music for Your Project

  • When should a media-maker start thinking about music? From the very beginning, or at least as soon as a script is written. When you understand that composers are storytellers, too, you’ll want to bring them in early on. That gives you time to have crucial conversations about story, character, and emotion; the result is a more unified, engrossing story.
  • Likewise, be sure to budget for music at the very beginning of your project. It shouldn’t be an add-on. Composers usually have a cost structure based on the type of media you’re producing, with tiers for indie films, bigger-budget films, TV programs, etc. By the way, there are several, surprisingly affordable, recording studios in the area, including Omega Recording Studios in Rockville and Cue Recording Studios in Falls Church.
  • Composers can recommend music, share tracks from their libraries, and create original music that will fire up your imagination, provide insight into your story, and convey what’s not explicit on the screen. Most will welcome an opportunity to provide a consultation.
  • Composers can provide alternate mixes of a piece of music for your project, as well as different lengths, an acoustic version, and so forth. Always make sure your music pro does an instrumental version of anything with lyrics. Invariably, there will come a time when you’ll want to access that.
  • Many musicians can compose on a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) that connects synthesizers, computers, and so forth, so they can compose on dozens of instruments. But live music is still particularly important when it comes to instruments like the acoustic guitar, and composers will tell you there’s nothing like live music, period.
  • The DC area is a great place to find orchestral musicians, many of whom freelance. There are 20+ orchestras in the area, and some of the top brass players in the country play in various military bands.
  • The local American Federation of Musicians (AFM) is in DC (202-337-9325 They are a valuable resource, especially for newer media-makers.


Charles Barnett

Charlie has been composing, producing, and arranging music in Laguna Beach, CA and Washington, DC for 30+ years. He’s scorer of films, TV shows, and ads whom Hollywood calls upon regularly. He is also a concert orchestral composer, songwriter, guitarist, and pianist for the jazz act, Chaise Lounge. Charlie owns Modern Songbook Records, an independent jazz label.


Laura Baron

Laura is an award-winning DC singer-songwriter and composer who specializes in indie acoustic and light jazz/blues. She is now moving into licensing her music for TV and film.


Blake Althen

Blake is co-owner of The Human Factor and a composer, mixer, and sound designer. His mixing credits include Vikings, Visa, Discovery, Pawn Stars, and MTV. He is host and co-founder of the music-centric podcast “Through the Noise.”


Michelle Lockey

Michelle is a biologist turned multi-award-winning singer-songwriter, TV composer, blogger, and workshop holder. Her TV placements include Amazon Prime’s Good Girls Revolt, CBS’s Young Sheldon First-Look Trailer, NBC’s The Voice, The CW’s Reign and The Originals, USA’s Benched and No Tomorrow, Golf Channel’s Inside the PGA, A&E’s Longmire, and MAVTv’s Gear Heads.


Sam Casscells

Sam is a writer-director-composer currently in preproduction on a short film he has written and will direct. His favorite filmmakers are David Fincher, Denis Villeneuve, and Wes Anderson, and his favorite composers are Thomas Newman, Steven Price, and Hans Zimmer.


Kathy Dismukes is the founder of Pintail Productions, a new enterprise focused on creating hella cool content for companies, organizations, and individuals. She is also an impact producer and consultant specializing in fundraising, partnership building, and community outreach for films and nonprofits. A WIFV member since 2007, Kathy served for two terms on the board of directors, including as Treasurer and VP of Development.

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