The Cadence: The Smiths, Streaming and Festival Shell Games
Guest Op-Ed by director Stephen Kijak (Shoplifters of the World)
Ever since Jon Cryer brooded to the sound of “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” on the Pretty In Pink soundtrack, the music of The Smiths has been Hollywood shorthand for adolescences at its most emotional.
The new film, Shoplifters of the World, goes all in on this idea, licensing a whopping 20 songs by Morrissey and Marr for its fictional telling of a Denver radio station held hostage and forced to play The Smiths.
Writer-director Stephen Kijak, whose IMDB also includes music docs about Scott Walker, The Rolling Stones and Backstreet Boys, tells The Cadence about navigating music licensing for content when the music is the message.
These Things Take Time.
The musical making of Shoplifters of the World
by Stephen Kijak
I make music movies. My bread-and-butter for nearly 15 years has been feature-length documentaries about music and musicians. It has become my brand, it’s my pocket. And short of finally putting that band together and hitting the road (at my age!?), it immerses me in the creative world I love most. The films are like a natural progression from the mixtapes I used to make back in the 80’s. It is all about curation, all about pacing and timing and feel. And storytelling. It’s about the big turn-on.
My first cinematic mixtape was Scott Walker-30 Century Man about the great, late enigma of 60s chamber pop-turned-avant-garde sonic explorer. I bring you from Specteresque wall-of-sound doom ballads like Love Her and The Sun Aint’ Gonna Shine Anymore to the harrowing industrial opera of his 2006 release The Drift.
From there, I have worked my way from The Stones to Skynyrd to Judy Garland with detours to jazz fusion, boyband megapop and Japanese glam metal – not always driven by fandom, but always by a love of the creative process and of the craft and the magic of music. And the films don’t work without a lot of music. I have given music supervisors PTSD. We have stretched and strained budgets, but we always make it work and it is always worth it.
Having the artists on board obviously helps, but each film still involves a herculean music supervising effort. Publishing can be scattered across multiple publishers, and with diminishing revenues, labels are less likely to make deep discount deals. But there is no library sound-alike that will best “Tumbling Dice!”
In the documentary space, we have been averaging one to two productions a year. A very good clip. However, my first foray back into scripted in, well, a long goddamned time, is a different story altogether! Based around the catalog of one artist (not dissimilar to my documentaries), this was not a biopic but a fan-driven labor of love using the music as motivator, backdrop, narrative driver. A jukebox homage to an iconic band from my youth: The Smiths. Shoplifters of the World is released March 26 in the USA (April 2 in Canada with the rest of world pending) and features 20 fully licensed songs from the songwriting duo Morrissey/Marr. And it only took us 12 years to get it on the screen!
Based around the urban myth of an infamous radio-station holdup at the hands of a heartbroken Smiths fan, this was always going to be an all-or-nothing approach. Either we got permission to use the songs or there’s no film. We couldn’t switch it up at the 11th hour and go with Flock of Seagulls, for example.
The idea was; write a fast first-draft then ask for the music. No point in developing anything further unless you can create some early goodwill and get some wind in your sails. I’m always mystified by the unauthorized narratives about musical artists that feature…NONE OF THEIR MUSIC WHATSOEVER. Truly puzzling. I will not single any of these films out, but you know who you are!
Lucky for us, we had some built-in goodwill going in. The great Johnny Fuckin’ Marr had appeared in my Scott Walker documentary and the man who was managing Morrissey at the time had been a friend of Scott Walker’s managers. Add a great music supervisor to the mix and a very preliminary thumbs-up appeared – along with a very large six-figure all-in quote. Gulp. So ironically, getting permission to use the music was not the hard part. Raising the money to pay for it, now here is where that 12 years comes in.
On a feature documentary, production crew costs are extremely manageable. You’ve got a director, a DP, a sound recordist – maybe a couple assistants, a producer or two, PAs. Even on a lengthy location shoot, the crew footprint is small. Most of the costs are post production and licensing – which is why we have been able to (just barely) handle my 30+ music cue extravaganzas. But drop 20 Smiths songs on top of a cast, crew, locations, production design, costumes, and camera, grip, and electric and you can see how the economics of a music-heavy production start to become a very difficult balancing act. And did I mention it was a 1980’s period piece?
It also truly is a passion project for everyone involved. The Scott Walker documentary took a good six or so years to push uphill. And it was done with a strong and dedicated producer (Mia Bays) by my side. (And it did help that I used at least four of those years to convince David Bowie to Executive Produce the film.) The Shoplifters producing team includes the Brothers Manganiello (3:59 Inc.), Nick and Joe, who were on the project as producers from the get-go, with Joe signed on in a crucial role. They were stalwart.
So with tenacious producers, some fan-financiers, and a superhuman music supe’ leading the charge, we advanced aspects of the production and the papering of the music licenses simultaneously, at one point having to take the leap and put a big chunk of the money down for the music before we had the production budget locked in. A slight gamble that paid off. That momentum cascaded into kick-starting pre-production.
There were many points along the way when we could have just walked away – and not just because of the music. Casts come together and fall apart, and then money mysteriously vanishes (even days into shooting!) But when you get one of the most significant, important and life-changing bands of the 80s to say YES to the liberal use of a large chunk of their catalog there really was no option but to keep moving forward. The massive hat-tip has to go to Liz Gallacher, truly one of the best music supervisors in the business (a total miracle she still speaks to me!) who is a friend and a fellow fan. The value of an experienced, fully seasoned music supervisor cannot be underestimated. Pay them and pay them well!
Shoplifters of the World is about fandom, friendship, and a studied nostalgia, layering the visual, aesthetic and sonic world of The Smiths over 1980s America. It is a musical metafiction that only exists because of the music of one band. And I can finally answer the age-old question: How Soon Is Now?
The most salient statements from recent industry articles.
The world’s largest music streaming service [after YouTube, duh], continues its polyamorous relationship with musicians by putting a ring on its latest audio sister wife.
Takeaway: Spotify says that it will offer a range of sports, music, and cultural programming, as well as interactive features that enable creators to connect with audiences in real time.
Country music could be the first to get out the gate with a major festival just 12 weeks away.
Takeaway: Our hope is that the guidelines and the protocols will be a little less intense, but who knows. It could move in the opposite direction.
This five-day-old BBC article about UK festivals is already out of date as BST Hyde Park canceled their July 9-11 event with Pearl Jam, showing just how volatile planning can be.
Takeaway: Others have moved to safer dates later in the summer, with a noticeable bottleneck over August bank holiday weekend.
The skilled labor required for today’s high-production performances will not be that easy to replace.
Takeaway: Workers might not come back, having moved on to other jobs that might be more stable, more lucrative or offer perks like insurance or retirement options.
5. Race for most popular US music streaming service is tightening, but Apple Music is NOT a contender.
Maybe Tim Cook needs to revive the old iPod ads (if not the blog-indie aesthetic).
Takeaway: 44% of Americans say they use YouTube to listen to music followed by Spotify (27%), Pandora (25%), and Amazon Prime Music (24%) in a tight race for second place. Apple Music and iHeart Radio tied for 5th with just 12% each.
Good thing 12% of streaming (and a $2.8 trillion valuation) still buys plenty of indie artists.
Takeaway: “The power in the music industry has shifted back into the hands of the artist.” (Steve Stoute)