Synching and scoring: The songs that keep on paying

Cinematic scores and soundtracks are art sustainability at play. When artists create songs, melodies and compositions that end up accompanying certain scenes in films, television shows and even adverts, two worlds collide and feed off each other. Syncing and music licensing deals offer a viable financial incentive for artists, creating another avenue for them to earn money from their music other than record sales, streams or touring.

Modern South African film and television productions have consistently used a plethora of local music, mostly written and composed in years long gone. When these pieces of music were produced, there was simply no way of knowing that they would find relevance in the future, let alone new expression in future imaginings.

“When working on music, you don’t necessarily produce songs thinking of a film,” says South African record label owner and producer Lance Stehr. “If anything, you produce tracks with radio in mind. Unless you are commissioned to write the music for a film, documentary or TV series; then the focus would be around the brief given to you by either the music supervisor or director.” 

When it comes to the music involved in cinema, there are fundamental differences between a score and a soundtrack. A soundtrack encompasses every musical piece used in a film or television show, as well as parts of the dialogue. A score consists strictly of the music originally made specifically for a film or show, written and composed by one person or a group of composers who are specifically contracted for that particular production. Sometimes a score will be songs with words and melodies, which can be diegetic (occurring in the world of the production’s characters) or non-diegetic.

This approach, of writing original songs specifically for a production, was taken in South African director Oliver Schmitz’s 1988 film, Mapantsula, which had its original music helmed by the South African band The Ouens. 

The band, comprising members Ian Osrin, Lloyd Lelosa, Nana “Coyote” Motijoane and Thapelo Khomo, wrote, composed and produced original music inspired by the plot of the film, which then formed part of the film’s score. 

The band also appeared in the film, performing during the club scenes, as well as repurposing well-known prison songs that are heard within the film to underscore certain scenes. An accompanying commercial soundtrack album curated by The Ouens was also released.

Depending on the music budget of the production, substantial remuneration is earned as a result of the sync and music-licensing deals artists sign. South African rapper Captain, whose given name is Mpho Molise, had his music licensed for use in the popular telenovela Gomora

“When I made my album, The Ape Tape, which contains songs that were created and conceptualised as far back as 2010, I never would have dreamt that some of the music would be licensed for a television show in 2021. I just wanted to contribute to a culture of hip-hop that I love,” Captain says. 

“It is a blessing to now see that same music being introduced to a newer audience by being played on Gomora, and me receiving some of the most satisfying compensation for my art. I am also happy that my music can add a dimension to the show.”

Although in some instances, films and television shows feature original songs that are written specifically with the film’s story in mind, a soundtrack most often consists of a selection of existing songs that are chosen to be featured in a film or television show. 

An example of this practice is Gavin Hood’s 2005 film, Tsotsi, which predominantly uses music that existed in a world of its own before it was reborn in the film. 

The film remains South Africa’s sole Oscar winner in the category of best foreign language film (now known as best international feature film). It is itself an adaptation of Athol Fugard’s novel of the same name, another testament of the endurance of art.

“For Zola at the time, his music being used in the film Tsotsi came with professional benefits he would have never accrued in any other way,” says Stehr, whose label (known then as Ghetto Ruff), released both the film soundtrack and the artist’s debut, Umdlwembe.

 “Considering his own profile at the time, [being] able to appear in an international production meant invaluable exposure that led to successful touring and higher record sales of his debut album.

Tsotsi’s soundtrack heavily features kwaito, especially tracks from Umdlwembe. In pivotal scenes in the film, the crew struts down their street, with the blaring of Zola’s Umdlwembe serving as their theme music. 

To illustrate further how one artform can inform another, Peter Fudakowski, the producer of Tsotsi says that he would never have made the film had he not heard Zola’s Umdlwembe — that is what inspired him to continue with the arduous project.

One of the most ingenious uses of music in the film comes in the all-important scene in which Vusi Mahlasela’s soothing and uplifting 1997 song Silang Mabele plays as Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) pounces on an unsuspecting Pumla (Nambitha Mpumlwana), shooting her, hijacking her car and inadvertently stealing her baby in the process. 

Given the nature of the song, its selection juxtaposes the violence on screen; a visual and sonic language illustrating the disruptiveness of Tsotsi’s actions in the film. It is an artistic decision in which a piece of music adds to the story.

In the 2019 local crime film, Knuckle City, numerous classic South African songs are used to accompany scenes, most notably, Stimela’s 1988 song The Unfinished Story, TKZee Family’s Fella Kae from their 2000 album Guz 2001, and Four Jacks and a Jill’s song Master Jack. Interestingly, the latter were the first South African band to chart on the US Billboard charts, with Master Jack reaching number three in 1967. 

The film, which centres on an ageing boxer desperate to step out of his father’s shadow and chart his own path while overcoming his trepidation of entering a boxing world engulfed by criminality. Master Jack plays in the early scenes of the film that introduce us to the central character of Dudu Nyakama. 

The group’s lead singer, Glyns Lynne Harding, said of the song: “In certain mines the foreman is called Master Jack; the song tells the story of a labourer who works diligently for this master for years and years and then decides to go out on his own and exercise his desires and aspirations as an individual to be something other than a labourer”, making the song choice tie in with the overall theme of the film.

Advertising is another prominent cinematic avenue that allows for artistic sustainability. Rapper Khuli released his sophomore album Lost In Time in 2012; in 2014, the rapper’s smash hit Mnatebawen, off this album, was featured in a KFC advert. This earned Khuli a substantial payout in royalties.

Stehr concludes by noting: “Syncing deals offer financial incentives that vary from production to production. This depends on the budget, relationships and of course the desperation of some artists. While there are standard fees, if a song has really been popular, the publisher and master rights holders can demand enormous fees.” 

Such examples, in which one work of art gains a new lease on life when it is incorporated in another art form, is an important piece of the sustainability puzzle for artistic and cultural practitioners. 

This article was produced as part of a partnership between the M&G and the Goethe-Institut, focusing on sustainability and the arts.

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