Another Season Comes To An End

24 years on any job these days feels like a mini-miracle. 24 years on a single, scripted, prime-time television series is unprecedented. I’ve stated many times on this blog (sorry if I’m boring you) how lucky I am to be a part of this amazing experience. I’m happy to report (as I’m sure you already know) that season 25 is already underway and we will be back on the air with new episodes sometime in September, 2013.

The final few weeks of this season, just like every year at this time, were a flurry of many musical projects happening all at once.

For RABF12 THE FABULOUS FAKER BOY there was the final editing and polish on Jane Krakowski’s performance of “Makin’ Whoopee” (in Russian, no less!), as well as preparing all the Chopin pieces played throughout the episode. I got to direct Jane’s singing about six months ago and I was blown away by her ability to phonetically sing the Russian lyrics. She laughed and said she had no idea what she was singing. I’d love to hear from anyone who speaks Russian to let me know how she did. We hired amazing pianist Robert Thies to play all the Chopin works and he was an absolute pro and a joy to work with. I did all the pre-editing of the pieces on paper (on digital?) while mapping out the placement and tempos. It all worked out great. Alf was very generous in giving me the arranger credit on those pieces so I could earn a little royalty when the show airs. Thanks, Alf!

As if there wasn’t enough music going on in this episode, we were paid a visit from the producers of Robot Chicken. Continuing our new tradition of surprise couch gags by guest animators, the Robot Chicken crew did a crazy, extended couch gag for us. All the music was composed by Alf Clausen & Dell Hake incorporating new music with the SIMPSONS theme and the ROBOT CHICKEN theme.

For RABF14 (premiering tonight, May 19, 2013) THE SAGA OF CARL, about half of the score was provided by the Icelandic band Sigur Ros. Once again, the magic of the Internet allowed us to audition, sample, score, and edit their music from half-way around the world.

For RABF15 (also premiering tonight, May 19, 2013) DANGERS ON A TRAIN, Seth MacFarlane is our guest voice and he even gets to do a little singing. He sang his part a capella, so I didn’t get to direct him, but we did put a cool big band track behind him in post-production. You’d never guess from listening how piece-meal this song was assembled.

The last few episodes this season had a slightly accelerated schedule because, for the first time, we are airing back-to-back new episodes for the season finale.** THE SAGA OF CARL airs first at 8e/p, 7c, then DANGERS ON A TRAIN at 8:303/p, 7:30c on FOX.

While all the above was going on, voice recording for Season 25 is underway and we’ve already pre-recorded three new songs for which I did direct vocals. I’ll blog more about those later in the year.

So, if you haven’t seen enough blogging from me these past few weeks, now you know why. Now that the post-production part of the show is on hiatus (writing and recording of new episodes continues though), I’m going to take a little break. I’ll be back here in a few weeks with more on the show and my various random musical thoughts.

Thanks to all who take the time to stop by here. You seem to enjoy reading, and I certainly enjoy writing.

**UPDATE on May 31, 2013
After I posted this entry, I received a comment from SOLAR DRAGON asking “But weren’t ‘Homerpalooza’ and ‘Summer of 4 Ft. 2’ of season 7, ‘The Bart of War’ and’“Moe Baby Blues’ of season 14, ‘Home Away from Homer’ and ‘The Father, the Son and the Holy Guest Star’ of season 16 and ’24 Minutes’ and ‘You Kent Always Say What You Want’ of season 18 all back-to-back season finales as well?” The answer to all of the above is YES. Happy to set the record straight.


The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Before we dig into this post, let me send a personal message out there to all my readers.

If you’re a regular reader since the beginning, you know that I’m not only lucky enough to work on one of the greatest television shows in history, but I’m also a grandfather to one of the cutest little girls in history. OK, maybe that’s stretching it a bit, but I’m prejudiced. Anyway, my granddaughter Abigail almost didn’t make it into this world to become so cute. She was born as what’s known as a “micro-preemie” and wasn’t given great odds of survival. Well, she beat the odds and will celebrate her 3rd birthday in a few weeks. If all my readers and Twitter followers donated just $1 or $2 each to The March of Dimes, I would be be very grateful and you would help ensure that future micro-preemies could get the same level of medical care that Abby received – care that certainly saved her life.

To donate, visit my donation page by clicking here and consider giving up one cup of coffee this week or one song download. We’re trying to raise as much money as we can by Saturday, May 11, 2013. Check out this little video that tells Abby’s story in just over two minutes, then continue on with our regularly scheduled programming. Thank you so much!

This post is for music geeks. You’ve been warned.

In the episode that aired this past Sunday – RABF11 “Pulpit Friction” I once again was able to put on my classically-trained-in-music hat. There is a scene in the episode that used “The Sorcerer’s Aprrentice” as temp music for the scene. Al Jean liked the way it played and he wanted to use that work in the final version of the show.

It fell to me to find a copy of the score and then “mark it up” so that it could be orchestrated and copied. “Mark it up” means to pick and choose the bars that we’ll use to fit the scene. It always sounds better to do the music editing on paper and have the orchestra play the edited score rather than have the work played in its entirety and then edit it Pro Tools. Playing the edited score always sounds more natural and “un-edited” (except to the music geek who realizes that bars are missing or have been repeated).

I start my process by finding a recording of the work and editing the track in Pro Tools by cutting it, looping it, speeding it up or slowing it down – whatever is necessary to have the music “hit” all the right “spots” in the cue. The final edited track sounds awful but I never worry about that because I know the final recorded version will wash away all sins. I send the edited version set to the picture to Alf Clausen & Al Jean for their thoughts. If they have notes, I tweak and we go back & forth until I get approval.

Next, I “mark up” the score according to the editing choices I’ve made. I take a PDF of the score pages and cross out the bars we’re not going to use, indicate where the music will start and stop, indicate cuts and jumps in the music (e.g. “go from bar 25 to 45”), etc. If you’d like to see my marked-up score click this link: Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Then this score goes out to Alf & orchestrator Dell Hake. The toughest part preparing these classical cues is that often they were written for large orchestras of 75 or more players, often with six french horns or two bassoons, or 4 trumpets. We record with an orchestra of 35 players, with only two each of trumpets, french horns, and trombones, and only one each of the woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon), and our entire string section is smaller than just the violin section of most orchestras. Whittling down a large orchestra score to be played by a group one-half or one-third the size than originally intended is an art form unto itself. Then when it’s recorded, mixer Rick Riccio performs his own magic with microphone choice and placement, digital reverb, and equalization to make the group sound larger than it really is.

Here is my original edited track, complete with click track, that was the basis for the mark-up and orchestration. You may notice that the click “drifts” away from the orchestra from time to time. This is OK, because I knew that when we recorded it, the orchestra would follow the click and would be spot-on the timings.

We spent the better part of the first hour recording this cue at the scoring session, but it was well worth it when you hear the final result. FOX has been kind enough to post it on their YouTube site so that we can all enjoy it together.

I hope this post wasn’t too geeky for you, but this part of the job is one my favorites … one that lets me be more musician than editor.

My Own “10 Songs” List

The recent article at naming the show’s ten-best songs (as picked by our writing staff) motivated me to make my my own list.

Before I share my list with you, here are the criteria I set for myself when picking the songs:

  • The songs would be original compositions. Some of the comments on the Vulture article asked why “Luke Be a Jedi Tonight” or “Talkin’ Softball” were not on the list. I don’t know about the writers, but I wanted my choices to be from songs written expressly for the show, not existing songs with new lyrics.
  • I had direct involvement in producing the song by conducting/coaching the singing. In the very early years of the show, Alf and I were not involved in the creation of songs like the ones written for “Streetcar” or “Baby on Board”.
  • I just plain like the song. These songs still bring back fond memories of working on them and make me smile when I listen to them.

I am not proclaiming these the “ten best Simpsons songs ever”; they’re not even necessarily my ten favorite songs. These are ten songs with special significance during my years working on the show.

OK, here we go…in alphabetical order so as to not give any one song more importance than another:

1) “America’s Back” sung by The Dixie Chicks; music and lyrics by Reid Harrison

I was never much of a country music fan until my wife and daughters started listening to it in the early 2000s. Then I discovered The Dixie Chicks and was blown away by their musicality. I was very excited when I heard they were coming on the show and that a special song was being written for them. Directing them was a personal thrill and one of the true perks of having my job.

2) “Bagged Me A Homer” sung by Lurlene Lumpkin (Beverly D’Angelo); music and lyrics by   Beverly D’Angelo

Right off the bat I break my own rule! Beverly D’Angelo wrote and recorded her vocals for this song without any input from me or Alf, but Alf wrote the great arrangement of the country band backing this track. This song never fails to please me because I really enjoy all the clever baseball double-entendres. I also remember being pretty impressed with Beverly’s singing ability. Shades of “Coal Miner’s Daughter”.

3) “Canyonero” sung by Hank Williams, Jr; music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by Donick Cary

What a great homage to all those muscle truck ads and what a “get” to have Hank Williams, Jr. singing the jingle for us. He had a real hard time with “squirrel-squashin’, dear-smackin’ drivin’ machine!” but you could never tell from the final take. He was a great sport and fun to work with.

4) “Happy Just the Way We Are” sung by the entire cast; music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by Al Jean & Mike Reiss

This was our first time doing a full-fledged musical episode. What about “A Streetcar named Marge” you ask? Well, that was a show-within-a-show. Our characters didn’t break into song to move the story forward. We had done many musical theater-type songs before this episode, but this was the first that presented an entire episode in the style of a Broadway musical.

Bonus material! On the day before we recorded the cast singing for “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(AnnoyedGrunt)cious” my then twelve- and nine-year-old daughters had just brought home their best school report cards to date. I decided to take a hand-held audio cassette recorder with me to the session and ask a favor of our cast. I asked each of them to record a congratulatory message in character to my girls. They were happy to oblige. My daughters still get a kick out of this and they have played it for many of their friends over the years. Their friends think my daughters have a pretty cool dad.

5) “Scorpio” sung by Sally Stevens; music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by Ken Keeler

This song comes from one of the show’s most beloved episodes with one of its most beloved characters, Hank Scorpio. This was performed by the amazing Sally Stevens doing a great Shirley Bassey/Goldfinger impersonation. Did any of you think of this song when Ms. Bassey made her surprise appearance on the Oscar telecast this year?

6) “Testify” sung by Bart Simpson (Nancy Cartwright) and the cast; music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by Frank Mula


All I can say is this in one kick-ass chart! Horns blazing, Hammond B-3 organ whirling, Nancy Cartwright belting it out and loving every minute of it. When I recorded her singing, she had the most fun I think she’s ever had doing a song and she didn’t want the session to end. Before composing for THE SIMPSONS, Alf used to be the music director for “The Donny & Marie Show”. This type of arrangement was right in his wheelhouse and he did not disappoint. This is one track I never tire of.

7) “They’ll Never Stop The Simpsons” sung by Dan Castellaneta; music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by Dan Castellaneta & Deb Lacusta

A take off on Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, we have another great track from Alf that has all the essence and flavor of the original while deftly avoiding a lawsuit. Dan’s reading (singing) of “What else do I have to say?!” is the best moment in this song for me. You should have seen his head-banging when he performed that line. Fabulous.

8) “We Do” sung by the entire cast; music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by John Swartzwelder

This song stands out for me as a unique musical contribution to the show. I don’t think there is a song anywhere else in the 24+ seasons of the show quite like it. This also has one of my thumbprints all over it. When I was directing the cast to sing “Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star?” we would check playbacks and it was hard to hear the “G” at the end of Guttenberg. So after many attempts without much success, I had them sing that final “G” as its own syllable – “Gut-ten-ber-guh”. You can clearly hear it on the track. Looking back, maybe it was a bit over-the-top, but you cannot mistake the name in the song.

9) “We Love to Smoke” sung by Patty & Selma Bouvier (Julie Kavner); music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by Al Jean & Mike Reiss

A song that, sadly, hit the cutting room floor. This was a take off on “I Love to Laugh” from “Mary Poppins”. As sometimes happens in our biz, there just wasn’t room for it in the final cut of “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiali(Annoyed Grunt)cious”. What I’ve posted here is the pre-record version that was used for animation. The song was cut before post-production so we never put the full orchestra version behind it. Poor Julie had to do numerous takes of this while coughing and wheezing her way through each one. She could barely speak when we were done. I would have kept this song in the show instead of “A Boozehound Named Barney”.

10) “We Put the Spring in Springfield” sung by the entire cast; music by Alf Clausen, lyrics by Ken Keeler

One of the best songs ever written for the show, this song won Alf the first of his two EMMY Awards for Best Song. It also had the most singing parts of any song to date. This was recorded LONG before the days of Pro Tools and digital editing. It was all captured on 24-track tape, and all the multiple takes had to be stitched together by me by “bouncing” (recording from one tape deck to another) all the tracks one at a time. Also, the cast did not sing this in a group recording. Each cast member sang their part individually. Of course, Dan, Nancy, Hank, and Harry each had multiple parts to sing. It was a huge accomplishment, one of my proudest moments in the show’s history.

Bonus material #2! A “song”, by definition, has music and words – it is sung (please stop calling any piece of music you hear a “song”). Since this is my “10 Songs” list, and I make the rules, I can bend them to my will! That’s how I roll! I leave you with a snippet of one of my (and quite possibly your) favorite cues from the show. Not a song, but I couldn’t leave it out of this post.

Scoring “Dark Knight Court”

Sidebar: Before start this post, I wanted to say “thank you” to everyone who has stopped by to read the blog in the past week or so. I have gotten quite a bump in page views since posting about the “Homer Shake” couch gag and my small tribute to Sam Simon. These two recent posts seem to have touched a nerve – a good nerve apparently – with my audience. Also I’d like to point you toward Scott Clausen’s blog post about working on the “Homer Shake” phenomenon (a hair under 26 million views as of this writing). At the bottom of his post, he points you back here. You can just keep clicking these two links forever and stay in our endless loop of Simpsons fun! OK, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks in Simpsons Music Land.

On March 1, 2013 we music-spotted RABF10 “Dark Knight Court”, written by Billy Kimball and Ian Maxtone-Graham. The title is like a “before and after” puzzle on “Wheel of Fortune”. The “Dark Knight” part referring to our parody of “The Dark Knight” movie series; the “Knight Court” part referring to the TV show “Night Court” and the B-story this week where Bart goes on trial with a jury of his student-peers while being represented by Lisa, and the trial being adjudicated by former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in a guest-voice appearance. Bart is accused of yet another prank on the townsfolk of Springfield, but this time he swears he didn’t do it.

I’m very excited for everyone to hear the score for this episode. At spotting it was clear that Ian & Al Jean wanted the score to evoke the same emotion and drama as the scores for the “Dark Knight” movies. This would mean a lot of music and a big orchestral sound. I think we pulled it off in every way possible. In a nice bit of serendipity, the scheduling worked out in such a way that we scored this episode on the Warner Bros. scoring stage (Warner Bros. produced the “Dark Knight” movies) and we were able to take advantage of one of the best sounding stages in the music business.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I’m very careful not to give away secrets or surprises ahead of the air date, but recently FOX created their own YouTube channel where you can see classic clips and sneek-peeks of upcoming episodes across their entire Sunday Animation Domination lineup. So, since it’s not a secret anymore, here are a couple of clips from this Sunday’s episode that feature our fabulous score. Turn up the speakers as loud as your boss will allow, or on Sunday night, especially if you are lucky enough to have a 5.1 surround-sound home theater setup, crank it up and enjoy. (RABF10 “Dark Knight Court” airs on Sunday, March 17, 2013 on FOX)

SIDEBAR: Apparently, FOX doesn’t plan to leave their video clips up on their YouTube channel indefinitely. As you can see, the clips below are no longer available. I apologize, but I have no control over these clips. Guess you gotta watch ’em while they’re fresh!

Sam Simon

I am saddened and moved by the news that Sam Simon has terminal cancer. I would love to share stories with my readers about the madcap adventures Sam and I had during the early days of THE SIMPSONS but the truth is, I interacted with him very little. Those first couple of seasons we were both deeply immersed in our corners of the production – he: writing, producing, character design; me: music – that the only minutes we spent together were during music spotting or dubbing, and he wasn’t at all of those meetings. Two-and-half years in to the series’ run, he resigned and told people he wasn’t enjoying the work anymore.

What I do remember is that he was very funny off the top of his head, he laughed heartily at things he thought were funny, and he was seldom without a cigar between his teeth. I also remember that he didn’t quite know what to make of me – my job, really – as his TV producing experience to that point had been exclusively on sit-coms. Music for sit-coms isn’t the same type of scoring (no offense to sit-com composers) in that music is rarely used to convey an emotion during a dialog scene. Sit-com cues are almost entirely transitions or bridges to take the viewer from one scene to the next. Scoring THE SIMPSONS was like scoring a mini-movie every week and I approached the job as I had all my prior jobs. I think Sam found my method a bit intense with all the questions about character motivation, precise start & stop points for the music, subtext, etc. None of these questions were raised in his sit-com experience to date.

Sidebar: One of my favorite memories is during the dubbing of 7G10 “Homer’s Night Out” and it involves Richard Sakai. He came from a similar sit-com background and had the same skepticism about my role as Sam did. During the scene where Gulliver Dark sings, there happened to be a trombone note that stuck out of the mix a little bit and Richard thought that it had been put there intentionally to make a goofy sound during the scene – a definite no-no in THE SIMPSONS’ music mission statement. I argued in Richard Gibbs’s defense that that was not the case and that it was just a coincidence. I don’t think Richard had ever had a music editor speak for a composer to him that way before and he tartly queried me: “Who are you? The musical advocate?!” I was silent for a beat, then quietly answered: “Yes, I am.”

Sam gets a lot of the credit (rightfully so) for setting THE SIMPSONS on its path to glory. In turn, Sam gets my thanks for doing his job so well so that I could do mine and have the amazing opportunity to work on this show these past 24 years.

Of course, with Sam not a part of the day-to-day operation on THE SIMPSONS, I don’t think about him very often, but I laughed pretty hard at a recent inside joke in our show that was all about Sam … but first, a little background.

As you may know, Sam still receives Executive Producer credit on the show and as part of his severance deal with Gracie Films and FOX, he receives a piece of the show’s profits that has earned him hundreds of millions (!) of dollars since 1993. When the show started back in 1989, he was married to the actress-turned-pro-poker-player Jennifer Tilly. They divorced in 1991, and while I have no idea what their settlement terms were, suffice it to say Jennifer was in the right place at the right time.

Jennifer appeared as herself in PABF16 “Gone, Abie Gone”. Homer has put Lisa’s college fund on a poker website and Lisa watches a Jennifer Tilly instructional DVD to learn the finer points of the game and money management. Jennifer’s opening line is: “Use your Simpsons money, use a little girl voice, and take ’em for everything they’ve got!” I nearly fell off my chair when I heard this at music spotting. The casual or new fan of THE SIMPSONS probably let that line just zip right past. It’s one of my all-time favorites.

It’s been a tough week for me personally where cancer news is concerned. In an earlier post I told you about my mother being the “travel agent to the stars” back in the day. One celebrity client I forgot to mention in that post was Valerie Harper. She, too, has terminal cancer. She recently did a guest voice for us in RABF03 “A Test Before Trying”

I’m not an old guy (not yet, anyway), but events like these will cause one to stop, look around, assess, reassess, and learn not to ignore or take for granted the gift of time we’ve been given.

Again … thanks, Sam.

Couch Gags

In the last month, I’ve put in a lot of extra effort on our couch gags.

I remember seeing the first couch gag way back in late 1989 as part of the opening for episode 7G02 “Bart the Genius”. It was clever and funny, but I had no idea what the long-term plan for the couch gags was until I went to music spotting for episode 7G03 “Homer’s Odyssey” and noticed that there was a different gag in the Main Title. I asked Matt Groening and Sam Simon if the plan was to animate a new gag every week and they told me yes. I was amazed that on top of everything else that goes into producing a weekly animated series that they were going to put fresh content into the Main Title every week (of course this also included new smart-alecky things for Bart to write on the chalkboard every week). If you haven’t seen it in a while – or maybe ever – here is couch gag #1.

We do about two-thirds new and one-third recycled couch gags each season. I don’t have an exact number (maybe an über fan will help out in the comments), but this would mean that to date we’ve done about 350 different couch gags. But even the reruns aren’t always verbatim repeats of what aired previously. There will often be small tweaks of sound effects or music, or if there was any dialog in the gag, it might be changed. Hyper-observant fans of the show are rewarded for their attention to the details.

I wrote in great detail about a recent couch gag that was slipped in at the last minute and how I had to come up with a score for the gag using just library music. You can relive that tale here, if you’d like to. Well, the couch gag that was pulled from episode RABF03 back in January will finally get to air on FOX this Sunday, March 10, 2013 at the opening of RABF09 “Black-Eyed, Please”. Normally, I wouldn’t tell you much about it in advance, wanting to keep the details a surprise for everyone, but FOX put the couch gag up on YouTube this morning. So here it is and I’ll talk more about it after you’ve watched it.

The animation is by Bill Plympton who produced another brilliant couch gag for us last season. This isn’t a sequel to this first effort, just another new take on the characters. As we were watching it last week during dubbing, Matt Groening commented on how wonderful it was to see other artists’ visions of the characters. I understand there are plans to have more guest animators produce couch gags.

The decision was made to pull this couch gag off the show in January because the gun violence in it might be considered too insensitive in light of the still fresh (at the time) memory of the tragic shootings in Newtown, CT. I’m glad everyone will finally get to enjoy this very different look at our favorite yellow family.

But just a week earlier … DO THE HOMER SHAKE! At music spotting for RABF09 “Black-Eyed, Please”, Al Jean told me that we would need to have a knock-off version of the “Harlem Shake” music by Tuesday – that was only four days away. At that moment I thought, “How are we going to pull this one off?” and “What the !@#$% is the Harlem Shake?” (I hadn’t seen nor heard of the phenomenon at that point – now I’m a quasi-expert on the subject – kill me now!) The job fell to both Scott Clausen (Alf’s son) and me to come up with a suitable “Harlem Shake” score – two scores, actually … a 30-second and a 20-second version. The 30 would be for Internet viewing, the 20 would be inserted into RABF06 “Gorgeous Grampa” as the couch gag. Scott went off trying to compose something that sounded like “Harlem Shake” but was original. I headed off to music libraries to see if there were any cues that fit the general groove and mood and could do the job. All of Scott’s and my initial work was rejected as not being close enough.

Sidebar: Why not use the actual “Harlem Shake” music, you ask? All those videos on YouTube are using the original music without permission from the owners of the song. BUT, as is often the case with digital media these days, the owners don’t seem to be in any hurry to sue because of all the tremendous free publicity, and none of the YouTube posters are making any money off of their homemade “Harlem Shake” videos. THE SIMPSONS would be another story. We would broadcast the song on national TV, put it on a DVD someday, play it in reruns until dinosaurs ruled the earth again. Given the time constraints and the potential licensing costs, we simply could not make a deal to license the song.

So, after show runner (for this episode) Matt Selman rejected Scott’s and my first attempts and learned that the original could not be licensed, he came up with a pretty cool solution. He had Scott compose a sound-alike version that captured the spirit of the original while incorporating Danny Elfman’s SIMPSONS THEME into the work. This had the dual effect of protecting us from any infringement claims – it’s OUR theme – and gave us the creative freedom to parody the “Harlem Shake” and make it a SIMPSONS original. Then Dan Castellaneta was called in for an emergency vocal session where he uttered the opening line: “Homer Calarita!” (total gibberish), the middle line “Do the Homer Shake!”, and the closing pièce de résistance “Homer did a rip-off!”. This final bit of brilliance, besides being funny in its own right, clearly announced to the world that we were not doing the “Harlem Shake” but our own “rip-off”, seemingly dreamed up by Homer. Throughout the rest of the song, you can hear Homer in the background chanting a rhythmic string of “D’ohs”. Dan sang these “wild” – in music editing terms this means that he did not sing them to any rhythm guide or pre-recorded track. He just riffed to his little heart’s content. When I got Scott’s finished tracks, I cut all of Dan’s singing into the song and laid each “D’oh” into the groove with varying rhythms and syncopation.

The Internet version went “live” on YouTube on Friday, March 1, 2013 and, as of this posting, has been viewed 23.5 million times (!) Some people love it, some hate it, but, as you all know, there is no such thing as “bad” publicity. Click here if you’re one of the few who haven’t seen it yet.

What a fun, crazy ride on the couch it’s been since the start of 2013. I’m ceaselessly amazed that the show continues to spark the imagination of our writers, animators, and composers and, in turn, our audience. I’m still one of the proudest members of Team Simpson and how appropriate to sing the show’s praises today, March 7, 2013 – the day the cast sat down at the table read for the first episode of Season 25! Here’s to 25 more!

Jonathan Coulton Vs. FOX

This story is about 2 weeks old now, so that means it’s time for me to weigh in.

As I was reading my Twitter feed back on Jan 25, I came across this tweet from my buddies @Simpsonology:

I hadn’t heard what the brouhaha was all about, so I read the article. If you haven’t read the article (or don’t care to), the gist is that in 2005 Mr. Coulton produced and performed a “cover” of Sir-Mix-a-Lot’s big hit “Baby Got Back” which the FOX show GLEE apparently used in a recent episode without seeking Mr. Coulton’s permission or paying him any royalties (I am confident that FOX did obtain the proper licenses and paid the appropriate fees to Sir-Mix-a-Lot). A “cover” is a different version of a song than the one produced and recorded by the original artist. So the question is, is FOX (or GLEE) in violation of any copyright laws and do they owe Mr. Coulton anything (e.g., money, credit, an apology)?

Before you read any further, remember that I am NOT an attorney specializing in music or any kind of intellectual property rights. You are NOT authorized to go into court and say, “Chris Ledesma said I could!” I am just a humble music editor who has been around these issues for the past 25+ years and have learned a great deal just by keeping my ears open and my mouth shut.

The cut-to-the-chase answer to the above question is “no”. Of course it goes deeper than that, but basically, “no”. Mr. Coulton’s version of “Baby Got Back” cannot be protected by copyright because Sir-Mix-a-Lot holds the original copyright of the work. “Cover” versions of songs currently under copyright may not be copyrighted. U.S. copyright law allows Mr. Coulton to record his own “cover” version without permission but he must pay a royalty to Sir-Mix-a-Lot. If “Baby Got Back” had been written over 100 years ago and had fallen into the public domain, then Mr. Coulton would be allowed to copyright his “cover” version. He could not claim authorship of the work, but he can be credited as the creator and copyright holder of the “cover” version or arrangement. I deal with this issue multiple times each year when working on THE SIMPSONS. For example, any time we do a public domain piece of music by, say, Beethoven, or Mozart, or Scott Joplin, when we record our own version for use in the show, Alf Clausen receives credit as an arranger and FOX owns the version and its recording (version is the intellectual property, recording is the physical recording on disc, tape or digital media) and copyrights both. Then both Alf and FOX receive royalties from ASCAP whenever that episode plays on TV. If we record a “cover” of a copyrighted work (e.g., “Theme from ‘Bonanza'”, or “O Fortuna”, or “Rhapsody in Blue”) then FOX must obtain permission to use the work, pay a license fee to use the work, and neither FOX nor Alf will receive any royalty for the work. To add a layer of complexity, FOX does own the recording of the “cover”. The recording is protected by the overall copyright of the episode. This means that no one may use our recording of the “cover”, but if someone wants to record their own version, it can be the same as the FOX “cover” because the arrangement cannot be copyrighted. Whew! Are you still with me?

You might ask, “Why can FOX copyright their “cover” and Jonathan Coulton can’t copyright his?” Because FOX’s copyright is actually of all the content – the character design , the script, the music, and all the sound recordings, etc. – in an episode. FOX cannot claim authorship of a piece of music in a SIMPSONS episode if that piece is already protected by someone else’s copyright, but FOX owns and copyrights all recordings made for the show. Now, this does give Mr. Coulton one small possibility for damages. The article suggests that FOX may have used Mr. Coulton’s recording in the GLEE episode. That’s a no-no. Mr. Coulton has the right to copyright his recording of “Baby Got Back”. If he were to sell this recording, he would receive all proceeds from the recording, but still pay a royalty to Sir-Mix-a-Lot. If GLEE re-created Mr. Coulton’s version by making their own recording (just like we do often on THE SIMPSONS), then Mr. Coulton is out of luck. But if GLEE used Mr. Coulton’s recording without permission they would be in violation of the copyright of the recording. Audio forensics are being performed on the soundtrack of the GLEE episode to try and figure out what’s what. I’ll be following the story to see what the final outcome is.