Iron & Wine's Sam Beam On The Ins And Outs of Licensing Sort Of
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In conjunction with the release of Iron & Wine's new album The Shepherd's Dog, the band's publicists sent out a press kit that included a list of all the TV shows, films, and commercials that have featured songs written and/or recorded by Iron & Wine. The A.V. Club thought it would be interesting to hear what bandleader Sam Beam had to say about how his songs were used, and whether he liked the end product overall.
The A.V. Club: Let's run through the names of these movies and TV shows and you can just talk about why you licensed your song to them, and whether you thought the song was used well.
Sam Beam: I'm probably going to say that I didn't think it was used well. [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, how about Michael Moore's Sicko?
SB: I think they used "Sodom, South Georgia," But I haven't seen it. I guess they liked that line, "All dead white boys say, 'God is good.'" I'm sure Michael Moore enjoyed that.
AVC: So you don't know the context in which the song was used?
SB: I haven't seen the movie yet. I have no idea. In commercials or major films, I'm a bit more of a stickler on how it's used, but for independents, I'm more generous about licensing, because I've been on the other side. It's hard enough to make a movie without having to worry about trying to get music, too. So I try to make it easy for people.
AVC: Do they contact you directly?
SB: They usually contact my label or my manager or my lawyer. There are a few different channels.
AVC: Next up is Garden State, which featured your cover of The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights."
SB: Yeah, that was a total surprise. That was just another in a whole stack of indie movies that wanted to use my music. I still haven't seen it. I hear it was good, though.
AVC: The movie became sort of a surprise success.
SB: It's hard for me to comment about why it was so popular, because I didn't really see it. But bless them. Thanks for using it.
AVC: You were on the soundtrack, and it sold really well. Did that work out for you financially?
SB: Nothing hurts. [Laughs.] But that one, I didn't get to keep too much, because I didn't write the song. That makes a big difference.
AVC: In Good Company used three of your songs.
SB: Paul Weitz had my music in mind when he was writing it, apparently. He wanted some songs, and then he asked me to write something for it, so he screened the movie for me. I had already started "The Trapeze Swinger," and was about halfway finished, so I tailored the way I finished it. You know, the movie had very specific themes, so I tailored the song in a tangential way to the movie.
AVC: What did you think of the movie?
SB: It was a good movie. [Laughs.] It's not like Apocalypse Now or anything. But I think Paul is very talented.
AVC: Is it strange to be watching a movie and suddenly hear your voice?
SB: I haven't seen too many of them, to be honest with you, so I can't say. [Laughs.] Yeah, it is kind of surreal. But it's never really happened to me in a movie theater. I'm usually pretty well forewarned.
AVC: Next up is Wolf Creek. A horror movie. Not the kind of place you'd expect to find Iron & Wine.
SB: I think they used one of my songs for the trailer. I don't think it actually got into the movie. But it makes sense to me. You want to set up a contrast. A serene little beginning before all hell breaks loose.
AVC: Are you a horror movie fan in general?
SB: Yeah. I'm not a huge fan of the genre, but any genre has shining moments. I haven't seen Saw VI or whatever.
AVC: Can you think of one in particular that you like?
SB: I like the old ones. I liked The Omen. That's from the '70s. They don't hold up as well as they did when I was a child.
AVC: Here's a movie that hasn't come out yet, but is reportedly using one of your songs: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.
SB: I don't know about that one.
AVC: You don't know if your song is even in it?
SB: Like I said, I'm pretty generous. Sometimes the names slip right past me. If it's a larger movie, sometimes I see it. But if it was an indie movie, I just kind of say "Yeah, whatever."
AVC: This one is based on a Michael Chabon novel. Have you read much Michael Chabon?
SB: Yeah. Well, I haven't read them, but I have them in the stacks to read. Are they making a movie of his?
AVC: The movie's made. It's coming out next year.
SB: Sounds good. [Laughs.]
AVC: Let's move on to TV. Friday Night Lights?
SB: Never seen it.
AVC: Okay, let's just run down the TV list, and if we come to one you've seen, you can speak up. The L Word?
SB: Never seen it.
AVC: Grey's Anatomy?
SB: Never seen it. [Laughs.] I don't watch that much TV. I see more movies from Netflix than I see TV. So I haven't seen any of those shows. I hear they're good.
AVC: Six Feet Under?
SB: I did see that.
AVC: The one that had your song on it?
SB: I think so. I don't really remember much of the plot. Some of the plots are kind of similar. My wife was getting those from Netflix for a while, and I saw one.
AVC: What kind of movies do you Netflix? What do you normally watch?
SB: Well, whatever I want to see. Blockbusters and such. I have kids, so I don't get to see that much anymore. I also usually get the Criterion movies. They're damn expensive. I usually get them on Netflix to figure out if they're worth shelling out $50 for.
AVC: Given the kind of music you make, and your personal history, having been a professor in a university cinema-studies department, the perception among many would be that you'd be into art films and more esoteric stuff. But that's not true?
SB: Well, yeah, I like a lot of film. I definitely enjoy it, and I'm interested in all of it. I'm a movie buff, and I'm interested in the craft of it. A lot of the big-budget movies, craft-wise, are amazing, but have a boring story. And the indies have their idiosyncrasies.
AVC: Besides In Good Company, have you been approached to write original music for movies?
SB: Every now and then. It's hard for me to commit to it, schedule-wise. In Good Company just seemed to fit because I had some time to do it.
AVC: Let's move on to commercials. Have there been any other than the M&M's commercial that uses "Such Great Heights"?
SB: Yeah, there have been a couple of them. Some people have problems with songs in commercials, but my feeling is, I've got kids to feed. My criteria comes down to, basically, "I like M&M's." It's a product I actually use. I think I did a Clorox one, too.
AVC: Are you concerned about the songs having a life outside the original performance and recording? For example, there are some songs used in commercials where the association lingers. Some people hear Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine Of My Life" and immediately think of Minute Maid orange juice. Does that concern you at all?
SB: I don't really worry about it. If I was writing jingles I would be concerned about it, but I write these songs as songs. If people want to pay me to use it, its not that much different than people paying to go see a show. I'm all right with it. I have responsibilities. If I was single, I might be more critical, more picky. But I have college to pay for, for my kids.
AVC: Were you ever the kind of music fan who would look at someone selling their music to commercials as "selling out"?
SB: Not really. I guess I've never been all that caught up in it. Pop culture, commercials. You only come across a commercial if you're watching a TV all the time. I've never been all that upset. I like hearing the songs. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is there a song of yours that if someone came asking, you'd say "No, this is too personal?" You said that you were pretty generous to the indies when it comes to licensing, but is there a song you'd feel weird about giving them?
SB: No. I mean, I put it on a record. [Laughs.] If you put it on a record, it can't be something you're too worried about people hearing. That's never been an issue with me anyway. For one, there's a lot of craft involved. It's a technique that makes a song sound more autobiographical and personal than it actually is. A lot has been edited, or stolen from other people's lives, or stories that you read. But even the parts that are directly pulled from my own life, I try to do it in a way where they aren't confessional songs or therapeutic songs. I just try to use my own life to build a human song: something that people can relate to in some way. So it's not like the psychiatrist's couch or anything.
AVC: Do you worry about being too overused, about your music appearing in too many places?
SB: Not really. I honestly try not to worry about it that much. I put my energy into writing songs. I have to carve out a living somehow doing this, and licensing is one way. It's hard to register what's "too much" for other people. Like I said, I don't watch TV, so it's tough for me to gauge. I just take it as it comes, and don't put a whole lot of thought into it.