The sound of muzak

by Amy Kingsley

Most Greensboro residents probably don’t spend a lot of time watching Channel 13 – the cable channel devoted to city government meetings and promotions. But maybe you have been watching, perhaps scanning the want ads or waiting with bated breath for the last action item on the agenda. Have you ever wondered where that music comes from? You know what I’m talking about: the emphatic, piano-heavy tune that precedes every council meeting. The initial theme song is roughly 60 seconds long and sounds like Bruce Hornsby minus the melodrama. Jim Collins, the director of Channel 13, laughed when I asked him about it. “It’s called television production music,” he said. Every year the city sets aside money for Collins’ music budget. In order to save money, the department purchases royalty-free compositions from Firstcom and other production music purveyors. Companies like Firstcom circumvent royalty fees by employing composers on a work-for-hire basis, which allows them to own 100 percent of the copyright. “We don’t have ASCAP or BMI rights because they are very expensive,” Collins said. It’s important to note here that the theme music played at city council and zoning commission meetings is different from the background music playing at most other times. Time Warner, the cable carrier, provides those songs through their digital music service. When the staff of Channel 13, all four of them, receive the year’s music library, they listen to it and designate certain songs for certain uses. It’s the same process most news stations use to brand certain types of stories, like investigations or features, with specific themes. Only in Greensboro’s case, the music alerts viewers that they will soon be witnessing the deliberations of a zoning board or city council. Greensboro City Council meetings rarely start right at 5:30, so after the theme song runs out, a longer, more dynamic underscore fades in. It is that song, with its resemblance to a cyber-thriller soundtrack, that really hints at the roller coaster ride of civic governance that lies ahead. Firstcom, which is the go-to company for Greensboro’s television production music, serves clients from the big screen on down. Their credits include music for the movie Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and the venerable television news magazine “20/20.” They do not list Greensboro City Council meetings on their website. “Sometimes I’ll hear a commercial that’s using the same song we use,” Collins said. “Once you pay for the library, you can use it for anything.”