Confessions of a Liner Notes Writer

I’ve been very fortunate in the eight sets of liner notes I’ve written so far. I’ve written about scores from some of my favorite composers–Elmer Bernstein, Bronislau Kaper, Hugo Friedhofer, Max Steiner–and been exposed to scores I’d never heard and major restorations like Film Score Monthly’s THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM. I’ve written for Varese Sarabande and Film Score Monthly, and at some point I’d like to tackle some projects from the other specialty labels as well–Intrada, La-La Land, etc.

After the announcement last week of GRIMM, my friend Neil Shurley asked me if I would write a post detailing what goes into my process for writing liner notes.  I couldn’t imagine that anyone would care. But I figured, what the hell. It might teach me something about myself and my writing in the process.

Writing liner notes uses a specific set of skills. Every new project has brought its own set of lessons and mistakes for me to learn from. (One is that I’ll end a sentence with a preposition if I want to.) Other writers may disagree with some of my statements, but these come from my experience in the field. So here are some embarrassing admissions, some rules I’ve learned along the way, and my process for writing liner notes.

CONFESSION #1

A lot of liner notes bore me, so…

CONFESSION #2

…most of the time, I don’t read liner notes. I may check to see who wrote them and scan them. But like a child, I often get distracted by the film stills and the design and never bother reading the actual notes cover to cover.

I had the same problem when I used to listen to cast albums. I never read the synopsis of the show or the lyrics. If I couldn’t figure out what was going on from listening to the lyrics being sung, then it was a poorly produced cast album.

RULE #1

Let go of your opinions of the film and the score. If the film sucked, too bad. If the score is amazing, great, but nobody necessarily cares what I think. It would be foolish and counter-productive to the historical accuracy of the notes to portray a film or score as something greater than it is. But liner notes aren’t a blog. It is permanent archival document, often of films and scores that have very little written about them, that will hopefully be used for research by other film music enthusiasts and journalists for years to come.

RULE #2

Don’t excessively show off your musical degrees. I’m as over-educated as the next guy, but I’m writing for an audience that includes musicians and non-musicians alike, so I have to always keep that in mind. I don’t want the notes to come across as a puff piece, but I don’t want to write a boring academic treatise either. So how do I straddle that line? Very, very carefully.

RULE #3

Don’t ignore the score. Too many liner notes focus on the drama behind the film (if there is any) and only give the score a few cursory lines. I don’t know if it’s a decision on the part of the specific labels, a decision by the studio in editing out that information, or a lack on the part of the writer. If it’s the writer’s fault, time to hire a new writer. Since film scores mainly sell to us film music fans, we’re interested in reading about the music. Ideally, there is a healthy balance between the film and score information.

RULE #4

Write a complete essay. One with a beginning, middle, and end. One that grabs you from the opening paragraph and takes you on a logical progression to the end. I want to be lured in and engaged. That doesn’t happen very often. Ideally, the notes I’m writing are the kind I want to read, and so hopefully do others.

RULE #5

Be mindful of the house rules. Every label has their own way of doing things, their own “style sheet.” My job and those of the folks at the label will be a lot easier if I keep their rules in mind.

PROCESS #1

Gather information. If you hate researching, you’ll hate writing liner notes. You may spend hours searching for one particular nugget or days reading a book that will only yield one sentence…if you’re lucky.

First, I cull through every available online outlet to find information. If there are books on the composer/director/stars, they’re all feasible candidates for information. Google Books often saves me a trip to the library.

Ah, the library. I’m thankful to live within walking distance of the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. Their resources are massive and they have incredible primary source material from newspapers, magazines, etc. Occasionally, I’ll receive additional research material from the label, but it is up to me to find the bulk of the material.

PROCESS #2

Next I read through the copies I’ve made of every online source, newspaper/magazine article, book, etc., highlighting the sections I might need along the way. I tend to over-highlight so that I have far more material than I need. I then type all that information and all of these quotes verbatim into a Word document, listing the source, the writer, and the page number. I do this so that if there any questions from outside sources during the editing phase, I can easily pull up the document and do a search of the information to confirm the answer rather than searching through stacks of paper.

PROCESS #3

Now comes the painful first draft. I copy and paste nearly every quote and piece of information I have into sections, usually the history of the film, critical response, then a discussion of the score. That’s a general guideline so that I can place things where they need to be. Sometimes there are more sections, and occasionally the order will switch around.

Like all first drafts, you have to give yourself permission to suck. And, believe me, my first drafts are putrid pieces of pompous prose (usually full of annoying alliterations) that tend to be painfully long. Seldom do I have a first draft below 15,000-20,000 words. That then has to be edited down to roughly 1,500-5,000, depending on the label and the project. Most of my liner notes go through six full drafts and numerous mini-drafts with minor changes. That’s a lot of paper, toner, and editing.

It would be one thing to submit my final draft to the label and have that be the last stop for editing. But the notes also have to be approved by the studio, just like every piece of artwork and all the language and credits included on the album, and that sometimes means more editing. It’s a long process, but it all eventually gets done. And inevitably my notes are far better after some outside editing.

TIMING

I’ve been given anywhere from two weeks to two months to write a set of liner notes. While two weeks is pretty stressful, mainly because of the research time involved, I get it done. If anything, the shorter time period lights a fire under my butt. We writers would NEVER get anything done without deadlines.

From that point, other than final editing, the process is out of my hands. In some cases, the score has been in the works for years. I’ve had projects I’ve worked on released within a couple of months, others have taken over a year.

THE LOWDOWN

Writing liner notes will not make you rich. It probably won’t pay your mortgage or rent either. It’s a lot of work for minimal or no pay. But if you enjoy researching and learning about film music, liner notes are a wonderful way to immerse yourself in a score. And I certainly have a newfound appreciation for the time and effort that goes into releasing just one of these CDs, not to mention doing so on a consistent basis.

By the time that CD arrives, I’ve had more than my fill of the music through the many weeks of researching, writing and editing. But the tactile sensation of that product and seeing my name on there makes it all worth it. Selfish and egotistical? Maybe. Priceless? You bet!

10 comments

  1. Excellent article! The details you described are more or less what I imagined the process to be like. Thank you for giving us an inside glimpse!

    DSS

  2. This is great, Jim. Thanks for giving us a window into your process. The amount of time and effort you invest in your projects are always displayed in the high quality of your work.

    This blog reminds me of the crazy research/writing methods I developed in college, and makes me wonder if I’ll need to bring some of that madness back for future work. Good times!

  3. This is great Jim!

    I always enjoy reading how people go about their writing process.

    20,000 words is incredible! How on earth do you condense it all?!

    I may be calling upon your services in the future.
    .-= Wendell´s last blog ..The Infection =-.

    1. How do I condense it? With a hacksaw and leaving my ego at the door. It’s the only way to ruthlessly edit anything.

      Call anytime, Wendell.

  4. Jim, I’ve also been blessed with similar “growing pains” of giving the label what they want — and each has their own style. I am now working on my third for Intrada and did one for FSM back in 2003. I love the research aspect and had to pull back and remember that I was writing for a select audience and tone down the academic vernacular. I try to keep the original word count and then in the rewrites add more information. I now focus more on how the music works within the drama of the film. However, I do not find reading any notes boring except when they have glaring mistakes due to sloppy rewrites and time constraints. Keep up the good work!

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