Alternate Scores for Silent Films on Home Video

A couple weeks ago TCM aired The Love Light with Mary Pickford, and there was some Twitter chatter I picked up on about it referencing the score on it. This made me think about my now-defunct “altscore” site. It was a service loads of people thought was a great idea but which didn’t catch on. I dug up the altscore piano track I’d recorded for The Love Light, and realized I’d had the service online about 10 years ago, from 2008-2010. At the time, lots of people told me they loved the idea, and thanked me for offering the alternate musical scores — yet I sold very few downloads.

But that was 10 years ago, just before everyone had smart-phones and I was asking people to burn the mp3s to a CD to synch with their DVD or — ooh, high tech! — run on their iPod.

I knew that this could work, that the technological concept wasn’t beyond most people’s abilities. After all, RiffTrax seemed to be going great guns. I forget how I heard about RiffTrax, but its existence and success told me that my idea wasn’t challenging people to do something only tech-savvy geeks could handle. RiffTrax is an online service that was an offshoot of MST3K that did what the original show could not do — namely, rag on popular, copyrighted movies.

RiffTrax 2008
screenshot of the RiffTrax site circa 2008, found on the Internet Wayback Machine

RiffTrax is a service started in 2006 that offered downloadable mp3 files of MST3K ’s Mike Nelson intially — and later also Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett and from the original show — riffing on movies like Indiana Jones or Batman Returns et al. Since they weren’t offering the actual movies, Nelson and co. didn’t have to license them. You paid a few bucks, downloaded the mp3, popped in your DVD, had the mp3 loaded on your iPod (remember, this was the mid-2000s) and started each at the right time and…bingo. RiffTrax is still around and going strong, with a huge catalog of audio-only, video-downloads, and touring dates.

At the time, I’d been reading comments for years on forums like the old alt.movies.silent (again, this was the mid-2000s) and Silentcomedians.com and Nitrateville about DVD soundtracks that fans felt were, shall we say, a challenge to enjoy.

I found a service to sell my mp3s through (Payloadz), created a website semi-modeled on RiffTrax’s ordering page, and recorded a bunch of scores on piano and organ for the silent films whose DVD scores were the ones that I’d seen the most griping about: Keaton’s The Cameraman and Sherlock Jr., Swanson and Valentino in Beyond the Rocks, Mary Pickford in The Love Light and Heart o’ the Hills, Lon Chaney in The Penalty and The Unknown, and about a half dozen of the shorts on the Harry Langdon: Lost and Found set. I also threw in some of the scores I’d recorded for the Laughsmith Arbuckle DVD set that were not used, for free.

silent movie scores Ben model
sales/download page from altscore.com
silent film score Ben Model
instructional how-to page from my altscore.com site

I sold a total of maybe a couple dozen “altscore”downloads, at the most, over the next few years to a handful of fans. I tried selling CDs of the tracks at a couple of cine-conventions, and sold a few copies. People loved the idea, but it just never took off.

I deleted the website a few years ago, and let the domain registration lapse.

Why? Was I ahead of the times? Should I resuscitate the service now that ten years have passed and there are more people in the silent film fan base and that most everyone is used to downloading files and has multiple devices? Is the concern that that audio would be shared around for free and my music bootlegged greater now than in 2008 now that it’s pretty much rampant and YouTube has become a platform for legitimizing copyright infringement? (YouTube: “Sure, you can post copyrighted content! We’ll just email you a tsk-tsk-tsk and slap ads on it.”)

In the meantime, I’ve come up with two other ideas for doing “double-system” scoring to silent films that have no tracks. One is for a pre-recorded score you’d stream online, and one is for live online scoring. Or are these ideas ahead of the time or similarly impossible to monetize?

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Samantha Glasser

Hi! I know I’m way late responding to this, but I’ve been listening to your blog and have you heard you mention several times that you made these alternative scores and it sounded like something I would be interested in. Why oh why does the Mary Pickford Foundation think they’re going to attract young audiences with these awful scores out of left field? Mary is one of my absolute favorites and I think they’re really doing her a disservice. I would be very interested in seeing which scores you have available and finding out if you’re offering them for sale,… Read more »

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