What would it cost Game of Thrones to play a live cello?

What would it cost Game of Thrones to play a live cello?


norman lebrecht

February 16, 2014

The hit show, with a $6m per episode budget, skimps on music. It plays computer-generated sound of a solo instrument, no live musician involved.

Violinist and entrepreneur Lara St John does the maths:

To hire a solo cellist in L.A. for a three-hour recording session would cost you 1.5 to 2 times scale (scale being approximately $236). So, let’s say the session would have cost, at the highest rate, $472. That would break down to, over the ten episodes of Season One, about $48 per episode. There would also be residuals payable to the cellist for the DVD release of that season – about the same amount.

I can only conclude, that, although you spent a reported $6 million to $10 million per episode, you were too tight to add fifty bucks to achieve musical integrity. Instead of an exciting, genuine, red-blooded cello solo, you went with an insipid simpering milquetoast midi version

Read more of Lara here.

lara st john


  • Christina Arden says:

    Excellent point, Norman. I will share this with my many non-musician friends who are avid viewers of this show. If Kevin Spacey were aware of this (he made a bio pic of Bobby Darrin) he might push for change as well

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    I am not surprised. I have long suspected that the footage of dragons shown on this show is some kind of electronic trick, too. $6m per episode and they don’t find the money to go out and film some real dragons? I am not surprised they cheat with the cello thing, too.

  • Anon says:

    I find the maths difficult to believe. The producers would need an all-rights buyout, which I think would be more expensive that that in the UK, and US rates are usually higher.

    I also imagine there are many things per episode that the producers could spend an extra $50 on if they so chose – we musicians only care about the cello, the rest of the world cares about other things and not the cello, and the majority of viewers don’t care about any of it, they just enjoy the show.

    (And don’t forget that somebody was probably paid to generate the computer version anyway)

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Yes, and let’s not forget the people who develop and manufacture the hardware and software. So it’s not like they got that track “for free”.

  • Also Anon says:

    Funny she didn’t seem to notice that “all” of the orchestral sounds (the vast majority) are samples and not live players. PS – music budget on show like this? About 20-30k an episode at most and that includes the composer (who pays for everything, including musicians). If the composer wants to actually make money, they have to minimize their out of pocket.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Doesn’t the composer potentially make some money from the royalties of sound track sales?

    • Observer says:

      Also Anon, interesting comment.

      Assuming you’re right, then this is the composer’s problem. He should have the artistic ethics plan for a budget which uses real musicians. Maybe it means earning less per episode, or maybe it means going to the producers & explaining why he needs x amount of money to pay them.

      If what you’re saying is true, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the composer here. He would understand the importance using real musicians & from what you’re saying he dropped the ball to make more money.

    • sauriansaint says:

      Of course I noticed that the entire orchestra is fake. I dwelt only on the solo opening cello because a computer-generated solo stringed instrument sounds far worse than a computer ‘section’, and I spent about $1000 on the cellist, studio, and engineer to make my point. I didn’t feel like shelling out for a full orchestra because I believe that HBO should do that.

  • ed says:

    It’s what’s always happened, or could happen with automation. So, if up to now the system has been geared to reward entrepreneurship in a game of capitalism, and up to now the economics and profits have been the driving factor, really, the question now is what to do about it- change the rules of the game? adjust and retool? lobby and/or boycott for some type of sharing agreement? try to convince audiences to change their viewing and buying habits? or something else.

  • Jim says:

    Compare the theme with and without real cellist:


    http://youtu.be/7ik8znlCEvE (with cellist)

  • Wanderer says:

    While she is absolutely right in principle, her math is a bit strange, and even stranger considering that she as one who runs a label should know better. You need a cellist… and a Studio… and people who do the (professional) recording… and you need to mix the song… it will cost quite a bit more.

    That bastardization of classical instrument sounds is status quo in L.A. Just ask Hans Zimmer or all the other computer based film score composers.

  • sixtus says:

    Let’s use some imagination here! Nobody seems to be complaining about the added Foley sound effects, the computer graphics of the title sequence or the use of CGI for many visual effects. So what if the main instrument in the Game of Thrones title music doesn’t sound like an echt spruce-and-maple cello. Then simply PRETEND its some other sort of instrument, one that sound like what it sounds like, not some invention of late-Renaissance Europe. After all, the series is a quasi-medieval FANTASY . . . with DRAGONS! Besides, I don’t recall any mention of a cello, much less and orchestra (digital or otherwise) in the original books. My beef with the title music is not its perceived orchestration. I loath its non-fantasy-evoking, rhythmically square banality.


  • GW says:

    Perhaps it should be noted that whether the score is based on samples or uses a live cello with or without live orchestra, it is using musical instruments not present and, likely, impossible, in the fantastic but low-tech world presented on the screen, It would have been far more interesting had a score been made solely of acoustic instruments new designed but imagined to have belonged to this particular fictional world.

  • A composer says:

    Well, this is a quite big budget, so i would hire a couple of string players, also because it’s the opening title(!!) which will be heard on EVERY show. But when it comes to a full orchestra, things are getting a bit more difficult.. It may be a deadline issue for series (but look at Lost – everything is possible). But as a small composer, i have to defend the sample-thing: Without Virtual Instruments i could NOT do 80% of my work. Its the only way somebody like me can envolve with the music i make AND hear – also, you cannot name it “computer-generated” – It’s an playable Instrument, made out of hours and hours of recording individual notes, articulations of an REAL Cellist – so it is real. But indeed, as a “computer-based” composer i must say that it could be “played” better 🙂

    • another composer says:

      A proper composer has the facility to audiate music and instruments, through years of training and listening to (and, in many cases, performing on one or more) real instruments. A person who places reliance on “Virtual Instruments” to write 80% of his/her work is a hack, not a composer.

  • Reggie Benstein says:

    While Lara’s intentions seem good: to educate and enlighten and support musicians everywhere, I think her blog post (or public letter, not sure which) would have been more effective if she hadn’t used such an smug, accusatory tone. Shaming people is not really a great approach, in my opinion.

    Is it quite possible that the music production team actually chose the midi sound for a certain effect ? Gives it a kind of futuristic feel…. but who knows.

  • I fail to see how the producers of the television show became obligated to employ this woman, or any other musician for that matter.

  • When I knew Albert Honey (a superb English flautist, sadly deceased now), he was still complaining about how talking films had put so many musicians out of work. And that was in the early 1990s! Lara has a valid point. A live cellist (at least!) should be a no-brainer, especially given today’s depressed work climate. Musicians should be reaching out to one another, and part of the composer’s job, as I see it, is to provide work for musicians. But the problem is much larger than just sampling: the problem is the way in which the music industry has painted itself into a corner by making the recorded medium its economic mainstay. As Albert Honey would point out, this was a problem even before sales started collapsing. It was when sales collapsed, however, that the problems became more apparent, if only to those with eyes to see them: the monolithic superstar acts had crowded out the musical “middle class”. Sampling merely allows this process to continue in yet another sphere. And it is precisely because of this process that “small” composers like myself and “A composer” above, have to make recourse to using sample libraries. The director of the play which I am writing for cannot afford to pay players, nor to pay for my transport to London to realise the score myself (even if such a thing could be made to appear artistically desirable). And so the tide gathers us up with it, and adds us to its weight. And because I can deliver something which sounds like music for a fraction of what it should really cost, the market prices this in and becomes deflationary, as producers will allocate less and less money for music. What we need to do is to make live music, of the kind which only musicians and their instruments can produce in the moment, a desirable quantity again. But the “industry” part of the industry needs to realise that it is shooting itself in the foot. Those of us at the bottom of the ladder can push as hard as we can for a more human sound, but if the industry continues to throw its marketing weight behind Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber, and the musical model they represent (how many musicians are there on stage in a typical Miley Cyrus performance?), how long will it be before the audience regains its senses? Meanwhile, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unfinished work on the next instalment of “The Hunger Games” is to be completed digitally. So it’s only a matter of years before the number of acting gigs is savaged.

  • Constantine says:

    Wow! The variety of justifications for the use of a “digital” cello are interesting and miss the point, I think. The real thing sounds better and doesn’t cost that much especially when one considers the total cost of the program. As one who has worked on the commercial and non profit sides of the music business it’s staggering how much money is wasted in the commercial world. Shouldn’t we be going for excellence here?

  • LarryW says:

    It’s amazing how many writers have totally missed Lara’s point, which has to do with the use of live musicians whenever possible. Take the time to read all of her blog, linked above, not just the snippet included here. It is factual but humorous; neither smug nor accusatory. She is not asking to be hired, but is offering her $1000 cello stem (recording) for free to HBO. And, anyone who thinks she “didn’t seem to notice” that the orchestra is synthesized needs to acquaint themselves with her stunning violin recordings. Support music performed by real musicians. There’s no substitute.

  • Sam says:

    Actually the cello in the main theme IS live. So this article is inaccurate.