Sunday, December 31, 2000

Assembling the Machine Head Dream Team

I spent nearly two jet set years operating as the Executive Producer and Creative Director of Machine Head, New York – and was charged with leading bicoastal operations for the legendary sound designer, Stephen Dewey.

I spent a week of nearly every month in LA, which I loved, enjoying creative work, tacos, daiquiris and KCRW with both Stephen and Patty Chow, both of whom I really liked. The trips out west also provided me some some surreal professional moments whereby I found myself taking meetings with The Dust Brothers and Anton Fier of The Golden Palominos; or producing the likes of Ralph Schuckett.–who co-produced Sophie B. Hawkins hit ‘Damn I wish I Was Your Lover’ with Rick Chertoff; and David Baerwald, an original member of the Tuesday Night Music Club. But here’s the deal with producing guys like that: They don’t need another expert in their lives; what they require is another expert ear to bounce ideas off of. If there's anything I know, it's how music should work with picture.

Machine Head hired me to extend the west coast presence to New York, but once he did so I wanted to kick down the doors, storm the Big Apple, and show him we could be also be kings.

Back in New York, I assembled a crack team of young composers, each possessing an amazing core competency in a different arena from the others, a formula that lent itself to collaboration; and none of them yet possessed a wide reputation in the industry.

[Initiate 'Mission Impossible' Theme in a new window before proceeding–]

Deniz Hughes
had worked as an arranger for the feature film composer, Elliot Goldenthal. Her own music was playful, passionate and always wonderfully emotive. The first project we worked on together went straight to the Super Bowl and proved to be the highlight of the year.

Michael Sweet, a graduate of Berklee’s film composition department, started his career as an engineer for Jonathan Elias before emerging as the company’s technology guru. He left Elias at roughly the same time I did, in 1996, in order to become a free agent and did business composing music for electronic games as ‘Building Hal’.

Valerie Wilson Morris and Chris Botti recommended Georg Brandl Egloff to me, some years before, when I mentioned that I was looking for a lyricist. I’ve long forgotten what happened to the lyric project, but Georg’s music was super-contagious. Few swing like Egloff: Stick him in a room with a jazz trio and wait for the roof to blow off. I still owe Clinton Recording Studios damages to the ceiling in studio A.

My go-to rock guys were Eric Schermerhorn and Hal Cragin, whom I hired as a team on several spots. Representing two thirds of Iggy Pop’s former rhythm section, there was nothing the three of us couldn’t work out, lugging equipment, tape, guitars and chord charts all over New York and from disparate home grown analog studios in the East Village and Chelsea.

I hired other people along the way, too, for specific projects –notably Shari Feder, who always delivered world class goods, on time, on budget, and her work always sounded ready for broadcast. She came recommended by Mike Davis, who is perhaps most know for playing bone with The Rolling Stones. What I didn’t know at the time was that Mike and Shari are husband and wife. Whatever, the nepotism worked out great, so keep it coming. You got any kids, Mike? Do they play an instrument yet? Cause I got a project that needs a kid…

Rounding out the East Coast contingent was Bill Chesley, an artisan and a meticulous sound designer who was the only one of the bunch who had already carved out a reputation and had a fan base.

We made a big initial impression on several major advertising agencies, and thereafter it seemed like The Gods on Madison Avenue constantly fed us projects. For the first time in my career it seemed like I consistently had my finger exactly placed on the pulse of popular taste.

I usually pitched musical ideas by myself based on an initial review of sketches or storyboards. If I could get our clients invested in an idea, then I knew we’d have an easier time of it, if only because then everyone would be on the same page.

Then, during development I’d work with each individual composer on their presentation –as a record producer works with an artist– until I was no less than greatly enthusiastic about his or her work. Sell it to me and I'll sell it to America. Some clients thought I was being disingenuous when they asked me, which was my favorite demo, and I’d reply that I liked ‘All of them’.

But it was true: I never let myself walk into a meeting without a pocket full of hit tracks. I really believed that if I loved the work I was presenting, all of America would have to love it, too. Fortunately for me, this belief was confirmed by our frequent success.

Yes, I suffered a few miserable failures, too. One client asked for a ‘modern’, ‘edgy’ track making it perfectly clear that the agency would not accept an orchestral score. In my gut I knew the boards demanded a symphonic tonality. Nevertheless I gave him what he thought he wanted. He took the job to another house who of course delivered the orchestral track that I knew we should have given him in the first place. I still beat myself up over that one, but you live and learn: Give them what they want, but also give them what they need, and while you’re at it –and if you have the time– why not have some fun and give them what you want, too.

For a brief while in 1997 though 1998 my hand picked crew shone with the brightest of the bright, and they made me proud to be a member of their team.

It was –I think you can tell– a lot of fun while it lasted.

[Fade Music]

(Hey, was that possibly the first musical cue for a blog?)

Saturday, December 30, 2000

Executive Producer Machine Head/NY 1996-1998

In December of 1996 Stephen Dewey, the acclaimed Los Angeles Sound Designer –whose company Machine Head, had practically defined the standard of sound design– called me up at home at exactly the same time I was trying out a new fangled thing called the Internet.

Stephen started his career as sound engineer and electronic devices guru for The Thompson Twins; went on to be a Product Specialist for the Fairlight Computer Music Instrument company; did a stint at Hans Zimmer’s film scoring company, Media Ventures; and then riding on the recognition earned by producing effects work for Ridley Scott’s film Black Rain, founded Machine Head, naming it after a mechanical guitar part.

Over the years, Dewey’s company and the team at Elias Associates had provided elements for some of the same projects. I had spoken with him several times over the phone –in order to coordinate elements– but I had never met him person. In fact, as the Senior Producer at Elias, I considered him a main competitor. Our team also produced sound design treatments; and Alton Delano –in particular– did such an excellent job of it, that it frustrated me when clients split their projects up between our two shops; but sometimes they did.

I would of course later come to understand exactly how and why Dewey outshone the rest of the Industry. Sound Design wasn’t just an area of expertise. To members of the advertising community, he defined the standard by which all others would be judged.

By Sound Design, I mean both the actual creation and construction of any given sound, and it’s creative application to film and video. Later –after I began working for him– my contribution to the company’s marketing strategy was to convince our clients that what Machine Head produced was less an effects treatment –which any editor with a sample library could provide– and more like an electronic music composition, which indeed was the truth. Many of Stephen’s efforts are comparable to and reminiscent of the groundbreaking work of Pierre Schaeffer, which Schaeffer so famously called ' Musique Concrete'. In the case of Stephen's work, think John Cage with Hollywood attitude.

Now here he was, former competitor and industry legend –not to mention ex-guitar tech for The Thompson Twins– and he was inviting me to come work for him. And oh, by the way, the first project on my To-Do list would be to produce a spot for the upcoming Super Bowl (MCI ‘Kids In Space’:60/:30), which would require me to hop back forth between both coasts between Christmas and the broadcast.

Essentially, my signing bonus was getting to produce a three million dollar video that everybody on the entire planet was going to see, hear, and talk about.

Graciously, I accepted, and then ran out into the New York night to celebrate the beginning of a new sonic adventure.

Friday, December 08, 2000

The 2001 Challenge

At the end of the 2000, I was among several members of the advertising community asked to submit my thoughts regarding what I thought would be the most important issues affecting the Industry in the coming year. Putting on my magical forecasting hat, and from my studio in the heart of Madison Alley (Madison Ave + Silicon V/Alley, i.e. the ad tech community), here's what this interactive music producer thought at the time–

–Terry O'Gara/ August, 2006

The 2001 Challenge
By Terry O'Gara
Published in Shoot Magazine, Dec 8, 2000

This coming year presents new challenges for producers who provide content and services via the Internet and Television. These, depending on your perspective, are either becoming one technology, or parallel technologies working in tandem. New Media will remain "new" for only so long, before becoming standard operating procedure.

Until then, delivery models multiply. Unlike their peers in television, where protocols have remained stable for years, Internet artisans can't bask in their knowledge of current methodologies. Suppliers must keep abreast of every technological advance to maintain an edge in the online marketplace. The more you know, the more you can do--hence the more clients you can accommodate. Saying, 'No, we can't do it,' is valid regarding creative objections. But not being able to produce a project because your eyes glaze over when you learn that the message will be delivered over a mobile phone is business death.

Is it "Sync-to-Broadcast" or Enhanced TV? Does it work in Netscape and Explorer? The makers of these technologies are in competition with each other; that means we folk who create the stuff that gets broadcast have to understand as many of these technologies as possible. If your business hasn't evolved yet, my advice: Jump in. It's changing on a daily basis, anyway. Immerse yourself in the stream; then figure out which way the current flows.

Remember the first time you started using a PC? Cute folders and trash icon aside, you were still befuddled. But you finally got it. Now it's second nature, Well, you're about to experience growing pains again.

Maybe you've spent the last year focused on print, or television, or you were an Internet specialist. Tomorrow your projects will cross all platforms. It'll be your job to understand how things get done and when they go wrong, to understand if it's a creative issue, an integration issue, a technical issue or all of the above. By "your job," I mean, of course, everybody's job.

As a music producer I've been forced to deal with things I never thought I'd have to deal with as a "creative guy." Once, all I needed to know to produce music--beyond a sonic vision--was a broad understanding of the film production process. Skip one beat ahead and we've entered an age where, for instance, if a composer doesn't understand the technical issues regarding the way audio is delivered, then maybe he's in the wrong business. I'm not advocating a complete out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new. The piano, for instance, is a wonderful technology as it is. But there's more to music today than just tickling ivories.

Storytelling remains paramount. But as the definition of "television" is expanding, it follows that the definition of "composer" is also expanding. Artisans in other broadcast industries will have to broaden their general knowledge, as well. Clients are changing, too. They're not hiring talent that can't speak their language--which is increasingly sounding like jargon to those used to standard American English.

Experimentation yields great advances in science and technology. The same is true of art. I believe the challenge ahead is to make the line between technology and art transparent.