Thursday, June 14, 2001

Interactive Audio Manifesto

As Executive Producer for Blister Media, part of my job includes marketing the company to new breed technology/content companies who create advertising and entertainment for the web. Back in 1998, when we founded the company, I sketched out some ideas for a virtual vision statement, which I'm not sure ever got fully executed. But thought I'd publish some of those initial thoughts here under the guise of an Interactive Audio Manifesto. The title is tongue and cheek, but the bullet points may have some inspirational value–


• Experimentation yields great advances in science and technology; The same is true for art.

• If your ears are hungry, feed them music.

• The consumer is your audience.

• Audiences demand to be entertained.

• They’re not just ‘eyeballs’. They’re eyeballs with brains.

• When given a choice, audiences don’t buy bland.

• Information and Entertainment are most effective when combined.

• Nothing identifies you like your face. Except your voice.

• Audio is most effective when used judiciously:

1. Use it to brand.
2. Use it to entertain.
3. Use it to convey information.

Anything else is wasted bandwidth

Wednesday, June 13, 2001

Tooting My Own Horn

A company's legacy is the sum of its people. Several years after my departure, Elias Arts offers as part of its promotional literature, several pioneering 'FIRSTS'. Imagine my happy surprise to learn that I was a principle player in at least half of the ‘firsts’.

Among them:

First to use music supervisors
(I was on the first team of music supervisors)

First bi-coastal music production house
(I was on the first bi-coastal production team; and created SOP for the production of all in-house music, sound design and sonic branding projects for both the East and West Coast production offices).

First Olympic music library with Meta tags and digital database
(I was one of three internal supervisors/producers that created that first Meta tagged music library.)

First commercial music company to do product sonification
(I produced, or was part of a team that produced, the company’s earliest product sonification projects for AT&T and TeleTV)

First company to do corporate audio identity systems
(I worked on the company’s first corporate audio identity system –with Alexander Lasarenko– which was created for Elias Arts itself!)

* * *

Honestly, who really knows if any of these ‘firsts’ have any historic –albiet narrow– importance within the industry, or if they are all simply bits of a marketing mythology? Hell, I don’t care: it's a mythology business, and if the current crew of Elias Arts is proud of the company's legacy, then I couldn't be happier to have been a principal participant in its development. It was a wonderful time.

Tuesday, June 12, 2001

Every Beat Must End

I worked 361 days of the preceding twelve months before I resigned from the commercial music, sound and audio identity firm Elias Arts (then called 'Elias Associates').

For the previous five years my typical workday started at 8AM and ended between 10PM and midnight. We were so busy and being a one man production department, it was simply the only way I could singularly produce both day and night shifts.

I had certainly attempted to hire an assistant in the past, but after a training period of about six months, one young woman told me in no uncertain terms, "I don't want your job." –And then she quit!

We had four rooms in the New York office alone, three of them running two back-to-back, 12-hour shifts, resulting in at least one national spot going final every 2 or 3 days.

It was, as '80's retail icon Crazy Eddie liked to say, "INSANE!"

In retrospect I was extremely lucky to make new strategic relationships and enjoy similarly inspiring working collaborations after my departure from Elias, but if I hadn’t, those few years would have made the rest worth it.

I'm especially proud of having had the opportunity to play an executive leadership role as part of a management team that essentially quadrupled revenues over a three year span, and evolved during my watch from an old economy music production house into the leading U.S. Sonic Branding and Sound Identity firm.

Along the way I established Standard Operating Procedures for both New York and West Coast offices; promoted and managed collaborations with Machine Head, a west coast-based sound design company; repaired and normalized relationships with both the American Federation of Musicians and the Screen Actor's Guild unions; and I played a significant role in the a transformation of the company culture by actively and consciously recruiting new creative talent with contrasting talent and skill sets – developing a new paradigm of talent development within the company.

The result was that instead of a having a staff of composers who worked in relative competitive isolation from one another, as had been the case in the past, the company now enjoyed a sense that each project was open for collaboration.

It felt more like a band than a music house, and the diverse artistic perspectives and processes also contributed to the general development of the company's brand image as a creative solution provider, and not just a jingle factory.

Among the new team I scouted and either recommended for hire, or hired directly, were composers Fritz Doddy, Matt Fletcher, Todd Schietroma, Rich Nappi and Kerry Smith; also sales rep Debra Maniscalco, associate producer Jonathan Nanberg, studio manager Jennifer McGee, recording engineer Mario Piazza, and producer Keith Haluska.

I also developed and forged important external strategic creative relationships with many of New York's hottest upcoming young performers then bubbling up under the radar. Among these relationships, notable mentions for their contributions to our creative output must include: Trumpeter Chris Botti, guitarist Eric Schermerhorn, New York Philharmonic violinist Sandra Park, orchestrators Deniz Hughes and Tony Finno, and newly established vocal management firm, Val's Artist Management (aka VAMNATION).

I eventually found my own replacement in a young producer I had worked with a year or two before on a NEC job. Keith Haluska immediately impressed me with how much he loved music, –and the business of music– and so he struck me as a good fit for the company. He started in June '96, dovetailing my final departure by three months.

I suspect the relatively brief time I spent with Keith didn't actually make his job appreciably easier. One hopes, but you can’t wrap up an old role like a holiday package and give it to someone without part of the puzzle missing. All you can do is give them a few of the pieces, and hope they can make something out of it –their own thing. If you can accomplish that, then I think you can finally move away from the stage, back into the wings, out the back door, and into the street, where life awaits, ready to pick up where you left off, and where hopefully it has remained, waiting patiently to tease you with the next big thing.

Monday, June 11, 2001

Winning Awards with Collaboration and Conflict

During my tenure as Head of Production at Elias Arts, an especially productive relationship developed between our Creative Director, Alexander Lasarenko, and myself, whereby Alex considered each opportunity or commission to score a TV commercial primarily as cinematic art (i.e. a potentially entertaining experience in and of itself) –its intent as a vehicle for a brand message or marketing piece –and our budget– notwithstanding.

By contrast, my responsibility was at the client's behest to ensure our client's marketing and message mandate was appropriately represented in our musical and sonic compositions, –and internally, that our creative solutions were executed in a manner that left us with either a profit or a relationship that would produce one later.

As as a direct result of this contrasting dynamic a lot of sparks flew between the creative and production departments, but I think the award-winning results speak for themselves. And I can't think of another music team that did it the way we did at the time, which made me feel at the time that we were invincible.

For a time, in some respects, we were.

A year and a half after my promotion to Senior Producer, Elias NY had become the toast of the North East, and was even drawing clients from the west coast and London. In 1996 we walked away with two of three AICP awards in the music category (Guess ‘Mambo’ (Schietroma) and ‘Levi’s Sensual’ (Jenkins)) and a Clio for a Marcus Nispel directed spot out of DDB, produced by Steve Amato, for the Digital Equipment Corp., called ‘Manifesto’.

What made that latter award all the more sweet was the fact that it had been a collaborative effort whose participants included several new composers working in tandem with Alex, Alton Delano, Fritz Doddy, and myself. The year after I left, several other awards rolled in for projects produced during my tenure, including AICP recognition for Levi’s ‘Primal’, composed by Kerry Smith.

Of the hundreds of awards the company’s staffers have earned over the years, I take great pride knowing that a creative team I recruited and assembled won a good many of those honors. For a time –when Jonathan Elias headed out west and Scott Elias stopped out to pursue other ventures– those of us who spearheaded the company’s flagship headquarters did a unprecedented job catapulting its capabilities back into national industry notice.

When I started my tenure, the company billed less than a quarter of what it reportedly billed during my last year with the company –according to publicly available records. We quadrupled profits and made the Elias Brothers proud. The awards were icing on the cake, but more importantly, for a kid who didn't immigrate to the United States until he was 13,  it was a good American dream to have lived.

Sunday, June 10, 2001

Artists and Repertoire for Madison Avenue

Music and sound design production houses which specialize in the delivery of non-entertainment audio projects often draw a creative boundary between the composition and production departments.

The fact is, a music house is a post-production facility. Composers score tracks, and producers bridge the gap between project management and sales.

In fact, many 'music' producers in this environment are recruited from advertising agencies or other post houses, and their primary advantage to the music house is not their ability to produce a track, but to produce clients!

Obviously, you'll note how vivid the contrast in comparison to the entertainment model, whereby producers are artists themselves and often expected to be collaborators –an additional member of the band, per se.

As I worked up the ladder @ Elias, it was not simply my intention to develop a career as a project manager, or as someone who could 'run a company', but as someone who was also a creative resource. One key advantage I had, which was then unique to the company, was my youth spent growing up overseas, in the Caribbean, South America, Europe and the Mid East.

As it turned out, I had a very open ear, and as a result I was very good at discovering and directing talent, especially in the genre of what Americans call 'world music'.

I discovered in very short order that my 'casting' choices could influence the creative direction of a given track with great effect. It also helped that I enjoyed the process. Just like an A&R scout @ a record label, I recruited talent right out of clubs and bars. But I also found singers and musicians busking away in subway terminals and on sidewalks. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that in New York City, many curbside artists are actually conservatory trained virtuosos –and they arrive from all over the world.

Additionally, I never walked out of an ethnic restaurant that featured a band without taking every musician’s phone number. Need an Urdu player? I know a guy. I took a lot of pride introducing our composers to authentic players of every variety. When the Tourism Boards of Mexico and The Bahamas each required native talent to perform on their respective campaigns, which we we were commissioned to compose, I was the go-to global guy who delivered.

I'm particularly proud of discovering talent that our composers already knew about but hadn't exploited fully, because they had never really talked to a specific musician or singer about what they 'really' did. Chris Botti was just another trumpet player in the rolodex until I found out –simply by asking what he did otherwise– that he toured with Sting and Paul Simon and therefore had an ear for improvising around almost any style of music.

I have many stories like this. It's easy to put someone in a niche. But talk to them for a few minutes and a world opens up.

I've learned that the best talent doesn't arrive on a demo tape with an accompanying electronic press kit. The best talent you discovered –in person– because you went out one day looking for magic and found it.

Today, loops –short repeatable audio snippets– are frequently used in the construction of music. As early as 1991 Elias had a huge library of loops and samples. I myself had been working with loop based composition since 1985. But trends and budgetary constraints aside, I always fought hard for using live players performing indigenous music. Even one solo violinist, for instance, over dubbed on an otherwise sampled string section will communicate just enough fractal audio information to fool most human beings into thinking everything they're hearing is 'live'.

Yes, it's cheaper to use samples and not use real musicians.

But if you manage your budget properly, why fake it when you can have a famous Brazilian percussionist in the room laying down tracks with a world-renown fretless bass player from Kenya.

Whenever one of our composers presented me with a work in progress, I was always asking myself: Who would sound cool on that track? Sometimes the answer was the string section from The New York Philharmonic. I loved calling in David Bowie’s guitarist at the time, Eric Schermerhorn. A lot of guitarists can shred, but few have the fluid cinematic sense that Eric does.

Among my contributions to the company, one of my proudest is simply creating the database of hundreds of uniquely gifted musicians and singers with global talents, some of which were not even ‘professional session players’ until I heard them busking and recommended them to our composers.

Simply consider why a music producer would feel any pride for a track he or she did not compose. There are any number of high profile tracks I produced that I have no feelings about whatsoever. At the same time, there are other tracks, regardless of their profile, that I have immense pride in. Why? Because I suggested something to a composer and they acted on it, adopting my contribution into their work with the faith and trust that my professional opinion, was presented with the singular interest of making one person's idea richer with the addition of another equally talented musician.

And that way, we all win.

Saturday, June 09, 2001

From Senior Producer to Creative Producer

The entertainment and advertising industries are both populated with many kinds of people possessing different skill sets, specialties and methodologies, and all of whom wear the title PRODUCER. Depending on their career development, most have learned some degree of project management skills. It would be difficult, I imagine, to actually begin producing a project without knowing how to manage time, budget, resources and personnel. But at the one end of the spectrum we have producers whose skill set parallels ACCOUNT or BUSINESS MANAGEMENT; and on the other end we have ARTISTS whose skill set is limited to the creative process.

The former excel at managing clients and sometimes process, but do not necessarily influence the client’s opinion or the compositional outcome. The latter are adept at conception and creative development, but may not fully grasp how to integrate a marketing initiative into the work, much less a brand mandate.

In my own development I sought to straddle the fence: I wanted to be more than an Account Executive or a Project Manager. The earliest and nearest role models available to me were Advertising Agency Producers. Most were a cross between a road manager and a business manager, but the ones I most admired were also the de facto Creative Directors for the projects they managed. They may not have defined either the brand message or initiated any specific commercial storyline, but they were masters at maximizing both marketing and entertainment value from any given project, and once focusing a creative strategy, assumed an executive leadership role in the subsequent production.

How was I going achieve that measure of influence for myself?

Well, as music producer, I was often the first contact from the agency for a commission. And as it happened, whenever an agency rep called, they often wanted to know my initial gut instinct regarding what kind musical score the ad deserved, if only to understand how I was going to develop an estimate. I immediately understood if I could define the creative direction at this stage, I would be in front of the project from conception to final delivery.

In the early days I took these calls with our superb Creative Director, Alexander Lasarenko, and at the time I always deferred to his expertise. But on the occasions when he wasn’t available, or perhaps when he was testing me, I would find myself alone on the call with the client and the direction was  left to my sole discretion. In the beginning I winged it, and to be honest, half the time I was frightened. And as you can imagine I didn’t always bat a hundred.

However, eventually my ear and eyes connected and I became an expert at concepting interesting creative directions –based on initial preproduction storyboard review– that both enhanced the story, and/or fulfilled the marketing solutions required by the project at hand (Later I would also develop an understanding of how to incorporate brand message into the work).

Many times a producer, composer or sound designer's first exposure to a project is when it actually arrives as rough video. On some occasions, however, the client will present you with storyboards, a graphic mock up of how the commercial will be shot. Choosing a direction for scoring is actually easier with a rough cut than with no cut, but I actually developed a preference for developing direction before any film or video was shot.

I realized that if I really wanted to get in front of the ball, I needed to define direction, and if I had the resources, deliver a temp track or synth sketches at the storyboard stage. Because by doing so I discovered I could influence not just the sound direction, but how the final commercial was going to be shot to some degree, and certainly how it was edited.

That's a lot of power for a music guy: The client may only be paying you five or ten percent of the his or her overall production budget, but by defining audio direction and delivering a temp track or sketch before the shoot, you've just put yourself in the position of influencing the entire project, and therefore every dollar spent on its development. By the time the first edit is sent your way, not only are you basically done with the heavy lifting, but the client should give you a 'director' credit, too (I wish!).

Later, after I left Elias, I had a two year string of amazing successes with another company when it seemed like every idea I pitched went straight to air without revision.

You can bet that much of that success came not just from my own contributions, but from having been fortunate to choose adept creative partners as collaborators in all those projects. There have been times in my life as an artist or producer that I struggled alone, but in those days I was surrounded by smart, world class collaborators at every turn.

One such talent was Todd Schietroma, a composer/percussionist I recruited. Todd often came to the table with a million concepts for any given storyboard. Of course, I always loved it when my own ideas were chosen for development, but we were lucky if any of us presented an idea that pulled in a high profile project.

As a producer (someone presumably in a creative leadership position), I must admit that I made my own job easier if I arrived first at defining a suitably appropriate and impressive direction, and so that's the advice I give to any producer with the same ambition I had. Analyze each board or rough cut and if you must, struggle to bend your brain in such a manner that you get in the habit of giving birth to new, inventive ideas and creative solutions for any given commission.

Because by defining the direction of a project, that decision, if its accepted, automatically makes you the authority on the subject (or it should, assuming you actually have some idea of what you're doing). The alternative is that someone else will provide you with a directive that you will merely execute and project manage. That's not such a bad thing when you work as a team, but it does make VIP client management easier when you are a creator or co-creator, and not just project manager or line producer.

Also, keep in mind that if a client likes an idea you pitch, then you –fully understanding the parameters of the pitch– should therefore easily arrive at an estimate based on that idea.

It also means that when you deliver the concept in the form of a creative brief to the Creative Department to manage its development, you will also have some idea of how development should proceed, at what rate, and how to manage your time and budget. It may not actually make you the Creative Director, but it will make you fully vested in a comprehensive creative development.

Sure, you can certainly manage a project you didn't create, but your estimates are less likely to be grounded in personal experience or interest, which makes them more difficult but not impossible to execute.

In a nutshell, being first to concept –defining direction– is one strategic way any creative producer can stay ahead of a given project. At the very least, it certainly helps one retain control of reigns.

And that should almost be the first rule anyone in advertising learns.

It's how interns become Senior Producers, for sure.

Friday, June 08, 2001

How to Build a Creative Team

Having made the transition from arts and office administrator to music producer, Scott commissioned Alexander Lasarenko, our talented Creative Director, and myself as his de facto deputies. Our mission was two fold: staff up the studios with new talent and get work. Alex and I shared a common desire to create an altogether different culture than the one that preceded us, and I think we both jumped at the opportunity to put our own personal stamps on what was already a legacy company. I certainly loved the organization to such an extent that I conducted myself as though I owned it, and a couple of clients, it turned out, seemed to think I did. I think anytime you find a successful company, you’ll find its employees feel personally vested in its success.

By 1993 or 1994, however, the composition staff had dwindled down to two ‘night' guys. One was Fritz Doddy, a musical chameleon whose demo had languished in a shoe box before I finally heard it and then spent the next six months championing his talent to my superiors. 'How long will it take before you hire this guy?' I wondered. But then, in my own case, I had first approached the company 4 years before they hired me, and the last six months were conducted as a campaign of daily phone calls to everyone in the organization that I could name.

Fritz had also already made several overtures to the creative department, but there were so many exceptional talents besides him that were also beating down our doors that anyone who was eventually hired there really required someone inside to evangelize their talents on their behalf. For me, it was Audrey Arbeeny, Hugh Barton, Sherman Foote and Ray Foote who finally brought me in.

In addition to Fritz Doddy, the other senior composer was even newer hire named Alton Brammer Delano. Alton was an inspirational and eclectic ahead-of-his-time composer–cum–sound designer that had come to Ray's attention by scoring the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, and then despite his obvious upward trajectory, still agreed to start out as a studio assistant simply in order to get his foot in the door. That's how desirable a staff composer job at Elias was in those days (and may still be). A year later, Alton Delano and Fritz Doddy had formed a powerful musical partnership, combining two trends at the time, Avante-garde rock'n'roll and liturgical loops, and which Alex synched to found video to such great effect, that the footage of dolphins swimming in a bath of grunge guitars actually earned us several projects.

To our core team we added a really effective sales rep, Debbie Maniscalco, with whom I collaborated on closing an astounding amount of sales over the next two years. In the music production community, a sales rep solicits projects from advertising agencies. The job requires the combined skill set of a Manhattan socialite and a Soviet era Super Spy. Debbie was incredibly resourceful in this regard. Together we formed one of the most satisfying business partnerships of my career.

With Jonathan Elias now operating out of Los Angeles, the New York office required an even stronger draw. So, Alex commissioned me to identify promising young talent that we might develop into the new music stars of the advertising community. Who or what this talent should be, and how these talents would fit within the organization was not yet determined. So, apart from learning how to produce projects, I also had to learn how to manage a production company; promote its services; and recruit creative professionals, or young people who could develop into them.

Fortunately, I actually had a few of my own ideas about how I wanted to accomplish the latter.

The model I inherited from my predecessors was built on staffing each studio with a Synclavier Operator, essentially an electronic musician who works a recording studio in an equivalent way that many composers today construct music entirely on a laptop using synthesizers and sample libraries.

These ‘Associates’ were then pitted against each other in competition for every project that came through the studio’s doors. And composers often took an adversarial stance with clients over small creative points; the idea as it was explained to me was that clients don't always know what they want, so you have to fight for great music. I would later make my own mark by also understanding that  composers don't always understand marketing objectives, and that the people commissioning us to make music deserved a result that resembled their original specifications.

Either way, tempers often flared, and receptionists were known to quit abruptly and run wildly down west 20th street complaining of the mad men who worked at Elias. But whatever you may think of it, this method of working actually worked to the company's benefit, for perhaps at least a decade prior to my appointment.

Still, when my own tenure began I suspected this zero sum mentality that marked both internal and external relationships at the company may have compounded the pain already felt by a recent economic recession. Or maybe I was a quintessential Gen Xr who simply wanted to differentiate myself from my Boomer predecessors. We love our mentors, don't we, until we find ourselves competing with them or even their legacy

At any rate, long before I even heard the phrase 'strategic relationships', it was obvious to me that an ensemble of contrasting skill sets groomed to embrace collaborative partnerships –not competitors– would yield the maximum benefit to both the company and its many creative endeavors.

I'm sure I gained this ensemble mentality from my training as dancer. (I received a BFA in dance from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts). A dance company is, after all, a team of individual performing artists working together to present a simultaneously singular and collaborative work of art.

Of course, in direct contrast to this, the general perception of composers is that they are solitary figures directing musicians in an angst fueled effort to give voice to the fruits of their unique and underrated genius. That's all too often true, but I envisioned something different: A team of collaborating composers.

If one looked at the entire production of a TV commercial, from storyboard to shoot to edit, score and finish –one easily saw it as a work of art executed by a team. So, within that, why couldn't the audio development process work the same way?

Consider the way a band or orchestra work together. In a band, ideally, each member simultaneously contains uniquely contrasting and complimentary gifts. That's how it should work, I thought. In a symphony, the french horns play with the violins; they aren't allowed to play whatever they want –which is the way our music company seemed to work, with individual craftsmen following their own muse quite apart from what anyone else was doing.

Given the opportunity, I wanted to change that, and since I was actually given that opportunity, I did.

I placed pre-Internet ads in the New York Times and The Village Voice and received about 300 resumes. I met about 30 candidates and culled those by half, introducing the most promising artists to Alex, Fritz and Alton. We hired several young people who appealed to the consensus. Among them: Matt Fletcher, a technologist who came to us from NYU’s music department; Kerry Smith, a rock guitar player who had been paying his bills by working at Kinko’s; Todd Schietroma, a conservatory trained master percussionist from Texas; GianCarlo Libertino, a classical guitarist who would go on win a small amount of fame whistling the theme for Comedy Central; and Mario Piazza, an engineer/composer whom I recruited from New York's legendary Hit Factory.

Add to this in leadership roles, Fritz Doddy's immense skills as a multi-instrumentalist, Alton Delano's uniquely creative approach to music and sound design, and Alex Lasarenko's mastery of traditional symphonic scoring, and there wasn't much that we couldn't collectively accomplish in house, especially if we all worked together towards a common goal.

There were several others –many others, actually– who also came along for the ride, if only briefly. (In the end, I was one of those, too, who hopped on and off the machine.) Whether they left for other careers or studios, had girlfriends or boyfriends on the west coast, or had family obligations, or were let go for one reason or another, there are still some whose contributions continue to inspire me. To mention just three, there were several young women –Jennifer McGee, Erika Horsey and Lane Lenhart– who were all hired as studio assistants, and who were all so particularly focused on music creation that I'm still waiting to see one or all of them on a magazine cover riding high atop a hit song or score.

All in all, I sought recruits who not only possessed a distinct talent for composition, but who also demonstrated themselves as gifted musicians with little or no overlap in skill sets. Further, I not only selected contrasting skill sets, but contrasting personalities, carefully recruited because I also thought them capable of collaboration with one another. Once hired, I thereafter impressed upon each the importance that every member contribute to each others' projects. My idea was to transform the culture of internal competition into a team effort striving for exceptionally high standard of creative excellence. I felt most proud, not necessarily when we won a new client, but when walking past the studios I noticed the composers working together in each others rooms.

Competition with one's external competitors, or even between divisions in one large company, may be productive, but in a boutique artistic climate, I think internal collaboration yields greater rewards for all, and improves both morale and the bottom line. Indeed, I think the best way to consider this formula is to insure internal collaborations are so efficient that they win external competitions.

To this end, I also attempted to create an environment where creatives did not feel like the necessity to keep 'trade secrets' from one another. Naturally, I didn't do it alone, and I know that Alton and Fritz both wanted to achieve the same ends. But Elias was still a top down highly political organization, and it was difficult to initiate change from the creative side, especially since the composers were all essentially new employees. So, it really fell to production to challenge legacy processes and I did my best.

Each composer/musician was expected to share their craft with the others. Their personal reward for contributing to an open work environment would be the knowledge returned to them when they learn something from his or her colleagues' own specialties. For instance a classically trained artist would learn studio processes and mixing techniques from someone more electronically inclined, than if they forged ahead in isolation. Conversely, the technologists in the lot would find themselves improving their musicianship by working with traditional musicians.

Happily, this new paradigm for the company also proved an advantageous defense against the ongoing recession. Now, instead of hiring session musicians to bring to life sterile synthesized tracks produced by engineers and electronic musicians, our musically diverse staff, while professionally inexperienced, nevertheless possessed the talent to enhance each other's compositions –from concept to console– and all in-house, thereby cutting production costs and talent expenditures significantly.

In fact, at the same time I was building a creative team, my boss, Scott Elias, had also commissioned me to cut production costs by 20%,  and I actually accomplished that in part by simply by hiring people who could work together!

So, how do you build a creative team? My answer circa 1993 - 1994 was to recruit the most talented people I could identify, and to insure that their talents aside, that they were also well liked by at least three other colleagues in the organization; and who relative to one another simultaneously represented Contrasting and Complimentary skill sets. And then, after they were hired, I worked very hard to cultivate in them a desire for working together in an open, collaborative environment, to convey the idea that this had always been the case in this organization, and to protect them from any influence that suggested otherwise.

It was a great big experiment, actually, but it succeeded, and in the end, that team of music and sound design talents turned out to be one of the longest running, highest earning and cohesive creative teams in the history of the company.

Thursday, June 07, 2001

Six Sigma Music Producer

I arrived at the Elias studios with a global perspective courtesy a childhood spent abroad, and fair amount of musical talent that included both a classical and electronic musical background.

But when I was given the title producer, I was still a novice with a bigger job title than skill set and no mentor, as six months before the production department had disbanded when its members left to start a competing company.

So, I had to find a way how to manage national broadcast audio projects, professionally, without embarrassing myself or the company I worked for.
It's true, in the 'real' world, just about anyone will call themselves a producer. But what does that mean? I can tell you that when a Fortune 500 global advertising company commissions you to produce a project for another Fortune 500 global company, you have better have some real skills to back up that title, other than spinning vinyl at parties or beat matching in your bedroom, or you're sunk.

By the time I became a producer I was certainly a master of the Synclavier, a Pre Pro-Tools computer music production system. So, I understood professional music production quite well. But where I was extremely deficit was on two fronts:

1) Dealing with clients, who I was easily intimidated by, and
2) Managing creative talent, i.e. composers, sound designers, engineers, session musicians.

Well, I had to get over that if I was going to get anywhere.

In order to advance my understanding of how a music or sound design project is managed, I scoured archived boxes of job folders and studied every single job for the four or five years prior to my appointment. I reviewed whatever creative specifications might be still be available; I then compared the brief to bids; and compared the bids to contracts, invoices, AFM, AFTRA & SAG contracts. As a tandem exercise, I followed the paper trail with digital audio and Video Recordings from demo to final. In this way, I learned a great deal about the production of all variety of commercial audio projects.

In short, I learned to connect the dots between the creative and the business.

What these studies did not reveal, however, was how one arrived at a specific direction; nor did they provide illumination regarding the psychology of audio on specific demographics; nor did they so much as mention how sound might be filtered through brand strategy. Such things I learned by way of actual experience, on actual jobs and working alongside people who were experts in their respective fields, and whom I was fortunate to have access to. I'll write about this development in another post.

Nor did they give any indication of how to manage other people, especially if those other people were more experienced than you. I have to tell you, nothing should scare a novice producer more than suddenly finding yourself in the position of hiring famous musicians and singers and essentially being in charge of telling them what to do, especially when you're not even producing your own track, but someone else's composition for which someone has paid a very dear amount to broadcast at the Superbowl.

Since I was green, and didn’t have a role model I could rely on a daily basis, I began constructing my own Standard Operating Procedures for the production and direction of creative projects (music, sound design and sonic branding for a variety of platforms), and creative artisans. I did this for literally every step in the process until productions of this sort became intuitive, and even after.

Some of the information I gathered, such as from the analysis and modification of legal contracts regarding intellectual property concerns, but other procedures were unique to my evolving management style. I gathered the basic tenants from my father who was  a project manager for General Electric and who had managed the construction of Desalinzation plants, Power Plants and energy facilities around the world. As a result I like to think of myself as the world’s first music producer to understand Critical Path project management and utilize (an albeit distilled version of) Six Sigma as my mantra in the pursuit of creative excellence, even if that is stretching the truth to the point of breaking. Suffice to say I had a professional project manager mentality even if I hadn't all the skills and experience just yet.

I kept a dairy and dubbed my collected notes and the resulting compendium ‘The Production Manual’, and with it established a practical foundation and reference for the production of music, sound design and sonic branding. As I evolved, the Production Manual evolved. By the time I resigned from Elias Arts (then called Elias Associates), those difficult lessons learned had become second nature to me, and even company wide protocols adopted throughout the company.

I would suggest any novice producer do the same; a sentence or two every day is enough: who did I work for, what did I do, what did I accomplish, what did I learn? What went right? What went wrong? 

If you can manage it, your production manual will also serve as a collection of the legal and business paperwork you receive from clients that can be used as boiler plate documents for future projects, and commonly referenced items, such as basic union rules governing the hiring of musicians and singers.

What else goes into the professional journal? The project specifications, the creative brief, a list of internal and external personnel and a post-mortem –essentially a synopsis of how the project concluded, problems or obstacles and how they were resolved, and lessons learned.

What gets saved to your computer? Every single digital document and electronic communication regarding the project, from both internal and external sources.

Sound like a lot of information to keep? It is, and you'll be adding to its volume for the length of your entire career.

Did you notice I haven't mentioned anything about music? Well, if you're an adult in this business, then I assume you already possess the commensurate musicianship to advance. But if you're just getting started with electronics and studio processes, I recommend another notebook altogether which you can use to keep notes on actual studio production.

In essence, you're writing two text books as you proceed: one is on the business of music production, and the other is on music production. And by the time you retire, you may finally know just enough to actually do your job without referencing your notes.

* * *

By the way, if you really have no experience producing music at all, I recommend buying and beginning with Propellerhead Software's music production program REASON. It's the closest thing I know that teaches traditional studio signal path. What that is and why that's important would probably sound nonsensical to you right now, but in lieu of interning in a recording studio, REASON is as good a place as any to start.

Wednesday, June 06, 2001

Elias Arts Goes Bicoastal and How I Got My Big Break

When film composer and record producer Jonathan Elias moved to Los Angeles, he took two staff composers with him –Chip Jenkins and Christopher Kemp. They opened shop in a beautiful mansion in Laurel Canyon but had to move when neighbors complained about bagpipes echoing throughout the valley.

Shortly after Jonathan’s big move, the New York office's production and creative departments emptied out. Producer Hugh Barton departed for Thad Spencer's amazingly creative studio, Asche & Spencer in Minnesota; Then Ray and Sherman Foote left to start their own empire. Next composer, Doug Hall, and the company’s sales rep Andy Messenger launched their own soon-to-be award winning venture, Mess Hall. Finally, Paul Seymour and creative assistant Jon Nanberg followed the Foote Bros. down the street to Union Square, leaving our west twentieth street Chelsea offices quite empty.

Initially, Scott and Jonathan hired a headhunter to fill the vacant production positions with new blood, and thereby fill a necessary leadership role within the company. When they didn’t find anyone suitable after six months, Scott gave me the job, and I did my best to consolidate a department of three into one singular Producer position. In the intervening time I had stepped though enough daily rings of fire to emerge a capable –if still green– professional. It would still take me a while to truly fill out the title of 'Producer' with the knowledge base and experience to back that up. Fortunately, we began doing so much work so quickly that several years of experience were summarily and tidily compressed into a soul shattering but otherwise exciting half year or so.

As there was no senior role model forthcoming, I relied on my advertising and film industry clients to explain to me what their expectations of my role were, and then I strived to meet or exceed them. It is one thing to make a mistake as a coordinator or as an assistant, when only one’s pride is on the line –quite another when an international campaign for a Fortune 500 company looms in the balance. For essential production and talent management skills, I am especially indebted to Keith Dezen and Margie Sullivan from what was then a pre-Volkswagen Arnold Fortuna Lawner Cabot. Their demands of excellence from me framed my early professional education and my evolution from studio assistant to executive producer.

Tuesday, June 05, 2001

Electro Art Jams with Philharmonic Strings

When I finally assumed something approximating a degree of professional and technical studio competence I began to collaborate on a number of sonic art projects with both Chris Fosdick and Michael Sweet (both of them assistants and engineers to record producer and film composer, Jonathan Elias).

For a song I wrote, called ‘Return to Zero’, I asked Michael to record me in Studio B while I was making a local call from studio A. To accomplish that I sang the vocal to a mix patched in from Studio A. I always loved the thin sound of trebly mono. Must have something to do with growing up with Panasonic cassette decks. Sure, you could dispense with the phone system and simply EQ a normal vocal take that way, but would it be half as fun? No.

Overwrought productions replete with inventive recording techniques taught me a lot about practical hands-on music production. And of course, if I discovered anything interesting in the process, you can be sure I found a way to incorporate it into the work-for-hire projects that were the bread and butter of the business.

It was on such personal musical projects that I tried out techniques and talent before introducing it or the Creative Director or to the compositional staff, which I did usually in the way of a recommendation for a commercial job.

In the process, I also became acquainted with the talents of –and made friends with– many of the session musicians and singers that I would work with throughout the rest of my career. Valerie Wilson Morris of Val's Artist Management and Sandra Park Tremante who played fiddle at the New York Philharmonic were early supporters, and they also gave me good career advice along the way, too.

Today when I listen to those tracks, more than the songs themselves, I get a thrill out imagining the people playing those parts: Doug Hall’s Hammond B-3 and Fritz Doddy’s funky bass kicking off ‘Outer Space’; Alexander Lasarenko’s ambient piano intro at the top of ‘Never Going Back To Earth’, and his lush harmonies throughout ‘The Strangest Boy’; Sandy Park’s psycho pizzicato and Valerie’s ethereal vocals floating just under the stoic sentiment of ‘Return to Zero’. Chip Jenkins, Chris Fosdick, Eric Schermerhorn, Kerry Smith, Ben Sher and Alton Delano all provided amazing guitar work throughout my entire repertoire.

I had a real penchant for space age themes back then, but the music was also always flavored with the terrestrial world rhythms that had served as the soundtrack to my childhood.

While Brian Eno may be a human touchstone for many electronic musicians today, Jonathan’s pop aesthetics were skewed somewhere between Peter Gabriel and Trevor Horn.

In retrospect, I think Elias attracted people who shared a similar taste, of which I was certainly one by virtue of my penchant for mixing tribal percussion with pop harmonies –and that was probably one reason that our mutual composition professor (Joel Chadabe) sent me knocking on Jonathan's door in the first place.

While a world music production for broadcast may not have been quite in sync with the American grunge zeitgeist of the time, those years at Elias Arts proved to be a great personal opportunity to seek out and work with global trend setters in music from Brazil and Kenya to China and the Caribbean, and certainly more interesting than, you know, well, just about everything.

I saw myself in motion pictures
Standing in the melting snow
If you believe in hallucinations
I'll give you some place to go

Return to, return to zero
I don't know, I don't know
If I can... 

Y'know, I'm just one man...

Return to Zero
(C)1994 by Terry O'Gara

Monday, June 04, 2001

Studio Rats in Chelsea

Elias Associates was the original name of the commercial music business now known as Elias Arts. But when I worked there, first as an intern, and subsequently as Head of Production, the studios themselves could be rented out under the auspices of 'Vision Arts' studios.

In practice, though, Associates was so busy that they rarely were available, and then only to special customers, such as John Barry who dropped by on occasion to record a film cue or two with Jonathan.

In the early days I cared more about access than money, so when I was offered a full time job the summer of 1992 –after my graduation from NYU– instead of asking for a bigger paycheck I had the gumption to ask for keys to the palace. I think management quite liked the idea that I was willing to spend 24 hours/7 Days a week at the studio, because they fulfilled my request with so much as batting an eye.

After that, most weeknights I’d go home after work, take a short nap, and then return @ 2 or 3AM in the morning.

On a normal night, when I walked in, Jonathan Elias would usually be wrapping up a record session with Mercury Recording Artists, Dito Montiel and Gutterboy; Ian Lloyd, Bemshi, Robert Downey Jr. or any one of his 'Super Model' projects. In those days the studio was teaming with beautiful girls who wanted to get a record deal, or hang out with ‘music guys’. I don’t seem to remember anyone ever kicking a beautiful girl out the studio, regardless of the measure of her vocal ability. Funny how that works out.

When the studio finally emptied out, I settled into Studio B, and learned how to be a capable studio rat by trying to solve musical problems with technical solutions. Occasionally, Fosdick or Michael Sweet would drop in on their way out and help me figure out why the damn Synclavier was not coming up on the mixing board. Billy Mallery would often arrive at 8AM only to find me still trying to figure out how to patch a tone through a channel, or how to lay SMPTE to tape. I would be tearing my hair out; he would press a single small button or patch a cable and that would be it.

Live and learn, and I lived like that for years, much to the detriment of my social life, which pretty much became nonexistent –along with my personality– but it was tremendous fun; and it’s what I wanted for myself at the time.

Sunday, June 03, 2001

Strung Out and Shell Shocked from a Sonic High

Young people often think of a music producer as the person that gets ‘The Sound’. On a record album that may be true, but in commercial music production, that responsibility is sometimes split with a creative director, and always shared with one’s clients.

In addition to studio technical know-how and presumed musicality, a commercial music producer must also acquire a portfolio of skills. Among them: client relationship management, project management, sales, account management and business development, budget planning, operations, talent recruitment and development, personnel management and contractual negotiation.

A lot of compartmentalization goes on. You need to represent the client to the creative staff; and represent the creative staff to the client. Ideally, composers feel fulfilled upon final delivery, and clients learn to trust you with anything –from their money to their lunch. Not to mention presenting yourself as supremely capable of rolling back the reverb saturation on any given mix to precisely the level which will drive thirteen year old girls into drug stores to buy pimple medicine, –in mono, stereo and multichannel surround.

The first thing you learn is there is an art to everything, including management, which can be a severely underrated skill by creative people, and therefore also undeveloped or even completely absent in creative enterprises. I was determined to get as good at it as I was inventing sounds in a recording studio.

It was always a juggling act: Art versus commerce.

In my first two years at Elias Associates, I spent much of my actual time paying dues by reviewing bids and contracts.

Only after a long day, would I then need to give my nights over to working in the studio. It was in the wee hours of each morning that I studied signal path; mic placement; and where I developed my own perspective on processing.

If the studios were so busy that I could not get into a room after hours –as they often were– then I’d simply sit in the Machine Room/Dub Room and pour over manuals, where I’d read everything I could about the company’s three consoles; or I’d learn how to create patches for the various synthesizers and effects processors we had on the racks.

Perhaps I appeared needlessly driven, but that was not unusual for our crew at the time.

Everybody else at the company also seemed to share my intensity. Together, we made for a high-strung, highly competitive crew that was also given to great laughter and comradeship when we found ourselves comping twenty-three tracks of vocals in the middle of the night.

When I finally left Elias in August of 1996, it took me three months to recover from years of sleep deprivation. I awoke from a shell shocked stupor in October, harboring the distinct impression that this is what a junkie’s withdrawal from amphetamines must feel like.

Only instead of speed, I had been tripping along on brands and beats all those years.

Saturday, June 02, 2001

There are Stars in Those Demos

Elias Arts received hundreds of demos every year –by mail and messenger.

When I first started the demos were audio cassettes. Later they were DATS. By the time I left no one was using cassettes anymore and everything arrived in CD form or VHS.

Engineers who wanted a job in the studios sent some of the demos in. Session musicians, singers and aspiring composers sent in the rest.

Early on, Exec Producer Ray Foote had identified in me a discerning ear for talent; and so it was my task to review each new box of unsolicited material.

At first I was honored that my bosses thought me competent enough, even discriminating enough, to sift through this catalog of work, never mind allow me to make recommendations on it. However, no sooner had I begun the task then I had the sick and sudden realization that very probably –at record labels worldwide– the fates of thousands of talented musicians and bands were in the hands of a few inexperienced gnats like myself.

That said, I really loved listening to demos, so much so that rather than hand the task over to interns and assistants that followed me, I held on to that responsibility until I left the company several years later (having by then risen through the ranks to Senior Producer). I still love discovering a new talent.

The combined responsibility of production duty and talent scout wasn't much unlike an Artists & Repertoire role (A&R) at a record company. But finding talent for a music house is perhaps a little different that its entertainment counterpart because one's selections always had to have talented. Sorry, if that offends anyone, but the truth is, people become music stars for all sorts of reasons, some of them not having to do with musical talent. Since we weren't in the business of trying to get clients to work with us because we were beautiful or had great moves, the only thing left was to be the best in the world at identifying musical solutions to creative problems, and capable of executing their successful resolution.

A producer can’t always claim a writing credit, but there is nevertheless some personal reward in recommending a singer, a musician, an engineer, sampled sounds, adding to an arrangement, or contributing any other component that sells a track and sends the client back to the agency with an enthusiastic smile. Of course, sometimes one's contributions are in fact compositional in nature, but that's not always the case, and it wasn't the primary focus of my job, which I defined as inspiring other people to do their best.

At any rate, on the very first day of reviewing demos, I listened to maybe thirty or forty cassettes in all. There was one that struck me above and beyond all the others, and both Ray and Alex agreed with my assessment. Six months later Jonathan Elias hired Fritz Doddy, a Hungarian American Rocker from New Jersey who had the Prince-like capacity to play nearly any instrument he picked up in his hands.

I wasn't yet high enough up the ladder to command 'signing power', but after anytime we needed to find a specialized, world class talent, my Ray always entrusted me with the job of locating and securing the right person for a specific job.

Once you get a knack for it, you begin gathering the sort of skill set that allows you to see talent in the most unlikely places. It's always fun hearing someone's potential –knowing you've identified someone with an amazing gift– and that perhaps the whole world has overlooked.

Fritz Doddy had a great ear. Long before the advent of Auto-Tune he was a master of 'fixing' singers. I remember how he'd roll an entire vocal performance off 2” tape; dice it apart into individual words and syllables; then sample each phoneme into a Synclavier and re-pitch them –one by one– up or down with a pitch wheel. Then he'd sew the newly tuned performance back together again; and –presto! (hours and hours later)– lay a perfect vocal back to tape.

No doubt, that's as close to handmade as recording gets, and it's not easy work. But Fritz's results were so seamless that upon playback it made some people who really had no business singing, think that they were in fact great singers.

Later, Fritz would go on to win a CLIO for scoring a ‘Got Milk’ TV commercial famous at the time for featuring the Trix cereal Rabbit.

Friday, June 01, 2001

Elias Arts

Ten years ago –in June of 1991– I began my career in audio production at Elias Associates. I started as an intern. Two school chums, Jim Nichols and Josh Kirsch –both Elias alum, but then working for JSM– had advised me to apply for an entry-level job at Elias Associates, which in those days was known to be as dog-eat-dog as it gets. If one survived the competitive culture and Investment Banker/Medical Resident hours, one was supposed to emerge a world-class audio talent.

The only other facilities I knew of that shared a similarly rigorous reputation were The Hit Factory and The Power Station (now Avatar) Naturally, I took their advice with great enthusiasm, but it still took six months pestering the receptionist to an appointment, and a month after that to get hired.

I arrived with high recommendations from Joel Chadabe, with whom I had studied Computer Music Programming with Jim and Josh. Joel had also been a mentor to Jonathan Elias. In fact, it was through Joel that I first heard of Jonathan, and then another prior student of his –and Elias composer– Sherman Foote.

Sherman had a real impish sense of humor about him. When I was an assistant he'd at times advocate my contributions to the Production Department or to the Creative Director, a gesture that I really welcomed and appreciated. But as an intern undergoing the usual hazing, I could never tell if he was angry at me, sometimes, or just pulling my leg. He would usually just start to laugh and let you in on the joke –right before you were about to cry. Of course I wanted to impress him, anyway possible.

Early on, before I really knew what I was doing, I remember ‘normaling’ a console –essentially returning all the knobs and buttons on a mixing board to their zero position. Not including buttons, there are over a thousand knobs on a professional console. I left one knob at the 8’o’clock position instead of where it normally zeroed out at 7 o’clock. Sherman –with almost superhuman ability– walked in the room and immediately pointed at the one button I had missed. He quietly but sternly warned me never to leave the console in such an usable condition again.

That’s how ‘buttoned’ up you had to be: You wanted to work with the best? Not one button in a thousand could be left out of place, not even by a degree. Good morning and where’s my coffee?

My initial duties were split between serving the needs of the Scott and Jonathan Elias; the Creative Director, Alexander Lasarenko; and the Head of Production, Ray Foote. Additionally, I often worked with Audrey Arbeeny on ‘special projects’.

Audrey had been the first member of the organization to recommend me to the others. We sat in the conference room, her back to a wall of sunlit CLIO’s, which cast a regal glow around her. I was suitably impressed.

I showed up my first day at work wearing khaki’s, a tie and a white button down oxford shirt. I thought a professional look was required of me. Management was outfitted in solid black Japanese couture clothing or rock star ripped jeans and cowboy boots.

The first thing Jonathan Elias did when he met me was to bend over and rip a hole in my pants, from my thigh to just above my knee –while I was still wearing them! At first, I thought:

‘My God, I’ve gone to work for freaks.’

Strangely enough, though, I soon felt like I was fast becoming one of them. Whether or not the genetic mutation occurred before or after my arrival, I’ll never know, but before long my entire wardrobe was a hipster’s shade of East Village Black, and my ears –while honed before– were getting increasingly sensitive to the subtlest of background noise, hiss and awkwardly placed pitches.