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! Indeed, Executive Producers in post are generally leading sales efforts, not managing projects.

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 creative 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 then called 'world music'.

I also 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 casting 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 conservatory trained virtuosos –and they arrive from all over the world.

Additionally, I never walked out of an ethnic restaurant that featured a live musical performance 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 connected with embassies and delivered.

I'm particularly proud of introducing our composers to the talents of musicians they may have already worked with about but hadn't fully exploited or explored, 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. In short order, he moved from a horn player to our first call on anything we considered esoteric.

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 always arrive on a demo tape with an accompanying electronic press kit. The best talent you discovered –in person– because you went out one day believing everyone has a  unique gift, and if you look for magic, you’ll find 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, the result of my youthful fascination with the Brian Eno and David Byrne collaboration, ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’. Nevertheless, I always fought hard for using live players and ‘rolling our own’ samples. 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 do it all yourself and not work in the moment with live musicians. And that’s certainly the trend, but we lose something when we stop working together. Of course, maybe the next generation won’t miss it after it’s gone because they’ll never had the experience to compare it to in the first place.

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

Real musicians and singers are also talents in themselves that can add magic to a track. Ask yourself, who would sound cool on that this? Sometimes the answer I can up with was a single member of 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. You see, it’s not what guitar will add, it’s what Eric will add. Big difference.

Among my few 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. Maybe because he or she suggested something or someone to a composer or sound designer, and they acted on it,  resulting in an end product that evolved into more engaging experience than either of you could have imagined before.

And in that way, I’m convinced, we all win: clients, creatives, colleagues, culture, the work.

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