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.

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