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.

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