Friday, June 08, 2001

How to Build a Creative Team

With Jonathan Elias heading out west, and myself having made the transition from arts and office administrator to music producer, Scott Elias commissioned Alexander Lasarenko, our talented Creative Director, and myself to keep New York’s three studios operational. Our mission was two fold: staff up the studios with new talent and get work. In fact, we were told we had a year to demonstrate Billings that merited keeping the doors open, or we’d both be out of our jobs. 

It was scary and but I was also excited. And 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 at least a couple of clients, it turned out, haha, seemed to think I did. But I think anytime you find a really successful company, you’ll find its employees all feel personally vested in its success. 

By 1993 or 1994, however, after a series of departures,  the composition staff had dwindled down to two ‘night guys’. One was Fritz Doddy, a musical chameleon who came highly recommended by Doug Hall, but whose demo had nevertheless languished in a shoe box before I 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 then they only hired me after a solid campaign where I called the company every single day for six months.

Fritz himself 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 eventually 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, grunge rock and liturgical loops, and which Alex then synched to found footage of dolphins in the wild, of all things, and to such great effect, that it actually earned us several projects.

Another important part of the new configuration was Michael Sweet, who not only being one of Jonathan’s engineers was also an early creative technologist. And after Jonathan’s departure for LA, Michael’s role shifted to a lead interactive audio role, which put him in the position of an audio pioneer in those days.

To our core team we added a very 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 and film directors. The job requires the combined skill set of a socialite and a Soviet era Super Spy. That is, combined talents for people and analytics. Debbie was incredibly resourceful in this regard. Together we formed one of the most satisfying business partnerships of my career.

With the studio’s namesake, Jonathan Elias, now operating out of Los Angeles, however, the New York office required some kind of draw to separate us from our competitors, which now, ironically, included our own west coast office. So, Alex commissioned me with identifying 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.

Alex and I never sat down and made a plan; we simply trusted the other in the responsibilities assigned to them. And as team building goes, I actually did have a few specific ideas about how I wanted to accomplish this task.

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 by themselves using a laptop and sample libraries. It may be a successful model, but I had also observed that individual composers working separately often felt pitted against each other in competition for every project that came through the studio’s doors.

And I also noticed how composers sometimes 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. Unfortunately, some clients did not appreciate losing fights to the people they had hired.

So how might we change the model in a way that benefited our culture, our composers, and our clients?

Long before I 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.

And 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.

In short, I envisioned a team of collaborating composers, each with a distinct and different musical or technical ability.

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 impressionistic approach to music and sound design, and Alex Lasarenko's mastery of traditional symphonic scoring, and there wasn't much now 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 and my own creative work. 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 talented, that it would not surprise me to see any if their names surface on the national stage sometime in the future.

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. This forced collaboration, and that was an important factor in creating a vibrant organizational culture in a creative industry. Further, I not only selected contrasting skill sets, but contrasting personalities, -we weren’t just hiring staffers, we were hiring talent to groom into industry stars and musical brands. 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; Alex, Alton and Fritz all wanted to achieve the same ends. But Elias had long been 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 new 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 (as I did on my own journey). 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 simply bring to life synthesized tracks produced by engineers and electronic musicians, our new musically diverse staff, while professionally inexperienced, nevertheless possessed the talent (and enthusiasm) 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 by simply by hiring people who would 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. -that while the tracks may be in competition with each other, the people were not.

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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