TAXI A&R INTERVIEW
This interview originally ran in the Taxi A&R monthly newsletter, the Taxi Transmitter over the course of three months, November 2015, December 2015, and January 2016.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Southern California, but spent my formative years in Santa Cruz, California. After high school I returned to Southern California to attend college. I majored in music.
Not really. My father had a great love for music, but my mother had very little. My dad played trumpet as a youth and later learned a little guitar. At one point he took Flamenco guitar lessons, but I have no idea what he was thinking. Flamenco was way too advanced for where he was skill-wise.
My father had an extensive record collection. He loved everything from Glenn Miller to Robert Goulet to Acker Bilk to Sabicas to Broadway show soundtracks to comedy records. One record that sticks with me the most, Marty Robbins singing El Paso. The guitar licks (Grady Martin) and the sound of his voice with that reverb. It was haunting. My dad’s been gone for 20 years now and whenever I hear this song I just tear up.
I came across a photo of my paternal grandfather - whom I never met - and he was pictured with a violin. I have no knowledge about his musical background, but it seemed pretty obvious this was a serious endeavor for him.
At no time did I feel like I was a gifted musical prodigy. I worked very hard to develop the skills I now have.
Guitar. I picked it up at age 9. I don’t recall why I wanted to play guitar, but I’m sure having my dad’s guitar around the house, plus his record collection must have had an influence on me. That and the Beatles. Everyone wanted to play guitar then. I started with formal guitar lessons and learned to read music from Alfred’s Guitar Method. I think I got through the first two books.
My parents also had a Hammond organ at one point. I remember goofing around with it and not understanding why I couldn’t get it to sound like the music I heard on records. I didn’t know at the time that the sound I was searching for came from the Leslie rotating speaker.
No! While other kids were cutting their teeth jamming in garages and learning how to be creative I was still reading sheet music and playing only what was on the page. I didn’t play in my first band situation until I was out of high school and had started music college.
I pretty much only played acoustic guitar even though I had a really cheap Italian-made electric guitar. What a piece of crap it was! In high school I got interested in ragtime guitar and took lessons to learn to play the songs of Rev. Gary Davis as I was introduced to them by Hot Tuna. Hesitation Blues has always been one of my favorite numbers. After about a year of ragtime lessons my instructor encouraged me to learn jazz. This was very eye opening to me. I worked very hard at it and used that training to win a spot in the jazz band when I got to college.
Music has never been my main source of income. Maybe it was for some brief periods, but I always had to go back to a day job.
I was on the road in a Top-40 band when my lead singer wife became pregnant. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to support a family on a bar gig salary so I went back to school to learn a trade. I became a computer programmer. Although I’ve continued to pursue a full time music career over the years and have had many successes, I still work in the computer field. I currently work for a major film studio in Los Angeles writing iPhone apps for them.
When is the right time to give up your day job and pursue your dream full time? For me, with having a mortgage and a family to support I never felt that I could make the kind of sacrifices that are required to live that dream. My kids are now adults and out on their own, so it can still happen. Never say never.
As a source of income, doing production music is part of my retirement plan. It’s something that I can continue to do until the day I die. It’s one area of the music business where you don’t have to be young and beautiful to be successful.
Guitar is my primary instrument, but I play piano pretty well now. Well enough to compose but not well enough to give piano recitals! I also play most stringed instruments: electric bass, ukulele, mandolin, banjo, dobro. I’ve gotten pretty good with a slide and eBow. I tried to learn violin but could never master the bowing hand. I have played harmonica on recordings before, but I really wouldn’t put that one on my resume. I also play flute. Badly.
I’m left handed. The first time I picked up a guitar I held it in a left-handed manner. My guitar teacher said “No, no, no!” and promptly flipped the instrument over to a right-handed position. I’ve always wondered if given the opportunity to play left-handed if I would have been a better musician.
I ended up studying guitar at GIT, the Guitar Institute of Technology, what is now the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood. At that time they only taught guitar and bass. My goal was to become a studio session player. I would follow Tommy Tedesco around and hang out at many of his recording sessions.
I’ve always wanted to learn the harp. I’ve said that I’ll pursue it when I retire, but I don’t think I’ll ever retire. So we’ll see.
I’ve never turned down a challenge if I felt I could do it. I’ve done a lot of work over the years for a music book publisher. I’ve done music engraving for several books, transcribed Gypsy Kings-style guitar performances for a book of Christmas songs, done audio restoration of rare Jimi Hendrix home recordings, performed ukulele songs for an accompanying CD, and recorded an album of cowboy songs sung by children.
Some years ago I had a company where we made web sites. Some of those even needed some original music. We eventually branched off into making TV commercials and corporate training videos and they all needed original music. The company eventually turned into animated e-greeting cards. I scored all of the little animated cartoons for that. Some of those even aired on G4 TV.
Even in my app development I’ve focused on music-related tools for composers. One app, ClickBook, is based on the old Knudson Click Track Book. Ron Jones, the composer for Family Guy, still relied on this ancient technology of using a book and he started using my app. I later found out that the music editors at Fox are also using the app.
They were a very popular morning radio duo here in Los Angeles for many years. At one point they had a producer that was so smart they gave him the nickname of Mr. Owl. They created a contest for listeners to create a theme song for Mr. Owl. I spent about 5 minutes coming up with a tune and about a half hour writing silly lyrics for it. My entry won. That makes me an award-winning songwriter!
They also had another segment called “Ask Rita”. I took it upon myself to write a theme song for that since I had already established a relationship with them. I wrote a John Phillips Sousa-style march for it. They loved it!
SInce I was on a roll I decided to write a theme song for the show itself. I drove down to their studios to deliver the DAT tape (remember those?) in person. They ended up doing an entire segment interviewing me on air. My 15 minutes of fame was now complete.
I wish I had known when I started college that I should have majored in composition instead of guitar performance. I had always composed and my compositions were frequently selected for various recitals. But because the guitar was my passion I didn’t really think about it too much at first.
I blame it all on MIDI. As soon as MIDI instruments and sequencers and drum machines became affordable I was hooked. I was always writing instrumental tracks. Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice soundtrack made a big impression on me. It was hip and modern. I was pretty sure I could do that.
I started to really listen to and take apart film scores. John WIlliams’ score to Star Wars was a turning point for the film industry that saw a resurgence of orchestral film scores, and that score in particular caught my attention.
In 1990 I enrolled in the UCLA Film Scoring program. I loved it! After the two year program I sent out my demo reel (on cassette tape!) and was asked to write for cartoon shows at Saban Entertainment. I ended up doing fifty six 2 ½ minute episodes for a show called Tic-Tac-Toons, followed by a few half-hour episodes for the shows Journey To The Heart Of The World, and Button Nose. I was very green at the time and didn’t understand how performance royalties worked. I signed a work-for-hire agreement for my work and later found out that Haim Saban not only took screen credit for every show his company produced, his name was the sole composer listed on all cue sheets. I lost potentially tens of thousands of dollars, but learned a valuable lesson - the hard way - about the business.
I can only speak to my experience and successes. I’ve been writing “dramedy” style for almost 5 years now. Dramedy is basically pizzicato strings, mallet instruments (marimba, vibes, xylophones, glockenspiel), woodwinds, and wacky percussion. The style definitely speaks to my love of cartoon music. It’s a really fun style to write.
One thing I discovered in writing for these shows is that by just adhering to the same color palette (same instrumentation) that I can vary the actual musical style and it will still work. For example, I’ve created really sweet and tender cues as well as James Bond-style spy cues and it all works. They don’t have to be quirky, bouncy all the time. It’s how you sell it.
Reality TV is all over the board style-wise. There’s no standard rule-of-thumb to go by. There are obviously things that work all the time: acoustic guitar, ukulele, rock guitar-bass-drums, etc. Dramedy has been around a long time and continues to be popular. It’s often referred to the “Desperate Housewives” style because it first came into prominence on that show.
In the visual medium, music is there to serve the picture. This applies to features, TV episodes, documentaries, commercials, video games, etc. Unless it’s a music video (remember those?), your job as a composer is to serve and support the story. It’s not about chops - how good you are as a musician. Your primary purpose is to convey an emotion and help keep the story moving along.
Scripted shows usually have a composer hired to write a score specific to the project, but unscripted shows - which is mostly reality TV - must rely on library cues. Their budgets don’t afford them the ability to hire a composer to write a custom score.
So what is the difference between composing a film score and writing library music? Virtually nothing. You are still writing music that will serve the film in the proper manner. The only difference is that in a film score, the composer has the job of moving the music from one emotion to another. In reality TV, that is taken care of by the music editor. Their job is to find all of the necessary music cues that can be cut up and reassembled in a way that makes the music work in a cohesive manner.
What this means to you, the composer, is that when you are writing a cue you need to consider how this music could hypothetically be used in the context of a film. When I compose a library cue, I’ll often create the title of the cue first. That will influence the emotion I’m trying to convey and helps me stay on track.
I’ve even gone so far as keeping a list of potential song titles. Titles that not only inspire the intended use for the cue, but also to make it interesting enough that a music editor might be enticed to check it out. Of course, if the cue gets retitled by a music library then it doesn’t matter what great name you’ve come up with.
Once I turned in a batch of dramedy cues for a show that were all similar in style because that’s what they were using. But one of the cues turned into a James Bond/Pink Panther spy cue with low brass, alto flute, and triangle. Since I never throw anything away I just included it. To my surprise it got used. A lot! I think the music editors get bored with hearing the same things over and over and are happy to shake things up a bit. You never know.
What did you have to stop doing to become better?
Stop over analyzing everything and being too self critical. Creative people always like to put roadblocks in front of themselves. I think you have to trust your instincts if you’re a creative person.
If you’re getting stuck because of a technical issue - get help! Collaboration is a great way get things done. Trade services. Taxi is a great community and folks are willing to help. Don’t let a bad mix hold you back.
I know writer’s block is a real thing, but I don’t often let it hold me back. As long as I can write 3-4 notes I know I can turn that simple motif into something. I think as long as you force yourself to do something, you’ll get somewhere. It may not be very good, but you’ll be farther than if you did nothing. You can always edit and rewrite if it doesn’t work. Just don’t let it keep you from doing anything at all.
Everything in library music is compressed compared to that of scoring. And by compressed I’m not referring to plugins. Library cues need to stand on their own as compositions: they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even if they are only a minute long, they need to tell a story on their own.
In contrast, when scoring a film or a TV episode the individual music cues are part of the bigger picture, so to speak. A film has an arc: it has an opening act, a middle act, and a closing act. The music cues in a film propel the story over the course of 90 or so minutes.
Since your library cues may only be used anywhere from 8 to 30 seconds, it’s important that your cue is constructed to work in smaller sections. That’s why editors really like cues with edit points.
I heard an interview recently with Jeff Beal, composer for House Of Cards on Netflix. He talked about how because all of the episodes for shows like House of Cards are released all at once, many people choose to binge-watch many episodes (or the entire season) in one sitting. With this in mind, Jeff considers the entire season as a 10-hour movie so he builds his score with an arc spanning 10 hours, not just per episode. Kind of like writing an opera.
If you’re referring to episodic television, then no. Both require a level of composing that are virtually identical because you’re building the thematic material over the course of the entire story. But if you mean things like reality TV you are most likely a production music composer and that means developing a library of separate cues that may or may not find more than one or two of those cues used in the same episode.
It’s a good idea writing production music to target a particular style, say dramedy, or surf rock, for example. Here’s an idea to consider. Create a batch of 10 to 20 songs. Construct the cues to mimic the way you would score an episode. In other words, design an arc over the course of the cues to build slowly, show some tension, find relief, tender moments, build excitement, etc.
If you’re lucky - and all those cues are part of batch of cues that the music editor has access to - you may find multiple cues being used in an episode. There is an organic flow to your score. The most cues I’ve had in a single half hour episode of a reality TV show is 10 cues. I like to think that my cues were chosen because there was a similarity in my style of writing and covered a range of emotions that happened to fit the story.
Around 90, with placements ranging from a single episode of the series to (currently) 75 episodes. Many are not listed by cue sheets with my PRO because there are some networks that work on direct licensing (which means no backend royalties for me). The only reason I’m aware of these placements is because I utilize Tunesat to track when my music is present in a TV show. Not a perfect system, but it gives me a good idea of when my music is being used. But it also means there could be many more placements I’m not aware of.
Since June of 2010 I’ve had at least one placement in a new episode of some show. The most placements I’ve had in a single month was 10 shows.
How many different music libraries do you have music in?
I no longer have an interest in placing music in a library with the *hope* that it will someday get placed. It’s very likely that it will just sit there doing nothing for many years. I now prefer to work with libraries that have very specific needs. Only if they put out a call for cues for a specific show will I put any energy into it. That way I know I will probably get at least one placement for the track.
Have you had a strategy as to what you’ve created? In other words, do you compose with a purpose, target genre, or type of TV show in mind, or do you just sit down and let the muse take you where she will?
Right now I’m currently focusing on writing trailer music, so that’s one of those exceptions. So I’m treating the project as if it were for a client. I just completed a 20-track CD that I’m currently shopping around to libraries and music supervisors. As of this writing I’ve signed two of those tracks to a music library.
Once I have a project to work on, I put my head down and don’t come up for air until I’m done.
When you go back and listen to music you created a year or two or three ago, do you cringe a little bit because you’ve become so much better each year just from doing more and more of it?
I have a rule when I compose, which is that I never throw anything away. I just keep moving forward and make it work. Even if it’s the most mundane melody, I know I can save it with orchestration. There are always little tricks you can do to make something interesting.
The other side of that is that I might spend too much time trying to perfect a melody, only to find out that the version that gets used is the one without the melody! Sometimes that melody is just too busy to sit behind dialogue.
I think I remember that you met CSI Miami and Star Wars: The Clone Wars composer, Kevin Kiner through or because of TAXI… maybe at our convention, the Road Rally—and you ended up doing a bunch of work with him, right? If I’m not nuts, tell our readers about how that happened and what came of it?
We chatted briefly and I told him how impressed I was with the work that he was doing and let him know that this was the kind of work I was interested in getting into. I asked him if I could give him my CD which he took and said, “Yes, I’ll definitely listen to it”.
In the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Sure you will” and that he would toss it in the first trash can he came across. Ten days later he called me (not an email but a phone call) and told me that he really enjoyed my CD, thought it was very good, and that he was working on a show and wanted to know if I would be interested in writing music for it.
The show turned out to be “The Little Couple” on TLC. Kevin wrote the theme song and was considered the primary composer on the series. Basically, he would farm out the work to other composers like myself and he would be listed as co-composer.
It really was a great opportunity for me. To date I’ve had placements on 75 episodes of the series. Many of my tracks were also used by the producers as examples of the type of cues they were looking for when new composers came on board. In addition, the music I created explicitly for The Little Couple have been placed on dozens of other reality shows, many of them also on TLC.
When did you first join TAXI?
At what level were you at when you joined? Had you had any significant success or a bunch of placements with your music yet?
Prior to that I had one great success with production music. I got involved on a project with my business partner, Eddie Young. He is a fabulous illustrator who happened to be working on creating a couple of animated commercials for Time-Warner Cable. He asked me to write some music for it. There were two separate spots.
I was becoming aware at this point of performance royalties so I had joined ASCAP around that time and registered the cue sheets for the commercials. Since I was still learning about all this royalty stuff I didn’t really know what to expect.
Around 2 or 3 years later I got a call out of the blue from an ASCAP rep in New York letting me know they had accumulated some royalties for me but I needed to supply some additional information in order to collect the payment. I thought about it and figured that it might be at least $500 so I should probably do whatever I needed to do to make this happen. Well, several more weeks passed before I saw a check in my mailbox. It was for $24,000! Wow. I couldn’t believe it. By this time I also learned about publishing and let ASCAP know that I was also the publisher. Cha-ching! Another $24,000 check. At this point I thought, “That was easy. I could do this”. Over the course of the next couple of years I probably made a total of about $50,000 for those spots.
Unfortunately, it was a long time before I started collecting royalties again from my work in production music. I kind of got lucky on that first one. But it sure proved to me that money can be made in this business.
Were you skeptical before you joined?
How long did you think about it?
I started noticing the instrumental listings and began submitting instrument tracks. I started getting forwards. I had 19 in total that first year. I realized that I should stick with my strengths. I really did enjoy writing instrumental music and songwriting just wasn’t my “gift”.
What are some of the big takeaways you’ve learned from being a TAXI member?
Artists are funny people. We all hate criticism. To be successful not only in Taxi but as a composer or songwriter you need to be open to learning how to improve your craft. Rather than saying how great you are, try to hear what people are telling you. You can’t hear anything if your mouth is moving.
Rejection is something every creative person experiences. What’s been great about the Taxi community is how supportive they are.
Why do you think so many musicians are still hesitant to join TAXI?
How many good friends have you made over the years at the Road Rally?
Oh my gosh, a lot. I think a lot of these friendships will last a lifetime. It starts with getting to know people on the forum, then finally meeting them in person at the Road Rally. Kind of like online dating, LOL. You get to know them from afar then get to know them in person.
I have to say that I look forward to the Rally so much every year. Working in my day job it’s such a treat to be around “my people”, you know, people who get you and have common interests. I look forward to seeing friends from not only all over the country but from many parts of the globe.
Living in a place like Los Angeles I get to be around a large number of Taxi members. In fact, there is a group of us that meetup once a month to have a “mini Rally”. We do much of the same that we do at the real Rally. You know, drink a good amount of alcohol! Actually, I like to think of it as a kind of support group. It’s a tremendous community.
Do you ever collaborate with any of them?
I did a little collaborating in songwriting classes in college. Usually it worked easier when one person worked primarily on lyrics (them) and the other person worked primarily on the music (me). I’m not sure how to approach this on instrumental music. I know I shouldn’t be so afraid. Fear. Fear. Fear.
Do you feel like the TAXI Forum has been a good place to learn about your craft?
There is one downside and that is when people are just too nice when giving criticism. I don’t think it’s helps someone when you say “hey, great tune, you’re awesome!” when it’s clearly not a great tune. It’s just easier to compliment someone and spare their feelings instead of giving them tough love. You’re never going to get any better if no one will tell you you need improvement. It doesn’t happen very often, but I see it once in awhile.
Do you ever watch the TAXI TV episodes?
I can’t believe that Michael has the energy to do one of these episodes every week. Talk about a commitment to his members.
Any sage advice for people about making the best use of the TAXI Road Rally?
Of course the classes are very informative - something for everybody - and the panels in the ballroom are the best. I even got to meet one of my idols, Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. What a great guy he is!
I live in Los Angeles, near where the Rally is hosted. At my first Rally I went to the classes during the day and drove straight home afterward for dinner. I learned that there is great value in hanging out in the lobby/bar in the evening and getting to know people, going to the open mics, and general good times. You can’t get that online. So ever since then I’ve booked a room at the hotel so I can make the most of everything that the Rally has to offer.
It’s hard to describe in words. You just have to experience it for yourself. When you start hearing people on the forum talking about the upcoming Rally - months in advance - you begin to understand why people go through withdrawal anticipating the next Rally.
I remember that you said in the pre-interview that you’ve begun to move beyond doing a lot of Dramedy cues – which you’ve been quite successful at for the last five years – to doing music that’s more targeted specifically at Film Trailers. Why are you moving in that direction?
I think it’s just time for a change of pace. I’ve been writing dramedy cues for several years now. I’ve had a good amount of success with the cues I’ve written and they continue to generate income for me and probably will for some years to come.
I’ve been wanting to write trailer music for several years actually. But because of how important it has been to continue working on dramedy I have had to put it on the back burner. I think what really set the wheels in motion was seeing Nick Murray’s explanation of trailers at last year’s Rally.
I already had a good understanding of the compositional style for trailers but had no clue about the 3-act structure. I’ve been an orchestral composer for many, many years, but modern trailers are considered hybrid-orchestral, meaning the orchestral instruments are embellished with synths and other sound design. This frightened me.
Tell our readers who think they might be good at doing Trailer music because they’ve got some awesome string samples or kodo drum samples, why there’s a lot more to it than might initially meet the eye, or “ear,” as it were.
I learned that trailer music falls under the “Epic” music genre. I didn’t know that is what it was called. Epic music implies hugeness. Hugeness in the brass, hugeness in the percussion, hugeness in the strings, choir, sounds design, and so on. Trailer music is Epic, but Epic music is not necessarily Trailer. Trailer music can be considered a sub-genre of Epic distinguished by its 3-act structure. Pure Epic music does not have to adhere to this structure, it just has to be, well, epic! I was also surprised to find out what a huge fan base that Epic music has.
How much listening or studying other people’s music do you do?
There is a gold mine of information available on YouTube. Not only can you watch every trailer available you can even find channels that showcase just the music used in popular trailers. This is extremely helpful because you are not distracted by “In a world…” voiceovers and other sound effects.
I’ve learned who all the big trailer companies are and who the composers are that write the music. I’ve even gone so far as getting in touch with some of the composers and have gotten invaluable feedback and suggestions from them. I was getting consistent comments like "It needs to sound bigger!" I got tired of hearing that after a while so I learned how to to get bigger sounds by imitating those guys.
When I’m not watching YouTube videos I’m listening to the albums of these trailer companies and composers, many of which are available on Amazon Prime. This is a great service for Prime members.
Can you make some specific suggestions as to how people that have some chops with their instruments and gear, but don’t yet know the “rules” of composing, can learn those things?
One trick songwriters can use to learn about form and structure is to mimic a popular tune by using the same chord progression and arrangement, say vi-IV-I-V (Am-F-C-G) and add your own melody and lyrics. This proves that if you can create a great chord progression then you’ve just eliminated that obstacle.
I’ll go back to my YouTube example and say that there is a wealth of information out there, from learning how to play an instrument to learning how to mix and master your recordings.
Have you gotten to the point where it’s hard to listen to music recreationally because now you’re listening to what makes it work, and/or work in a certain context?
Do people who want to create cues, especially simple ones, need a lot of gear to jump in, or can they start with a somewhat modest home studio set up?
Seriously, it’s quite astonishing what you can do with this stuff. And it keeps getting less and less expensive and more and more powerful. You can do today with just a few thousand dollars what would have cost $50,000 (or more) about 15 years ago. When I started, the only way you could hear your orchestral compositions was to have it performed by real musicians playing real orchestral instruments.
Once they’ve mastered the more simple cues – let’s say acoustic guitar and Dobro swampy-style cues – and they want to move into doing more complex orchestral cues, what are some recommended first steps?
Orchestration is an art. I don't know if you can ever truly master it. There is always something new to learn.
And finally, I’d like to ask you if you have any advice for people who’ve wanted to get into the Film and TV instrumental world, but are intimidated by the TAXI listings… people who feel like, “It’s too much work to get that good and give those companies what they need.” What advice would you give them?
You will need to submit to the listings in order to get the screener feedback and face rejection. It’s inevitable. Learning how to read the listings is a challenge in itself. When I hear someone say, “Hey, they asked for an apple and I gave them an apple and they rejected my song!”. Later, if you really looked honestly at the listing, you’ll understand that it was asking for a red apple and you gave them a green apple. They’re both apples, but you didn’t really understand what the listing was asking for.
Believe me, we’ve all been through this. It’s a journey.
Writing music for film and TV is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It does require that you pay your dues. It can be a very lucrative endeavor, but it takes time. Some people get there faster than you or me. It’s not a contest. Really. Just keep making music.
Contents © by Steve Barden - All Rights Reserved
All music published by Hunkydory Music (ASCAP)