Musical Sustainability

Summer 2011


Serving in my capacity as president of the SCL, I have had spent much time around friends and colleagues over the last few years; those of you beginning your careers and those, like myself, who have been at it for a while. It has given me pause to reflect on whether those engaged in their first few jobs could look forward to a certain kind of longevity, and if there were any common denominators, other than good old-fashioned luck, that might facilitate this. In that spirit, I thought that I might share with you some thoughts and observations that I have made over the years of how one goes about sustaining a career in a fickle and unpredictable profession. Staying power is at times a capricious thing, but there may be steps that you can make that may enhance your ability for musical sustainability.

Even if you are blessed with the musical gift of Henry Mancini or John Williams, finding a champion is imperative; not only in getting your career off the ground, but in sustaining it through the years. Although these luminaries transcended one specific advocate, Blake Edwards and Steven Spielberg did a lot for helping these gentlemen along the way to huge success. An avid supporter can break through the layers of bureaucracy that have run rampant in our business over the past decade and stand behind you if other agendas start coming into play.

In my own career, I’ve had a number of strong supporters from the studio side that kept my ship afloat for many years. Their confidence and unfailing support was something that in looking back was critical in furthering my journey. Coupled with a handful of champions from the creative side, their collective influence and belief has proven indispensable in sustaining my career. Among our own colleagues, I’ve heard Robert Zemeckis discuss his admiration and allegiance to Alan Silvestri, feeling comfortable in bringing Alan into any project, regardless of the genre. Michael Giacchino, not only has gained the respect of JJ Abrams, but I’ve heard other director and producers affirm that no project would be done without him.

So what fosters this kind of loyalty? Being able to communicate about a topic that for many is oblique and turn that into something tangible that enhances a creator’s vision is a unique talent, and it is also an attribute that I feel is crucial to our mission as composers. Other ingredients that lead to confidence in you are more universal. I was having lunch with my childhood team mate from Oklahoma, Joe Simpson, who went on to play for the Dodgers, and he pointed out that reliability, delivery and follow-thru were ingredients that were not only important in professional athletics, but these qualities are integral to creating confidence and dedication in music as well. Furthermore, you also need to be the kind of person that people enjoy and feel comfortable being around, and ultimately your goal is to make music one aspect of the film making process that does not have to be worried about. All of these things will help bring these people back to you the next time that they need music. All of this being said, you can’t put all of your eggs in one basket. I remember having a conversation with Jerry Immel and one of his tenets was to diversify your contacts, because if you only have one true believer and that person isn’t working then you won’t be either. I have been fortunate to have several champions in different camps throughout most of my career and I believe Jerry’s words are sound advice.

The next ingredient that I have found that is critical to your success is to create a successful team around you. In my own career, it has been essential to have a great circle of musicians that were able to execute my vision. Many of my core team of players have worked with me for almost thirty years and I wouldn’t think of replacing them. They understand my sensibilities and beyond that, they have helped create my sound and have been critical to my longevity. Having a team that also includes wonderful support personal such as programmers, orchestrators, engineers, music editors and copyists, is also a key ingredient. Agents, managers and attorneys can also be instrumental in shaping your career path. Having an individual that truly understands your unique voice can be an important element to perpetuating your career, and in negotiations, they can say things about you that you wouldn’t necessarily say yourself.

Being willing to embrace change is also important. Change in your style, change in your work process, change in direction all together can be important to moving through your career. I remember hearing Jan Hammer’s music for Miami Vice and telling my partner, Howard Pearl, that unless we were able to move in a new direction, we would go the way of the dinosaurs. Jan brought a true freshness to television music at the time and I think that being able to sense that sea change was a good thing.

Keeping that in mind, I have the utmost respect for my good friend, Mark Snow. His well-crafted orchestral scores for series such as Heart to Heart have been supplemented in recent years by an electronic palette that has continued his long-running career that includes the scores and themes to such hits as Ghost Whisperer and the X-Files. I also commend our SCL board member, Garry Schyman, who lately has seen tremendous success in the Video Game world, after beginning in episodic television, and composing the music to such long running shows as Magnum PI. Even Elmer Bernstein was able to shift gears and jump into Animal House, which revitalized his already legendary career.

There are less tangible tenets that I think that have sustained me since my first professional job in college, leading to today, as I start the fourth season of The Secret Life of the American Teenager. You’ve got to enjoy it. I remember many years ago scoring one of the final episodes of Happy Days. I will never forget my disappointment as I watched a man that I had truly admired in the next studio at Wally Heider finishing a session. He was burnt out, yelling at the musicians and all in all, not enjoying it. I unabashedly must say that I am having as good a time now as I did when I got my first network show in November of 1978. Although I have certainly experienced some trials and tribulations along the way, as Johnny Mercer eloquently put into song, I try to accentuate the positive, and try to make my working relationship with those around me, not only rewarding, but fun and fulfilling as well.

I am a firm believer that the magic that we can bring as creative artists to a project through custom crafted music will be part of what makes the director or producer’s film a box office success or a long running series and foster the loyalty that you are looking for. Finally, if you’re just starting out, I am confident that you will have the opportunity to have a long and rewarding career. We are faced with challenges from different spectrums that must be addressed, but there are certain aspects of your life that you have absolute control over. Continue to create, continue to learn and by all means continue to grow and thirty years down the road, no doubt, you will still be creating and being compensated for music and song; and one more thing, keep the inspiration coming.

Published in THE SCORE quarterly newsletter [Vol. XXVI, Number Two, Summer 2011]