The Write Stuff

Earlier this evening, I posted the following reply on Deniz Hughes' "For Film Composers Only" Facebook page to agent Richard Kraft's assertion that the majority of students enrolled in college and university scoring programs were "wasting their time" because they lacked "the right stuff," i.e., the entrepreneurial grit and commercial drive to succeed in the marketplace. Richard is a very smart and successful guy, and head of the Kraft-Engel Agency, arguably the premier "boutique" composers agency on the planet. His taste and discrimination in the selection of clients has been impeccable. 

Yet Richard clearly sees the contemporary film composer as an entrepreneur: a commercial artisan peddling his artisanal product in a marketplace that values style as highly as substance and where innovation is as much defined by clever self-promotion as game-changing music. I don't dispute the importance of these things. But at root, I see film composers as a very high order of "assignment writer," commissioned by production companies to create music that enhances the experience of a film in much the same way that Bach and Handel were commissioned to create music that enhanced the experience of the mass or ceremony. As a teacher and developer of talent, I will always seek out the artist, even if he or she has very little natural instinct for merchandising. Merchandising should be handled by those with a gift for commerce.

"At the risk of stringing out this thread, Richard, I'd like to respond to a couple of your points. While I agree that a significant percentage of the students now enrolled in scoring programs may prove to be badly suited for the profession, it's not quite for the reasons you cite. 

'The Right Stuff' is a great reference. Re: the Mercury astronauts, Tom Wolfe described TRS as a combination of steel nerves and superb eye-hand coordination. With respect to media composers, I'd characterize it as "unflappability" (as well as adaptability) paired with superior technique. But in neither case are we talking about "business acumen." That's another thing altogether, and that's where the problem with your assessment lies. 

A business person's principal skill is the identification and exploitation of a market need, including the ability to reach that market through skillful (and sometimes manipulative) advertising. This is not what astronauts, composers, or for that matter, professional athletes have traditionally done. They train, train, train, affiliate with a cadre where their training can be appreciated (the military, a college or minor league sports team, a guild or regional orchestra, rock band, etc.) and then wait to be "drafted" by people whose skills lie in recognizing talent. Such people once worked for studios and record companies, agencies and management companies. David Geffen is a good example of one of them. 

This is the way it was, in one form or another, for centuries, and it remains the best model for the development and use of talent. As head of music for Fox over three decades, Alfred Newman "drafted" the likes of Bernard Herrmann and David Raksin, to name only two. As head of A&R for Columbia Records, John Hammond "drafted" Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. As founder of ECM Records, Manfred Eicher all but "created" the Arvo Part phenomenon. In my own way, from a more lowly position, I was able to use my station as a Disney music exec to advance the careers of guys like John Debney, Don Davis, and an "electronic composer" named Zimmer, who few thought could handle "Lion King."

The "privatization" (for lack of a better term) of art and artists has been a cultural and commercial disaster. It's why we're stuck with Lady Gaga doing a Vegas drag impersonation of David Bowie instead of having new David Bowies to celebrate. It's why we have Kanye instead of Prince. It's why some film composers worry more about their hair than their harmony. I shed an invisible tear for every wasted moment that a talented composer spends designing her website or developing her "brand," and I pray that I see this amateur hour end before I go to my grave.