Jonathan Wolff
TV Composer - Part 2

A two part interview by Michael Laskow

Let's assume a person in the heartland buys a nice home studio rig and is competent on it. Is it enough to be good at writing pretty melodies or are there essential rules that new composers should know about before embarking on a career? And if so, what are those rules and where do you learn them?

You learn from making mistakes.

Of course, but isn't there a good book that spells it all out?

I don't know, there probably is, but I've never read it. You have to be able to do more than just write a pretty melody, create an incredible groove, or write a great lyric. All of these things come together in what I do, because every script may call for one or more of these talents. You meet people all the time who say, "Oh I've got an idea that would be great for a movie theme"—well what good is that? What am I going to do with that information?

Right, let's run around Hollywood, knocking on every door saying, "Hey we've got a theme! Do you have a movie that goes with it?"

Right, that's simply not how it works. A well rounded musical education is really valuable. I don't necessarily mean you have to go to college for it. Most of what you will learn of value, you'll learn in the street from doing it; just going out there and doing it. I was lucky, I played on so many records and with so many songwriters that I learned the craft from observing and emulating. I had a deal with a friend of mine who now lives in Nashville. He worked in a club at night and I worked in a club at night, and after our gigs at one-thirty in the morning, we would get together and record two songs. One for him and one for me. It was a challenge, but we forced ourselves to do it. Neither of us would bag it because it would have been too embarrassing to give up in front of the other. After a couple of months, we'd done over a hundred songs. We both learned a lot about the craft of songwriting. You know, there are arts and there are crafts—I do crafts. It's so important that you have the discipline to do it, because if you don't have the discipline to do it for yourself, someone else will, and they'll succeed in your place.

We always tell our members that they need to spend four or five hours a night working on their craft, behind closed, locked doors. Even if that means just sitting there just listening to the radio and looking at the charts. At least they're learning what other people are doing.

And when you write the song, you've got to record it, because it's not until you actually record it or perform it live that you can see where the holes are—where it doesn't flow or where the lyric loses the audience. It's too easy to write a song and say, "Okay, that's that."

A lot of neophytes tend to worry more about the recording quality and the production values, than the basic songwriting craft.

It's all important. You can't throw any of it out. But, I would say that's the least of your concerns at the stage that we're talking about now. The most important thing is that the song itself is there. Beyond that, you've got to give some thought about how the kick drum and the bass player are going to interact to move the groove along, and how that might differ from verse to chorus. Those are the details about songwriting that will come out when you record your material. Whether you've got a Portastudio or a Pro Tools set-up really doesn't matter that much because this conversation that we're having right now is not about selling it, it's not about broadcasting it, it's about working on your craft.

When you're doing a show like "Seinfeld", do you score each episode individually or do you create a library of cues that are different lengths and different moods and fly them in where needed?

Each show is different. Some shows may need to be scored each time, others may not. I used to score "Dave's World" based on the life of columnist Dave Berry. Part of my job was to supply the music for whatever newspaper column the main character was writing, and delivering to the audience in the form of a voice over. Of course, that changed every week with the different topics he was writing about so I scored them differently each week. Sometimes the production schedule demands and dictates how I'm going to handle the show. There are certain shows that don't lock an edit until the night before the mix.

What can you do in a case like that?

There's no time to score to picture. You create a real usable, manipulatable library of cues, so that when you get that tape in at midnight, it's a music editing job at that point. And there are a number of shows that I do that way. "Seinfeld" for the first several seasons, I did score. First of all, the monologues had to be done individually because they were all unique. I wanted to develop a library, a language of bass phrases and little pops. After four or five seasons however, there were more than a thousand cues, and eventually the monologues went bye-bye, so after that it was largely a music editing job. Then I could concentrate my efforts on the special material for each show which became more and more important. The chase scenes are a great example of that.

Ah yes! George and the electric cart. Who could forget that?!

With new shows, if the schedule permits, of course I'll do special music. I typically do fresh cues for "Will and Grace," but occasionally there's an episode where the producers tell me, they need the extra time for editing—no problem.

How important is it to know how to work with time code?

I don't do anything without time code.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what five pieces of equipment and/or software would you absolutely have to have to do your job?

Just to clarify, if I were stranded on a desert island, I wouldn't care about doing my job (laughs)!

Good point.

It would be nice to have a hammock, maybe a ladder to get the really high fruit, but nah, it's my goal to be stranded on an island with my family and not do music. But if what you're asking is what are the most important pieces of equipment that I have to have if the place burned down and I needed to start anew, Pro Tools would be a must, plus I would need a really strong fast Mac with a big expansion chassis so that I could run Pro Tools, Vision, Sample Cell. Those things get the music done. 50% of the job around here is getting the music done, the other 50% is organizational. And for that, my guys have created an amazing program we call "Super Tracker."

Does it categorize everything...?

Yes, and it's connected to a scheduling calendar and to an archive data base of back-up CD-ROM's. Back-up is so important. All gear eventually goes down, and you've got to have back-ups. And that's all connected to the CD burners. Handling information is a real important part of what we do around here. We're doing twelve shows this year which generates the need to do the invoicing, the AFM contracts, the SAG and AFTRA singer contracts, and certificates of authorship and licensing agreements. So I would say that the fourth piece would be File Maker Pro, which is where we store all this information. Give me all those things, and I could do business right now.

What's more important, having the latest, coolest piece of gear or being compositionally strong?

Both. I don't care how good you are, if you don't have the right gear, it's hard to do the job well. Ive made an observation that I'd like to share. The nation's top music schools put out amazing musicians, and send these kids out here by the busload. They have incredible tapes, great CDs and demos they've scored. Very impressive. They get out here and land their first job. Unless they have the technical savvy, their own equipment, and the skills to use it, how are they going to do that first job? At school, they're nested in a cushioned support environment where they can write for a small orchestra and the recording majors record it for them and the musicians play it for them. When they get to Los Angeles, they don't have that support—that "net" to catch them. The number of kids who come out here with great musical skills, but no way to get it out there on their first job is epidemic.

What's the recommended prescription?

You know the A/V geeks who always had studios in their house? I'll take one of them, before I'll take the musical genius. Because for survival, who am I going to bet on. Two people going after the same job—the musical genius and the guy who has the little studio set up. There's only $500 for this little job. How's the orchestral genius going to do the job? He can't, but the A/V geek can. He'll take that job in a heartbeat. He's the guy that recorded all those projects for the genius.

What if the A/V geek can't write a great melody?

They can all write great melodies. There are so many incredible amazingly talented people out there. Think about it, who's the best musician at your high school; maybe there are three great musicians at your high school. And how many high schools are there in your town? A bunch of them, and each one has someone who's the best. Then they go up to college, and it gets a little tougher. Still, there are maybe 50-60 great music schools in the country. Think about it, each one of them has someone who's clearly the superstar. Well, there's 50-60 superstars getting off the bus that day. Come on, that's a long line.

Haven't they also learned Pro Tools at school and Sample Cell?

You would think so, but they haven't. Those classes are offered, for example at Berklee, but they're not mandatory. They will let people with film scoring degrees come out here and not know how to use these wonderful tools.

Who do you ultimately answer to when working on TV show—the music supervisor?


The director or the producer?

The producers.

Who tracks you down and hires you for commercials? Is it Kentucky Fried Chicken or their ad agency?

It is almost always the ad agency. I don't pursue lots of commercials, because it's kind of a departure from the way my "machine" is set up.

Meaning your business machine?

Yes. My whole machine is set up to do episodic TV, and it's very well oiled, and it's very well organized. To stop to do a one-off project like a film or a movie of the week or a commercial, requires me having to have a slow week, which doesn't happen a lot. During the summer, I do some. But generally, the short answer to that question is that if we do a commercial, it's the agency that calls us.

Where do you go from here? Can you do this when you're 75 or do you need to diversify and develop other revenue streams? What's the long-term picture for your career?

Yes, everybody needs to develop other revenue streams, because we can count on nobody. Personally, I don't plan to do this for much longer. I'm doing a lot of it now, so I can be a full time soccer coach and PTA guy in the future.

Any business advice for folks who'd like to do what you do?

You've got to be a business person. So many great musicians become poor old people. It's very sad to see. It's very similar to being a professional athlete. While you're making the money, invest it intelligently and put it away. It's so easy to be blinded by the success of the moment.

I used to have a guy I worked with who moved up to Canada. We had a little deal that whenever things were going really great, he would come up to me at the conductor's podium in the middle of the session and pull my sleeve and say "Don't get used to it". And I would do the same for him. And we knew what that meant; this could all go away tomorrow. Let's face it... how many 75 year old composers do you know are doing this? How many 50 year old composers do you know doing this? There's a limited half life to be the cool guy in town. The only reason I'm able to be a composer is because I'm really a better businessman than I am a composer. Can I do this when I'm 75? I don't plan to do this beyond, say 45.

How old are you now?

40. First of all, the phone is going to stop ringing at some point—it just does. There will be some new, hot kid that's just gonna kick my butt. But, I've got amazingly talented people working with me, and I take good care of them, pay them well and I groom them and make sure they understand what they're doing. And then I give them shots. They're the future. I plan to have people better than me doing it.

And you'll be the guy who owns the playpen and provides the toys and the building and all the business systems so they can concentrate on making great music.

Yeah, either that or somebody with lots and lots of money who wants to sit in my seat will buy my company. And you can print that.

No problem. Do I get a finder's fee (laughs)?

There's got to be someone who wants to sit in this seat. To have the opportunity to choose the jobs, because that's basically what happens. Before the first note is written, I have to decide which series we're going to work on.

Based on which ones you think have the highest probability of success?

Yep. Or it could be a case of a series needing a particular kind of music that's perfect for me or one of my staff. It can be for a number of reasons, but somebody's got to be responsible for making those decisions.

So you really don't yearn for the glamour of doing films?

I'm very happy doing episodic TV, so I don't yearn to do other things. I don't want to start my life over to do films—I'm happy doing this, it's really cool. Every week I do 10 or 12 episodes of different shows with different styles of music and different people. If you get on a bad film, you're on a bad film for three or four months. If I get on a bad episode, so what? I'm doing ten others this week.

What excites you?

I've got a wife and kids, and I get excited about that. The music and the TV shows facilitate that; it enables us to live in a nice house and play with toys and go on vacations. I know how fortunate I am to make enough money that I can afford to pay some wonderfully talented people to take care of the details for me so I can have more time with my family.

Would you recommend this career to your kids?

My kids are so young that we would have to ask the question in ten years.

To see how their personalities develop?

And see how the industry develops. This industry is changing so much.

What do you want on your tombstone?

I'm going to be cremated. I don't think like that. My monuments are already eating Cheerios.

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