Pour yourself a bowl of cereal. Look out the window at the working stiffs heading to their 9-5’s. Walk into your home studio. Fire up your equipment. Then bang out tracks and scores in your jogging pants. Walk to the mailbox. Open your various checks. Relish this moment afforded to you by years of hard work and smart thinking.
This sounds like a dream. But how is it made real? What recipe of thoughts and actions, over time, leads to a day like that? We hollered at Andrew Oye, Matthew Tishler, and Nick Seeley, composer/producers who work closely with Music Dealers and have busted their asses to craft their versions of success. Below, we explore the ingredients within their recipe to success to understand out how they have shaped their careers. This is a long one, but if you really do this, or hope to, you won’t miss a word.
Alright gentleman. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Let’s begin. How did each of you break into composing?
Andrew: I have been writing instrumental music since I was 13; however, after college I spent many years teaching guitar and composing went to the wayside as I was trying to make a living and support my family. About 10 years ago, at my younger brother’s wedding, I felt I needed to make a change as he had gone off to a successful financial career, and I was struggling to make ends meet.
What I did when I got home was search the internet for music licensing sites, and came across a great composer named Jay Condiotti. That night, I had an epiphany, as he was playing and making a great living doing exactly what I wanted to do. Over the next year I submitted approximately 300 songs to an online publisher, and within 4 years, was able to quit teaching completely, and haven’t looked back since!
Matt: Hard work and good networking! I spent my teens developing the habits of an obsessive work-a-holic, learning and developing skills 24⁄7. That way, when the right opportunities came up, I’d be ready. I had a gut feeling for several niche markets that I could excel in, and I just started reaching out to the appropriate gatekeepers to introduce myself and share my music. And hoped they liked what they heard!
Nick: I played piano and was always sequencing on my Ensoniq ZR-76 and recording in Cakewalk throughout high school. I knew that I wanted to write and produce music for a living and decided to attend Berklee College of Music.
After two years, I left Berklee to produce a rock band I’d met there, and I wound up getting hired as a staff composer at a small music company in Dallas where I had interned the previous summer. My mom lived nearby and pestered them to give me that initial internship, so…thanks, mom! I worked five years at Juniper Music in Dallas, The Lodge for two, and at Breed Music for another four as a composer and creative director. I left to go freelance in July of 2014 after I got signed to a top 40 music publisher.
All awesome stories that really show the long term progression of securing success. You guys have all been in the game for years, has the industry evolved and if so, what changes have you seen that are the most important?
Andrew: To me the whole recording and selling CD’s thing is kind of dead. Music licensing seems to be the way for artists to make a good living. We now live in a digital world…and I like it!…mainly because I get to sit at home everyday in my jogging pants!
Matt: Well, it’s been challenging for the industry to adapt to the loss in recorded music sales and changing technologies that affect music delivery. But I think the need for music is still as strong as ever. There just needs to be a fundamental shift in ideology where music consumers realize there is value in paying for it.
Nick: I tell my musician friends that these days, the best way to make money off of their music is through music licensing. It doesn’t require a fan base or an internet presence - it just requires access to the opportunities and of course, the ability to write and produce music. With companies like Music Dealers, major, lucrative licensing opportunities are at the fingertips of any bedroom producer with internet access. That, coupled with music distribution services and promotional tools like YouTube and Soundcloud, there is so much you can do for yourself. I think because of that, this is the most exciting time to be an independent composer that there has ever been.
Well said gents. Licensing certainly is an integral part of success today. To get there, what would you say are the most important skills to master as an aspiring composer/producer?
Andrew: To be successful in this particular field, being a great songwriter is not enough. You need to have good production/computer/mixing chops, a full understanding of sample libraries, and be a diligent bookkeeper and business person. Without all those qualities it is hard to make it.
Matt: On a broad scale, being a likeable, dependable person that’s fun and easy to work with. Musically, I think it’s important to know your way around a computer/DAW to record, edit, and mix your songs and ideas. To me, the vocal is the most important aspect of a song/production, so learning to get a great vocal performance out of a singer, and treating that vocal properly with editing and mixing has been important in my world.
Nick: Being able to listen to music analytically from both a production and compositional standpoint is key. Knowing why the music you like hits you in a certain way, and then being able to bring that same impact into your own music is what separates the amazing from the pretty good. Even if you didn’t have formal training, there is very little you can’t learn from music just by listening to it and attempting to recreate those sounds yourself.
Be a competent player of keys, guitar, and bass, or have people in your network who can do those parts for you quickly. Sing on your own productions when you can, but develop a network of singers who can take your productions to the next level in any genre.
Awesome information. What setup/programs are you guys using today?
Andrew: I use Cubase and every sample library and plugin out there (not joking)!
Matt: Believe it or not, I do a lot of my production in Cubase. I have a very simple setup with a great pair of monitors and full 88-key keyboard that I use to write on and program with. I use a great vocal mic through a 1073 and 1176 that gets great results. And of course, I’m always rotating through the usual suspects of the latest hot plugins, samples, and soft-synths.
Nick: I’m on Cubase Pro. My main go-to virtual instruments are Kontakt (plus a large library of samples), all the Spectrasonics stuff and XLN Audio Addictive Drums and Keys. I think with JUST those virtual instruments, there is little you can’t do. I also use UAD products. Outboard, I’ve got a Moog Little Phatty, OP-1, Fender Rhodes Mk II, and a bunch of guitars/basses hooked up through a Pod HD500. RME Fireface UFX is my interface.
Cubase sales are shooting through the roof. What skills would you guys say are necessary to succeed, particularly in television/broadcast?
Andrew: I have found that I do well in this field because I am easy to work with, and always deliver on time….[TV] producers like that.
Matt: Probably being able to turn [out] great quality with a very quick turnaround.
Nick: An eye and ear for scoring picture are important. Pay close attention to films and ads. There are lots of patterns and formulas to study and use in your own writing. Practice using videos ripped from YouTube in your DAW. Professionalism and communication are extremely important, and prompt and clear communication is a must. You really have to look at yourself as a business and what you offer as a product. The guys who are successful at this balance their creative passion with professionalism.
It’s also important to be confident of your abilities (or at least act confident if you’re new to the business) and be someone who provides solutions to the people you work for and they will keep coming back.
On the creative side of things, how important is music theory to your success?
Andrew: It helps, but good ears trump music theory any day. I find I use my ears more than my music theory background…if it sounds good…then it is good!
Matt: In my world, it’s been VERY helpful. I’m always using theory to help build the most impactful melodies and chord changes, and to communicate with other musicians in general. I frequently chart out music for session musicians to use when they’re playing on my songs.
Nick: For me, learning music theory gave a name and a reason for all of the moves I was already making in my music. When I dug deeper into it at Berklee, it gave me the confidence to expand my writing and helped find new, musically interesting avenues where I might have normally found a dead end.
It’s different for everybody, though. Some of my most talented colleagues have no formal training whatsoever and are amazing writers and players.
A good ear trumps theory any day…wow, that’s powerful. If you three could give your younger self some industry advice, what would you say?
Andrew: Read the contracts!
Matt: Be patient, and learn to love schmoozing.
Nick: Once I got my staff composer gig at 21, I felt like I’d achieved the illustrious goal of having a day job in music. That feeling lasted for about five years until I started remembering that I wanted more. My dream was always to work on pop tunes. I realized that it was time to start making moves in that direction if that was going to happen. Fortunately, a lot of the skills I picked up in music for advertising helped me make gains in the mainstream music industry as well.
If I could have told my younger self something, it would have been to never give into that feeling that what I’d achieved was enough. Growth doesn’t happen in that mindset and I think I squandered some good years thinking I was at the endgame. I think the best of the best never feel like they’ve “finally arrived.” It’s about the journey - and I’ve still got a long way to go.
There’s a producer/composer who’s gonna eat that advice like a Thanksgiving feast. With so much content being produced today, does this translate into more opportunity for composers, or would you say you’ve noticed the opposite?
Andrew: I think it’s like restaurants: there are millions out there, and new ones all the time, but the ones with the best self promotion and product always come out on top.
Matt: Not sure if endless content has helped translate into more or less opportunities. But it does seem more necessary to make music that somehow stands out from all the other content out there. I like to think that great music will always find a home.
Nick: It’s tough to get noticed, but that’s because it’s so easy for anyone and everyone to get noticed. As long as you make good music and conduct yourself professionally, the opportunities will come. Lots of people make music, but few can combine the rare traits that you find in successful composers.
What’s the secret behind making the leap into composing full-time?
Matt: Finding enough gigs to pay the bills, of course, haha! Seriously though, for me, being versatile has helped me to work in a variety of different markets, so it seems like there is always music that is needed in one world or another.
Nick: Be entrepreneurial - that’s one I’ve only learned in the last couple years. View yourself as a business with an amazing product and be willing to bet on that product. Try to be as versatile as you can and learn to separate your artist ego from the work when you don’t agree with (or like) the creative. Also, it’s a numbers game. It’s extremely competitive out there and I lose more than I win, but my career is defined by my wins, not my losses. Attempt as much as you can, which leads me to my last point - say yes to every job until you no longer have time to say yes.
What effects have music production libraries had on your career, and are there any rules to creating success when working with libraries?
Andrew: I would have no career without music libraries. Rules for success? Easy…quality and quantity!
Matt: I’ve had a great experience working with music libraries. It’s been a great way to help generate income and exposure for certain songs. I’ve found the most likely-to-be-placed songs are fun, positive, and uptempo, with themes about feeling good and having a great time.
Nick: Early in my career, writing for sample libraries wasn’t a bad way to make a little bit of upfront money and get some royalties going in the pipeline. Being a versatile composer really helps in the world of library writing, but if you’re more specialized, write for libraries that play to your writing and production strengths. You have to get a lot of discs out there and you don’t want to get bogged down on an orchestral library if you’re primarily a hip hop producer or vice versa. Once you do have a number of discs out, you’ll see a solid return in royalties and once they start getting used, they tend to get used constantly. You have to put out quantity.
What has been your craziest experience in the business?
Andrew: Having the actor Barry Pepper record a voiceover in my bedroom/studio when I was first starting out…he was a good sport.
Matt: Last summer I was working on a song for Disney Channel’s Teen Beach Movie sequel, but I had a trip planned back home to Toronto to get married. I thought I had a few weeks of down time to spare, but everything changed once I had already left for Canada. It turned out that they needed to fly me straight from Toronto to Puerto Rico (where they were filming the movie) a few days after my wedding to record the actors’ vocals. I still had all my wedding luggage with me - and my wife! So we ended up having a mini-honeymoon courtesy of Disney. And, of course, they were planning to film this song immediately, so there I was editing vocals from my hotel suite overlooking the beach.
Nick: I recorded the harmonica part from Pitbull - “Timber” (featuring Ke$ha) in my home studio vocal booth. The harmonica line was from a Lee Oskar song called “San Francisco” and the producer of “Timber” had sampled it but needed it replayed (to avoid using the original recording, which is very expensive). The producer’s manager called me on a Friday night date with my wife and basically told me they needed it the next day, so I spent the rest of the date calling harmonica players. By the third call, I exhausted the guys that I knew and was relying on referrals from colleagues. A local blues player, Paul Harrington, ended up being the guy that came through. The next day, he played along to the rhythm section part that I’d already made and after a few takes we had it. I turned it in, didn’t hear any feedback until the night before the song was released. Then I got a call and the A&R asked me, “Is this your harmonica part?” and played it through the phone. I said, “Yes.” He goes, “Great! You made the record.” Then watching that song go to number one and hearing it constantly on the radio was just nuts… The very first sound you hear is that harmonica and I’m always reminded of the interrupted sushi date with my wife.
Thanks to each of you gentleman for taking time from your busy schedules to help Music Dealers spread knowledge and wisdom to the masses. This turned out to be an incredible piece, and I know that your words will help hundreds of aspiring producers and composers who one day hope to make a living creating incredible music while wearing jogging pants!
By: Christopher Rucks, Music Dealers
Photo credit: frdd
Photo credit: Marco Raaphorst