Frank Zappa (right) listens intently to Richard’s thoughts on a piece that David Ocker is playing saxophone on.
Interviewed by Michael Laskow
Richard Emmet has composed music for feature films, television, radio, commercials, multi-media, the concert stage, ballet, and more than 40 audio books. His music has been placed in dozens of TV shows, including FBI Criminal Pursuit, As the World Turns, One Life to Live, Sesame Street, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and Bravo’s Fashion Show.
As a musician, Richard has performed in jazz orchestras, rock bands, chamber music groups, and Javanese gamelan ensembles on the east and west coasts. In addition, Richard spent five years working with legendary songwriter, artist, and composer, Frank Zappa.
Here is the third, and final part of this terrific interview!
What would you say to musicians who feel that creating music to fill industry needs is selling out, or stifling creativity?
First, no one is forcing them to enter the world of TV/Film placements. It’s voluntary. But if they want to enter this world with that attitude, well then…
Okay, what would you say to somebody whose mantra is, “I create what I create, and once the industry people hear how brilliant my music is, they’ll come running to me”?
I’d say, “Let me introduce you to a wall that can’t wait to meet your head!” Some people need to learn life’s lessons the hard way. Then I’d wish them good luck and say, “If your expectations don’t materialize, give TAXI a call.”
The word “community” has probably been over-used in my opinion. There are so many organizations and websites that talk about building communities, that it feels forced to me. When I started TAXI, I never really thought about the community aspect, or expected one to grow from my original vision of what the company would be. Why do you think the TAXI community has sprung up so organically?
Oops, I think I credited you for this accomplishment, Michael, a few answers ago. But my answer now is the same. Whether or not you envisioned or intended the community aspect to flourish in the way that it has, I think it’s clear to anyone who has gotten to know or observe you over the years that your spirit, commitment, and generosity laid the foundation for the community that developed. I hope you can live with that.
Richard’s home studio today.
Well, thank you for that nice compliment, but does it befuddle you as much as it does me, that so many of our members still don’t go to the Road Rally, don’t watch TAXI TV, and have never become part of the incredible community that thrives on our Forum?
I don’t know what the statistics show, but if that’s the case, it makes absolutely no sense to me. They are missing out on such amazing opportunities.
I know there were some lean years during which you still scraped together the money to come to the Rally. What would you say to people who say, “I can’t find the money,” or “I can’t get time off work,” or “It’s too far to fly”?
I was fortunate enough to have gotten some assistance from a few TAXI members during those lean years, which allowed me to attend, and for which I remain humbled and grateful.
I hesitate to make any sweeping judgments about people in difficult situations, having been there myself. We don’t always know the burdens and hardships that our friends and colleagues are grappling with. But I suspect there are TAXI members who could find the money or plan enough in advance to reserve the time off from work. And while my flight time to LA is less than 2 ½ hours, I know several people who fly to the Rally from unbelievably distant places. So, to those truly in dire situations, I wish you better times ahead. To the others, I would say, “If you’re serious about music, find a way to get to the Rally. You’ll be happy you did!”
You were part of the first wave of members who seemed to recognize the value of the community, and you’ve enjoyed the benefits. Why do you think the TAXI community is so positive and nurturing versus what I’ve seen on other public forums that are negative, competitive, and oftentimes, downright contentious and rude?
I think the nurturing, positive energy you see on the Forum is an outgrowth of the same spirit that permeates the community at large. People attending the Rally are warm and friendly in person, and it transfers to other TAXI gathering places. It’s hard to be nasty when you’re getting hugged. Of course we’ve all seen the occasional instance of Forum inappropriateness, but from what I’ve observed, the people causing the friction eventually begin to calm down and redeem themselves.
“Melody is critically important. Sometimes changing just one or two notes can turn a mundane melody into a memorable one.”
Going back to composing: Can you give our readers some bullet pointed Golden Rules about composing that you’ve learned along the way?
I’m sure most TAXI members know these things already, but here’s a short list of guidelines that I try to keep in mind:
- In most cases, especially for a song, melody is critically important. Sometimes changing just one or two notes can turn a mundane melody into a memorable one. Don’t be afraid to try the unexpected. It can be the thing that people will remember.
- Listen to your mix with fresh ears. Eight hours in the studio will fool your ears all too easily.
- Pay attention to dynamics. In most cases, long held notes without dynamic changes (e.g., volume or modulation movement) are dead giveaways of bad sample use.
- Pay attention to note velocities. The way an instrument responds to note velocities can be inconsistent, making it easy to ruin phrases when a note suddenly jumps out or disappears unexpectedly.
- Choose instrument articulations wisely. A fast string passage played by a patch with slow attack times won’t sound authentic and will make the passage lag behind the beat.
- Pay attention to the balance between foreground and background elements. Of course you know what the melody is – or for a song, what the lyrics say – because you’ve been listening to it over and over, plus it’s likely that you wrote it. But a listener hearing the music for the first time may find it difficult to decipher a melody or lyric that’s buried in the mix.
- When writing for winds, brass, or voices, give the performers, whether virtual or human, plenty of opportunities to breathe.
Those are some killer tips! That’s like two semesters at a top music school in less than 30 seconds. I hope people print those out and tape them to their studio wall!
Moving on to “freshness.” The industry is always looking for something that’s fresh and new, on one hand. On the other hand, if you give the industry something that’s too fresh and original, then it doesn’t fit into a pigeonhole, making it harder to use. Having been influenced by a world-class master of creativity, how do you balance freshness and familiarity when you create new music?
If I’m writing for a TAXI listing, the detailed description and the linked reference tracks will give me a pretty good idea of where the boundary lines are located and how much envelope pushing I can get away with. And when I write something just for fun, I tend to stay in fairly familiar territory. I’ll explore some new ideas and try things I haven’t tried before, but I’m totally fine not being the superstar who invents the next big thing.
Richard directing a violinist in the studio.
In my opinion, creating moods and supporting emotions with your music is more important for composing for media than being a brilliant composer. Do you have any compositional advice for creating moods and amplifying emotions?
Here’s an area where it pays to watch TV and movies and listen closely to the music and how it is used. The language of “mood” has changed over the years. In many cases, the music can be more understated than in the past. In a contemporary context, it may not be necessary to crank up a big string swell to highlight a peak emotional moment when a soft acoustic guitar or piano chord might be more powerful.
On the other hand, I don’t expect highly cinematic music to be going away. With so many varieties of media needing music, there’s room for all of it whether subtle, middle of the road, or over the top.
We should also remember that with library cues, we’re not scoring to picture, so you’re better off gradually building toward an emotional or dramatic high point rather than changing directions as if scoring a TV show in your imagination. That show doesn’t currently register on the Nielsen ratings.
I’d be remiss not to mention two excellent books on the subject written be fellow TAXI members Dean Krippaehne and Steve Barden: “Demystifying The Cue” and “Writing Production Music for TV,” respectively.
Do you ever start a piece with the thought, “Ok, what emotion or mood am I going for here”?
Yes, almost always. Initially, I may not have a clear idea how I’ll convey that mood or emotion, but it will give me a general framework to work within.
How do you stay on track to make sure you stick to that mood or emotion?
This can be a challenge, and it’s easy to go off on tangents that look enticing. So I’ll frequently step back, listen from the beginning, and as objectively as I can, ask myself if the cue has gone off the rails. If so, I’ll go back and fix the problem.
Do you set up templates in your DAW to speed up your workflow?
Yes, I’ve set up a number of templates with basic tracks, virtual instruments, and plugin settings, etc. Invariably, however, I’ll make adjustments and change instruments or plugins as needed for a particular piece.
What have you learned about engineering that you can pass along to help others who are early in their journey?
I still consider myself to be early in the journey regarding engineering. I can’t immediately think of any useful technical information to pass along. It’s all about the ears. Listen carefully and objectively, and protect your ears from hearing loss.
On the business side: are you a natural “schmoozer,” or is it an acquired skill for you?
It’s definitely an acquired skill. I’m okay in one-to-one conversations, but schmoozing has never come naturally for me. I usually like listening more than talking.
Do you have any advice on building real industry relationships versus buying somebody a beer at the Road Rally, and handing him or her some music 15 minutes later?
First, accept that it may take some time. Remember to be yourself. Realize that you don’t need to prove anything; we’re all human. If you approach people with politeness rather than pushiness, there’s a good chance that a relationship can blossom.
“The language of ‘mood’ has changed over the years. In many cases, the music can be more understated than in the past. In a contemporary context, it may not be necessary to crank up a big string swell to highlight a peak emotional moment when a soft acoustic guitar or piano chord might be more powerful.”
Fill in the blanks:
Musicians who want to earn income with their music need to become more realistic about the [time, effort, and costs involved] if they really want to have shot. But the flip side is that success, whatever it means to you, is within your grasp.
If there were one thing I wish I could turn back the hands of time and get a do-over on, it would be this:
[Remember near the beginning of this interview when I said I never really considered doing anything other than music? If I could turn back the hands of time, I’d make sure that I considered something else. Not as a replacement for music, but as a basic survival mechanism to cope with those occasional but inevitable hard times.]
When I hear my music on a TV show, it makes me feel [happy and successful].
Good answers on that “lightning round”! You’ve given some really solid advice, and I hope our readers internalize it. I think you could save some people a lot of time, money, and frustration!
What have been some of the placements of your music that really stick out?
Probably the biggest thrill was getting a trailer placement for the film, Elizabeth: The Golden Age – with my music playing underneath Cate Blanchett’s voiceover. Others include a number of soap opera placements (Young and the Restless, Days of Our Lives for example). And most recently, mentioned earlier, was the song placement on Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, the co-write with my fellow TAXI member Steve Guiles.
What’s your advice to people who join TAXI, make a few submissions in the first few months, get “rejected,” and then call it quits, blaming TAXI as they figuratively leave the building?
I would advise them, politely of course, that approaching or any other aspect of their lives with such a short-term, impatient mindset will all but guarantee disappointment and failure. There are enough successful TAXI members to remove any doubt that it works if you give it the time, attention, and commitment it deserves. There is much to learn and many steps to take along the road to success. Don’t sell yourself – or TAXI – short.
Do you have a final piece of advice generally speaking, for composers who want to build a career creating music for media?
If possible, start early, ideally in your 20s. It’s a numbers game: the more music you have in circulation, the higher the monetary rewards. Starting early allows you to build your catalog for a longer period of time, and you’ll reap the rewards while you’re still young enough to enjoy them! For the rest of us not in our 20s, plow ahead and carry on!
Richard, thank you for taking the time to give so much great advice to our readers. Your insights and answers are pure gold, and I think you’ve probably helped to advance the careers of a lot of fellow TAXI members and musicians in general.
It was my pleasure, Michael.
Visit Richard’s website!