I was honored last spring to be the Outstanding Alumnus and Commencement Speaker for my alma mater, the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California. I took very seriously this opportunity to offer advice to a new generation of musicians, determined to communicate something practical to students they could use to kick-start their careers. In the fourteen years since I graduated from USC myself, I have learned many lessons, the most profound resulting from humiliating mistakes. From these I learned that “Attitude is Everything.” That universal message is applicable to any career in any field.
With that in mind, I am sharing my USC Thornton School of Music commencement address with you all. The following is adapted and expanded from my speech, given on May 13, 2016.
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You are about to embark upon your professional career, armed with the skills you have honed during your education. You are good at what you do. You might even be the best at what you do. Building a successful career, however, relies on more than talent or skill. Being “good” isn’t enough. Even being “the best” isn’t enough. In the music business, as in life, attitude is everything. A successful career emerges when the person with the right talent and skills also has the right attitude at all times.
I was slow to learn this. Looking back at my education and early career, I realize that my greatest fortune was in being predisposed to having a good attitude. My default positive outlook carried me far. I was successful throughout my education, and my professional career followed suit. Eventually, however, I reached the inevitable point where I could progress no further without facing the harsh reality that my attitude was holding me back. I teetered on the razor-thin precipice between success and failure. To understand this moment, I have to go back to my student days.
In the fall of 1997, I was a freshman at USC, settling in to a concrete dorm room in Marks Hall. I immediately printed up flyers advertising my services as a composer, and taped them all over the film school. Before my socks were unpacked, I began scoring student films.
(This is the actual flyer from when I was 18!)
One of my first projects was an ambitious graduate thesis film called “A Good Lie.” The film’s $250 music production budget was $250 more than I had ever been paid to write music before. I seized the opportunity to fulfill my life-long dream of conducting a live orchestra for a film score. Up to that point, I had realized my orchestral ambitions with a four-track tape recorder, adding my high school friends as soloists on top of synthesizer mock-ups. Now, I was thrilled by the prospect of working with the most promising young instrumentalists and singers in the world. I acquired a thick directory of every instrumental major at USC, and began making calls.
I was rejected by the vast majority of the musicians I called. I heard a lot of the same responses: “I’m busy.” “That’s the same day as the UCLA game.” “I don’t do film scores.” More often than not, the first response I heard was “What’s the pay?” Undeterred, I didn’t take the hint. I kept calling, scratching names off the list until the pages were soaked in black and blue ink. I spent more time making phone calls than I spent composing the score.
I wrote for my “orchestra” of six violins, guitar and two singers (one of whom was the director of the film): a symphony of sonic possibility to my eighteen-year-old imagination! Finally, the day of my big recording session arrived. We were scheduled to record at 2 pm. An hour before downbeat, my engineer, a student named Steve Kaplan, brought to my attention that I had no way of syncing my backing tracks to a click, or even to picture for that matter. I realized I had done nothing to prepare for the actual recording of this music. We faced a disaster. Steve would have been perfectly justified quitting on the spot and going home. (Later in my academic career, a different student engineer would do exactly that to me, in fact.)
Instead, Steve calmly walked me back to my dorm room. Together, he and I hauled my synthesizer, cables, desktop computer, and bulky monitor (this was before the era of thin LCD monitors!) across campus, and we set it all up at the scoring stage. Steve began the laborious task of transferring my prerecord tracks to the ADAT recording system, so that actual recording could begin. My musicians showed up at 2pm, only to learn we were hours away from being ready. To my surprise, everyone agreed to wait or come back later.
We finally started recording at 6pm. The score was complete by 7am the following morning. Booked for a six-hour call, my seven musicians stayed all night. Steve worked consecutively for eighteen hours. I learned a lot about film scoring that day, and I also learned a lot about patience, and prep.
Over the course of my USC career, I kept scoring student films. For each, I made my routine calls to round up musicians, and I was rejected constantly. Still, I gradually found a group of like-minded individuals who were always enthusiastic to work with me, and they quickly became my first calls. Steve Kaplan frequently engineered. Andrew Bulbrook, Ben Jacobson, Jonathan Moerschel and Eric Byers, who would later form the widely-lauded Calder Quartet, were there. Laura Griffiths on French horn, Jenni Olson on flute, Melanie Henley Heyn and Raya Yarbrough sang. I composed my music with their particular talents in mind.
One of my last student films, a musical called “When the Kids Are Away,” for director Jon M. Chu, was recorded with an ensemble of sixty, including full orchestra, choir, big band and ethnic soloists. While my orchestras increased in size tenfold over my student career, the music budgets remained virtually nonexistent, so that money was always put into pizza and beer for the musicians.
(Conducting ‘When the Kids Are Away’)
During my time at USC, something weird happened: people had fun at my sessions! Eventually, musicians came to expect that my sessions would start and end on time, would offer free food, and would take place in a creative, positive atmosphere. And, oh yeah, the music was pretty good too, giving performers each a chance to shine on their instruments. As my college career progressed, fewer musicians turned me down. I left USC surrounded by a network of musicians and filmmakers with whom I loved to collaborate.
A few months after graduation, my engineer Steve Kaplan recommended me for a composer’s assistant position with prolific composer Richard Gibbs. That job led to my first work as a full-time composer, the groundbreaking television series “Battlestar Galactica.” Scoring my first episode was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I knew it. The budget was modest for television, but a king’s ransom for me. I brought in Steve to record and mix, and a handful of live players, most of whom I had worked with before. With my team already in place, I didn’t spend a second worrying about how to make the score sound good.
That premiere episode of “Battlestar Galactica” marked the first time in my seven years in Los Angeles that I could pay musicians and engineers a dime for their efforts on behalf of my music. What a change from my student film days! The ultimate irony is this: the musicians temperamentally predisposed to play for free on a student film would be the ones making money on my professional projects years later. Those musicians understood that our futures were entwined. They had faith I would return the favor in the future, when our combined efforts would yield bigger and better opportunities for us all.
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By 2010, eight whirlwind years after my USC graduation, my career was going well. Due to my involvement in beloved series like “Battlestar” and “The Walking Dead,” I developed a cult fan following of my own. I was recognized by fans in line at the grocery store. I performed live concerts of my scores at famous venues throughout Southern California and abroad. At Comic Con, I was a rock star.
Then my momentum began to slow down, like a car on the highway that has slipped into neutral and coasts. The effect was so subtle, I did not even notice it at first. I walked confidently out of meetings for new projects, and then never got a return call. Just bad luck? I was replaced off a television series when a new showrunner took over. Just creative differences? I was fired off a network pilot two days before I was set to record a full orchestra for it. Ouch. I felt my past successes entitled me to future ones, and began to resent that more opportunities were not being given to me.
To truly fulfill my life dreams, I wanted to score larger budget studio films. As I ventured further into this medium, filmmakers and studios alike consistently asked me to write demo music for free. I found the idea insulting. “I shouldn’t have to do that!” “Don’t they know I scored ‘Battlestar Galactica?’” “Why should I write something for free?” “I don’t do demos.” My refusal was a way of proclaiming that I have standards, that I’m too busy and important to write for free. I declined, and waited for better opportunities from filmmakers who would appreciate my accomplishments.
A funny thing happens when you start saying “No:” you quit working.
I wanted more out of my musical career and I felt it slipping away from me. My frustration with my career was matched only by my resentment of those who asked me to work for free. What was the problem? Why didn’t people want to work with me?
Desperate to figure it out, I asked a few close friends for their perspective. Some told me what I wanted to hear: “Have patience. New doors are about to open any day now!” Others, including my frequent musician contractor Peter Rotter, took a more honest approach. Peter, and other friends like him, had the courage to tell me I appeared arrogant, cocky and unwilling to collaborate.
I was stunned, and confused, to discover a huge chasm between the way I saw myself and how others saw me. Ok, I knew I wasn’t a modest person, but I tackled every project passionately to yield the best possible score. I poured all my time and money into making effective scores. How could I be considered arrogant when I put the needs of a project above all else?
Setting aside my emotions, I critically observed my behavior and the reactions it generated in other people. I recognized I was making a crucial assumption about everyone who might hire me. I assumed they wanted to work in the way that suits me best. My logic was as follows: by hiring me, a filmmaker is saying they want my sound, and obviously I know better than anyone else how to achieve my own sound. Right? Wrong. In reality, by hiring me, a filmmaker is merely saying they believe I’m the most qualified composer to decipher their musical vision for their project, and deliver the score they want. My fundamentally-flawed and egocentric assumption triggered dozens of behavioral mistakes that had cumulatively stalled my career.
In meetings, I would talk at length about how effectively I could write and produce a score. My intentions were innocent enough. In so doing, I was trying to put the prospective client at ease, to let them know they’ve hired someone passionate to deliver a score that serves their project. But, viewed from the outside, I just looked like an egotistical and uncooperative person, unwilling to consider alternative approaches.
Imagine you hire a painter to paint your house. You would expect that person to ask you what color you want, right? If the painter glances at your house, tells you it would look best in red, and promptly cracks open the cans of red paint, you would feel left out of your own creative project. You would not hire that person. You would hire the painter who makes you feel involved in the painting of you own house. In this analogy, I was sadly behaving like the first painter.
Being overly confident and passionate was only half my problem. Being insecure could be just as off-putting. In meetings, I would always answer questions from the other person, questions usually about my life. However, I was often too shy to ask an equal or greater number of questions in return. This error in social judgment frequently resulted in entirely one-sided conversations, meetings where I talked about myself the entire time. I looked like an ego maniac.
I was crushed when I realized I had become the perfect example of how not to move forward in this business. I needed a different example to follow. Those musicians who stayed up all night to record “A Good Lie” came to mind. I recalled the brilliant musicians and creative artists whose contributions to my music inspired me on a daily basis. What did all those people have in common? They were always open to new ideas. They never complained about my schedule, budget or logistics. They never said “No, I don’t do demos.” They stood up for their artistic convictions, but never made me feel stupid for standing up for mine. I felt good when I worked with them. In fact, one of the reasons I loved scoring films was to make music with them.
Clearly, I needed to be the same caliber of collaborative partner to my filmmakers that my musicians were to me. I finally understood that my career would sputter, perpetually stuck in neutral, unless I could address this problem. Ego bruised and duly humbled, I decided to perform an experiment: change my attitude.
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Self-reflection is hard enough. After that, however, the real work must begin. Unsure how to start, my first task was simply to stop doing the things that made people think I had a bad attitude.
I taught myself some simple social tricks to make me a better person in conversation. I listened carefully for pieces of information that might lead to more developed conversations. If someone mentioned their kid played high school hockey, I’d make note of it, adding it to a mental list of questions I could ask in an unexpected lull in the conversation. I practiced chatting with friends and family, and worked on maintaining better eye contact. I was surprised to find that over a relatively brief period of time, these ideas formed into healthy habits. I stopped thinking about them. I truly enjoy interacting with people more confidently now.
I also changed my language. I realized my job is but a small part of a larger production. I needed to use language to assure filmmakers I’m here to make a score for their film, not write music for my own artistic pursuits. I might once have said “When I write my score, I like a theme for each character.” Instead, I would now say “When we produce our score, how do you feel about having a theme for each character?” The content is basically the same, but the delivery of the latter is more conducive to an open, collaborative working relationship.
This new mindset fundamentally changed my emotional connection to my own music. I began to truly think of it as “our score,” not “my score.” I was liberated from an egocentric attachment to my own ideas, and open to working in true collaborations. I always felt like my musical ideas were my children. After adjusting my language, I felt like the director and I were co-parents of our children, both equally deserving of a say in how the music progresses.
In the fall of 2012, I went into an office in Hollywood, where I was shown a work-in-progress cut of a new series, “Da Vinci’s Demons.” My heart soared with lyrical melodies when I saw this epic, historical fantasy. After the screening, I met with producer and director David S. Goyer. Nervous, I worked to suppress old, bad habits. We chatted about life for a while, and then discussed how we like to work. Rather than telling him how I work, I asked of him “How do you like to work with a composer?”
I got the job. A year later, I won an Emmy for it.
(My longstanding collaboration with the Calder Quartet recognized by the LA Times, 2014)
I reconsidered my stance on writing demos for free. At this prospect, my deepest fears flared up. Would someone steal my ideas? Would people think less of me? Am I lowering my inherent value as an artist, of all artists? Am I destroying the art form??
These fears were driven by insecurity. By writing and producing high quality demos, I would certainly be gambling with my time and money. But, my sense of self-worth, pride, and the value of the art form would only be affected if I allowed them to be. When a studio or filmmaker asked me to demo, I stopped feeling insulted. I realized that taking offense was a decision I was making. No one is trying to insult me by asking for a demo. They’re simply looking for the best person for their project, a project they care about as passionately as I care about my music.
With a heavy heart, I recognized I was behaving like the cranky student musicians back at USC who refused to play on my film scores unless they were paid. I don’t remember any of their names. They are not factors in my life today at all. Were filmmakers viewing me this same way? I realized my refusal to demo doesn’t make me look important, nor does it elevate my intrinsic value, nor the value of the art form. My refusal to demo simply removes me from the list of contenders for that job, and throws away an opportunity.
I started saying “Yes,” to demos and all other opportunities to show the world what I am capable of. I still practice this today. An hour from now, I’m going back to my studio to write a demo for a low-budget indie film, because I’m inspired by the director. (Editorial note: I did, indeed, write that demo on the day I gave this speech. I got the job, and our film just debuted to rave reviews at the Toronto Film Festival).
Where I once felt entitled to work only the way I think best, I have since become addicted to adaptation. Each new project is a chance to learn what a filmmaker responds to, and deliver. I aspired to be a film composer because I loved writing music, but now I am a film composer because I love helping visionary people make their movies.
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A funny thing happens when you start saying “Yes:” you get more work.
In the span of eighteen months, I turned my career around. In the years since, a familiar feeling has taken over, a newfound joy in getting to do what I do. I feel as if I am a student back at USC again, writing music and collaborating with an ever-expanding group of musicians and filmmakers who inspire me. I am busier, and more creatively satisfied, today than I have ever been.
Adjusting my attitude had another unintended consequence: it has attracted new people into my life. I work closely with talents like my agents, Richard Kraft and Laura Engel, producers such as J.J. Abrams, directors like Dan Trachtenberg, Joe Miale and Nacho Vigalondo, and performers like Malachai Bandy, among many others, all of whom exude the same creative and social energy I strive for. If I had met them before, they might have walked right past me. Instead, we clicked, and work together on remarkable projects.
So, that’s my story. What about you? Are you ready? Your talent, training and skill can only take you so far. They are the tools that build your career, not the fuel that drives it. Do you say “No” or “Yes?” Attitude is everything.
Good luck and go forth. Thank you!
Original Artwork by Dou Hong: http://douhong.blogspot.com/