Like many musicians who compose for picture, Paul Damian Hogan says he “stumbled” into the world of music licensing. Since then, he has composed hundreds of songs for brands, been nominated for an Emmy and managed to write and produce two solo albums. In that time, Paul has also accrued invaluable wisdom on composing of all forms, and was kind enough to share some of it with us. Enjoy.
Marmoset: What’s your story? How did you get into music and composing?
Paul Hogan: I’ve been playing music since I was young. I started out learning and writing mostly rock songs and easy piano pieces. At a summer music camp in high school, I was introduced to 20th century classical music, from Stravinsky to John Cage. I became enamored with it and started writing this sort of bad, experimental music without much training. Then I went to college to get a bachelor’s degree in composition, where I worked on getting the basics of composing down. At the same time, I started playing keyboards in bands. So I was always kind of straddling these two worlds -- contemporary classical music where I learned about orchestration and experimental techniques -- and more popular forms of music. This continued when I moved to New York to go to grad school. At first I was focused on writing chamber music, but then I also started recording strange, hook-y love songs on the side. When I graduated, I wasn’t prepared to leave New York to teach somewhere else, so I stumbled into this strange world of composing for television ads and film. That’s become a big part of my life for 10 years now. I also had a band called Frances in New York and tried for a while to make a proper go of that...so it’s always been kind of a hodgepodge. But one cool thing about the hodgepodge is that in commercial music -- television, film and anything like that -- the variety of experience helps a lot, because you have the training in theory and other technical aspects, you have chops in different genres, but you also develop the ability to think about music in a way that’s not too music geeky, using more emotion-based language to talk about it. Being able to understand and talk about music from different perspectives has been very helpful.
Marmoset: You were talking about how you don’t always get to write what you want, but I saw that you released a personal album called The House. Is that more of a passion project? And how does working on an album differ from writing music for brands or films?
PH: Yeah, the main difference now that I’m a dad with responsibilities is the amount of time I’m able to set aside for various pet projects. When you find motivation or inspiration to do a side project, if you take too long to do it, you can run into problems finishing -- you can actually get bored of your own music. At least that’s my experience. You might get bogged down in a film score or the advertising work gets really busy, so you feel obligated to prioritize those to pay the bills. The really fun, unrestricted, creative stuff gets put on the backburner. A lot of times, where I’m at in my life... making projects on my own requires a kind of inspirational spark that I have to ride as hard as I can when it happens. The way I made my last record, The House, was like that. I suddenly got that spark in a lull between film scores and ads. My wife was pregnant, but I didn’t have a child yet so I was still able to go and disappear for 12 hours a day if I felt so inclined. I wrote the songs in about a week, rehearsed them very quickly with my friends and then we recorded everything in a day...then my daughter was born, and it took me a year to finish mixing it! So as soon as life responsibilities kick in, sometimes it can slow the creative side projects down. Also the commercial work is creatively draining, so it’s important for me to try to set aside enough quality time to write my own music. I wish I could say I’m good at that last part.
M: When you’re composing with licensing in mind, is there a difference between when you’re composing for advertisements versus film?
The main difference for me between music for ads and film is that with film you have more space and time to stretch out and explore various approaches. There’s more time to contemplate and refine ideas. Ads are shorter in length and usually more restrictive creatively. Deadlines happen fast. Often you only have a day to write your track. You have to get it close to perfect right away.
The main similarity between the ad and film music worlds is that you’re hired to write something that fits into someone else’s overarching vision. Your job is to write music that supports the ideas or emotions they want their film to impart. So in that way, there’s not much difference between, say, a 30 second Apple spot where you’re asked to create something similar to a big hit song, and a documentary film where the music needs to be much more subtle and restrained. In both situations, you’re trying to find the right kind of emotional balance that works for the people in charge, not so much for you. You become more like a tailor in a way. They pick the style and color and trust your expertise to customize it perfectly. That said, it’s always nice when there’s the opportunity to surprise someone with unexpected musical ideas. That all depends on who you’re working with and how much they trust you.
Writing music for dance is a newer experience for me. One aspect that seems different is that a choreographer tends to come in with a few vague descriptions and then its like “Show me what you got.” Then you go away and make some music and then they react to it. They’re often not coming at you with “We really like this track by so and so, can you make something like this?” In terms of creative freedom, making music for dance seems to fit somewhere about halfway between making an album and making a film score. And often they just say “This is great, we’re gonna dance to this” because they don’t set up the same kind of expectations early on. That’s been my experience at least. It’s a lot of fun.
M: Do you have a preference between composing for film, advertising and dance?
The preference for me -- and it always has been -- is just to write and record whatever music I feel like making at the time. Pure Paul music if you will. Obviously that’s what I’d love to do all day long everyday. Who doesn’t want that? But that’s not the reality of my situation. Selling records and touring is next to impossible, and I’ve got bills to pay.
I think the second best and more realistic situation for me is to balance the various pursuits. Ideally I have enough time to write my own music, I have some film scores that are keeping my brain stimulated, and then I have the ads which keep me on my toes – keeping me trying new things. Ads can be a challenge unlike any of the other mediums. For example, you work on an ad and you think, “Okay, this is a pharmaceutical company and the reference music is really bad.” Everyone working on the ad knows it’s bad, but you try to make something that doesn’t make you hate yourself and still works for the brand – that’s a challenge. I think “Okay, I know I can’t try something too radical, but I’m gonna try to make something interesting anyway that has this light, floating quality and it’s going to combine acoustic guitars and electronic elements and can still work as a music bed behind a 30-second list of terrible side effects!” And hopefully I can have fun making it. If you don’t win the job, but the track is good, you can still license it for years to come. I think if you can find a way to enjoy making good commercial tracks, even for the bad jobs, then all these different musical pursuits can support each other and coexist and you can be happy. That’s pretty ideal. It’s all a balancing act, and its definitely easier said than done. I’m still working on it.
M: So, can you recall a single favorite project that you’ve worked on within all of those realms?
PH: I would say my favorite project that I’ve worked on is a documentary called Birders…
M: It was nominated for an Emmy, right?
PH: It was. That’s not why it’s my favorite though. The Emmy nomination was a treat at the end. I loved the film because it already had incredible sound design with these bird call recordings, and I got to make an ambient chamber music soundtrack to support all that! All the films I’ve worked on have been really enjoyable projects. They don’t have the sort of budgets that you see with Hollywood-sized films or even television ads, but I think that creatively the films have been very satisfying. Like with ads, I often end up making a kind of music that I wouldn’t necessarily write if I were just sitting down to compose freely. But unlike ads, it still feels very personal at the end of the day. It brings a certain musical side of me out. Often when I listen to a soundtrack independently of the film later on, I’m surprised and I think “oh it’s a cool side of me, especially emotionally, that I rarely express.” I like the work for that reason.
Probably my favorite ad that I’ve done was for a big brand for the Olympics, and they wanted a proper song and they gave me very loose direction. I wrote the song and there was no picture -- they hadn’t made the ad yet. After I submitted, I didn’t hear back on the job for a while and I asked if they needed any revisions, and they’re like “actually, no its already on TV.” And when I finally saw the spot, it was while watching the Olympics! They just cut the ad to my song. That’s the best. The song was pretty catchy too. I’ve worked on a lot of ads that start the same promising way. Its very rare they end like that. I wish that was something that could happen more often for everyone in this business. Its usually a much more brutal process to get to the finish line.
M: Do you ever experience writer’s block, and if so, where do you pull your inspiration?
This is a tricky one, because I have had jobs where there was a bit of writer’s block in terms of coming up with something good. It’s not hard to make something average. You’re bound make stuff that’s not good and sometimes you just have to submit it and move on. And the person you’re submitting to is gonna ask for some changes and then probably just submit it, you know, as an okay option -- but that’s part of the game. Sometimes okay options win! My main philosophy after having done it for 10 years is just try not to care too much and not to overthink it. It’s about not letting yourself get too hung up on any one song. Over time the good music will come more frequently than the bad, hopefully.
I can re-answer this a totally different way: Sometimes when I have writer’s block I just switch the main instrument I’m writing on. So I think “OK they want this to be this whole classic piano-song type thing. I love Harry Nilsson and piano is my main instrument, but then everything I’m making sounds a bit too generic or a bit too derivative of Harry Nilsson…” So then I just switch to guitar, which I’m not so good at, or some other instrument and use that to write. Somehow by just switching up the instrument, new ideas can show themselves and the track can go in a fresh direction. You can always add the piano back in later. Getting out of your comfort zone works wonders.
M: Would you have any advice for an aspiring composer?
PH: Write music everyday.
Also with most any type of paid composing you want to do, the work comes through making connections and friendships, right? Advertising is a little different -- it’s a little easier to bug someone you’ve never met, so I would say if you aspire to do it, you should offer to do it for free at first. I think that’s the easiest way to get in somewhere. You find a music house that you like and say, “Look, hey, I really want to get involved in this, can I do some demos for free?” All the people I know that run music houses, they have nothing to lose in that situation, they have no demo fees to worry about wasting. You get good practice, and you get to build a reel to use to find future work. Once you win that first job you’re off to the races.
With film, it’s all about making friends. If you want to get into film, you have to meet people in the industry. Find the filmmakers who are starting out, but who also make quality work. I haven’t met enough people -- I mean, I wish I was doing more film, but every film job I’ve gotten is from a friend or friend’s recommendation. So networking and offering to do work for free (or cheap) – that’s the starting point for this whole industry. Now, you can’t let yourself get taken advantage of. It’s okay to do work for nothing to make inroads, but that’s only something you do in the beginning as you’re trying to build up your repertoire and experience. Once you start to establish yourself and the quality of your work grows, you have to expect proper compensation. Unless, of course, the film is absolutely amazing, then who cares about the budget!