Composer Spotlight: An Interview with Kerry Smith

Do your thing, and do it well.

There's a lot of music out there -- so what can one do to stand out from the crowd?

Over years of work as a both a freelance and in-house composer -- not to mention time as a partner at Massive Music -- Kerry Smith has figured out how, and it’s by developing his own, unique catalog of music. Smith applies his knack for crafting cinematic, dramatic scores to work for brands like Old Spice and Secret, as well as TV shows like Raising Hope and short films by local filmmakers.

We chatted with Smith about how he gets through writer’s block, creating music with an image in mind, and his advice for anyone coming up in the field. Enjoy.

What inspired you to get into music? More specifically, how did you get into composing music? Tell us your story.

Kerry Smith: I didn’t come from a musical family, and I had a few failed starts along the way, but I remember the fire being lit in my heart when I saw a folk singer at a Christmas party when I was 10 years old. I tried to take guitar lessons soon after, but they were too formal and not much fun for a 10-year-old. Eventually, through the easy teen angst of the ‘80s DC punk scene and a great year of guitar records being released in 1984 (notably Purple Rain), I was convinced to take music more seriously. I took guitar lessons that were more fun, started bands and eventually decided that music was the thing I was most interested in (and coincidentally had no real guidance in, so therefore it was my favorite!). Amazingly, I auditioned into a Music Program at VCU and got a scholarship somehow. I had always liked lots of different kinds of music,  so composition did appeal to me. However, when I tried to “major” in composition, I was told I’d have to take five semesters of a foreign language, which at the time, would put me one semester past my scholarship running out. When I asked why I needed five semesters of a foreign language, I was told, “So you can write Opera Libretti.”  Uhhhh… not high on my priority list. I ended up taking all of the composition-focused classes (despite not being very good at reading sheet music) and the recording and technology classes (oh, and accounting! Very useful, actually) and figured out my own curriculum.  

As I was getting ready to graduate, I realized I had no path after college, and the teachers weren’t giving any career guidance because all of the extra music gigs in Richmond were ones that THEY were doing already and they weren’t keen on giving up their gigs. So I bailed on Virginia and moved to NYC with the intent to start a band and “work in a studio”. I spent nine months working odd jobs before answering a tiny classified ad in the Sunday New York Times (print edition being the only thing that existed then) for “Assistant” in a recording studio. They mentioned something about “creativity," which seemed odd to me in 1994. After a bunch of interviews, I and three others landed the gig out of 300+ candidates to be studio assistants at Elias Arts, which, I realized on my first day, based their business on writing music for commercials. This was great for me because the huge range of musical styles that would come through the door every month was really appealing to me. I had bands I was playing in at the time as well, but the point of having a band “sound” kind of limits your ability to go all over the map stylistically, which also very much interested me. So I stayed at Elias for 10 years, becoming a “staff composer” after the first year. This was back in the days where your video was on 3/4” tape, running via timecode off the 2-inch 24-track tape that had your audio, also syncing the Synclavier workstation that you were writing on, all outputting through a full-sized analog console with no recall. It was a whole new world for me, but you had to be in a  room with nearly a million dollars in equipment just to do that work. Now I’m sitting here 22 years later, hundreds of spots or media and a few awards under my belt, amazed that I’ve managed to support myself and my family and make a career doing this all this time. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

What's the main difference working as a freelance composer and working for a music house?

KS: I can’t speak equivocally for the range of every place out there, but in my personal experience, when working in-house, you have to work on everything that comes through. This is a great educational experience, but it can also wear you down if the sales team and brand aren’t bringing in work that inspires you. Also, you have to write tracks that sell to keep your job security, and some of your success with that may be tied to what’s coming in the door. On the flip side, you have a place to go to every day, a salary or regulated compensation model and a team of colleagues who support you with a sense of community. I can’t understate how helpful that community is in the beginning stages of your career… and every stage after.

When working as a freelancer, if you can make connections with people that are a good match to your sensibilities, who have work, you may find a wider or more suitable range of opportunities open to you than you would being tied to just one house. It can be really strangely validating in that way. Plus, you’re responsible for your own “gear” and can tailor your own environment and schedule to how you like to work. But the finances are wildly unpredictable, the periods when clients don’t call create terrible anxiety, trying to schedule a vacation can be a nightmare if a job is ongoing (since there’s no one to cover for you), and the stress of pressure and competition is a lot to bear.  

Tell us more about your experience at Elias Arts and MassiveMusic. What was the biggest thing you learned working at these respective places?

KS: At Elias, I was just a Composer (and Sound Designer). I did some “Creative Directing” in the last couple of years, but really I was just writing music, and I was kind of in a bubble. A partly self-induced bubble, but still fairly oblivious to “the business” end of things.  But it was fantastic immersing myself in this soup of creativity. There were other outstanding composers there at the time, and I still maintain that the best and easiest way to learn to do a job well is to work with or for the best.  

With Massive, I was a partner. I was running the show from the get-go, and I learned everything about the business. I saw the industry changing and models being up-ended. You might say “disrupted” now. Everything had moved to being produced on DAWs and the stigma had been lifted from licensing artist tracks for commercials. I gained a much greater appreciation for what everyone in every stage of production and sales does, and it was a whole different education that really rounded me out for what I’m doing now. I also discovered that I didn’t particularly enjoy or excel at managing or selling music. I’m ultimately happier and more successful at writing it.  

How do you feel music adds to film and picture? What do you find most challenging about composing music for picture? Most rewarding?  

KS: I personally like music that tells a story, takes you on a journey, or evokes a strong feeling (even if it’s a feeling of peace). I don’t get much time to just LISTEN to music anymore, so I don’t really enjoy spending my time on something that is, at best, just a background. I want to be stimulated in some way by the music I am listening to.  

When you write music to video, that’s already part of the mission -- at least it is for the jobs that I tend to work on. I help set the mood or tell the story. I finish the creative sentence and flesh out the picture, and if music ends up being distracting in a scene, maybe there should be less or none. Whereas, If I just sit down to write music without a specific assignment, I have to think about what I feel strongly enough about to create a piece around. I know there are some people who can easily churn out 2-3 minute musical beds “in a style”, but I’ve always been very conscious of “What’s the story I’m telling?” when I write. I find that if I have an image in my head as I’m working on a piece, other people get a picture from it as well, even if it’s not the same picture. The challenging part is when the client or filmmaker I’m working with can’t express what they want, and I mistakenly head down a wrong path. This can be a good and worthwhile exercise when there’s time to work through it, and a sense of trust that you will, but in tighter timeframes it can result in a lot of stress and second-guessing all around.

You were recently nominated for a couple of awards for your work on the Old Spice spot, "The Truce." Can you tell us a bit about working on that project?

KS: The funny thing that you have to understand about that job is that, originally, I REALLY didn’t want to do it [laughs]. I was in the middle of another crazy project, and I had family visiting from out-of-town. There was no video to work to, and the direction was one that I’d never had any real experience with. Although, I would sit at a piano sometimes, and pluck out obvious chord progressions with cheesy improvised lyrics for a laugh every so often. So I almost passed on it.  Then I sat and thought for a minute, and decided to see if I could make something that was just really simple and effective, without any production trickery in the very limited time I had. So I wrote the track in 20 minutes, sent it to the singer, Hugh Wilson, who popped his vocal in the mix the next day, and that’s pretty much what aired. I wasn’t expecting to win the pitch, but I’m extremely glad I did.  When I finally got to see the video (which they filmed to the song) the idea made so much sense and I “got it”.  It had me cracking up. It worked out wonderfully, but  this is where a good conversation with the creator would have really helped nail the idea in my head at the beginning. Luckily, I managed to stumble my way into it anyway by virtue of not having enough time to overthink things.  

What qualities or traits do you think makes a good composer?

KS: Obviously you need to have your musical skills down. That’s just a  given. Everyone has to do that, whether it’s being fluent in just one or two styles, or possessing a broad knowledge of many. You have to be able to deliver on time and on-brief. You need to have a feeling of when to stretch and experiment, and when to be quick and decisive. But you also need to be a good detective. You need to be able to analyze the part the music has to play, and what the client is asking for. It’s often easier when you’re working directly for a director or TV producer than on an idea filtered through a few layers of clients, but the principle is the same. Ask questions. Look at what the story is saying. Decide when less is more. Have a point of view. Remember that you’re part of a team, and (hopefully) everyone on the team is trying to achieve the same goal.

You also need to manage having both a thick skin, and an optimistic sense of artistic vulnerability. You need the optimism to create great work, and to have the drive to do this every day. You need the thick skin when a client flippantly passes over your work. Because even if you were a great detective on the job, it still happens. A lot. You won’t be the right fit for every job, no matter how hard you try. You have to accept that. It’s not personal.

A metaphor that helped me accept creative rejection is the idea of platinum records. Think of platinum records before downloading and streaming and summer festivals, when buying records was more common. A platinum record means that you’ve sold a million records (in the US). That was (and is) a huge benchmark for success. Think if you go seven-times platinum -- 7 million records. You’re a friggin’ superstar. But… that’s still a smaller number than the population of New York City. So, even if you’re this mega-super-successful star, the majority of people in the world either A) don’t like you B) may have heard your song somewhere but don’t associate you with it. C) haven’t heard of you D) don’t care. I’d still be very happy with the 7 million sold and career it spawned, but you still have to be aware of points A-D, and balance your confidence with humility. The people with long-term successful careers usually manage pull this off.

Are there any soundtracks that have blown your mind? What was it about them?

KS: If I’m considering soundtracks, I have to go in chronological order: The Star Wars soundtrack (well, all of them) first opened my mind to what a score could do -- how it could be powerful and really be a big driver of the story. Next, the score to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (by Wojciech Kilar) really stuck with me as a way of using dynamics and repeated motifs to build drama and create colors, without having to rely on dense melodies and busy underscoring. At this point, I should mention that I later realized that both Dracula and Star Wars borrow heavily from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” Kinda makes you wonder about temp tracks, even in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Moving on, Edward Scissorhands defined a style, and has dogged all composers since. I found Daft Punk’s score for Tron: Legacy really surprising and enjoyable, being a really effective blend of the best parts of analog synth music and orchestral colors. Probably my singular favorite for awhile now has been the score for M. Night’s Shymalan’s The Village, which really turned me on to James Newton Howard and his knack for being able to incorporate real beauty and romance into his scores. My influences range toward the more dramatic, which doesn’t put me in a great mainstream position for a lot of advertising work. But I have been fortunate in attracting things that I enjoy and excel at.

How do you find inspiration when facing a writer's block? What are your first steps?

KS: Writer’s block isn’t a luxury that I can afford, so my first step is to just start. Start with some part -- a rhythm, a melody, a chord progression, an instrument sound. Maybe I’ll trash that part later, but if it can get me to the next part, then that will lead me to the next part, and eventually I’ll have a finished piece. As long as the schedule isn’t too tight, I don’t really worry, because I can fiddle around, go back, take a fresh listen, and revise and edit before I turn something in. If the schedule is ridiculous, like 24 hours for 60 seconds of heavily scored and arranged music, I have to hope for some solid references and clear direction on what part the music is playing in the story. Once you build the sandbox, your imagination can do some wildly creative things, but you kind of need to make the sandbox first, whether it’s tempos, sounds, stylistic references, etc... 

What’s next for you?

KS: I’m set to score a short film names The Manual by Portland filmmaker Wil Magness this fall. It’s a great story about a boy all alone after the end of the world, and his robot caretaker. It’s a fantastic script for a short, and there are lots of stirring moments that I’m looking to help realize through sound.

Any advice looking for those looking to compose for ads, TV or film?

KS: It’s a bit of a downer, but you should know that right now, at this moment, the market is more saturated than it’s ever has been. I personally know more than 300 people who are (mostly) full-time media composers, and I am aware of probably a few thousand who are also doing it (or trying to), on varying levels. I’m part of one group online that has over 2,000 members, most of whom seem to be aspiring composers. I realize that in an internet full of positive affirmation it’s not the most encouraging news, but it’s also not something that gets pointed out very often, so I do feel compelled to mention it.  

You can easily find tips on YouTube about how to do anything on the technical end, and you can read plenty of advice online regarding “networking” and the like, but my best advice, which reflects what I’ve seen with people I know who’ve become successful lately, is: Do your own distinct musical “thing” really well.  Establish a unique sound and build a catalog. The catalog may never garner play or syncs, but it should establish your sound. Then, go meet directors, producers, etc… of like minds, and jump when they get a shot to produce something that they think of you for… and know that a lot of times getting ahead is the result of being in the right place in the right time, which is often the result of some intentional decisions, and a lot of luck.  

Posted on September 9, 2016 and filed under Field Notes, Music.