1) CHRISTOPHER, ACADEMIA PLAYED A BIG PART IN YOUR FORMATIVE YEARS. BESIDES MUSIC YOU EVEN HAVE DEGREES IN LITERATURE AND HUMANITIES!! CAN YOU PLEASE COMMENT ON THE EDUCATIONAL PROCESS YOU WENT THROUGH?
Let me first say that the academic route is just one way to hone your craft, and no more or less valid than being self-taught or learning through real-world experience. It just so happens that for who I was when I was 18 through 24–a guy with a voracious hunger for anything and everything related to music and humanities–college was a paradise. For six years (Stanford, Oxford, Royal College of Music) I studied everything I could get my hands on, maxed out on credits, audited whatever they wouldn’t let me officially take, and did as many extra curricular activities I could. I studied composition and conducting, but I also played in a jazz combo, taiko ensemble, and directed an African gospel choir. I sat in on computer music courses, even though I didn’t understand 90% of it. I conducted operetta and musical theatre, so I could get podium time. I wrote for live drama productions. I even organized my own WOMAD-style world music festival one year (which totally bombed). I just wanted to be everywhere, getting a taste of everything, because music was this undiscovered, miraculous world, where one day your professor would show you a George Crumb manuscript, and the next day that quiet kid with the cool hair would explain to how to make jungle out of the Amen break. Music was like an eye-popping drug: everything was new and amazing.
But I also did a lot of study outside of music (English, Art History, Film Theory), but what I also came to learn over time is that the studies that you do outside of music are equally important to making you a better media composer or artist in the long run. Ultimately the voice we develop, and who we are as artists, is the product of everything we’ve absorbed and synthesized: every class we took, every book we read, every emotion we felt when we first heard a John Williams score in the theatre, or even that feeling we got in our stomachs when we slow danced to our first pop ballad. All of that comes together later in life and becomes your ‘voice’; it affects how you shape a melody, or which author you choose to set your song cycle to, or what childhood memory you draw from when writing your next lyric. And the thing that I didn’t realize early on when I was still in academia, and I had professors breathing down my neck trying to get me to write ‘new music’ in *their* voice, is the sooner you let go of everyone else’s expectations and admit to who you are, no matter how embarrassing–in my case a Birkenstock-wearing Pink-Floyd-obsessed Silicon valley kid with a love of Andrew Lloyd Webber–the sooner you can start writing the great music you were meant to write.
So if you love school, then great! Milk your tuition dollars for all you can. More of a travel-the-world, school-of-life guy? That’s awesome; I want to come along and carry your bags for you. But I think if I have any regret over my early years as a composer, it’s that I had a preconceived illusion of what a composer *was*, and tried to become that… when I should have just worked on becoming the best version of me I could be.
2) THE VIDEO GAME ‘CIVILIZATION IV’ WAS PIVOTAL IN YOUR CAREER. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT AND WHAT WAS YOUR COMPOSITIONAL APPROACH TOWARDS IT?
Civilization IV was my lucky break story. The short version is this: my former college roommate became a highly respected game designer (Soren Johnson, for you strategy gamers), and he and I reconnected at our five-year reunion. A few months later I got ‘the call’–he had taken some of the music I’d produced with my African gospel a cappella group in college, stuck it on the menu screen of Civilization IV, and everyone loved it and wanted me to write something new for the game.
That song was called ‘Baba Yetu’, and it was a fusion of the many disparate styles of music I studied in school: African gospel, Japanese taiko, and orchestral. And yes, it did open a lot of doors for me… but not where you might think. The song was immediately popular in the gamer world, but when it really took off was after the sheet music got released, and it became a big crossover hit in the choral music world. Suddenly I was sitting on one of Alfred Music’s highest selling choral octavos. (And I still wasn’t seeing a penny of it back then, because I signed a bad deal at the time that took years to undo.) It started receiving performances everywhere, everywhere from schools around the world, to Carnegie Hall. And ultimately it won a Grammy.
But the most instructive part of this story, though, was what didn’t happen, even after the Grammy. The game gigs didn’t exactly come pouring in. In fact, I wasn’t even asked back to be a part of Civilization V (which made me wonder, what do I have to do?). The game industry is still a relationship-based, resume based business, and I knew no one at the studios, and had written a grand total of 6 minutes on just one title. And while ‘Baba Yetu’ is a pretty catchy song, it’s not exactly the type of music that makes someone say “I want HIM for Call of Duty!” So this brings me to my next question…
3) YOU HAVE COMPOSED FOR MOVIES, ADVERTS, GAMES BUT YOU HAVE WON NO LESS THAN 2 GRAMMIES FOR A CROSSOVER ALBUM? CAN YOU PLEASE COMMENT ON THAT ALBUM AS WELL AS SELF FINANCING?
I decided to make a conscientious effort to parlay the success of ‘Baba Yetu’ into an artist career. This was born of two things: 1) the need to have a personal creative project to work on between scoring gigs, and 2) taking note of the fact that many times artists in different genres–from Tan Dun and John Corigliano to Trent Reznor and Mark Mothersbaugh–were able to skip the line, so to speak. And so I decided to parlay my momentum in the choral world into an artist career.
To do that, I needed an album of my own, and so I rerecorded ‘Baba Yetu’, wrote 11 more songs, and released them all on a concept album called ‘Calling All Dawns’. That was a huge investment of time and resources, and was hideously expensive, but ultimately the risk paid off: the album recouped after several years of sales and some high-profile placements, and in the process won two Grammys. So since then I’ve been splitting my time with all the scoring work my new agents (full disclosure: Kraft Engel Management) have been getting me, while simultaneously cultivating my artist career and building my brand.
That last word, ‘brand’, is super important. I’m a huge proponent of composers and songwriters stepping forward and being treated with as much reverence as you would rock stars. And I believe the marketplace rewards this too: a classical record label exec told me this summer that the days when a composer can just show up for a concert and take a bow after their piece has been performed are over. Now, the composer needs to be the face of their music—whether that means social media, workshops and clinics, or conducting their own music. The most commercially successful classical composers—like Whitacre, Nico Muhly, Max Richter and others—are also those that lend their image, personality, and stories to their music. Their actual music is only a small portion of what makes them successes. Which brings me to my favorite quote of all time…
4) WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FUTURE PLANS AND WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ASPIRING COMPOSERS?
My advice to composers is to hang this quote on your wall: “Be a brand and not a commodity. If you’re a commodity, you’re interchangeable with all the other commodities out there, and the only winner is the person who can offer the same services for the least amount of money. If you’re a brand, you’re unique, and can charge any amount of money for your services.”
This isn’t to say you can’t have a perfectly lucrative and long career supplying the same services that the next composer supplies. But the music business has many ups and downs, and technology is reshaping our revenue streams more and more these days. And the composers who will weather these changes best, are those for whom the appeal of their name on a billboard outshines the actual music they write.
So what’s my future look like? In October my new theme for Civilization VI comes out. I’ll also be scoring a Chinese feature, while simultaneously recording my arrangements for a massive Las Vegas show with my longtime collaborators, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (they performed an evening of my music in London this summer, with me conducting). On the ‘classical’ side, I have a series of events meant to put a public face and personality on my music. I have a commission for a Beijing music festival, followed by a stint on TV as a guest judge on a music-themed reality show. Then next summer I’ll be headlining a big outdoor classical music festival in the UK, conducting Calling All Dawns as well as some of my other favorite works. Then in 2018 I’m back at Carnegie. I’m trying to build my brand, not just at home, but in Europe in Asia, both markets with very healthy demand for accessible, tonal, classical music.
5) CAN YOU ELABORATE ON YOUR ROLE AS ‘Chair of Advocacy for the Recording Academy’s LA Chapter’? WHAT ARE SOME OF THE ISSUES YOU DEAL WITH?
Advocacy happens to be a side passion of mine, and so at the moment I’m helming the Recording Academy’s LA Chapter Advocacy Committee. Our big event, called ‘Grammys-in-my-District’, comes up in October, where we fan out across Southern California and engage in face to face meetings with Congressmen and women, and explain to them some of the difficult challenges we face due to crippling and outdated legislation. I’ll be leading several groups down in Orange County where we’re particularly under-represented, and where we think we have a few key votes we can flip. Now is a particularly important time to be engaging with lawmakers due to all the activity around the Department of Justice’s shocking mandate of 100% licensing, and the BMI Rate Court judge’s surprising overturn of that decree.
I’m passionate about advocacy because I happen to have a better-than-average understanding of a wide swath of the music business, coupled with a strong desire to battle injustice. But at the same time, I’ve discovered that being heavily involved in advocacy has a great side benefit–it’s great for networking. Last year I wrote for two Weinstein Company films and did a remix for the show Empire, all through the network I built working side by side with label and studio execs on musicians’ rights issues. It’s taken me around the world too: earlier this year I spoke in Geneva with Imogen Heap about copyright reform at an international IP conference. Then there was that time I met Taylor Swift, and our mutual love of musicians’ rights was my icebreaker.
Everyone should find something they’re passionate about related to giving back to the music industry. What you’ll find–whether it be advocacy, education, or charity–is that you’ll soon find yourself working side-by-side with people who are similarly passionate about giving back. And many times, those people give back because they’ve already received so much success in life. Those are good people to know, and they’re everywhere.
Especially in this forum!