With some of the topics raised at the recent Denver Music Summit, Mike Paul Hughes of Stone Soup Soldiers offers a nice perspective on what is possible on the soundtrack front, and describes some of the uphill battles. By day, he’s a senior staff systems engineer at Lockheed Martin. By night/weekend/hook or by crook, Mike is a composer, creating original music as background for film and TV, and maybe gaming soon too. He recently answered a few questions about his efforts…
Q: Let’s start at the beginning – how long have you been working on music scores for film? How did you get started with this?
Mike: When we started collaborating, our friends said, “..sounds like film or TV music!” So we started investigating, finding others that do it through social media. At one point, I discovered Bobby Owsinski’s “Mixing Engineer’s Handbook” which then became my bible, and the quality of our productions increased dramatically.
Emboldened with a growing track set, I started contacting directors and producers of independent films. In 2011, a Bollywood director-friend, Sandeep Malani, asked for a western sounding dance track for his feature, Janleeva 555. He produced a series of high quality video trailers, and print posters and ads, which enhanced our website. The film ran over 100 days in Indian cinema, which was a big deal. This led to another opportunity to compose the main title track for the Bollywood short, Salt and Light.
I had been communicating with the director, Mohan Das, for some months on chat in Facebook, getting to know him, and had come to regard him as a friend. He was making the film, and wanted a raw, heavy metal, American sounding track to open the film. Well, we just happen to have Sean Gill on our team, and he’s a shredder/lead/metal guitarist with bands like Strange Land, so it was a good fit. A film’s main title track is a prime slot, so of course we were thrilled he considered Stone Soup Soldiers. Sean wrote the track, and we brought in Joy Jeager (lead vox Denver’s “Thumpin’”) to sing.
Q: World Fusion is a little ways from Double Down [a former local alt country/rock project – Mike was on bass]. How long have you been involved with creating this type of music? Was there a catalyst?
Mike: The explosion of Kontakt sample libraries in recent years has provided access to many rarer ethnic instruments, so if there was a catalyst, it was the technology finally caught up to our imaginations. Growing up in 1970s Philadelphia, I remember my big sisters brought home vinyl LP’s of WAR, Sergio Mendez, and spun them in with the Beatles and Stones. Later, as a bass player, I rode the second wave of ska/reggae on the Philly bar scene. The English Beat, UB40 and Marley were the heavies then. Paul Simon’s Graceland was my first taste of African styled music.
So the indigenous world sound has been there alongside the mainstream. Gary Slaughter brought the looped, hypnotic synthetic sound from his love of Delerium and darker electronica. Sean Gill, having studied classical and Latin guitar, brought that elegant, foreign, Middle Eastern finger picked sound. Each of us wanted to release this inner tribal voice, previously locked up while we played in rock bands.
Q: What has been the most successful project so far? And what are you most proud of creating?
Mike: We composed for the indie thriller, “Grey State,” the music for the trailer and documentary, “Gray State: The Rise”. Trailer scores these days are extremely intense. So this brought out a heavy, energetic war-path sound that we badly wanted to explore. We’re proud of that. But personally, I’d have to say producing “When the Stars Go Blue” with Will F. Wells and Rae Gronmark on vocals, was like “capturing a magic moment in a bubble of sound”.
In terms of audience reach though, our most successful effort would have to be getting our tracks “War Drum,” and “Susumu” placed on Outdoor Channel’s show “Speargun Hunter,” hosted by Sheri Daye. That’s national TV with compensation through ASCAP. Not bad for an indie composing team in Denver.
Q: Would you say that you have broken into the gaming market? What are the obstacles here?
Mike: In the media music business, it’s about the contacts you make, and we have not made game contacts – yet. We have a composer/collaborator friend in UK, Charlie Armour, who composes for game companies, and he’s helping network S3. We are a young team. There is still time.
Q: You released Street Art last year. How are sales going for that piece? Have you found a specific way to market this that has been most successful?
Mike: We’ve sold a few copies online, in Europe and California. And it’s 2013, so of course we don’t expect any physical sales. But selling album copies is not our model. We’re not a band touring to support CD sales with shows. The album is a way to show the media world, “We did this. We did not break up. We did not just talk about it. We collaborated with all these people. We’d like to collaborate with you.”
We produced Street Art as a body of work, a milestone, to be used as a business card in working with other music & film colleagues. We recorded over 20 tracks and picked the best 14. We recorded with twelve musicians – two remote in the UK. It’s a pretty eclectic mix of styles, to show off our range.
Q: What advice would you pass on to someone else interested in getting involved in this aspect of the music industry? Anything you specifically regret about your approach, or would like to improve? What’s been most successful for you?
Mike: The film/TV/media music industry is rapidly changing. It’s a high risk career. There’s zero money, for a long time. So you absolutely *must* have resources behind you to keep you in the game, like a stable day job, or a financially supporting spouse/parent. You can put a recording studio on a laptop for less than the cost of an American Fender Strat, but you need lots of time and money to network.
Famous film composer John Ottman spent years in a day job working his compositions during nights/weekends. He wrote a fantastic article on breaking into film music. Basically, it comes down to getting to know film people, make a network of friendships and colleagues so that when the idea for a film is hatched, you are first in mind.
To do that, you must get to know what they like in music, take genuine interest in their projects and them as people. And be endlessly kind and patient. This takes years. I cannot move to LA, am very happy in Colorado, so I fly out there a couple times a year to make and maintain contacts in film & music. I may reach out to a filmmaker Facebook friend, “Hey, I’m coming to Hollywood, and would love a chance to meet you F2F, to learn more about your project…”
What works for me is a combination of face-to-face meetings and then maintaining the conversation online through Facebook. Social media is a great tool and key part of Stone Soup Soldiers’ approach. I’d definitely recommend Bobby Owsinski’s book, “The Music 3.0 Guide To Social Media,” and of course to read the music blogs, Film Music Job Wire, FilmMusic Magazine. It’s also important to find a mentor, someone who is for real and can guide you. I’ve been fortunate to personally get to know film composer Richard Gibbs (Dr. Doolittle, Queen of the Damned, Battlestar Galactica) and he does not mind sharing his experience with me.
Q: Have your efforts been reasonably lucrative in general? What are your main goals at this point?
Mike: The local Denver bar does not really want to pay the band, and neither do the filmmakers. It’s a sad joke at this point “Sorry, we don’t have any post-production budget left for music…” Most indie filmmakers themselves are searching for external finances to keep their projects alive, pay for the visuals, relying on personal favors to get by. So I understand their plight.
So they expect the music to be free, and would rather have a friend do it on a laptop with Garageband, than pay an outside composer with real musicians and high-end sample libraries. Film music in general is being devalued. There are multiple online ‘pay to play’ sites to get your music heard by industry players, and we’re engaging. But it’s a negative deficit game, for years. We have been paid enough to receive artistic validation, but I would not say lucrative.
On the bright side, we are beginning to achieve last year’s goals. We’ve been told by the Outdoor Channel that they would like to license more tracks for up to six more TV episodes of Speargun Hunter in 2014. In early 2014 we’ll be scoring an indie documentary about the Mumbai terrorist attacks called “Unshakable,” directed by Parthiban Shanmugam (Vennila Films).
And artistically, we have begun working on a new album, intending to explore a unique electronic/ethnic/acoustic sound, perhaps with a bow towards Bombay Dub Orchestra and a twist of Callison Nash.
Long term, perhaps several more years, we are making contacts to compose and produce complete Surround 5.1 musical score for budgeted indie films in the $100K – $5M range. This would provide us enough income to hire local Denver orchestral musicians to record our original scores in local Denver area recording studios, like Evergroove Studio or Underpin Productions. That is our goal.
Mike Hughes – mixing, drums and keys
Sean Gill – guitar
Charlie Armour – soundbeds
Gary Slaughter – keys, video/audio mix