How to Build Partnerships and Create Your Best Musical Work
When Ravi Krishnaswami isn’t scoring best-selling video games or earworm-worthy TV jingles with his partner Jason Menkes at COPILOT, he’s off making music fans happy as part of the acclaimed The Smiths and Morrissey tribute act The Sons & Heirs or recording as a solo artist. (He just released his debut solo album, Gemini, under the moniker Hybird.) But that’s not all. Sure, Ravi has his hands full with his client projects and solo passions, but when I sat down with him for my podcast Making Ways, all about the unexpected paths to a creative career, he let me in on one of his favorite professional activities in life: mentoring. Ravi has made mentoring a part of his creative career framework as a faculty member of the music composition faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he gets to help “mold [MFA] composers and pass along some of the wisdom he’s learned over the years” about scoring for media and songwriting.
I encourage you to listen to Ravi’s story on Making Ways here. And since Ravi shared so much helpful advice during our conversation, I wanted to put together some of the best tips for emerging composers that didn’t all make it into the episode. Read on for Ravi’s advice for commercial composers looking to break into the industry — and for other creatives working in the commercial space, these tips apply to you too.
Collaboration is a two-way street
When you are a creative of any kind — and especially when you are working your first jobs — you might think that, well, you know best. After all, you’ve studied this stuff, you know what works, and that mangy client of yours has only ever sat behind a desk! What do they know anyway? You’re the artist, not them. But, alas, there’s a reason why it’s called commercial arts, or in this case, commercial composition. You ain’t doing it for yourself; you have to consider the client, the brand, and the product, and your music is just one element to a larger marketing narrative. So take heed as Ravi explains why collaboration — not individual artistic expression — is the rule of the day: “If you’re going to write professionally, particularly for media, you’re not just writing for yourself. You’re writing with a goal in mind and with a client on the other end of the phone. Your process should always give the nonmusical client the respect they deserve in that conversation, and you should always be open to letting other people push your work forward.”
Stay open to new ideas that will force you forward
You may have the tendency to gravitate toward work you know you can squarely hit out of the park. But what’s the fun in never testing your limits? Though there is uncertainty in going off into the unknown and trying something new, it’s quite literally the only way you’ll expand your portfolio and potentially discover your next great skill or develop a genre expertise you never would have anticipated. Ravi says, “I try to teach young composers to stay open to other people pushing them out of their comfort zone — either through asking them to do something that they don’t feel is in their skillset or giving them feedback that they don’t feel is necessarily what they’re vision is — and just remaining open to the chaos of collaborative work.” As Ravi points out, an openness to testing your limits also reflects on your ability to collaborate with clients. “Ultimately, I think [clients] want to bring creatives into projects who they can work with and feel will listen [to their feedback] and aren’t just stuck on their own ideas. And then, eventually, [you can] carve out space for your own work again. Which is what I’ve finally done after all these years.”
Respect the client (yes, the one who isn’t a musician)
It’s easy to discount someone who hasn’t studied music or creative arts as uninformed and thus incapable of giving musical direction, but some of the greatest collaborations emerged from great minds coming at a challenge from two wildly distinct vantage points. It happens time and time again, as I saw firsthand while working at Google, Simon & Schuster, and Sony Music. When business and creative minds come together, the venture is always greater than the sum of its parts.
Diverging views and individual goals are inevitable when dealing with the range of requirements and demands of big brands, which must always balance creativity with budget, strategy, product needs, and customer trends. But when this collaboration succeeds, you get something like the work Ravi and Jason at COPILOT produced for Jell-O, which won the AMP (Association of Music Producers) Award for Best Execution of a Sonic ID of Logo.
Ravi knows a thing or two about working with big brands — ok, he knows a heck of a lot about it. Aside from winning an AMP award, his work has been recognized by Cannes Lions, London International Awards, Hollywood Reporter Key Art Awards, and more. So trust his advice when he says, “I’ve had so many pieces of music that got better because of notes that I thought were really misguided from clients at the time. . . .So I’ve learned over the years to stay open as much as possible.”
As you embark on a career in commercial music, remember to lean into collaboration, allow yourself to be pushed outside your comfort zone, and respect that suit (or pair of jeans) on the other side of the creative fence. They just may help you win one of those fancy awards one day. Because a path pursuing professional music making isn’t an easy one, I’ll leave you with these words of wisdom from Ravi: “Being a professional musician or composer takes the kind of obsession where you can’t really imagine yourself doing anything else. Because if you can imagine yourself doing something else, that other thing is probably easier to do than becoming a professional musician. . . .There are no guarantees that if you have musical ability you’ll have a career. You have to constantly fight for it, every day.”