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5 Minutes with… Joel Beckerman

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Made Music Studio’s founder and lead composer on the media that’s influenced his career, working with John Williams and using sound as a shorthand for emotion, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

5 Minutes with… Joel Beckerman


Joel Beckerman is an award-winning composer and the founder of Made Music Studio, a global creative team known for designing and producing distinct sonic identities for brands, including AT&T, NBC, IMAX, Hulu and Nissan. An innovator in the field who has worked with legendary thematic composer John Williams (known for ‘Star Wars’ and more), he began in network television and has continued to pioneer new approaches in a variety of sound and music fields.

Joel is a leader on the subject of composition and sonic identity in the commercial and creative worlds and has spoken on stage at global industry events, including SXSW, Cannes Lions and London Design Week. He has also been named in Fast Company’s ‘Most Creative People in Business 1000’ and helped found the New York Society of Composers and Lyricists. 

Speaking to LBB’s Ben Conway, Joel discusses his career journey so far, the power of writing every single day and Made Music Studio’s core values that lead to “iconic and enduring” work.


LBB> What creative content inspired or interested you most when you were growing up? Do any TV shows, films and ads stand out to you?

 

Joel> The first film that changed me was ‘Star Wars’. It wasn’t until later that I realised so much of the film’s DNA came from the John Williams score. I also was changed by the film ‘The Red Balloon’ - understanding how much power there could be in such a simple story. Like many composers, Ennio Morricone completely changed the way I think about the role of a score. The score of ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ is really synonymous with the movie.

I was also changed by the book ‘Dune’ - its deep mythology and epic ending. As for TV, my daughter introduced me to the series ‘Scrubs’ a few years ago and I was blown away by how they took an established formula and cracked it so wide open.

With ads, I always appreciate when people take what can be a disposable medium and create something iconic. How could you not love Arby’s ‘We’ve Got the Meats’? You can always tell when something’s great by how often people parody it. I also love when people do something amazing within their limitations. There’s a Zillow streaming commercial called ‘Susans’ that I dare you to skip if you watch the first five seconds. 

 


LBB> When and how did music enter your life? 

 

Joel> My folks always had music playing in the house. Everything from Aretha Franklin to Laura Nero to Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder. I even got a taste of electronic music with Wendy Carlos’ ‘Switched on Bach’. When I was seven, I heard an amazing gospel pianist at a school assembly. I was blown away that one person could make this joyous sound that filled the room and made my body vibrate like I was a part of it. That day I told my parents I wanted to take piano lessons for my birthday. I played every classical piece I could, and played in every jazz and rock band, but I realised that I was never going to be great at the piano. My real instrument was the pen.



LBB> What was your journey into the ad industry like? What did you study at college and do on your path to advertising and sonic branding? 

 

Joel> I had every awful job there was in recording studios from general assistant to cleaning bathrooms and tuning other people’s guitars. But starting off was just dumb luck. I began producing song demos during the day and was also a night manager of an advertising recording studio called HSR Recording. I mentioned to one of the clients that I was a producer and composer and they asked if I would do a demo for a Bronx Zoo commercial. I ended up doing a very old-school electronic score using my NYU instructor's beat-up modular synthesiser. It broke five or six times as I was trying to hit the morning deadline and stayed up all night. I was completely delirious when I was done and won the gig. It taught me the value of jumping in and not overthinking things.

I then did some arrangements for a bunch of campaigns before getting into creating sonic identities for entertainment brands (Showtime, A&E, the reinvention of HBO and others). I shifted into scoring documentary films for Discovery Channel and National Geographic before going deeper into creating sonic identities. It was interesting to see how I could tell a rich story in an instant and I got deeper into the architecture of sonic identity - how it’s analogous to visual identity, how it works universally within a project’s limitations, and how it can trigger the right emotion at the right time.


 

LBB> What’s the most important lesson you received early on in your career? How does it influence you and your work today?

 

Joel> The best advice I ever got was to write every single day. Even if I didn’t have an assignment, I’d make one up or score someone else’s commercial or film main title. While I wasn’t always successful, it helped me find my own voice and focus on the story concept - NOT the music. I learned to be in service of the story and the audience; If I’m not making the story richer, then it doesn’t matter whether I like the music. The other thing I learned is to play my work for people I trust, to see their POV and what I can absorb and address.



LBB> When and why was Made Music founded? Or ‘Man Made Music’, as it was initially. 


Joel> When I first founded ‘Man Made Music’ in 1998, I was the single person composing everything. As the company grew, there was confusion among clients who wanted to only work with me - while other brand clients wanted a large agency with many resources. As timelines shrunk and demand grew, I needed more people to help score, produce, and manage the business - especially as non-entertainment brands began to understand the importance of sonic identity. AT&T was one of the first we worked with.

The guiding value of Made Music Studio has remained constant: to create work that is not disposable, but iconic and enduring, and in sync with the culture. Those core values have carried us forward into when we evolved from ‘Man Made Music’ to ‘Made Music Studio’ in 2021. We prioritise bringing diversity of thought into every project - bringing collaborators from different musical traditions and experiences - and we understand the huge responsibility of our sounds having the potential to be heard by millions of people.



LBB> Which of Made Music’s projects are you particularly proud of and why?


Joel> Having the opportunity to compose for the Super Bowl on NBC, extending John Williams’ iconic theme ‘Wide Receiver’, was a huge moment for us. It’s still the theme for every NFL game and Super Bowl on NBC today. John recommended me to NBC after I worked with him on the 25th anniversary of ‘The Mission’. It was exciting but terrifying to be extending a piece that had been created by arguably one of the greatest thematic composers of all time. I came up with three ideas, including electronic versions, and wanted John to give his blessing. It was very stressful waiting for him to get back to me, but ultimately he liked what we delivered and the rest is history. 



Other projects that rise to this level include a recent one for Lexus. We needed to do something different that brought the soul of the brand to life, inspired by their work and the deep commitment to improve at every turn - very good is never good enough. We designed a sonic identity that showcased human interaction with vehicles in a seamless way - the driver inspiring the sound experience and not the other way around. 



Our work for Tostitos is another next-level project for us. We always work to uncover the essence of the brand; that’s where the best, most original ideas come from. Composing a sonic logo out of the salsa jars and chips themselves makes for a sound that can only be that of Tostitos. 



And lastly, there’s TCM, where we incorporated tap dancing into the primary rhythm of the theme, instilling levity and fun that showcased how TCM curates the best of the best of classic and current movies. It was tongue-in-cheek and captured the fun and expertise of the brand, and where the network is headed. It was our first fully in-person studio session since the start of the pandemic, and I think you can feel that elation and joy of being together in the final piece - probably the special touch that makes it award-winning work. 



LBB> What’s your favourite part of what you do, and what’s the most challenging aspect for you personally? 


Joel> I’m a variety junkie, I love being able to jump from project to project and do many things - lead, produce, network, compose, mentor. My biggest challenges come from collaborations with people, rather than creative development. Having a close client relationship that is built on trust and clear understanding of the brand requires complete candour and commitment. The biggest challenge is creating a mind meld with our clients to identify the problem and understand how to trigger the right emotion at the right time. Once we can establish that trust and connection, creativity flows and we can bring their vision to life.



LBB> Looking at the broader industry, what gets you really excited and what frustrates you? 


Joel> What’s most exciting is the explosion of alternate ways to get together and tell stories, whether it’s web3, metaverse or NFTs. With music and sound as the shorthand for emotion, we can make these stories richer and deeper and help humanise these experiences. Some of the biggest frustrations are when people get too enamoured with the technology. Tech is a facilitator, but not the heart of the project. It’s our job to bring the heart and bridge the gap between us and the future of our experiences.



LBB> Some people would suggest that we’re past the golden age of sonic branding - what would you say to that? Has sonic branding simply evolved and become more subtle? 


Joel> Sonic branding is not just about picking the right notes or sounds, it's about creating a theme that begs for continual reinvention and will stand the test of time. The difficult thing is considering all its uses and then whittling it down to its essence - to make people feel something and bring the project’s soul to life. Great brands already have a soul and it's our job to use music and sound to bring emotional depth to the brand story. To create and craft an identity that could only be for that one brand. Otherwise, why bother? It’s a true speciality and there’s a lot of sonic branding that doesn't rise to the level of being iconic and enduring. 



LBB>What do you do to decompress and stay fresh? And what motivates you in life and work?


Joel> Outside of work, family is the bedrock of my life. Music, art and work are all important but all come from a sense of family, which is truly the most sacred aspect of my life. I enjoy being in nature and doing everything from skiing to walking and hiking - just finding ways to get away from the sounds of media and music. I also really enjoy documentaries. I just watched ‘Moonage Daydream’ which married two of my favourite things: music and storytelling that brings forth truth.

Within my work, having the right amount of fear has always driven me. Not too much or too little. There is a huge sense of responsibility knowing that a sound I create has the potential to have enormous reach. There is always a terrifying moment within the creative process where I feel like I may never get it right, but it's often in these painful moments that you can find real inspiration. 



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Made Music Studio, Tue, 04 Oct 2022 16:54:00 GMT