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Thinking In Sound: Tracing the Lineage of New Music with Michael Kotch


HiFi Project's producer and composer on being creative almost every day, getting lost in the music and starting the day with a classical breakfast

Thinking In Sound: Tracing the Lineage of New Music with Michael Kotch

Michael Kotch blends a genre-agnostic passion for music with excitement for the creative collaboration process in his work at HiFi Project. His dual backgrounds in the recording industry and commercial space have resulted in memorable tracks in campaigns for such top brands as Google, Progressive, Samsung, Chevy, Cadillac and Walgreen as well as a viral 'Fright Song' theme song for Monster High that garnered over 90 million views on YouTube.

Growing up listening to his parents' classic rock albums at a young age, Michael caught the music bug early on and never looked back. After a brief stint with piano lessons, he ditched the keys for the guitar and started playing in bands as a teenager. Combining a natural technical prowess with a strong musical inclination, he quickly immersed himself in songwriting as he continued touring and recording with bands including Eve’s Plum and Vitamin C. After an opportunity to compose for a PSA, he rapidly segued into the commercial music space, launching his own boutique shop Derby + Kotch in 2001. They worked with a wide range of brands, notably rejuvenating the catchy jingle for T.J. Maxx that was popular in the 2000s. After nine years of running his own company, he joined HiFi Project in 2010.

Outside of the studio, the Los Angeles-based musician and producer enjoys living vicariously through his daughter, moonlighting as a referee while fighting the inevitability of becoming 'that' soccer parent.

LBB> When you’re working on a new brief or project, what’s your typical starting point? How do you break it down and how do you like to generate your ideas or response?

Michael> It largely depends on how much information I have. If people have boards or inspiration sources, then I would look at those materials and map out a plan timing-wise, then go from there to create something that hits the vibe without getting too close. There are also times when they have three - four reference tracks and want a general feel, like 'summertime party' or 'night time cocktails.' I usually open up a folder of samples or loops or play guitar and piano to get a melody idea right away. I then work on that and go back to the reference and see where things could meet to make beautiful music. I like to get my hands on a guitar or keyboard and get some kind of music happening very quickly. Ultimately, it may end up changing 100%, but that is how I think I work best.

LBB> Music and sound are in some ways the most collaborative and interactive forms of creativity - what are your thoughts on this? Do you prefer to work solo or with a gang - and what are some of your most memorable professional collaborations?

Michael> Since music is so universal, everyone can have an opinion about it. By nature, it can lend itself to having more cooks in the kitchen. 

My thoughts on this have changed over time. Yes, I think music is the most collaborative art form, though it can be more or less so depending on the situation.

When I was younger, I liked collaborating a lot. As I've gotten older and more experienced in my career, I like working on my own stuff, though I'm trying to open back up again. There is something about creating your own world through music that I've just found so therapeutic as I've gotten older.

When I was younger, I had a writing partner that I would compose with on commercials, so there was constant collaboration. I would play guitar and he would play the drums or sing or vice versa. At some point, I was playing in bands, which of course meant full collaboration. Whether working with my wife who is a singer or writing for other artists (like Selena Gomez), that was a time of total collaboration for me, and I loved it.

My favourite collaboration was working with my wife on her project 'Vitamin C' in the early 2000s. Having the opportunity to see the project go from demos to selling a million records was an amazing experience. 

LBB> What’s the most satisfying part of your job and why?

Michael> For me, it is the ability to be creative almost every day. It doesn't matter what track I'm doing; I love sitting down with a blank canvas and trying to paint on it slowly and see where it goes. What I like about doing music for pictures is that there is usually a direction, the 30 or 60 second format helps me keep focus, otherwise I can get a little lost. The ability to be creative is satisfying each and every day.

LBB> As the advertising industry changes, how do you think the role of music and sound is changing with it?

Michael> It's changing in the sense that there are more platforms with advertising on social and digital. In small ways, the deliverables have changed, but it’s still the same kind of process. Our goal is always to satisfy the client, feel the excitement in the process and make audiences feel good. 

LBB> Who are your musical or audio heroes and why?

Michael> When I was young, I had heroes and I was in a rock band and had bands that I looked up to sonically. I was never the kind of person who was a huge celebrity worshiper though, so my fandom was always pretty from afar. The bands I loved back then were U2, The Smiths, Sonic Youth, and Neil Young, but I was always pretty casual about it.

LBB> And when it comes to your particular field, whether sound design or composing, are there any particular ideas or pioneers that you go back to frequently or who really influence your thinking about the work you do?

Michael> I always loved jingles when I was a kid, so it makes sense that I do what I do today. At the time, I didn't know it was an actual job. I never thought about the people behind that stuff. I heard the theme for The Rockfield Files and when I looked up who wrote it, I found out it was Mike Post, who also did Law and Order and all these other huge themes. That was when it hit me that this was something I may actually be able to pursue as a career.

In reality, though, I stumbled into this career through songwriting and touring, and it's been a really fortunate accident in so many ways.

LBB> When you’re working on something that isn’t directly sound design or music (lets say going through client briefs or answering emails) - are you the sort of person who needs music and noise in the background or is that completely distracting to you? What are your thoughts on ‘background’ sound and music as you work?

Michael> I usually like to have something on. Recently, I've been putting on a lot of classical music. As a kid, it was never my thing, but lately I've been getting up and playing it when I have breakfast. I really like it and really happy that Apple Music created a separate Classical Music app. There are many times, though, when I need no sound whatsoever. When I go for a walk outside, for example, I just want to listen to my feet, especially after working on composing music all day.

LBB> I guess the quality of the listening experience and the context that audiences listen to music/sound in has changed over the years. There’s the switch from analogue to digital and now we seem to be divided between bad-ass surround-sound immersive experiences and on-the-go, low quality sound (often the audio is competing with a million other distractions) - how does that factor into how you approach your work?

Michael> First, I would say, I always try to keep in mind that you want it to be a high-quality piece of music. Even if you have something that has the trappings of LoFi, that is different than not sounding good. You start from that baseline. Even on a mobile device these days, most headphones are pretty high quality. Maybe 10-15 years ago the quality was lower, but now even laptop speakers have gotten really good. I try to keep everything at a certain high quality. I was driving with my daughter the other day and we couldn't connect to the Bluetooth so I had the phone in the cupholder, and she didn't care at all. So how you take in the music really depends on your point of view and the context. 

You work on something and put in the careful attention to make sure the bass is great, only to hope the client is listening on a device with decent sound quality.

LBB> On a typical day, what does your ‘listening diet’ look like?

Michael> I start out the day with classical breakfast. Throughout the day, I listen to pop radio a lot. I like to listen to Sirius Hits 1 because I like to hear what the top tracks are. I really have a sweet tooth for hit music. In terms of overall style, I find myself turning it all over the place. I will go back and listen to the 80s station, then I will listen to classical. I like to listen to a little bit of everything. During the workday, I get to the studio, sit down and I'm usually listening to music inspiration sent by a client, or going through my old tracks and making new and better versions of them. 

LBB> Do you have a collection of music/sounds and what shape does it take (are you a vinyl nerd, do you have hard drives full of random bird sounds, are you a hyper-organised Spotify-er…)?

Michael> I'm neither hyper-organised nor have random bird sounds. At one point, I ripped everything from my extensive CD collection. It's on a hard drive somewhere. If I'm in the mood for something, I'll say, "Hey Sonos, play this." 

LBB> Outside of the music and sound world, what sort of art or topics really excite you and do you ever relate that back to music (e.g. history buffs who love music that can help you travel through time, gamers who love interactive sound design… I mean it really could be anything!!)

Michael> I’ve really gotten into open AI, specifically DALL-E. You write a description and it makes a picture for you. I'm kind of waiting for when that hits music in a meaningful way, asking it to 'make me a track that sounds like Miley Cyrus and Drake.'

There are AI-based plugins sonically that you can put on a track and you can master a track based on a genre. Content generating is going to be here soon and I'm wondering what it is going to do specifically for commercials. 

LBB> Let’s talk travel! It’s often cited as one of the most creatively inspiring things you can do - I’d love to know what are the most exciting or inspiring experiences you’ve had when it comes to sound and music on your travels?

Michael> When I was visiting Morocco, I remember going through a marketplace where there were some guys playing music and the whole vibe of it brought me to a different pleasure level. New place, new smells, traditional music…being there, hearing it, and just listening to it in the original location truly engaged all the senses. 

LBB> As we age, our ears change physically and our tastes evolve too, and life changes mean we don’t get to engage in our passions in the same intensity as in our youth - how has your relationship with sound and music changed over the years?

Michael> I definitely go to fewer shows than I used to. I have tinnitus from being in bands and listening to loud music for so many years, so I protect my ears more. When you are a young person, you can get really passionate about your favorite band or song. Now, it's more about tracing the lineage of new music. I like to get really scientific about dissecting its origin and influences. 

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Hifi Project , Wed, 19 Apr 2023 17:01:27 GMT