Commercial vs. Jazz Performance: Commercial Music in the 21st Century

an interview with Michael Skinner

interview conducted by Mary Galime

Planning for your future as a performing musician is really an exercise in multitasking. We all want the result of a lucrative career that is both fulfilling to our passion and our pocketbook. If you only focus on the specific area you are passionate about, you will lack in the versatility the market demands. If you try to be everything to everyone, you will master nothing.

This balance can become very real for jazz musicians entering the world of commercial music. Payment for commercial music tends to come from corporate means, where jazz tends to depend on private entities. Because of this difference, commercial music is a huge asset to a jazz musician’s life. Michael Skinner is not only the president of Dansr, Inc. (USA importer of Denis Wick and Vandoren products), but has had a long career as a performing and composing commercial musician. In a short interview with Michael, we discussed what got him motivated toward commercial music, what opportunities commercial music offers musicians, and how to prepare for these opportunities.

How did you get started in commercial music?

Like many musicians, Michael got started at a young age with his jazz education. A passion for jazz and music performance inspired him to attend the Berklee School of Music for college. It was there that he got his first taste of commercial music. 

Michael Skinner: “I was especially intrigued with one player who performed his senior recital, and did a complete commercial performance with pop tunes and large production pieces, and what really impressed me was how diverse it was, and how interesting it was to me. As much as I love jazz, I really loved that concert. I thought to myself, he’s going to go to NY and he’s going to do something big, and at Berklee, doing something big is everyone’s vision.” 

After a few years in music education Michael completed his masters in composition at The University of Miami and moved to New York. At that point he decided to shift his focus to commercial music. While the ability to utilize so many different styles of music and use all his training was exciting, Michael recalls:

MS: “There was an economic aspect also, in that I had two children at that point, so it was definitely a financial consideration as well as an artistic challenge. The very first thing I did was take all my commercial pieces, all my jingle tapes, and my resume, and distribute them to all the ad agencies in Manhattan. I spent an entire week hitting every single jingle house in Manhattan – many of those houses are no longer there because how the business has changed. I was fortunate enough to have a few people listen – which is all you hope. My first work came from a company on Long Island who specializes in source music, which at the time used to be called production music. They told me to create a generic jingle that said something, but nothing, so that you could use it for different kinds of businesses - something that a car dealership and a grocery store could use. He asked me to write one, so I wrote 10, and he used 9 of them.”

In addition to breaking into the commercial composition scene, Michael was performing in a variety of shows around the city as well. 

MS: “I was playing a lot of production music, and slowly working my way into Broadway, and playing a ton of weddings and bar mitzvahs. That’s where the jazz training paid off, because the bands hiring you expected you to just know 1500 tunes. And we knew roughly 1500 tunes from sitting, playing, and jamming every place we could around Berklee. Fortunately, the agency that was hiring me for all these gigs had contacts in the studios as well. The strongest part of any musical career is how you network. It was surprising to see how many people that were playing the weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, were in the studios. They heard me playing on the gig playing every jazz ballad, or they heard me play flute and liked the tone, and would say “are you free next week? I need an extra horn.  Can you play oboe, can you play flute?” That’s how you build your studio background.”

What has changed and what has remained the same since you got your start in NY?

MS: “The emotional and psychological understanding of what a listener requires has not changed. I think the biggest change from when I was active is that so much of what you currently hear on TV, movies, and ads is source music now. All that source music has the same requirement, and that requirement is to be able to support what the statement or product is. The psychological requirements are still there. Can you interest the listener in a short period of time to stop for a minute and contemplate? Of course now in the case of source music today, you write a number of pieces without knowing how the creative director will use them. It’s up to him to make that decision. The pieces I write now - not knowing the image or product are more general. I tend to write to styles and scenarios I create myself. I’ll create a ballad, a Latin piece, a piece that would work as a sport theme or a news theme and so on.

Do you have some advice for those just entering into the commercial music market?

MS: "How you get the job has drastically changed. The first time I presented a jingle (for Foot Locker) I had to go in and perform it. It was a jingle that was written specifically for that product, and I literally had to play and sing the song, badly because I’m not good at playing piano and singing. That doesn’t happen anymore because the creative director of today will have his team find a piece in a source music library for something with high energy and a good push, the voice over and imagery will carry the message, and the music will do what it is supposed to do- support the message and emotionally connect with the listener. So the opportunity is there, if you can write a variety of styles with many different energies, hear and understand what each of those styles require, write to certain time lines, and then position your music with the right companies.

In addition, you really need to know how to record. There are very few studios anymore.  You are kind of your own person for that now, you’ve got to be able not only to perform it, but produce it. You have to be careful though, because you can try to be everything to everybody, but if you are not comfortable with a certain style, don’t write it. Study it first. If you are going to write fugues, or counterpoint, you need to study it first. Even if the listener isn’t an expert, they can sense that it is not authentic, and you have to be authentic.

I also wish I had taken more time to write my own music in a broader concept. I was so focused on writing for someone else that I lost my own voice for a while. I wish I had taken the time to seek out the rehearsal bands or other environments that would have forced me to think differently than a creative director… to encourage me to write something longer, more in depth, more complex, and pay less attention to the emotional effect of pushing something, as opposed to the emotional effect of creating something. Had I taken those opportunities, it would have been better for me because of the way it would challenge me." 

What advice would you have for the Jazz Performance artists entering the market?

MS: “I’m not going to sit here and say weddings and bar mitzvahs were glamorous, but it did cover my rent and gave me lots of flexibility to say yes and no to different writing gigs, and gave me space to get my head together to shop ME as a brand. The key is that you are your own company. You are your own contractor. So you have to figure out ways to go out and market yourself, and ways to promote your brand. Weddings, and bar mitzvahs are not the best way to promote your brand, but it does give you enough income and resources to work on your branding and networking. You do what you do to give yourself the means to focus on where you want to be, what you are passionate about, and where you want to get to. This is kind of your mission statement.

As a studio performer, you’re always getting direction from the producer or creative director. It is however not a style or tone discussion but a descriptive one. “Can you play it like Dizzy Gillespie, or John Faddis, or Miles Davis,” because they don’t necessarily know the name of the style they are after, but they’ve heard it on a record and like it. You have to get your head into the style and sound immediately because they don’t give you a lot of time to figure it out. If your playlists aren’t broad and historical, if you’re not listening to everything, you’ll have problems because someone will eventually ask you to play Bix Beiderbecke, and you don’t want to say Bix who? It might be the once in your life opportunity where someone is going to go on the road for 52 weeks, and there’s lots of money, and you don’t know who Bix is so you don’t get the gig.

You have to be versatile – I know you’ve heard this before, but it’s true. You should play multiple instruments, and you have to be able to play all time periods. Know your scales and exercises and do them in multiple styles and play them in different ways. Practice your etudes the same way so you can get a sense of switching different gears. And if your sight reading isn’t good, and you can’t transpose, you should work on that. It is a big deal when you are on the road or playing a show and the singer realizes they can’t sing that tune in the written key. So often it is up to the band to play the song up or down a third in the moment. This is where practice becomes so important to you.

And lastly, choose your equipment well. Equipment is a significant role in your life. If you miss or crack something and you know it’s you and not the equipment, then you can live with that. If you know you did everything right, and something from your equipment is holding you back, you can’t live with that because that was something you could fix. With the right equipment, you can show up, get ready to play, and know all your equipment and mechanical issues are out of the way so that you can really focus on doing your job and the call back will occur.”

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