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Robert Kraft, former president of Fox Music, recently came to Berklee College of Music, Valencia Campus to give a series of master classes on film scoring and global business. In this interview, Kraft speaks about his experience in the music industry, combining art and business, and what he plans to teach the master's students at Berklee in Valencia.
1. How long have you been in the music industry?
I have been in music since my first breath as a human being and in the industry since someone paid me to do something in music!
At 10 years old, my band first played a volunteer performance at the Johnson Park School in Princeton, New Jersey and that same summer I wrote a song that won a contest and was played on the radio! My actual entrance into the industry though, was in 1976. I was 22 and a “perspiring” songwriter in New York and got paid $100 to write a theme song for a TV show—and I’m still a perspiring song-writer—we all are!
2. How did you start your music career?
When I was little, my two older brothers took piano lessons from our neighbor and when they played at home I would climb onto the piano and play what they had just played. To me that was very natural, but clear to everyone else that I could play by ear at a fairly bizarre level.
Around 12 years old I was playing all the songs on the radio, starting bands, and imagining myself as a band leader. Then at 15-16, I went to Berklee College of Music on a summer program—a life-changing experience where I was exposed to all kinds of music—and a lot of jazz! That summer at Berklee, Weather Report debuted in Boston in the Jazz Workshop. I did not understand what I was listening to and had no way to relate to it, although everyone told me it was the coolest thing in the world—and they were correct! This was one of my first lessons; when great musicians tell you something is great and you don’t understand it, you need to grow, they’re not wrong. While at Harvard, I continued to take piano lessons at Berklee, I then moved to New York to start my life as a songwriter.
3. You clearly combine right brain and left brain by being a very successful musician and businessman, something Berklee emphasizes in music education. Do you think this is an important combination for a musician to understand and learn?
A very difficult, complicated, and sophisticated question and answer… so from my brain’s perspective: All those years as a piano player, in New York sitting at the piano, writing songs, and imagining myself as a professional musician making records, I was entirely and completely right brain. I was creative and the entire world was a song waiting to be written. I walked on Broadway and wasn’t negotiating contracts or thinking about money—just lyrics and minor 7ths—I was an artist 100 percent! I was also good at organizing things: putting bands together, organizing rehearsals schedules, so not so right brain that I was falling out of bed a day late.
Then I started to have success and get paid and hired. I was brought to California, started writing music for TV shows and movies. Records sold, awards started to come to me; I was getting lucky and with no interest in money. Then these two little red-headed creatures showed up—who I knew I had to support with my wife—but I thought I would just do what I did. Amazingly, I produced The Little Mermaid and thought that was fun. And then they sent me this big check! I wrote Mambo Kings and the Bruce Willis albums and money was put in front of me. So, the magic solution was to just do what I do and someone will show up with the money—no left brain engagement!
In 92-93, I met Brian Henson, son of Jim Henson of the Muppet company and I had an entrepreneurial idea: “Why doesn’t Jim Henson company have its own record label?” Walt Disney records, where I had sold 3 million records for The Little Mermaid, owned, without competition, the children's record space. He asked me to start it and being in the “Yes” business, I said “Yes!” That was when I realized I had some left brain instincts, but no left brain skills. I set up the label and music division that sold to RCA records for $8 million. Then I got a call from the head of 20th Century Fox asking me to be president of the music division of Fox Entertainment. I thought: “I’m so wrong for this job” as it is so scary being that guy. I did accept the gig—from then it was 18 years until my last day at Fox.
Now going back to New York and to Valencia, I’m returning to the life the day before I started at Fox—the life of an artist. However, during those 18 years, my left brain got a lot of exercise and information and I was forced to learn business, dealmaking, negotiating, anticipating financial situations, creating advantagious financial situations.
So, in answer, I don’t think you can blend them accurately, you’re either left or right (brain)! Eighteen years as an artist and 18 years as an executive, and I could not write a song when I was an executive, and as an executive, I had no room in my skull to be poetic. I haven’t yet found out how to do both, but in my next chapter, I am going to be taking the skills I learned being an executive and apply it to my own ability to create.
4. You are directly related and interested in education. Tell me more about MentorTainment.org and how this idea came to your mind.
I sat for 18 years in the executive chambers of arguably the world’s biggest media company and continuously heard one of the division chairmen rant: “Everyone in this room is white and male, we have to change that.” It was true, but I hated hearing it because my music division was predominantely female and extremely diverse, as that is the way of meritocracy. I decided to do something about it and see how I could mentor some kids and bring them into the Fox executive room in 10 years. I called the Grammy organization as they had a “mentoring” division. The young woman on the phone (who was the mentoring department) mentioned there was an inner city school right near Fox, Hamilton High School, the music magnet for Los Angeles where talented musical kids went.
I went to Hamilton High school for a year and sat in the back of the electronic class and listened and met kids and contributed what I could, brought them to Fox to see how a movie was scored, and took a couple of kids on college interviews. They had no car or the ability to meet someone in college, no idea how to fill out a college application. I came from the most priviledged background, went to Harvard, yet here was a kid, 16 years old with no ability to understand the college application system because no one has explained it to him.
The lady from the Grammy Organization and I then started a mentoring program: The Fox Hamilton Music Mentoring Program. My department at Fox joined me and for 10 years we have been going twice a month to Hamilton High School to sit with kids, give them projects, make CDs, work on college applications, as well as interviewing and auditioning. I recruited some really great to people to add to the crew: Rickey Minor of American Idol and Ron McCurdy from the USC Department of Jazz, and we mentored group after group. Close to 200 kids came through the program. . . When you teach, you get more from the students than you give to them.
5. In a few days you will be visiting Berklee’s new Valencia Campus. What is your relationship with Berklee?
It started when I was a student at the summer program and I took piano lessons there during my Harvard years. When Dan Carlin was at Berklee he invited me to speak to film scoring students, which I did when I visited Boston. After meeting Ann Kreis (chair of the Berklee Valencia advisory board) and hearing about this initiative for the new campus in Valencia, I jokingly said: “OK that’s my next career—I will go to Valencia and teach film scoring to kids.” That was then. Years later, I got an email from Berklee’s president in the hour in my life when I was thinking: “Eighteen years and 300 movies at Fox may be a good moment to hit pause. This could actually be a good transitional moment." It took a few months to figure out if I really was going to do this casually, as part of my life or the first part of a big change, and I couldn’t be more excited!
I went to Valencia in June and met with everyone and I was overwhelmed with what the potential is in that program, not to mention the buildings which were insane and inspiring: the rehearsal halls, opera, the theaters, the studio being built. I just thought: “Yes!” So I’m excited, I’m going and giving a series of classes on film music and global business, and looking to learn from the kids.
6. What do you think about Berklee opening its first international campus in Spain?
Brilliant – everything they say about that location and the intersection of European, Western, Arabic, Spanish, African musics—it’s a very potent location! The only unpredictable difficulty is the really difficult moment economically in that part of the world. But I have great confidence that Berklee and Spain will weather this, go through it, and that Berklee’s Valencia Campus will become this incredible nexus of music in the world. It has all the potential to be everything it could be.
7. A lot of your great achievements are both in the TV and film industry. Do you think there is an art to be learnt regarding composing for these two art forms?
It’s not natural, it’s learned. The natural thing is whether you have the ability to be a storyteller—the skill you need to write music for film and TV—not just musical skills. There are brilliant musicians who are not particularly suited for film scoring.
You also have to be an excellent politician, because you are not writing and recording your album, you are painting someone’s house and you'd better paint what they want! There is a very big difference between being Jackson Pollock and the guy you hired to paint your house. Jackson Pollock is going to paint what he thinks and if somebody wants to buy it, great. If not, he’ll paint it anyway. When I hire a house painter, I don’t want him to express himself, I want him to paint my house the way I want.
When you hire a composer, he probably knows a bit about film scoring, but you still tell him where you want the music and what you want done. His job is to do what you need him to do to make the movie better. Film scoring is a complete craft and skill that happens to use music.
8. What do you think about Berklee offering a master's program in scoring for film, television, and video games?
I think it is absolutely fantastic, but of the thousands who will come through, only dozens will survive! It’s a very competitive and difficult field and you can’t find out unless you take this course. It’s sobering to figure out how to do it and how long a process it is. There are very few film composers that instantly get a film and go. It’s a very incremental process of learning, arranging, apprentising, and you have to be patient.
9. Internationally music is a language that everyone understands. Thanks to that, Berklee students come from all over the world. How important/helpful do you think it is to be in an international community of students?
I think it is important regardless of whether it’s music, learning forensics, or archeology. The importance is that Berklee students will learn from each other about different cultures, different perspectives, and maybe even be humbled about where they are from. On a musical level, there is nothing better than learning from the next musician. Nothing replaces that.
There are a number of advantages to Berklee: including a great cultural wave of musicians around the world. Musicians, whether from Russia, South America, Tokyo, Mumbai, or New York City, play two notes together, can talk about that, can feel that ,and probably play it back; there are very few people in a room who understand. It is a gift to be given that language
10. Tell me about the classes you are going to teach in Valencia and your plan with the students?
Number 1, I’m a jazz musician, and jazz musicians feel the room and improvise, so on one level I’ll get in the room, catch a vibe, and say: “Here’s how I’m feeling right now…” On another level, I am coming (to Valencia) with a ton of material: film clips from big International movies, examples of scenes without music, with music, the wrong music… to show how the film you see in the theater went through all these processes to get there and some insights into the processes. A few hours of show and tell or what I call: Film Music 101.
I’m also bringing lots of budgets: how do you budget a film? Money for this, for that, contingency for that. You have to have a way to budget and administrate if you are in film and business. We’ll also do a day of listening to great melodies and try to figure out why that Trent Reznor cue works in The Social Network, why the Elmer Bernstein cue works in To Kill a Mockingbird.
11. Anything else you would like to add?
I’d like to thank Berklee for this opportunity. I am excited about teaching and about looking at the art of film music, since as a teacher you have to look deeply at the topic. I am excited about sharing that experience in Valencia and grateful to everyone for allowing me to do this. Whatever happens, it will be great!
I am coming (to Valencia) a couple of times this year: in the fall, then again in the spring. I hope this is the beginning of a long, many-year relationship where I can contribute to Berklee, and vice-versa!