Musical composer for TV shows speaks on experiences
Natalie Weber | Tuesday, October 31, 2017
Jonathan Wolff, who has composed music for “Seinfeld,” “Will and Grace” and several other prime time network TV shows, spoke on his experiences within the industry and gave advice to students interested in working as attorneys who represent artists Tuesday.
“I moved to Los Angeles when I was 17 and started working,” Wolff said. “I did all kinds of chores for the motion picture studios, the TV studios. For about 10 years I did chores. I was a multipurpose musical utility tool — arranging, conducting.”
However, Wolff said, this experience was not sufficient to build a career.
“Whatever the phone told me to do that day, that’s the direction I went,” he said. “And in the next day, it’d be a different direction. That’s no way to have a career.”
Wolff began producing music for “B movies” — films produced by smaller, independent companies. He said he produced music for clients under a “non-exclusive, master license,” which meant he continued to own the rights to the music.
“If the movie flops, they only paid $10,000 for the music,” he said. “So what? But if it gets a deal — any kind of a deal that goes beyond that one year term, that’s another $5,000 for perpetuity. So now I’ve made $15,000 on it.
“If this movie — and a lot of them are designed for this — goes into a secondary market overseas, in television, in what used to be called home video, or cable, each one of those secondary markets, [I earned] $5,000. … So it was not unusual for me to walk away with $30,000 or 40,000 dollars on a picture that did well.”
When Wolff began working with Castle Rock Entertainment to produce music for “Seinfeld,” he said he negotiated a deal with the company that allowed him to keep rights to some of the music he produced.
“Here’s what I told them: ‘You own the thematic music for ‘Seinfeld’ — anything that’s based on that, the transitions, that slap-base,’” he said. “‘You own all that. But, when other stuff comes up, I will do your show for a reduced rate, for a reduced weekly episode but anything that’s not thematic, I own. And it’s a prepaid license for it.’ Again, a master license. Again, not exclusive, but they had to pay me for it.”
Wolff said he used his deal with Seinfeld as an example for audience members, who he advised to advocate for ownership rights for their clients.
“If you can make a deal like that for your clients, that includes some ownership, some publishing rights, that’s a good thing,” he said.
Before Wolff eventually hired a lawyer to represent his interests, he said one of his friends taught him how to understand contracts.
“She was a brilliant IP [intellectual property] lawyer and she couldn’t represent me because she was a general counsel for a major [company],” he said. “ … She would come over with a box of contracts. We’d go through clause by clause and she’d make sure I understood everything about them. And she’d quiz me on them.”
Wolff said in order to work for a major production company, one must develop relationships within the industry.
“Make sure that your clients take a good, strong, honest, open inventory of their people skills,” he said. “Sure, their demo sounds good but people don’t hire demos. People hire people. And that should be more important.”