Music career advice from a veteran

Music career advice from a veteran

Artist / Executive Interview: July 09’ Alex Lasarenko

Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with a friend and client of mine Alex Lasarenko. Alex has been making his living at writing and recording music for over twenty years and now runs his own studio making music for commercials, film and TV. You may or may not have heard of Alex but you have heard his music as it has been featured in dozens of films and national TV commercials. I thought I would sit down and ask him a bit about how he built his business and started making a living in music.

I met Alex in his studio Tonal in the West 20s… I sat down and started the tape recorder just after explaining what my artist coaching service was about and that I was looking for him to offer helpful advice to the struggling musician. Without having really started the interview he said:

Alex: “you have to believe that what you are doing is the right thing to do. Because there will be a ton of people telling you what you do is just shit… It really is a rollercoaster ride…which is a problem if you don’t like rollercoasters”

Music Coaching Question: So I guess bring me back to the beginning to how your career in music started…

Alex: Well I’m from Ohio from a family of working class immigrants so there was nothing in my background that suggested that moving to New York was the right thing to do. I was getting a degree in piano performance. There was nothing in my cards that said I should move to New York and start a band.

Music Coaching Question: But that’s what you did?

Alex: Yes I moved to New York and started off paying keys and writing all the music with a partner Chris Ocasek who would write all the lyrics. We started in a band around age 21 and got signed to EMI / Manhattan records by Bruce Lundevall. Bruce was probably the nicest gentleman and a great first person to meet in the music business. It was an excellent experience. Someone must have thought something of what we were writing. I think it was partly that and partly that EMI was looking to exploit Chris’ lineage (Chris is Rick Ocasek’s son).

Music Coaching Question: What did you guys do up until the point of getting signed?

Alex: We were always writing music and playing out locally. Since I was classically trained and Chris wasn’t it was an interesting combination. Performing live was never my favorite I used to get very nervous or sick.

Music Coaching Question: So Touring musician was never your first pick of careers?

Alex: No, and the band was never set up to be like that it anyway, it was more like a studio project. The label wound up trying to take away what the band was and wound up trying to promote the record we made as the Chris Ocasek project. I wound up suing the label. So very early on I learned how to stand up for myself. I wound up winning and got the courts to prevent the record from being released as something that it wasn’t.

Music Coaching Question: Wow, I didn’t realize that.

Alex: It was an interesting experience that uh…you can be this kind of flakey creative artist but it is the business of art and the art of business…the two are intertwined no matter what you think, whether you like it or not.

Music Coaching Question: So you were in your early 20s and you were signed for a year or a year and a half and I am guessing the lawsuit ended that?

Alex: Yea

Music Coaching Question: And the left you with a degree in Piano Performance and living in New York.

Alex: Yes, the producer of the record that Chris and I made was Jonathan Elias and he got so sick of the whole label’s behavior he left so I wound up doing the whole record myself with an engineer

Music Coaching Question: Was that your first time behind the board?

Alex: Yes – Jonathan left to do a Duran Duran record after the problems started to surface with the label and I wound up producing the EMI record myself. You know, sometimes you get thrown into the deep end of the pool and you either sink or you swim. I always knew what I wanted to do musically, that came naturally so it was easy for me to get it done. When the lawsuit happened I wound up broke and I had a half an onion and I would literally sit in the lobby at Elias studios twelve hours a day waiting on their client meetings to be done so I could go in an eat something that was left over- that was how I ate for 4-5 months

Music Coaching Question: So tell me about Elias studios-

Alex: Elias was a large commercial music house, at that time it was on its way down as Jonathan has lost some interest in it. Jonathan’s brother told me if I was going to sit there all day I might as well write something so I did and it wound up winning some business for the studio. I wound up writing several pieces of music that won business for the studio and after six months they made him the creative director of the company.

Music Coaching Question: From Eating leftover food in the conference room to creative director in six months, not bad…

Alex: (laughs) yea it was $25,000 a year. For me, that was Huge! It was amazing I could afford socks; I could afford to eat and get a shared apartment. And I just worked my ass off…
Music Coaching Question: So for you it was your songwriting and the production and engineering skills you picked up along the way?

Alex: Yep, working on and producing commercials was a great lesson because I would do that from 9:30 in the morning until nine at night and then I would work on an album until early in the morning.

Music Coaching Question: Did you ever have any thoughts of going back to band life?

Alex: No after the lawsuit it was kind of over…but it was a great experience to learn that you can’t let people take advantage of you. And every time I have let me guard down or didn’t go with my gut instinct on that I have gotten burned.

Music Coaching Question: Gothca. So one of the reasons I wanted to interview you Alex is one of the questions I get most often doing what I do is “can you get my music into film and TV and video games?” Now you are someone who makes you living on creating custom pieces of music for those kinds of things. Do you have any advice for people on how to get their music placed in those kinds of situations?

Alex: Well it’s a different kind of a business (creating custom music vs. licensing tracks off of an existing album)…Making an album is a full time job, marketing it is a full time job…and it’s usually a thankless and unappreciated job…but I think it would be hard I don’t know what to tell you if you have one album’s worth of material…. Most people respond better to a body of work unless you have a hit- that makes it easier. When we license music it is because we have a library of material to choose from…

Music Coaching Question: Does having more material help do you think?

Alex: … I think content is king. If you have great success with a band and get traction then whoever you are working with will be able to get it in front of music supervisors…if you ant a long term relationship with music in movies and TV then you have to meet and talk to as many music supervisors you can and get to know them and what kind of music they use…I’ll talk to anyone, it’s interesting what you can learn when you are willing to talk to anybody.

Music Coaching Question: How did you cope with the jaded attitudes you likely encountered when meeting music supervisors as a composer just getting in to the business? Is there any advice you can give about getting heard by these people?

Alex: I made a decision that I was going to devote five years to scoring a movie. What I had to do was create music that was worth being in a movie. I think that nobody would take me seriously unless I had music that they could hear visually – music that they could see being part of their project. Our studio tends to score entire films rather than just portions of films, which is rare. What I have noticed that music supervisors tend to work within a certain budget. Some do 25-50 million dollar budget films

Music Coaching Question: Of course the music budgets for those films is considerably less…

Alex: Oh, considerably less…and then there are other music supervisors that do 1-10 million dollar films. I’ve noticed that when these music supervisors step up into the next category up they tend not to return your calls (laughs)…I guess their feeling is that they are now at a higher level…
When it comes to licensing and music supervisors I think that anytime that you can talk to somebody and get your music in front of them I mean what’s the worst thing that could happen- they say no? I mean you are going to hear no a lot in this business… And you have to be dumb enough to believe that they are wrong (when they say no)…I know that sounds stupid but when someone says no you have to believe that they are wrong and you are right.

Music Coaching Question: I am sure that you know a ton of people who you came up with and played with who are no longer in the business- they either heard no too many times or couldn’t hack it and got straight gigs…

Alex: Well some of them actually went on to be pretty big too…

Music Coaching Question: Sure…but from what you have seen from those who made it who have either continued to make a living at music or have gone on to be hugely successful is there a defining quality that leads to that enduring success?

Alex: I never chased the glamorous portions of the business so it was easier for me to stay in the business…but the people I know who fell away were not able to adapt they were unable to move past their niche. I know a woman who was one of the best oboe players in the world in my opinion and she no longer plays, she takes botanical photographs now.

Music Coaching Question: So the ability to adapt…?

Alex: If you are the best oboe player in the world and all of a sudden there are 3,000 plugins with great oboe sounds that don’t require a real person to come in for a session then…you’re in trouble. Ten years ago I used to file 300 AFM contracts per year. Last year we did two… I’ve had to adapt to, you have to make do what you have these days.

Music Coaching Question: Any other advice…

Alex: Well, while I everyone was out doing coke in the 80s I was in the studio doing work during the day and making time for my own songwriting at night…it’s a lot of work to make a living this way… You can always write music on your own but if you want it to blossom into something epic or beautiful or cinematic you have to keep the hamster wheel going… I would get Pneumonia and I would still go to work, work has to get done…

Music Coaching Question: How did you know you were doing the right thing?

Alex: The best thing that happened to me was a corporate coach came into Elias and asked me with no one else around – “what do you want?”… I gave him the corporate line but he asked again- no – “what do you want”…. What I wanted was to win an academy award for bet original score… all this shit fell away when I realized what I wanted.

Music Coaching Question: you are lucky that your day job supports you in your goal
Alex: absolutely…you know someone is always throwing shit at you but you have to always believe that what you are doing is worthwhile…

Music Coaching Question: Your skill that kept you in the game has been your songwriting and applying that to corporate needs- how did some of your peers use their skills to stay in the game, was it session work or waiting tables or…?

Alex: Yes, Session work, people that do custom studio work like I do… I mean everyone is having trouble but…I don’t really know, I do know some great players. We all have to do the odd job here and there. The motto at tonal is we will talk to anyone, we will do anything…

Music Coaching Question: Do you get calls for sound a-likes?
Alex: no, we don’t much anymore, rates have come down most people can afford the originals…you also have tons of small studios looking to break in who will work for free.

Music Coaching Question: would you warn someone against doing tracks for free?

Alex: My feeling is if you are doing music for free, what do you think of yourself? It’s a business, we provide a service. This whole notion that you have to demo for free for an online free when agencies are still charging their clients a lot of money. People often ask me “should I do this track for free?” and I always say – “do you think you are worth nothing?”

Music Coaching Question: Enough said about that…

Alex: it’s a nerve wracking moment in business right now…everyone is walking around like a zombie…in the end if you believe what you are writing is great it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks

Music Coaching Question: One final question- Would you do anything different?

Alex: No, no regrets.
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You can check out Alex’s work @ http://www.tonalsound.com