Running A Business
CoPilot Strategic Music + Sound
ESTABLISHED: September 2008
WHAT FIRST INSPIRED YOU TO START YOUR OWN COMPANY?
As a composer, I’d been working closely with my partner Jason Menkes on projects for a number of years… he started as a client and then ended up my producer. We felt like a perfect team—and a younger, more flexible generation in the business—and as we began to develop our own strong and collaborative relationships with clients, it was an inevitable step.
To go with the “copilot” metaphor for a second, there were places we wanted to go that required a small and light aircraft that we could personally steer, and that meant starting our own shop. Plus, I always enjoyed looking at the bigger picture on projects, and this company gives me the opportunity to do that more deeply and guide other composers, all while continuing to compose.
DID YOU HAVE TO FIND INVESTORS?
We never seriously considered it. We’re both debt-averse and cautious from a business standpoint, and we wanted full control of our destiny. It’s been very organic. There was an initial investment we had to personally make to get off the ground, but we’ve steadily reinvested our revenue in the things we think are important to our growth.
WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES YOU FACED IN THE BEGINNING?
I think identifying what we needed and what we didn’t need was the biggest challenge as a start-up. The business and creative logistics of making music for media can be so virtual now, that having a large, full-time recording facility in New York becomes a “want” rather than a “need.” As a new company, you want people to take you seriously, but you also don’t want to bet the farm on unnecessary overhead, so finding that balance was our biggest job. Keeping our existing and new clients happy was the easy part; we just continued to be ourselves.
WHAT IS THE BEST PART OF RUNNING YOUR OWN COMPANY?
For me, it’s having the opportunity to hire so many talented friends and colleagues—composers, singers, musicians and engineers. I just love the feeling of being able to keep all these amazing people working in some small way, because I know how hard it is to piece it together in the music business.
The hardest part of running a creative company like CoPilot is keeping a level head and consistent approach to generating new business. When you’re slow, it’s easy to panic or lose confidence. When you’re busy, it’s easy to coast or let it slide. The best reason to work for someone else, particularly as a composer, is that you can just sit back and write music all day. That sounds awfully good some days.
HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE STAFF IS HAPPY?
I always make a point at looking at things from their perspective, and I’m always respectful. Any demand I make of a composer, musician or engineer is through the lens of how I’d have perceived it back when I was in their shoes. And if I ask people to extend themselves, then I always make a point of thanking them. It seems simple, but it doesn’t always happen.
HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE CLIENTS ARE HAPPY?
There are many things you can and should do day-to-day to keep clients happy —like really listening to and respecting their creative direction and asking good follow-up questions. But in the long term, the one thing that really does it is to simply do amazing, memorable work. The piece we did for the “Dishonored” videogame is a great example of this… it made such an impression in the gaming world that the song had quite a life of its own online, much to our clients’ delight. The work is the one concrete, lasting document of your experience working together, and a great piece means a happy client.
IF YOU HAD TO DO IT OVER AGAIN, WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?
I’d have definitely avoided developing a Flash-based Website when the writing was somewhat on the wall. I also would have used cloud storage more quickly and ditched Verizon even more quickly. And not pressed a thousand DVDs for reels. These things all seem obvious now, but still seemed like a leap of faith at the time.
ANY TIPS FOR OTHERS THINKING OF DOING THE SAME?
Always remember that outside of the occasional self-funded iconoclastic film director, everyone you call a client has their own client or boss, and your work will ultimately help them succeed or fail in their world. Shoestring budgets, unreasonable schedules, creative worries, and spinning your wheels… people don’t do these things to be mean.
It’s usually just a result of external pressures, and simply understanding the stress they are under themselves will reduce yours. Showing empathy and a willingness to extend yourself will remind your clients that you are there to help them succeed as a valuable ally, not a whiney vendor.
IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT HOW THE INDUSTRY DOES BUSINESS, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Many people we work with decide “we have X amount budgeted for music” or “we are looking to license something” before they have a clear understanding or discussion of what music can bring to a project, what role it should play, what their priorities are, and how to achieve that result the best way. Can you imagine buying clothes without knowing what the weather or occasion was? Or having a problem with your car, bringing it to the mechanic and saying you have $200 no matter what?
By default, I would pair art directors and copywriters with music and sound specialists much earlier on, when ideas are being developed, rather than at the very end of the production schedule. Every time we’ve done that, the musical results have been amazing and much more integrated into the work, the process has made sense for everyone, and we’ve truly felt valued for our creative contributions.