AMP Webinar: Black Composers share experiences

With the Los Angeles Lakers’ win in the NBA Finals fresh in his memory, composer Wendell Hanes of Volition Sound told attendees at the recent Association of Music Producers (AMP) webinar on African American Composers in Advertising that he approaches every job with the same mindset: like he’s standing on the foul line, with what could be the game-winning shot in his hands.

Hanes was one of three composers to take part in the event. Held last month and organized by AMP’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, it was moderated by Human Worldwide EP Carol Dunn, who’s both a committee member as well as a member of AMP’s West Chapter board.

Joining Hanes on the panel were the instrumentalist and composer Kevin J. Simon of Kevin Simon Music and Jocelyn Chambers, the young composer whose work can be found in the catalogues of several leading advertising music studios.

Dunn noted that the goal of this panel wasn’t so much to talk about the challenges of being Black in an industry that’s struggled for years to diversify its ranks, but rather to focus on success stories that could be both informative, as well as inspirational. “We want to shine a light on these stories and on your work, and provide some keys to the kingdom,” she said.

She also encouraged the attendees to consider joining AMP, if they weren’t already members, noting that the Association advocates for music companies and composers and “fights on behalf of our members,” and directed them to the AMP’s website (, or its Facebook page ( for more information.

Dunn’s first question for the panel was to ask how they found their way into composing for advertising? What led them to the industry?

Hanes, a Maryland native who’s now based in New York, recounted how he got into music in a roundabout fashion. He aspired to be a TV news anchor, but during an extended period of convalescence from a car accident, his parents gave him a keyboard, and he started playing around with it. Making music, he quickly discovered, became a passion, so when he returned to school at Brown University, he continued to compose.

He also had a flair for editing, so when he got a job at a New York post production company, Vito DeSario Editing, he was hired as both an assistant editor “and the sound guy,” he recalled. And as he kept handling recording and composing for projects the company was working on, they asked him to be the sound guy full time and to focus on the music.

“I found myself in a very unique position, and if any composer can find themselves in such a position, it’ll be a gem for them,” Hanes said. He worked with six different editors, all of whom would turn to him for music for rough cuts, giving him an edge over outside music houses that often weren’t brought in until farther along the post-production process.

Chambers, a graduate of the UT Austin Butler School of Music, won the Texas Young Composers Competition and had her work premiered by the Austin Symphony. While enamored of film scores from an early age, she told the attendees that “advertising kind of fell into my lap.” Over a period of just a few days, she was contacted by such companies as Found Objects, Heavy Duty Projects, The Teenage Diplomat and West Channel Music, all of which either wanted to add her music to their catalogues or add her to their composer rosters.

Admitting that advertising wasn’t initially something she thought about pursuing, she realized the benefits it presented, “and who am I, but someone who should say yes,” she quipped. Since then she’s had her work pitched to Google by The Teenage Diplomat, and has composed commercial scores for projects though Found Objects. “I Iove making music for any story that has a purpose,” she said, adding that in her opinion there are lots of “incredible commercials that have very impactful music.”

Composing for ad clients, she added, “is a wonderful way for me to hone my craft and enhance my skill sets, which will also benefit me when opportunities come around to compose for films, shorts or TV.”

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Dunn loved hearing this, and said she frequently urges composers to consider working in advertising and “not to be too precious with their music.” It’s not only a great revenue stream, she noted, “but also a great way to showcase your work.”

Simon says he always saw himself producing records or composing film scores, and that in his research about career options one of the books he read was written by Hanes, “The 30-for-30 Career: Making 30 Grand in 30 Seconds” (find it here), who was thrilled to find this out. Living in Dallas, Simon pitched his work to a local ad agency and was given a spot for a nutrition bar to score. Having done that, he decided it was time to move to New York.

Dunn asked Simon what was it that helped him to get where he is, and what would he tell others who might want to follow in his footsteps? “Perseverance, never giving up, and humility, too,” he replied. “You have to be open to learning a bunch of lessons. And in composing for media, it’s almost more about the craft of music than the art of music.” By that he meant it’s about “musical problem solving” and finding a way for the music to tell the film’s story, as well as the composer’s ability to work with the editor and let the music hit all the right cuts.

Hanes agreed, which is when he shared his foul-shot metaphor: “For me, commercial is like hitting that game-winning foul shot. That’s because clients treat every spot they do with the same amount of importance. And so if someone is willing to call me, when they can call anyone in the universe – I treat this spot with the utmost importance, like it’s a game-winning shot. And that’s a skill unto itself.”

Hanes added that to be successful in advertising as composers, you have to be on 24/7. “Accessibility and availability are key,” he told the attendees. “You have to be able to answer the bell and then execute. And that lets you build trust. And ninety-nine percent of this business is built on trust. Once you’ve done that, you’re able to offer them options and choices they might not have asked for initially, but based on your relationship, they’re willing to consider.”

Dunn turned this topic over to Simon, asking when he felt he had begun to ‘arrive’ in the industry and when things really started to click for him. He says it came after a year or two when working in New York: “It’s like Wendell says, you have to go full on. And once you’ve done that, you show people that you can work your way through the worst of the process, like edits changing, etc. It took me that long to see that, once you were doing everything you could, trust would come – and once it does, that’s what builds your reputation. It’s where word of mouth gets started. When you’ve gained that, you know it, because you start getting calls.”

Dunn also spoke about how once trust is established, composers can guide clients through the process of understanding what works best. As she put it, “there’s magic in knowing what they want, but also in knowing what’s not going to work.” She asked Chambers if she’s been in that situation where she’s needed to lead clients to a better solution, and if so, how she’s handled it.

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“I’ve definitely been in those situations, and often I’ll give clients what they’ve asked for, but also give them something that I think will work just as beautifully,” she remarked. “My job is to provide solutions, not to win. And it’s fun – to give them what they want, but also offer up on a silver platter what I think works best.”

SOURCE: Association of Music Producers