Brad Hatfield on Getting Syncs and the Artistry in Craft

by Lily Lyons

Brad Hatfield is the definition of a powerhouse songwriter in a multimedia era. With songs licensed for countless TV shows and movies such as “Rescue Me,” “Dear John,” and “Friends” and a current job as a staff writer for “The Young and the Restless,” it’s a wonder he is also able to teach at Berklee. I was lucky to take his class “Songwriting for Film & TV” last year and was excited by how honest he was about his industry while remaining warm and encouraging. Though it’s impossible to replace classroom experience, I thought I’d interview him so that my Berklee family could get some advice on how to write and license music for visual media (and so you all realize that you should be registering for his classes next year.) I caught up with him for this conversation a couple weeks ago, as he was preparing to go to the Daytime Emmy’s with his co-composer and wife Gaye Tolan Hatfield:

*Note: This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity

Berklee Groove: What’s one of the main differences between writing songs for film and TV vs. songwriting in general?

Brad Hatfield: When you’re writing a song for the song’s sake, it can have its own dramatic curve and message to it. When you’re writing songs for film and TV—and I’m not going to say getting your music licensed, because they might pick that song you wrote for just its own self— it’s a different thing. Somebody’s asking you to generate something that will work for their existing story, and perhaps existing footage or script. Then the songwriter has to become more of a craftsperson. You can go on inspiration when you’re doing your own thing, but when you’re working with somebody else, you have to be prepared to make adjustments. You’re creating a curve and flow that works with their story, visual, or ad and that’s going to help sell their product or keep people engaged.

BG: So being flexible is critical?

BH: Yeah. Being able to take direction after you’ve actually written something is probably the hardest thing a songwriter can deal with, when somebody else tells you ‘that part’s not working.’ And we’re not talking a teacher or a friend—we’re talking about someone who is either going to use the song or not. They’re giving you instructions. And are you able to respond to those instructions? I think another important difference is you may not be working with a collaborator who understands song form, harmony or theory. If you’re dealing with a music supervisor who doesn’t know anything about all of that, they will say things like ‘well it just doesn’t feel right’ or ‘it feels too loud.’ And you have to not get up in a tizzy. Try to interpret what they’re saying, get them to show you examples of what is working for them. That, usually for these kind of interactions, means ‘play me something that you think works really well.’ And then you can listen to it and go to yourself ‘oh they like a lot of major harmony’ or ‘it’s faster and it has a triplet feel.’

BG: I think that’s something often we underestimate the importance of at Berklee: we have this vocabulary for our musical ideas but being able to talk creatively and respectfully to people who don’t know the technical terminology is critical. 

BH: Yeah, not having an attitude when someone tells you it’s not working yet, even when you’re on your fifth revision. You want to make the song fit with this scene and or movie as best as possible—that’s your goal. You have to get rid of ‘oh but that doesn’t work in the real songwriting world’ mentality. You’re not in the real songwriting world. You’re writing something that needs to align with somebody else’s vision. I think that you have to give up yourself, and not personalize it but instead think about ‘how is this going to serve the message of the scene or the character?’

BG: This reminds me of something you used to say a lot when I was in your class, a motto: ‘you can always write more songs.’ Can you talk a little bit about that and how that motto has guided you creatively?

BH: So when I get a call for creating something I’m immediately taking notes and referencing other songs that have been temped in. I’ve already got little melodies firing in my head. As soon as I put the phone down, I start playing and writing ideas at the piano with my voice memos open, because there’s nothing worse than the idea that got away. So at this point I’ll just run with my creative muse and out comes this stuff. Then sometimes I go back to my notes and realize I’ve created something that is not at all what they asked for. Rather than saying to them ‘I know you didn’t ask for this but this is really good, hope you like it,’ I write something else. And maybe that something else is still not correct and they ask me to make other changes. Or maybe with that first idea they say ‘I like those last two measures, can you expand that whole thing?’ …You can’t be so precious. As soon as you say yes to combining the music to story and picture, you’ve made a deal with somebody else. You’ve gotta respect that. Sometimes I feel what I’ve written is subpar but they love it. I might not tell people it’s mine, but off it goes. And other times there are songs where they go ‘this is great,’ and you think ‘I really like what I wrote, I don’t know if I want to give it to you for this.’ But you do, and even if that piece gets tied up with a publisher or an entity where it’s not going to make money or further your career, you can always write more. There’s always more opportunity out there. So part of what I strongly advise in the class, and we do as much as we can, is to write and produce as much as possible, because that’s what will help you survive.

BG: In the situations you’re talking about here, there’s a lot of fast turnaround: what home setup do you have in terms of production to achieve that?

BH: I’ve been doing this a long time so I have a pretty good setup of tools at my own place. I use Digital Performer—I can already hear the groans from some of your readers, but I am really fast at it and I need to work quickly. It’s great MIDI wise, and as a keyboard player it gives me a lot of flexibility to emulate instruments. In my setup I always have two stations and two laptops that are fully loaded and mirroring each other. I can’t afford to have a software glitch or a hard disk fail and not be able to work. I’ve got Genelec near-field monitors, because I don’t have a good space for listening on larger monitors. Working with visuals as well as midi and audio eats up a lot of real estate, so I also have two big apple monitors and one curved, very large monitor at my keyboard. I have just one mic, an AKG 414. I don’t do a lot of audio there, but if I have to I can track things like vocals or guitar…Having this stuff set up and ready to go allows me to literally get off the phone and start working. The other day I was doing a scene for The Young and the Restless, and they were going to shoot it on the set with the actor listening to my piano playing. I had only had a few hours to write something that could get approved and generate all the edits they needed to shoot with. And you can only do that if your system is ready to go with a template. When I open up DP, my most used sounds and audio routing and plugins are ready to go. My big advice is: get your DAW together, get your template together and don’t let technology be a distraction, have everything ready to go so you can flip a couple switches and start working. Label everything. Looking at wires, or looking at inputs that aren’t named just slows up your process.

BG: And how about when you do go to the studio?

BH: When I get called to write something in a style of music that requires going to the studio, I will write 8-10 pieces or I will split the session with another writer who is working in the same style. We’ll cut 8-10 tunes in one 3 hour session with the best players and vocalists I can get. I cut a variety of variations of each piece of music while we are there, because the important thing for songwriting for film and TV is that you have as many variations of the tune and of your mixes as possible. They might love the tune but it’s too fast, too slow, or the wrong instrument. You can fix that by being really smart when you record things, and isolating the tracks so you can swap instruments in and out. And that keeps my costs down—I do 8-10 tunes but come out of that with about 40 variations and mixes I can use.

BG: What’s a placement you’ve gotten recently that you’re excited about?

BH: Right now I am a staff writer for The Young and the Restless…I’ve had a lot of on camera stuff lately with piano things that I’ve had to do to picture. And one of the pieces of music just blew up—it’s called “Waltz in the Park” (See the scene starting at 4:00 here.) I wrote it for this moment where the grandmother and her grandson are sitting at the piano together and they start playing. I had to write a song that was easy enough for the kid to play because he was not a piano player, and that made sense for the Grandmother to play in the upper register of the piano while the kid was playing in the middle register. There had to be enough of an emotional curve in the piece so they could to look at each other like ‘oh isn’t nice’ or ‘oh this part’s a little hard but we made it.’ The music supervisor threw that piece up on Soundcloud and after a couple days it had about 3,000 hits. And people wanted to know where to buy the song. So I quickly put it up on iTunes an Sheet Music Plus. When you license your music…you don’t necessarily expect to suddenly have people commenting ‘where can I get this?’ So I was excited about that.

BG: Could you tell us a little about your current Berklee class, Songwriting for Film & TV?

BH: The Songwriting for Film & TV course demands that students are writing in song forms. It’s not ‘Scoring for Film & TV.’ When you write a song that serves a purpose for film and TV, it can be licensed for multiple shows over time. But if you are scoring for a film/TV/advertisement, that will usually be controlled by a production company and it’s not going to re-air unless it shows up say, when somebody on a TV show is watching a movie with the score in it. It’s limited in terms of its ability to go out and repeatedly, non-exclusively earn money for you. So one of the big takeaways in my class is if you write songs non-exclusively for projects, you’ve going to have a lifetime of performance royalties and opportunities…The other thing is that you’re going to be writing a lot in class. I have you write outside of your comfort zone because you need to use those muscles that you haven’t flexed yet. Learning how to collaborate effectively is another big thing we do, and not just as a writer. Your tune can become more licensable if you can collaborate on the production level and get somebody say, playing fiddle rather than using a cheesy sample. We talk about how to move files around and develop a network of collaborators so you can deliver better stuff. And also we spend time at the end of the semester expanding on the business side of it. At the end of the course students will have a really great understanding of where the money flows, where the opportunities are, and the long game of licensing and crafting your music.

BG: As well as teaching Songwriting for Film and TV at Berklee, you also have a Music Supervision course with Berklee Online. How important is it for students to understand the field of Music Supervision?

BH: Everybody at Berklee should take a music supervision course. It’s essentially a business course with a lot of creative aspects. I call it the swiss army knife of music and media. If you’re a songwriter you want to understand how the business side of licensing works. If you are a record label you need to learn how to get your artists recording licenses. If you want to be an artist manager you need to know the budgeting and the different types of contracts and licenses that come up. If you are a performer, you might find yourself playing on a recording that gets licensed and you need to know what your rights are. And if you’re a film scoring major, you should understand how a music supervisor might be replacing some of your scores with these songs, and instead of letting that happen learn how to write a song that could get used…Music supervision is something that absolutely everybody needs to know. Conservatories and colleges are graduating more people that are performers and writers than the industry can absorb, but if you understand licensing, basic music editing, and communicating effectively with the hierarchy of folks in production, you have got a big leg up. The marriage of media and music is here to stay. How the music gets made might be cutting people out of jobs—you hear about robots and we all know about loops. That’s the reality. But joining music and media of all types will continue and if you can insert yourself into that process, you’ll be able to use that to support whatever creative side of the music business you want to be in.

Brad and Gaye  at the Daytime Emmy Awards

BG: Cool! Is there anything else we haven’t covered that you would like to say?

BH: I’ve built my life on just going out there, taking risks and sometimes getting roughed up but not falling down. I think park of the reason I am successful with this work is because I’ve continued to forge new relationships by saying yes to things just to see where they lead. I think it’s really important that students at Berklee get their craft together, then get out there and let their craft speak for them. We’re all getting deluged by the clothes that people wear and their head shots and Facebook pages—deluge people with your good work and that will take you places. And take risks. Do stuff for free. I still do stuff for free if I think it will get me to a situation where I can work for my normal rate. It’s opened up so many doors. Having a student who became a music supervisor on The Young and the Restless literally changed my life. And now I’m flying out to LA in a few hours with my wife to go to the Daytime Emmys to see if we can win the thing!

BG: So you believe you can make your own luck?

BH: Yes. I’m a firm believer that you make your own luck, your own opportunity. And it’s not easy—I would tell everybody I don’t recommend this in the least if you’re not really going to commit. This competition is fierce, and you’ve going to have to deal with people who might rub you creatively in a strange way. You can always explore your own creative things for yourself, there’s nothing wrong with that. But my idea is build artistry into your craft. Do your craft and build as much artistry into it as you can.