Continuing our series on writing songs for the media, we speak to Tom Lown of music production company SE6 Music
riendship is at the core of many successful songwriting partnerships. And in the case of SE6 Music, there sits a successful business and writing collaboration between Tom Lown and long-term friend James Bailes. The partnership was forged when they started out playing together in a band called Malone, but then they went their separate ways, with James touring the world as a live bassist for the likes of Liam Gallagher, The Spice Girls, Natasha Bedingfield and The Saturdays, whereas Tom managed to carve out a career as a composer/producer for Ant Music in New York.
There Tom learnt the demanding deadline-driven craft of making music for adverts and television programmes, before returning to the UK. It was a chance meeting with James – who Tom realised was living down the road – that reunited the pair and led them to launch SE6 Music. They now work together using a variety of live, acoustic and electronic production methods.
We catch up with Tom in his home studio in Catford, South London to find out more about the lessons learnt as a work-to-order songwriter in the corporate world of TV advertising, and how their independent production company was formed. As Tom warns before we start the interview, the industry is “a bit tricky” so we take note for some valuable guidance!
How did you get into music?
“Before I moved to London I was from Cambridge originally where I was drumming in a lot of jazz jam sessions and also some orchestral percussion. My dad played a lot of music at home and some of it was through school. I had a drum tutor from quite an early age and just kept it going. Apart from drums and percussion, a lot of what I do now is MIDI-based, so there’s a lot of keyboards involved.”
What happened when you moved to New York?
“I went to New York in 2004 just to see what would happen. I literally went around knocking on doors and ended up as an intern at Ant Music, before working my up to producer, which was an absolute saviour because I learnt a massive amount there. I was there for two years and learnt how the studio worked, how to be creative and work to deadlines. I was really lucky because I got to play around in the studio in my spare time, so I got to practice a lot.”THAT’S WHY I ALSO DO MY OWN STUFF, THAT SOMEONE HASN’T TOLD ME TO DO!
What did your day-to-day work at Ant Music consist of?
“We were doing pitches for commercials where we’d get freelance composers to submit music, and we’d do a version ourselves, so we’d get the chance to write and produce. The first pitch I was heavily involved with was for a Pantene commercial where I got to write and produce my own music. It was nice to get a session singer in and that was the first time I got to work with a vocalist. That was first bit of proper songwriting.”
Any work you were particularly proud of there?
“I’m pretty proud of the Colgate one I did, as that got picked. It was a lot fun – I did the music and I did a lot of the sound design for it. I also did an hour-long documentary called Gangland Graveyard all about the Italian mafia in New York, that I co-composed with another writer at Ant Music. That was a big learning curve and I was really pleased with how that turned out. It was everything from scoring-to-picture, following a brief from the client – making sure they were happy – and doing it in sections. It was the first time I’d had to work on different cues for different parts of the programme. It was writing music for the picture – really getting your head around the brief and the picture, and making sure it worked really well.”
At that level, when you’re producing to a brief, how much is being creative and having fun, versus being very structured and disciplined?
“I think you really need to have both. The first thing is getting your head around the brief and being business-like first, and make sure you know exactly what you’re doing, and then when you’re doing it that’s when you can be creative. That’s part of the reason why I also do my own stuff – that’s just me being creative. That’s my stuff that someone hasn’t told me to do! That’s how I keep that balance.”
How much time did you get to spend on each projects?
“It would all depend. Sometimes the brief would come in and you might have two or three days to do it, sometimes a week. For the documentary we had a month. Sometimes there were very late nights. I sometimes do pitches now it’s literally needed over-night. It’s a very competitive business and maybe the music comes last in the process.”GO FOR A WALK. BLOW OUT THE COBWEBS AND MAYBE LISTEN TO SOME MUSIC TO GET SOME IDEAS
What would a brief typically consist of?
“We normally get an email document with reference tracks, links to other ads that they may want you to go along the same lines of. It’s like a mini report.”
What happened after New York?
“When I moved back to London, I started getting work as a freelance composer for television – a lot of cookery programmes – and quite a lot of library music. I’d contact lots of different libraries, seeing if any of music would fit, and approach them with instrumental music. They’d want a full-length track and different edits that they could use – 15 seconds, 30 seconds and 50 seconds – but then once I’d signed tracks into the library then they’d start sending briefs.”
What order do you tend to approach songwriting?
“Normally chords and a groove first, and then melody comes last. The melody can come pretty quick once the chords are there. I let it come naturally. And if I can’t get an idea I go for a walk! Always works. Go for a walk, blow out the cobwebs and maybe listen to some music to get some ideas.”
Finally, what are you working on now with SE6 Music?
“At this stage we’re being fairly creative and collecting material. James and I have been writing together and looking for vocalists. It just a starting point as we’ve just back together and that’ll be the first thing we’ve worked on. We’ll see how it sounds – whether it’s something we want to put to a label, or more fitting for a commercial, I don’t know. We’ll just see how it comes out.”
What’s interesting to discover is that, although they’re technically operating a production company together, both James and Tom also work as independent freelance writers. It’s this trust and strong friendship which obviously galvanises the pair and allows them both the professional and creative freedom to develop their careers. For anyone looking to follow in their footsteps in the “tricky” business of commercial music production and writing music for television, it’s clear from Tom’s story that loyalty, trust, and a willingness to learn, are key to succeeding where others have failed.
For more information about SE6 Music visit their website www.se6music.co.uk and check out their showreel below…
…and keep an eye on Tom Lown and James Bailes individual work here: