101 Great Minds on
Music, Brands and Behavior
Founder, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman at RadicalMedia
"The ability of music to trigger memories and associations is a very powerful device."
Jon Kamen, Founder, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman, RadicalMedia
Jon Kamen is Founding Chairman and CEO of RadicalMedia, creating some of the world’s most innovative content across all platforms of media. Originally renowned for its commercial and advertising success, it has transformed and grown to develop, produce, and distribute television, feature films, music programming, live events, digital content and design. Aside from his professional duties and prolific production credits, Jon is on the Board of Trustees of the Rhode Island School of Design, the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation and has recently been appointed to the Board of Cooper Hewitt. RadicalMedia was a recipient of the Smithsonian’s National Design Award, and in 2012 Jon accepted Mayor Bloomberg’s Made in New York Award.
Kamen: This project has extra meaning to me because I was the only non-musical member of a very musical family of four brothers. One went on to become a famous composer [editor’s note: the late Michael Kamen], but another played classical guitar and yet another the trumpet. My father used to say: “And Johnny plays the TV”.
Reese: And now?
Kamen: Fifty years later, I’m still playing the TV, but I have a unique connection to music. I feel it’s inseparable from what we do professionally. Being the brother of a composer, but also as a producer and artist in my own right, I know how much music contributes to the full picture of a story, whether it’s a film, a television show or a commercial. It’s an essential element of the emotional reaction and connection to a film. Of course, you’re responding to the story that’s being told, but in terms of the sensory experience, I would say the impact is almost fifty percent picture and fifty percent sound.
Reese: It enhances what you see on the screen.
Kamen: No question. You could even be affected by a white screen with an incredible score. You know, I’ve been working on a project this week. At the very last minute, we were asked to work on a concert for the group “Arcade Fire”, a really extraordinary group of young musicians. They had just gone on a tour and they wanted somebody to document their concert at Madison Square Garden. They were thinking of many artists who they respect but they settled on Terry Gilliam...
Reese: Oh my God...
Kamen: A big hero of theirs… Anyway, I had the privilege of calling Terry and he said, “Well, I’ve never done anything like this before, but I really like this band as artists, so, yes I would consider it.” That’s how we ended up spending a week doing something neither of us expected to do the week before. Terry was passionate about the collaboration. We webcast the concert live last night, so while we were monitoring the concert, we could also track the twitter comments. It was a treat to be able to see real time commentary on the work we were doing. Of course, they were reacting to the music they know and love, but they also commented on the webcast and some of the chaos Terry was purposely bringing to it. Their response affected the performance because we were changing the show almost based on their input: “They really liked what we were just doing…”
Reese: This is amazing to me. Did you do a “making of”?
Kamen: Yes, we had been documenting the collaboration of the band and Terry in a Gilliamesque way only he could pull off. During the actual concert, we somewhat stopped filming ourselves and just paid attention to our job. But it was pretty amazing to realize that you could not only look out at an audience of smiling, clapping people, but almost find out what they were thinking in real time...
Reese: You’ve been a part of so many highly successful projects. Can you talk about your process, especially when it comes to music, how you choose music?
Kamen: I think of Radical as a community. I come from a family that was part of a greater community of interesting people and I’d like to think that philosophy has carried on through this company. Radical offers very talented people a home where they can create and produce their work. New York is the cultural center of the company and the reason why I’ve always stayed here is because it has so many wonderful influences and inputs. Recently, I was talking to one of my colleagues about a new show we’re excited about, a “Master Class” for Oprah Winfrey. We know there’s something special about this idea, but there wasn’t any one person who made it happen; it was all of us together. Which also relates to the way we treat media. Radical is a trans-media company, with all of the disciplines living under one roof. But I like to think the success and the consistency of the product is a result of a community that has a cohesive aesthetic and a common goal. Ironically, music, other than curating it or selecting it, is the only medium we don’t practice ourselves. We don’t have a resident musician or a resident music producer. Having said that, music is part of our lives and everybody contributes to the musical direction of a project, so it’s also part of the communal process.
Reese: It’s really important to people. Research on Alzheimer‘s patients shows that even in their last stages they can remember their favorite songs. Each person has a playlist, a certain number of songs that affect them, like their own algorithm.
Kamen: A great composer, Carter Burwell, did a fantastic presentation about his musical process and the application of a great score to a picture; he demonstrated how you could take the same picture and with multiple approaches to the score you could generate incredibly different reactions. Today, of course, you don’t have to look at it simply as one piece of music and one film. In the future we as viewers might have a variety of scores that we could attach to that film...
Reese: Wow... we’ll all have different experiences to the same film.
Kamen: You know, my late brother would probably be able to recount the number of times he had to sample multiple themes for the same picture, while working with a director and choosing the direction in which they would take a score… In many ways’ directors and composers are curators of this knowledge, of recognizing what people respond to, and the more successful attempts are when they get the algorithm right. In fact algorithm is a great choice of word because my brother used to remind me all the time that Mozart was a mathematician. The reason I’m probably such a bad musician is that I can’t keep a beat. I can’t add, subtract or divide quickly enough: if I remember my musical education it was all about understanding how you broke up the notes in the bar and the timing of each note. It was just an algorithm that I couldn‘t respond to.
Reese: Yet it’s emotional. I remember when I was 13 I was in love with a girl. I was tall and awkward and had pimples, and she was older than me, but at least I could improvise on the piano. I was alone with her at some point at the music auditorium and I played piano and she melted. That’s what film music is about: if I know what I’m doing I can reach directly into your soul.
Kamen: Well, I think that in a world of media, and at a time when we can share this information at the speed of light, we can enrich our lives in a way that had never been contemplated before.
Kamen: The piano was the fi rst piece of complex technology that was commonly owned in a home. But today, when we hear something, we can tell all of our friends, we can send it to other people, they can walk with it in their pocket, in their phone, wherever they go. We’re surrounded by the influence and potential of music.
"I would say the impact is almost fifty percent picture and fifty percent sound."
Reese: I’ve made a direct connection between the value of a brand and its behavior around audio. For example, Coca-Cola made a clear commitment that “this is the way we want to treat music”. Apple has a clear way of how they treat music. Even audio product placement has become important. Have you seen WALL-E? He turns on with an Apple sound...
Kamen: I do think a consistent eff ort to brand a product through music or sound design can play a very critical role. You know, the early Nokia ring drove us all crazy but for a time, it was cool to have that ring. When those crazy few notes came out of that phone, it was a clear sign you not only had a phone, but you had the latest and coolest Nokia phone.
Reese: OK, let me pick your brain about the future. Where is all this going to go? We have twenty thousand new brands that want to go on the market every year. And they are all fighting for visual space and sonic space.
Kamen: Well, unfortunately I think that explosive population growth, which allows for the possibility of these twenty thousand brands, and hence the consumerism as a result, is challenging the way we live. Perhaps the world wasn’t built to sustain this level of activity and consumption. Oddly enough, even though we’re responsible for growing the success of brands in a lot of the work we do here at Radical, I think we all have a responsibility to rethink what we do if we want to be meaningful in peoples’ lives.
Reese: We’ve talked about the future, now how about the past. Do you remember how you felt when you had your best ideas?
Kamen: Not exactly. But I’ve been noticing lately with the documentaries we work on, when we’re looking for music appropriate for the time and place, we want to transport somebody to, I’m always surprised when I rediscover my favorite music of that period. The ability of music to trigger memories and associations, whether it’s with a brand or a girlfriend, (laughs) is a very powerful device. So, I think that music could be a very useful tool for perhaps restoring our memories and helping us frame different times in our lives.
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