Doreen Ringer-Ross is the meritorious and influential Vice President: Creative - Film, TV & Visual Media at BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.). Entering the music business in the late 70’s, Doreen amassed a wealth of experience, working as an A&R representative and nurturing rising talent at the likes of A&M Records, ABC Records, and MCA Records. In her current role at BMI, Doreen leads and oversees the activities of their decorated roster of film, television, and game composers. Over the years, she has served as an advocate and a support system for some of the most celebrated names in film music including John Williams, Alan Silvestri, James Newton Howard, Thomas Newman, Lalo Schifrin, Alexandre Desplat, Danny Elfman, John Ottman, Mychael Danna, and countless others. An effective crusader for educational initiatives, Doreen was the catalyst behind Sundance Composer’s Lab and the BMI Film/TV Composers Conducting Workshop. She supervises BMI’s film scoring scholarships at USC, UCLA, and Berklee College of Music and spearheads artist development programs in collaboration with the Sundance Film Festival, the IFP Filmmaker Labs, the IFP Filmmakers Conference, the Los Angeles Film Festival, the SXSW Film Festival, and the Woodstock Film Festival. In our insightful discussion, Doreen reveals how composers can position themselves for success within the current landscape of film music and the milestones of her journey with BMI.
In your role as Vice President: Creative - Film, TV & Visual Media at BMI, what are the core responsibilities you oversee?
Essentially, my job is to maintain and grow market share in the area of film, television, and visual media music. So, that’s the answer, but there is a multitude of things that go on in the spirit of that. First and foremost, it’s a relations gig, and an artist development job. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know pretty much all of our film and TV composers, as many as I can. I try to make us relevant and helpful to all of them. What that means to John Williams and Alan Silvestri is different than what it means to a neophyte that I just signed out of a film scoring program, but I try to weave all of that together and create platforms that render BMI as useful to people as they move through their careers.
How have the range of opportunities for composers evolved since you joined the organization?
I think things have expanded tremendously. When I first joined BMI, dinosaurs were roaming the earth. Seriously, there were three major networks, just a little bit of cable and it was a different kind of world. You were either a film composer, and you probably were classically trained and worked in that environment in an elitist sort of way, or you were a television composer. The two of them were very mutually exclusive. If you got a prime-time network show, you were running the world.
Now, the landscape has completely changed. You have the proliferation of all kinds of cable networks, all kinds of digital platforms, all sorts of international outlets. There's a voluminous amount of material that's being produced and made in lots of different ways, which impacts how you pursue a career in this field. There’s no longer the exclusivity factor. They’re all the same people more or less. Some people prefer doing one format over another, but all the walls have fallen, and I think that's exciting.
I think technology has also played a part in this. Back when I started, synclaviers were new. They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, or, if not one million. I think, at one point, no one could afford them, so only a few people had them. Now, even the biggest film composers can score a major motion picture on a laptop in a hotel room, so things have really changed. There’s the good and the bad of this. When technology becomes available to everyone, it means you have a whole lot of people pursuing the same thing and they're not all equally talented. So, I think, overall, there's a lot of inferior stuff that enters the world.
On the other hand, there's a lot of creative, new, and incredibly original stuff that enters the world that wouldn't have had a shot before. So, if there's a problem through all of it, it's just vetting and filtering through what's available. I think you could say that about music across the board.
It’s incredible how accessible everything has become. Now, young kids are already working with Pro Tools and producing their own songs.
I think that's an interesting point. Years ago, Details Magazine called me up and said, "We're doing a piece called 30 Under 30, and we're going to profile people who have made it in different elements of film production before the age of 30. So, we're doing this actress and that director. What composer should we do?”. I had an opportunity to go through my whole roster at that time, trying to find them a composer that was under the age of 30 that had enough success to qualify. I honestly couldn't find them anyone. I think I ended up giving them John Ottman. I probably lied by a year or two, but he had done The Usual Suspects at that point, which was groundbreaking. They were doing Bryan Singer anyways, so they took him.
That situation made me keenly aware of how unique this niche is in the world of entertainment, which is so youth-driven. In pop music, if you're over the age of 30, you're on your way to the dead wood pile. In film composing, you're just hitting your arc. You do a lot of work to get to that point. It's not like you haven't started, but I think you need to have some life under your belt in order to have a palette that's rich enough to pull from, in order to have something really interesting to say, in order to be able to empathize, and interpret, and exist in that emotionally intelligent way. I don't think it's for babies.
That automatically makes me think of BMI composer, John Williams, who is 86 and still creative as ever.
He's the beacon at the end, the example of where you can go. If you don't get stale and you keep evolving as an artist, you can keep ascending for your whole life. His work is exciting and timeless. He is this amazing role model to strive towards.
I've had the privilege of working with him, in a peripheral way, for decades. I've been a fly on the wall in the studios over the years and watched his process. I remember when Lionel Newman was alive, he'd have Lionel in the booth, and John would be on the podium. After every cue, they'd turn around, and go, "What'd you think?”. Then the two of them would dissect what was being recorded with the hearing of dogs. It sounded fabulous to me, but they discerned little nuances that could be slightly improved upon to get closer to perfection. There are some amazing composers that are of a global class and then there is everybody else. John is really in a league of his own. I don’t even understand where that came from. I think it’s just innate and he’s made choices and pursued things with a level of excellence that places him above everybody.
I really think that composers are deeply influenced by the filmmakers that they have an opportunity to work with, and certainly, I think, for John to have become Stephen Spielberg's guy and George Lucas' guy for all of those years, put him in an arena where they all feed off of each other. There is a level of storytelling going on there and excellence in production that is ruminating on a different plane.
I actually get that from Harry Gregson-Williams a lot as well. I love taking Harry out to talk in public because he's so ultra-energetic and articulate. He can explain the filmmaking process and the storytelling process. He's not the same as when I met him while he was in the dark trench working for Hans Zimmer years ago. He's been working with all of the Tony Scotts of the world. They’re just so skilled, experienced, and visionary. He’s absorbed that. It's not like they're just making music in a vacuum. They start to expand, in all sorts of human ways, by virtue of that exposure to other incredible artists in these environments.
You have an incredibly rich history in the music industry, working in artist relations and development at esteemed record labels throughout the 70's and 80's. How did these experiences condition your career trajectory? What did you learn about yourself from performing these jobs?
I was most deeply influenced by my days at A&M Records, which was the utopian independent record label. I was there in the late '70s when Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss were still running the label. What I learned from them was to look at the music business from the perspective of an artist. That label was incredibly artistic-centric and art-centric, so the artists were treated with the greatest respect. They never bought an act. They developed every star that was on that label. If they didn't sell records right away, they really believed in them, stuck with them, and would find creative ways to offset finances, so that they could continue to keep them out there. It was a really different kind of experience.
I moved from being a college rep there when I started in artist relations. They called the place Camelot because it was really that cool. Then I had to leave because the record business started to implode on itself. Artist development is always the first thing that gets slashed. The accountants come in, they look at the profit and loss statements, and they go, "Well, that department doesn't even have a method for making money, they just spend it, so get rid of that.” So, I got out. I worked at ABC Records. I worked at MCA Records. I worked at an R&B label out of Philadelphia and opened up West Coast offices for them. I bounced around enough to realize that the record business, in general, was probably the most corrupt, immoral, and disgusting business I've ever been privy to.
I was in the unique position of doing artist relations, where I was the front person to the artists and their managers. I was being put on to lie to them while a multitude of promotion guys and corrupt business people from different angles, were siphoning funds out of deals, and the artists were being scammed. I can't say that was a little group of criminals. I have to say that was the M.O. across the business, at least, back then. So, I left.
I learned in good ways and in bad ways, but that whole way of thinking about talent and being committed to artists that I gleaned from those days at A&M has never left me. I've taken not only those skills and applied them to composers at BMI, but I have held those beliefs, and those feelings about artists, as have all of the people that have come from those days in that place. There are websites you can find about us and the artists that are still connected to all the people that worked there because it was just that kind of unique place. Herb Alpert is now giving away all the money that he made to music education and kids at risk. He has committed the last part of his life to make a huge difference wherever he can. It's amazing.
What were the determining factors that influenced your decision to take the job at BMI? What was your first impression of the organization? Initially, what were the most significant differences between working with musical acts and composers?
After I left the record business, I went into television production for a while, which I actually loved. I was suddenly with a bunch of people that were doing reality TV. They all read the actual newspaper and were very informed and smart, not just focused on the charts. I was planning to stay in production, but I had some friends at BMI that said, "We're hiring for this film/TV position. You should come interview." I laughed and said, “What? You want me to come to deal with writer royalty statement screw ups, or whatever you people do?" I really didn't get it. I thought it was where the lawyers and the nerds hung out and counted stuff, so I'd sent them somebody else to interview. They interviewed him, and they called me back, and said, "You know, I don't think you really understand what this job is. Come in and at least talk to us.”
So, I did, and I started to get that it was much more of an artist relations kind of job than I had ever imagined it was. I heard salary, benefits, stable job… I had been out there in independent television production land, where I'd work for X number of weeks, and then I'd wrap the show and go globe trot, charging up more money on my credit cards than I earned on the show, then come back and do another one. I thought I could do the job for a year, pay off all my traveling debts, and then find something fun to do. So, I took the job and I had no clue what I was doing, but I started to use those old artist development skills. I was given a directive to grow and develop market share, so I just improvised and started developing these platforms that were actually really useful as it turns out for film and TV composers.
From there, I just fell in love with composers because I think, in order to be a composer, you have to be this hybrid individual that is not only musical, cool, creative, and smart. You have to be able to surf politics. You have to be able to relate to dramatic intent. You have to be able to handle an orchestra. You have to be able to handle all the bullshit and not lose your cool to be able to insert your creative ideas without stepping on people's toes. It wasn’t what I was expecting, and that's why I ended up dedicating my life to this community that I just love.
Can you elaborate on the events and community building activities that BMI has initiated and produced under your direction? Which educational pursuits have proven to be the most powerful and effective?
I believe that the independent film world is the artist development forum for the whole business. If you think about where the coolest composers have come from, and the coolest actors, and directors, and cinematographers, and writers, and producers. All of the best original storytelling comes from that world. We have made a point of reaching out into that world wherever we can. We have this amazing deep relationship with Sundance that we've been cultivating for decades, both, through their institute and now, into their composer and sound design lab. We have reached out through South by Southwest, through the LA Film Festival, through a wonderful festival, The Woodstock Film Festival back east. I work with the IFP in New York City. There's a whole international realm of people that are involved in this now. It has become a place where we can really shine a light on our developing talents in all of those environments and also pair them up with our star talent as advisors and mentors. I'm always looking for new ways to bring people together.
The Sundance Lab is — I don’t want to use the word precious, but it sort of is. This year, for instance, we had over eight hundred people apply, and eight people got in. It's not even about assembling a group of composers who are deemed the best composers on earth. We’re looking for original voices. We’re looking for people with really unique sounds, who are distinct from each other and have great personalities. It's always had an agenda of inclusion. They're highly vetted, the people that get to go through that lab. I’m finding that the industry takes an interest in the graduates coming out on the other side. They're keeping an eye on them, and a lot of them have started to become really successful. We’re starting to bring fellows back as advisors within a span of five years. It's been pretty incredible. We never take credit for anybody’s career, but secretly, I’m proud that every so often, we get to water a plant at just the right moment and put it in the light so that it grows.
You are continually recognized for your prowess in identifying talent in its early stages. What are the characteristics you look for in someone you intend to collaborate with?
Authenticity. You know, I don't read music, and I don't pretend to be able to judge. That's fine, but I do read people. I think that if I personally have a method, it has to do with really connecting to an individual on all of those levels. I can tell if I’m going to like somebody’s music if I like their sense of humor, understand them intellectually. I believe your music is a blueprint for who you are.
Sometimes, I'll hear somebody's music and I wouldn't have gotten it from their personality, so I'll go back and think, "How did I miss that?” Some people are just subterranean where they really let themselves express themselves. Don Davis was one of those composers I had that experience with. He was probably just polite to me because his natural personality is more assertive than that. I wasn't really getting his real self, but then I listened to his music and went back going, "Where did this come from?” Sure enough, it just required a little scratching beneath the surface to get to him.
I think to be a really good composer you have to be able to access your emotions and then translate that into music. You have to be able to connect to the dramatic intent of whatever project you're working on. You have to have that channel open. If you don’t, everything will be constrained.
Over the years, you have been responsible for mentoring and fostering the careers of countless artists and composers who have risen to prominence. Can you elaborate on some of the milestones and most treasured moments in your career to date?
Jesus, that's a loaded question. I just celebrate all of the composers as their careers hit some validation or ascension. To have started working with Alexandre Desplat when he did Girl with a Pearl Earring, to watching him take home an Oscar in a short amount of time has been satisfying for me. I had very little to do with that except to be supportive wherever I could in these little ways along the journey, but I celebrate what happens to them. To watch John Williams, over last 30 years that I've gotten to work with him has been thrilling. He was already a superstar when I got here, but I’ve watched him ascend into his 80s, continue to grow as an artist, and still be revered the way that he is.
For me, one of the first people that I loved working with was Alan Silvestri. I met Alan in a recording studio when he was scoring the clock tower scene for Back To The Future. I walked into the booth when he did that cue and I was just blown against the back walls. I was like, "Oh my god, who is this guy?" We had years together, and I just relish that relationship because I learned so much from him. He's so smart, so articulate, and so mindful. We were really close.
Then there was a day in the 90s when our competition came and literally bought him away. It broke my heart, but I understood. I understood that money is money, and it often trumps everything, but I was kind of devastated. He left and went to ASCAP for quite a few years, and then one day, I got a call from him and he said, “Do you plan to be at BMI for a while?”. I said, “Well, last I checked, I still have a kid to put through school and a household to support, so yup.” He goes, “Because if you're going to be there, I want to come back,” and he did. It’s been years now, but that was validation that it’s not always just about money. It really is about heart and art. That’s what personally gives me the greatest amount of satisfaction. It’s the emotional substance of some of these relationships.
In today's landscape, how does a rising composer craft a distinctive personal brand? On the other side of the coin, how does a legacy composer reinvent themselves and remain relevant?
Again, authenticity. Whoever you are, you have to be yourself and let that shine, and let that manifest and put some effort into it. The word brand sounds really superficial, but I think you just have to learn to translate whatever is true for you and that ends up being a brand. Looking at someone like Brian Tyler, he ends up being the poster child for that in this world because he gets what he does so deeply and puts a lot of energy into it. He’s Harvard educated, not just a pretty boy. He’s so good at manifesting those different aspects of who he authentically is and capitalizes on that. He has so many online fans and has achieved real rockstar status. It’s very exciting.
You can't be anybody else, not with your music, and not with how you project yourself into the world. I think you can't try to be John Williams if you're not John Williams. I think if people sense that you're real, they'll connect to that. Everyone may not always like it, but the people that are going to like you is who you're truly speaking to. I call it real-deal talent. That’s the common thing I see in everyone that has done well for themselves. I don't know that you can ever learn that in school. You can hone your craft, you can hone your skills, but in terms of your instincts as an artist, your vision, that's in you, or it's not.
In recent years, we've seen incremental progress towards addressing the gender gap in the realm of film composing. What are the most significant changes that you've been a part of and what is the path forward to continue these important initiatives?
I think there's a tipping point that's happening in the culture right now on behalf of inclusion, be it women, or minorities, or whatever. I think, whoever you are, you just have to keep pushing. I'm really proud of going back to Sundance again when we had been casting or selecting the fellows for the lab. For the last 20 years, we always made a point, even if there's just these infinitesimal amount of opportunities of six composers getting in or twelve. It's varied over the years. We've always made a point of looking for diversity, of including women, of including minorities. We would put them to the top of the list. It’s not to say we would take inferior talent, but we'd make sure we were sifting through everything that was submitted purposefully with that in mind.
A few years ago, I had done this panel in Spain with Rachel Portman, and it was cordoned off as “Women in Film Music.” She always whines a little when that happens because she's the definitive female Oscar-winning composer, but she just thinks of herself as a composer. She’s not running a women's movement by any means; but I said, “Let's just go do this. Let's just look at you like a positive role model for women to pursue composing. That's what you are.” I'll go out to schools all the time, and I'll look at the population in the classroom. If there are twenty-five people and three of them are women, that's impressive.” Not all women are gravitating towards this. And then, when you actually become a composer, it's really hard to get work no matter what gender you are.
I do think women need to be encouraged, so I came back to L.A. and decided to put together this luncheon inviting all the women composers I knew who are actually working. ASCAP, BMI, it didn’t matter what their PRO [performing rights organization] affiliation was, it was just about women. There weren’t thousands of them, but there were more that showed up that I could fit around the table, so we had to rent small chairs to fit everybody in. The women were kind of stunned looking around, like “Oh, there's more of us than I had thought.” Number one, it was the seed for The Alliance of Women Film Composers to form, which is an advocacy group that spawned from there. It’s alive, thriving, and helpful.
I realized that even if you do a tiny little bit of affirmative action inclusion, at the end of each year, you can see that you have made a change to the makeup of a community. It’s been in 17 years in this case, but I look at it like drops in a bucket. It’s a very slow process, but if you don't make a concerted effort to try to promote those changes, then the status quo will always prevail. There are other people that would get a ramrod and try to bash the doors down, but I think it's not my style. My style is to keep gently moving forward, continue to do a great job, be that positive role model, and enact those changes.
Now there is a group of women who have assembled under the name, The Future is Female. Overall, they’re younger, more up and coming female composers. I went to the second show they’ve done in L.A. and it was very well attended. These women are just trying to put themselves out there, and some of them are really starting to work. Coincidentally, a lot of them went through the Sundance Composers Lab years ago. The point is, there's energy out there you have to surf right now, and there are people who are activists for this, so I would encourage all women who want to do this to go for it. Link elbows with your sisters and march forward.
Are there any insights or life lessons you can share with those who wish to lead a successful career in the music industry at large?
I think you really have to know yourself. It goes back to that authenticity concept, but it's a slightly different angle on it. There isn't one bit of advice that fits everybody. Everybody's going to have a different path towards this. If you are a certain kind of artist that gravitates more towards the auteur process of creation, then you're going to go one way. If you want to be part of Hollywood and are interested in that kind of big budget world, if that’s your thing, then you may want to go to be a big-budgeted composer assistant and go a different way.
If you're more business-minded and can cope with diversifying stuff, maybe you can start a music library. You can find different ways to be musical and make that profitable. There are other people who are just pure artists and can't even cope with that kind of world, so they may starve, but be pure to their art. You have to be aware of how you tick and where you are most inspired, most comfortable, and find your way based on that. If you do things that are more indigenous to your nature, you will have a career that is reflective of those choices.
What is the most meaningful advice you ever received?
The most meaningful advice I've ever received was, “Don't hit send if you've written something from an emotional place in a business environment.” Sometimes, I will write it because I have to vent, but I don’t hit send. Sometimes, it takes me a while. Once you're calm, thinking rationally, and being fair in your head, you can draft something, but don't hit send. You'll regret it. On so many levels in the business world, or in any world, it's just better to communicate from a different place.
What are the future endeavors you are pursuing with BMI and where do you envision the profession of film composing headed in coming years?
Who knows what the future is going to bring? From what I can see, it's just a broadening horizon with all kinds of different opportunities. Technology has certainly made an impact on life changes. Now, the floor opens up and changes under us all the time, so you have to stay awake and try to navigate that. I think people that pursue the path of being a composer can lose sight of the fact that they’re working in an environment of storytelling. Sometimes, they don’t know, as much as I think they should, about the business and the art that they’re trying to get involved with. I’m toying with ways of manifesting a new program that addresses this need.
It’s really important to watch a lot of movies and watch a lot of television to understand how a story is told, how a film gets made, what a story arc looks like, and how music ties into that. We all have access to the internet to conduct research. You can look up a filmmaker, watch and study all the films they’ve ever done up on Netflix. You can self-educate without going to school or making a movie yourself. You just have to pay attention. Before the internet, I used to live with a film programmer. He was a genius in terms of his understanding of film. One day, he said, “There’s a Marlon Brando festival going on at LACMA. Let's go check it out,”. What that meant was every single night for a month, we went to the museum and saw two films that Marlon Brando was in.
It sounds a little compulsive, but at the end of the month, I had more insight into Marlon’s life, his acting choices, his range, his successes and his failures than one could ever imagine. You can do that by following any thread that inspires you, so there's no excuse not to do it, especially if you're home, bitching that you're not working. Use that time to steep yourself in the world that you aspire to be a part of. Because if you do have an opportunity to try and penetrate and you go in with that wealth of knowledge, vision in your head, and frame of reference in your conversation, you stand a much better chance of being brought into this world than if you don't know anything about it.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Doreen Ringer-Ross, Beatriz Aguilar, and BMI.