Russell Emanuel is a visionary entrepreneur who is the co-founder, president, and CEO of both Extreme Music, the largest grossing production music company in the world, and Bleeding Fingers Music, a forward-thinking composer collective with a specialization in television scoring — a joint venture with the legendary Hans Zimmer and Steve Kofsky. A progressive businessman with a punk rock ethos, Russell and his then-partner, Dolph Taylor disrupted the archaic model of music libraries and changed the entire industry’s perception of a category now worth $2 Billion. To this day, Extreme Music, initially acquired by Viacom and currently controlled by Sony/ATV Publishing, leads by example and upholds its reputation for expert musicianship, high-quality recordings, and detailed curation. In our insightful discussion, Russell speaks on his transition from overworked artist manager to the king of his castles and the technological innovations he sees on the horizon.
I understand that your journey started in the UK. Can you tell us the origin story of Extreme Music?
That's right. I moved out here in 2005, but Extreme started in 1997. We began in Camden Town, London in the old Stiff Records building there. Around the same time, the building was also owned by a company called TV A.M. My office used to be Sir David Frost’s office. It sounds salubrious, but it definitely was not. Back then, Camden Town was certainly the very poor stepchild of London.
It's funny because Extreme was really a parachute. It was kind of a safety net for myself and my then-partner, Dolph Taylor. Dolph and I were partners for a very long time. He was a spectacular drummer for a number of very big bands — Spear of Destiny, Tom Robinson Band, Stiff Little Fingers. Funny enough, we had a band together, but that didn't really go anywhere.
I ended up managing Stiff Little Fingers, who were a seminal, political Northern Irish punk band. They created a couple of very famous songs which were known during the Irish Troubles. One called Suspect Device and one called Alternative Ulster. I managed them for a long time. We were on the road for years and years — not only with that band, but I also co-managed The Jam.
Oh, man! With Paul Weller?
Yes. Paul was managed by his dad, John Weller, and I looked after the other two members of the band, Rick [Buckler, drummer] and Bruce [Foxton, bassist and backing vocalist]. It was a long time on the road. I’m giving you the short version of the story, but we were on the tour for 18 years. There was very little time at home, and I said to Dolph, "Time to get off the bus. This is crazy stuff." As you can imagine, there was a lot of misbehaving in the ’70s and ’80s.
Very early on in my career, I had done what was called a “music library” album. This was back when I was 19. It just seemed like a good idea. It was like, ”What can we do that's in music, but means we don't have to go on the road or have a hit record?” That was it. It was very simple, like, "Let's go do that." So, we had a little one-bedroom apartment in central London, which was on rent control. That tiny little apartment, that was our studio. Dolph lived there. It was also his home. We started writing library music, and one thing led to another.
Within a few years, we ended up running a small company. It wasn't ours and it was a lesson, a very fast lesson in how to run a music library. It was very old school in its thinking with low production value. It was like, ”This sucks. This is terrible,”... It was about banging it out cheaply and quickly. It was not cool, but it was a super valuable lesson. Pretty soon, we were like, “Let's do this in a very cool way. Let's be the antithesis of what was essentially the industry. Let's try and create something that uses real musicians, uses real studios, and has the same aesthetic as a major label. Let’s really care about every note that leaves our studio. Let's roll that into a whole company."
It's funny because nowadays, you think back and you go, "Well, that doesn't seem like an incredibly innovative thought.” At the time, it really was because so many people were doing so well for such a long time in an industry that just made soundalikes. It was obvious to us that we came in at just the right time it created an incredible opportunity for us.
For one reason or another, we were introduced to Mark Levinson a VC [venture capital] partner. At that point, we’d never, really ever done anything in business before. We had no business plan at all — we quickly wrote one, literally on the back of a packet of cigarettes. I tell this story, but I remember sitting with him. He said, "I love this idea." He was in music publishing. He asked, ”How much do you need?" and I literally had no idea. So, I sat in his boardroom and just came up with number. In hindsight it was a very low number. I said, ”I think we're going to need $100,000,” and on the spot he said, "When can you start?”. It rolled into something much bigger very quickly. He ended up funding us into a few millions of pounds, but we did great and ended up selling to Viacom in 2005. We started in ’97, and seven years later, we sold to Viacom. Then subsequently, there was a further sale to Sony in 2008. Now, Extreme is the largest grossing production music company in the world.
I’ve learned that Extreme has fewer tracks than its direct competitors. Is it a matter of quality over quantity? What is the reasoning behind this?
Apart from new companies starting up, we have the smallest selection. We intentionally keep it lean. After 21 years, we have less than 18,000 original tracks. That sounds like a lot, but our biggest competition has north of a million tracks. I think that we have a discerning client base. The days of just throwing unnecessary material out there are over. Look, we’ve all got a limited amount of time. It's all about finding great music quickly.
We hope that Extreme clients appreciate the fact that we are surgical about what we add to the catalog. We deeply care about every track, and we feel a responsibility to all of the great talent that trust us with their music.
Is your strategy to slowly grow the catalog over time?
Yes, we just grow the catalogs carefully. We go to specialists. In the past, libraries have had the habit of having a roster of composers that cover everything. Although that can be good and there are some very multi-talented people out there, we tend to look for specialists who do something exceptionally well. There's always some wiggle room in that because they generally have a corridor of skills, but there’s no point in going to someone who can just pull something off when someone else can do the real thing.
In working with such an impressive array of artists, do you frequently assume the role of a producer or do they approach you with a pre-determined collection of tracks? How does a typical collaboration occur?
Generally, we produce. I still love to produce, and then we have a team of producers here as well. We get together, note on the track, and make sure it’s right. We’re very involved in the process. It’s a labor of love and very hands on. I’m sure you know, as you dig into this industry, you’ll find there are lots of companies where you can simply upload your music online. That’s impersonal. I guess it’s good that it exists for some people, but these turn into massive catalogs, which can be hit or miss.
Within the Extreme Music catalog, you control original music from the likes of world-renowned musicians including Quincy Jones, Hans Zimmer, Snoop Dogg, Junkie XL, Timbaland, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Sir George Martin, and countless others. How have you initiated these mutually beneficial creative relationships?
At the start of Extreme, that was our vision but also the biggest challenge. We would go after people… I’m thinking of some of the early people — Dave Stewart, for example. We tried to convince him to do anything for Extreme, and it was like, “Sorry. Forget it, production music libraries are where composers go to die.” I think our biggest weapon at the time was our relationships and history with working on the road in bands. They saw us as “music people” rather than business people. From there, we were able to go to a few of our good friends and persuade them. Once those albums became successful, we were able to leverage that to make more people interested until the success of the catalog spoke for itself.
As more big names come into the catalog, it becomes a lot easier to open new doors. Hans [Zimmer] was a great example of that. He has always been super switched on to anything in the industry. He was the one to contact us. We were in our little office in Camden Town, and the phone rang — it was Hans Zimmer. You can imagine what kind of ripple effect that sent out because there were only four of us in the company at that time. So, I flew out to meet him, and he was extremely gracious. He said, ”Let’s do something," and that’s exactly what we did. It was an important milestone for our company.
Who would you say are some of the most synched artists on the Extreme Music roster?
Interestingly, a lot of them do very well, but there is a guitar legend, Blues Saraceno. Blues is, to my mind, the best rock guitarist in the world. You can check him out online, but he has this very dark, friend-of-the-devil aesthetic. We do these dark country projects with him that seem to resonate particularly well with the industry. He's been on everything from Sons of Anarchy to Breaking Bad — all these kind of shows where there’s a villain that we fall in love with. In fact, he’s written a few production tracks like Evil Ways that have gone on to accumulate many millions of streams.
When I heard you speak earlier this year at Remote Control [Hans Zimmer’s recording facility] in association with the annual ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop, you touched on a piece of drum music that composed by Jeff Russo that has sparked a trend in licensing. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Yes, we were talking about a piece in Fargo called Wrench and Numbers. Every year or every TV season, whenever a client calls, they'll give you a reference of what they’re looking for. There is always a certain piece of music you hear about over and over again. That was the one this year. There wasn't a call that I took that wasn't, "We want to do something like Wrench and Numbers!" To my understanding, and I could be wrong, it was an unintentional piece of music. If you check it out in its actual context in the show, it’s great.
What are the most significant trends you identify in music licensing today?
It's always changed. It's always been dictated by whatever the most innovative music supervisors tend to use on a show. Those choices will set the trends for the next season. What's happening at the moment? It’s obviously hard to say because these popular shows like Breaking Bad, or Shameless, or House of Cards, always become the reference. You know, look at Stranger Things. That had a massive impact. After that, everyone started producing 80’s music.
I think TV shows becoming more experimental and more sophisticated has led to such an enormous amount of production. Nowadays, they have to focus on music as an essential element in telling their story. That makes it an incredible time for us, which wasn’t always the case. An example of that was the boom of reality TV. They would have been happy to put really anything in there, but now, it’s definitely swung the other way. Everyone is looking for innovation, and it’s a great time to be in this industry.
This guides us to your joint venture with Hans Zimmer in the television scoring realm. What events led to the inception of Bleeding Fingers Music?
Well, that's interesting. This was around five years ago that we formed Bleeding Fingers. I wanted to do it, and it took me a long time to get traction. Hans’ businesses were mainly focused on scoring movies. Extreme Music was creating the catalog for licensing. There was an obvious gap in the middle where Bleeding Fingers would be scoring for TV. It really wasn't rocket science to go, “Hey, let's start a company focused on scoring for TV shows." It’s now in its fifth year and doing incredible stuff. We've got amazing projects — the most notable being Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. Then a year ago, we were fortunate enough to be selected to replace the composer of The Simpsons. Alf Clausen did such amazing work for 29 years. There was a lot of negative internet noise at the time and rightly so. The man is a genius and a legend so those were very big shoes to step into and I’m incredibly proud of our team for stepping up and winning the work.
People sometimes freak out when there’s a change but we score it very much in the tradition of the show. It was a baptism by fire, but it couldn’t be more of a privilege. Every week, we turn a show around. From spotting to scoring, you've got seven days. You gotta crank it because the moment you spot the show, the week after that, you're going be doing a live session. It’s a lot of work. Getting the show scored, getting it orchestrated, getting it approved, it’s a major challenge but we absolutely love doing it.
I've got to be honest. I do remember reading one comment online from someone which said something like, "Who would take this work? Who would actually want to do this? Even if they were offered this work, what kind of person would want to take the job?”. I was like, “Everyone." Are you kidding me? Every composer worth his salt would want to work on The Simpsons. If you don't, then you shouldn't be in this business. We try our best to remain humble, but when the phone rang, and we won that gig, it was an amazing, amazing feeling.
Where do you see Extreme Music 10 years from now?
God, crikey! That's a big question. Look, in 1997, we were still pressing CDs. Once a month, we would put three CDs together, and everyone in the office would sit in the middle of the floor, packing them into boxes to mail them out. We jumped to MP3, when everyone said that wasn't going to happen. We were the first music library to go online delivery only. We completely stopped doing CDs and gambled, “This is the moment where Extreme could possibly fail.” Fortunately, that didn’t happen. We continued to try and innovate. On our website, it's not only downloads. You can create your own custom mix of out tracks.
Who knows? There's a lot of talk about AI. At the moment, I kind of hate the idea, but who knows where that's going to do? We don’t know what will happen.
How would artificial intelligence affect what you do?
At the moment, I'm not sure. I hate the idea because it's music created by computers. Honestly, I hope that doesn't happen. I've listened to a lot of stuff, and I’ve met a lot of people in the space — it really isn't there yet. People make some big, bold claims. You know what? I do think that maybe there will be a blend of composers in the future that will still be making music but also incorporating some kind of AI element in the way it’s created. If you think about programming, I think there's probably an improvement that AI could bring to the table.
We’ve been scoring on our third VR project for Dreamscape which are an extremely exciting glimpse into our near future. We did the first one last year, called Alien Zoo. The stuff where you can take it home still feels like it's in its infancy, but the immersive experience is really incredible. We've just finished a third project, The Blue, but you actually have to go to a location to experience it because there's deep technology behind it. You have a headset, headphones, a backpack, things on your feet, and things on your hands. It's really a spectacular life-changing experience. I tell people it's like doing your first tab of acid. You come away from it, and everything just changed.
And then, I can't say much about it, but we're also involved in a scripted virtual reality project which will be released in January of next year. There's no question that that is our future — augmented reality, virtual reality. Music plays such a critical role in it. When you're immersing yourself in a virtual environment, all of your senses are heightened, and listening is right up there.
I remember when MIDI arrived. People were like, “This is the death of the musician. This is the end of the musician.” Sadly for me, I'm a bearer of very little brain. I can't tell you where technology is heading, but I think this goes back to the idea that we’re all a little afraid of change. AI could be the next great leap for musicians. I think it's all in the way that we learn to embrace it.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research | Paul Goldowitz
Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Russell Emanuel and Extreme Music.