Jingle All the Way: Producer Kenny Segal

Kenny Segal was a successful, respected indie hip-hop producer in L.A. until he met an ad man with an eye for talent. Now he writes tunes for Hyundai, Nike, and Nationwide Insurance. How does he sleep at night? Not on a couch, at least.

On the surface, Los Angeles producer Kenny Segal’s underground credentials seem untouchable: Now 30 years old, Segal experimented with digital music before he could even drive, downloading coders’ proprietary sequencers and graphing them onto rave and drum & bass beats at a time when most people were still learning the term “World Wide Web.” He won a computer engineering scholarship to the University of Southern California and quickly endeared himself to the indie hip-hop community, producing beats for the highly respected Freestyle Fellowship crew from his dorm room. Today, Segal has released an acclaimed album full of warm, vinyl-ready production, Ken Can Cook, on the esteemed Project Blowed label, and collaborates with the likes of Busdriver and Aceyalone.

But the nature of Segal’s day job is more difficult to justify as hip and indie: Segal is a full-time composer at commercial music powerhouse Elias Arts, a behemoth of a production house virtually drowning in Clio awards.

Segal’s eclectic output, including much-discussed ads for Hyundai (the haunting piano tinkle “Big Twist”) and the infamous K-Fed Super Bowl ad for Nationwide Insurance, has earned him both money and industry kudos, including the distinction of “Best New Composer” at the First Boards awards.

But, as Segal tells it, the increasingly tough road for musicians and the cold reality of economics makes corporate licensing a better-looking option by the day. And besides, not everyone can do what Segal does; even with crushing deadlines, nervous ad execs, and the pressure of millions of people hearing his music bearing down on him daily, Mr. Ken Can Cook is the master of his kitchen.  

Get In Media: How many times have your friends called you a Mad Man?
Kenny Segal: Definitely once in a while there’s the perception when you say “TV commercials” that you write jingles. To be honest, when I’m talking about my job I usually say we do music for television and films, because we don’t just do commercials. They probably account for a majority of our income, though.

GIM: Why is it that you tell people “I work for television and film” instead of commercials? Is it about credibility?
KS: Not so much credibility, but a lot of it is the perception that I write jingles, which is really not what I do. I’m writing an action orchestral score for something, or a hip-hop beat or a techno song or a rock song for a car commercial.

GIM: How did you get into the commercial business?
KS: Back in the early 2000s, when I was working with P.E.A.C.E. from Freestyle Fellowship, I was also working with this other rapper, Phoenix Orion. Phoenix was talking my ear off about how he met this guy at a club named Scott Cymbala and he’s like, “Oh, you’ve got to meet Scott. He works at this amazing company. They have studios and they make music for films and TV.” I didn’t think much of it, to be honest, but he had me come down to this company called Tomandandy, which is a music production house, and Scott was really impressed with me and we became friends.

‘You can’t go out and smoke a cigarette or have a drink real quick. You have to just do it, right now, while they’re
sitting there’

GIM: Eventually, Scott Cymbala left Tomandandy and went to Elias Arts where he hired you on. Did he start you out as an intern?
KS: No, I was very lucky. Most people are an intern for a year or so, and if you make it through that you go into the dub room where you actually get a salary but you work 12 hours a day. There you work for a couple of years and then after a while you can maybe get into the studio and after hours you can write a demo for something and submit it, and if you’re lucky that’s your road to becoming a composer. But there’s only so many studios in our facility, so until somebody quits or gets fired, there’s no openings for composers. Most people wait four or five years to become a composer. I came in at a transitional time, which was lucky. In my first four months there, I’d already “won” a commercial, where my music got picked for a track. Within a year and a half I was still kind of in the dub room, but I also had my own studio.

GIM: What kind of grind were you on to even get to that point? Obviously you had to move out to L.A.
KS: I originally came out to L.A. to go to USC when I was 18 years old. I was on a computer engineering scholarship there, of all things.

GIM: Tell me about what kind of work you were doing at Tomandandy. What was your process back then?
KS: A lot of these companies – even Elias, though not so much anymore – but back then there was so much money flowing in the industry they all had these pet projects. So at Tomandandy I was the “young music guy,” and a lot of what they were paying me for was testing their software. [Co-founder] Andy Milburn was writing this music software they called The Brain. It was this algorithmic composition software. You could feed it MIDI sequences and it would come up with mutations of the melody for you by combining different melodies together. They wanted me to make a lot of music with it so I could debug it and find all the problems.

GIM: So you were a tester.
KS: They had me working on all sorts of stuff. Commercials, testing software. They had a vanity label; I worked on that Rules of Attraction movie. I think a lot of it was Scott testing me out and seeing what I could do.

GIM: Did you have specific emotions or reactions you were trying to create?
KS: Definitely. At Elias I’ve gone through a lot of phases, but one thing I always tell people is that of my friends that are musicians, I don’t think I’m the most talented. Even at Elias, I’m probably the only person who’s not a virtuoso at an instrument. At the same time, most of them couldn’t handle the mental pressure of coming in every day and having to create on a deadline. There are very few people I know that could hack it, certainly not for a long time. For some reason, I’m good under pressure. That’s one thing you need to be good at in this job, because one of the most intimidating things when you first start is when your track does get picked and your clients want to come in and do a client session. Sometimes there’s a moment where they’re like, “You know what, this beginning isn’t really working for us. Can you come up with a couple more ideas?” And you have this roomful of ad guys that are all on their iPhones and looking at YouTube videos that are playing out loud and you have to put on headphones and come up with three different 10-second intros that lead into the piece you just wrote on the spot. You can’t go out and smoke a cigarette or have a drink real quick. You have to just do it, right now, while they’re sitting there talking. That’s a skill that not everyone can do.

GIM: Take me back to that room with the ad execs. You said they’re on their phones, music videos in the background, and you don’t have time to think about it. Tell me specifically what happens. How much information do you have going in? What happens after that?
KS: I always describe working here as being on a show like Project Runway or Top Chef every single day. You come in to work, the creative director talks to you and shows you what you’re working on for the day. A typical job, sometimes they’ll be like, “Hey, here’s some temp music they really like. Do something like this.” Other times it’s more esoteric, like, “They really like the vibe of this song but the tempo’s all wrong.” Or, “This song, they love the guitar tone on it, and this other song has the right energy and tempo, but it’s a little too dark.” So then you take all that information and work on your track. There’s some jobs where they say, “Make it sound as close to this song without it being illegal.” There’s other times, some of my favorites, where they’re like, “Give us anything but what the temp track is.” So it varies, but the competition aspect is we all go into our studios, we have a deadline, which could be a few hours or a few days, and we all turn in our tracks and the client picks what they like the best. We all have a salary but that’s a small portion of what you make. Most of what you make is from residuals from the ad playing on TV, so whoever gets picked makes the most money.

GIM: Do you get, “They want something like Coldplay but not Coldplay?”
KS: Oh, Coldplay is one of the most frequent references of all time at my work. I’ve written probably a hundred Coldplay-esque songs over the years. Sigur Rós is another one.

GIM: Now, Sigur Rós actually had an issue with one of Elias’ commercials.
KS: Was that an Audi commercial?

GIM: Yeah. [The commercial in question was the Audi A4 “Living Room” spot, written by another Elias composer, not Segal’s evocative A4 composition, “Separation.” — Ed.] 
KS: I don’t think they actually sued, did they? I know which one you’re talking about. It’s hilarious what people think. I haven’t been on it in years, so I don’t know if it’s still up, but there used to be this website called Ad Tunes which is like a chat forum for people to discuss advertising, and they have a thread on pretty much everything we’ve ever done. We used to go on there sometimes because there’d be this crazy, wild speculation that was totally inaccurate on there.

GIM: But with the kind of money you’re playing with from these corporations, it’s understandable that at any point you could subconsciously borrow from somebody. Do you have a legal team to prevent that?
KS: Yes. We have two different musicologists we work with. One of them is the main dude that testifies for the RIAA at lawsuits, and any time we’re doing anything that’s close to a temp track, we always send the temp track and our [track] to the musicologist to get his authorization. There’s plenty of times where they send it back and tell us what to change. These guys make bank. It’s funny, an ex-girlfriend of mine is a musicology major and they tell you that’s good for teaching musicology, but these guys get paid like $500 just to listen to one song. But at the same time, if they ever get called out on their opinions, they’d be out of a job.

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