My turning point was the moment I focused exclusively on my most unique musical qualities. For instance, I’m good with strings, I love Balinese Gamelan music, I grew up playing gospel and Irish fiddle music. These were the musical styles that came naturally to me. More importantly, this mixture of influences creates a truly unique sound. The day I decided to rely on my personal musical history was the day my career took me to places I couldn’t have imagined! There’s no better collaboration than when people come to you for your sound. If you stand out, you cannot be replaced. I know it’s cliche, but be yourself!
As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Thomas.
Chris Thomas is a composer for film, theme parks, and a TEDx speaker. He’s won a Hollywood Music in Media Award, the American Prize in Composition, a Global Music Award, the Gold Medal Prize at the Park City Film Music Festival, and has been nominated for a Film & TV Music Award and a Palm Beach International Music Award. Chris has written music for several Emmy-nominated films, and for Woman Rebel, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award. In television, he works as a composer, orchestrator, and conductor for studios such as Sony, ABC, FOX, CBS, and HBO.
Chris’s work can be heard in theme parks all over the world. He has written music for the Evermore Adventure Park, Knott’s Berry Farm, Queen Mary Chill, Dreamland Theme Park (UK), Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, and many more.
Chris’s works for the concert hall have been performed from Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, to the Hollywood Bowl. He recently premiered a series of concert works in France, Belgium, and Germany. His Symphony #1 (the Malheur Symphony) was the subject of his TED Talk in 2019. His works are published with The FJH Music Company, Walton Choral, Wingert-Jones Publications, and Carl Fischer Music.
More information on Chris Thomas can be found at www.christhomasmusic.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Thank you so much! I’m so happy we can have this conversation. I grew up far away from the world of film scoring, theme parks, and TED Talks. I’m from Pendleton, a small, rural town in the farmlands of Eastern Oregon. We’re mostly known for our famous Roundup, featuring a week of professional rodeo events. Contrary to what you might be thinking, living far away from big opportunities wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Malcolm Gladwell would put it, it came with a large set of “advantageous disadvantages” — meaning a seeming disadvantage that proves to be a great advantage later on.
I was extremely lucky to have been born into a family of trained musicians. From day one, I was surrounded by great music. The people in my life (my parents most of all) raised me with the attitude of “go for it, what’s the worst that can happen?” Fear was never an excuse to avoid doing something. Failure was always a better option than the bitter resentment of having never tried at all. Finally, I had no competition for musical resources in the region. Whenever I wanted to write for the local orchestra, choir, band, even the local symphony, they would just let me do it. If you can imagine something like a bare-footed Scout Finch with a crash-test orchestra at her disposal, that was pretty much me. Little did I know how advantageous those hands-on experiences would be later on.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up studying piano and cello, but I knew from the age of 10 that my true passion was writing music. At the same time, I was also obsessed with cinema. I loved everything about the craft. I especially loved the classic films of Alfred Hitchcock, Jacques Demy, and Akira Kurosawa, but also filmmakers from my own time such as Tim Burton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Quinten Tarantino. One day, I realized what set these filmmakers apart from the rest — their soundtracks were simply the best! I loved Hitchcock because of Bernard Herrmann’s music, Jacques Demy because he worked with Michele LeGrand or Tim Burton’s collaborations with Danny Elfman. I was often more excited for soundtracks than the film itself. It wasn’t long before my interests collided.
My future became clear to me when I saw Edward Scissorhands. There’s a scene where Edward goes to a mall and sees Kim (and her jerk boyfriend) in the distance. The sound of the world melts away, and the music begins to narrate something tragic and beautiful. Right then, I realized this was the magic I wanted to dedicate my life to. I was suddenly unafraid of the unknown and wholeheartedly pursued a career in service of filmmaking.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Sometimes, you must exercise authority. When I was 25, I needed to hire a small orchestra for an independent film score. A new orchestra contractor (for whom I did not have references) dazzled me with a stunningly low rate. It seemed a little too good to be true — and it was. I ended up with a stage full of jaded, C-list players who took their frustrations out on me, my crew, and my music. They insulted me over and over and would talk while recording, thus rendering most takes unusable. Looking into the booth, I saw the director and producers with their heads lowered, faces buried in their hands. I had lost control of the session.
At that moment something important occurred to me. This clown-car of philistines had nothing to lose by tanking my session, but my future was on the line. With no polite options left, I had to get down into the mud and wrestle with the pigs. I erupted in a calculated burst of shouting, anger, and a little music stand-throwing. I successfully stunned the group, even though my burst also attracted security and the studio manager. I plainly stated we were walking away, and refused to pay. If anybody had a problem with this, we’d gladly share the recordings of ruined takes and gross unprofessionalism. Believe it or not, my little scare tactic worked! I certainly wasn’t proud of my outburst, but I realized that I had good cause to stand up to the unruly mob. I was standing up for my clients and myself. We then found a well-respected contractor to rebook the session. These musicians were sharp, supportive, and energetic. The difference was extraordinary. More importantly, my clients were thrilled.
I took a few simple lessons from this experience: you get what you pay for, assert your authority when necessary, and sometimes you have to throw a music stand or two.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The pandemic forced many of my clients into new and unexpected ventures (myself included). This has resulted in a line-up of fun and unexpected projects, forcing me into strange and unfamiliar territory.
For instance, I’m wrapping up a score for a new dating app called DateNight. The music is fun, playful, and full of funky 1970’s goodness. I’m also working on a series of immersive, digital art experiences called Seismique. Imagine walking through a sea of swirling digital currents against an immersive musical soundscape. Next, I’ll be starting a score for a high-end podcast drama, Cosmic Game. It is a dark, epic series featuring gods, demons, murder, lust, and everything in between. That score is going to be surprisingly big and exciting! Finally, my crowning achievement of the pandemic was founding an educational platform for young composers called ScoreSmiths. It features a 16-hour masterclass in film scoring. The course contains everything I wish I could have known about getting started in the film scoring business. We are even facilitating opportunities for young composers to have their music recorded with a Hollywood studio orchestra.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I’ve had the good fortune to work with some notable film industry characters. Some of my favorite people have been Samuel L Jackson, Kathy Bates, Christopher Lloyd, and Bob Odenkirk. It turns out they are kind, authentic, and unassuming individuals. What surprised me most was how they showed up for us, even as a smaller-scale production. It made no difference to them. They arrived prepared, full of excitement, and had a hundred new ideas of their own to offer. They gave our projects incredible creative energy while treating us with the same respect they would give a major motion picture project. It’s strikingly clear why filmmakers consistently work with them.
Their example taught me a valuable career lesson. These people didn’t get to the top with image-crafting, ego inflation, or believing they are superior to all others. Their creative journey is all about seeking excellence in their craft. Artistic growth comes first. With their priorities in order, it’s no surprise they have been working non-stop for decades. What they taught me was an important, long-term survival lesson: to become an A-lister you must always bring your A-game.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?
Hah, the eternally unanswerable question! Like most composers, I’m not entirely sure how or why ideas show up. That said, I have noticed some patterns over the years.
I can’t generate good ideas while sitting at a piano or computer. Machines have a paralyzing effect on my creativity. I’ve learned to go outside and walk, run, or hike to generate ideas. Within the first 10 minutes of my hike, I’ll find all the answers to my creative problems. This method has been highly effective for many years now. Of course, this means I now have to hike with my phone on me. To capture these intense breakthroughs, I must quickly sing them into my phone’s voice recorder and sort them out later. I’ll rather shamelessly bellow out melodies, countermelodies, rhythms, even conduct an invisible orchestra in mid-air. On a few occasions, I’ve spooked some hikers who inadvertently witnessed my creative process. It must look like a lot of crazy to an onlooker, but that’s how my process works.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Though I wish to be a philanthropist-billionaire, I am but a lowly composer. That said, even we can do a little good here and there. In a creative sense, I’ve engaged in projects that seek healing within divided communities or inspire awe and reverence for our environment. For example, my Malheur Symphony was a combination of such themes. It was also the subject of my 2019 TED Talk. In a more proactive sense, in recent years I’ve been compelled to engage with young musicians. With 20 years’ worth of insights, experience, and survival skills behind me, I’m in a good position to pass this information forward. I hope this knowledge might accelerate their creative progress, alleviating some unnecessary setbacks and dead ends along the way. This is why I spent the majority of the pandemic doing workshops, clinics, and creating my ScoreSmiths masterclass in film scoring.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Young artists often torpedo their careers before they even begin. The industry is full of “common knowledge” about what it takes to succeed in music. I call these the “great untruths.” At best, these are half-baked notions and fairy tales. I’d dare say these myths more closely resemble a campy, Hollywood-ingenue movie plot than real-life advice. These “untruths” sound all too reasonable on the surface, yet always result in doom. I, too, fell prey to the “great untruths” in the music business. But I was lucky enough to learn from my mistakes and get back in the game. Here is what I wish somebody had told me when I first started in music:
1. Don’t Follow Trends: It’s “common knowledge” that a musician should chase hot new trends and styles to fit in. Your reward, so they say, will be acceptance and demand for your abilities. This is a particularly ruinous mistake. When you conform to trends, you risk invisibility. Your voice becomes indistinguishable from the next, and you are replaceable by the next artist who can provide the same thing. My turning point was the moment I focused exclusively on my most unique musical qualities. For instance, I’m good with strings, I love Balinese Gamelan music, I grew up playing gospel and Irish fiddle music. These were the musical styles that came naturally to me. More importantly, this mixture of influences creates a truly unique sound. The day I decided to rely on my personal musical history was the day my career took me to places I couldn’t have imagined! There’s no better collaboration than when people come to you for your sound. If you stand out, you cannot be replaced. I know it’s cliche, but be yourself!
2. Rejection Is Your Friend: Believe it or not, rejection is your best friend. It is the broccoli of our industry — not everybody likes the taste, but damn if it isn’t good for you. I would dare to say success is measured in rejections, not acceptance. For every victory you score, it is only the tip of the rejection iceberg. What people never see is the heap of rejections and failure underneath the icy surface. Therefore, if you want to increase your victories, your rejections must also increase in number. I was once advised to increase my number of rejections every week. Start with 10, then aim for 25, then try for 50 per week. More often than not, you will notice that for every 10–15 rejections there will be one ”yes.” You will be swimming in more work than you can handle if you truly master the craft of rejection. If you’re not in the business of collection rejections, then you are not in the business of succeeding. Never forget that rejection is your friend!
3. You Will Fail — Don’t Quit: Every successful business encounters a catastrophic failure at one point or another. Every success story in business is also the same — lessons were learned and they came back stronger. Yet, when it comes to the film and music industries, they seem to operate by a different set of rules. I frequently hear “I gave it a try for a year, ” or “my first EP didn’t land me a record deal,” and it’s always followed by “I guess it’s not meant to be.” Then they leave town. I’m sorry, but you did not try hard enough. Any type of entrepreneur, even musicians, require time to grow their business. They develop skills, build experience, and gain trust in their communities. Those things take time to grow. It is the same when developing your musical career. You have to fail, adapt, and try again. Failure means you learned something important, and those lessons are your building blocks to success. If a coffee shop takes four to six years to turn a profit and build a sustainable customer base, then you should give your music career a proper chance! Yes, you will fail. But those who don’t quit will succeed!
4. Drop the Facade — Be Real: Humans are designed with excellent BS detection systems. We can sense disingenuous characters and spin-artists right away. In business, it’s important to know who you can trust with your vision and your money. And if you prioritize image crafting over developing your talent, why should a client trust you? Who cares about your perfectly curated Insta feed if your product is sub-standard? Clients only care that you are dedicated to your craft, to the interests of their project, and if you can be trusted with their money. There’s a dangerously misguided belief that your career will be launched by your image. I see people come to LA and go broke buying fancy cars and building social media personas that are comically unrepresentative of their abilities. These are the same people who go to networking events and “network people,” rather than forming real connections with like-minded creatives. This is the epitome of treating other people as objects. Who would ever trust their film to somebody lacking dedication to quality, a collaborative spirit, and personal authenticity? In film music, as with all business, success requires partnerships are built on genuine connections, respect, and amazing collaborative skills. By all means, curate a great social media ecosystem and following. It really can help you in some ways. But when you’re dealing with people you must be real. If you can smell a dirty facade from miles away, they can too.
5. Take a Risk — You Only Live Once: There’s nothing wrong with playing it safe. However, a life without risks may invite resentment and frustration. When I was 12, a hospice nurse told me the dying tend to share similar regrets. Among these common regrets is knowing they could have lived their lives in a more meaningful or authentic way, and simply didn’t do it. They could have accomplished anything they wanted to, but there was always an excuse. Something always got in the way. This profoundly terrified me! That night I made a pact with myself to do things differently. I’ve since designed a unique way of living optimized around my values and goals. My journey is not about money or lifestyle. While life as an entrepreneur is often tumultuous, my goal remains quite simple — to write as much music as possible. You only live once, so what you choose to do matters greatly. Will you invite the great adventure? More importantly, could you forgive yourself if you never even tried?
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
E pluribus unum — From many, we are one. This was once the national seal and motto of the United States (1782). These words represent our very highest ideal — that countless racial, ethnic, and religious communities yield to a greater vision of liberty and the pursuit of one’s happiness. Yet today, we’ve come undone in both mind and spirit. This failure strikes at the heart of our national disintegration and cuts deep throughout our greatest social struggles.
Even worse, we are nearing the brink of a serious, destabilizing fracture in both ideology and geography. What concerns me most is that Americans aren’t grasping the scale of hostilities and stagnation waiting on the other side. Would life be better apart? We may feel momentarily victorious drawing our new physical and ideological borders, but there is no meaningful upside to this prospect. Neither society will meet its full potential, or grow more prosperous while navigating a hostile fracture. Together we at least have a chance at multiplying our prosperity, finding a sustainable road to justice, and providing leadership in the global campaign for justice and liberty to those who need it most.
Therefore, if I could inspire a movement today, it would be one of reconciliation. Let’s call it the Love Thy Neighbor project. It is a call to lower your ideological armor and summon the courage to genuinely understand a person with whom you so vastly disagree. The work must be done far away from the dark cesspools of internet forums. Like all interpersonal repair work, it asks that you constructively engage with real people in your life, even if only to acknowledge that a divide exists. Your invitation must be genuine, welcoming, and in good faith. Demonstrate some bravery by inviting a gloriously uncomfortable, vulnerable, yet transformative interaction. You will see that you share more values, ideals, and aspirations than you might expect. While we can’t reach everybody, I suspect you will be pleased with the outcome of your efforts all the same.
Yes, we must confront our failings and historical evils, and refuse to compromise on matters of ideological extremism. In pursuit of our highest ideal, our country has already failed and triumphed to the extreme. But only by working together can we truly have it all. We have little time left to change course, and we must choose a better way forward. We must ask this of ourselves because nobody in their right mind would choose the alternative.
We belong together.
We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.
At the moment, I would choose writer-producer-director Ryan Murphy. I closely identify with his aesthetic and creative sensibilities. I appreciate his unique flair for all things, dark, sinister, and quirky. He beautifully captures the aesthetics of old Los Angeles, and the drama of Hollywood’s golden age culture. The set design is superb, made even more captivating by the use of those expansive, wide-angle shots. I think such a meeting would be great fun.
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Please stop by, have a listen, and say hello!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
I greatly enjoyed sharing with you today. Most of all, I appreciate the chance to connect with your wonderful readers. I sincerely hope the lessons from my successes and failures prove useful to somebody out there. May they avoid all those painful landmines I have already stepped in!