Interview with the Modern Day Maestro

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“Here’s another example. This guy calls me about making some music for this news show. He told me, “I’m working on this show and the segment I’m working on is about the Tennessee opioid epidemic. I’m looking for documentary style news drones. You know those moments in a documentary where you hear the underscore and there’s a narrator speaking over it? So, I am looking for that kind of shit, but I want it to be sprinkled with the Tennessee opioid epidemic.” And that was all the explanation I got. My job is to take that explanation and translate it into music. Part of what we have to do is get in front of the visual without the aid of the visual. I tell our clients, ‘Describe it to me so that I can create a sonic footprint that will support that visual and that story. Then we go to work.’” 

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This is how Nathan James, the co-founder of BLKMKT, explained his job to me over a steaming pile of food truck tacos and plantain chips in the parking lot of BLKMKT’s headquarters in Santa Monica. BLKMKT is a Los Angeles based music licensing and composing company that specializes in music production for television, film, and advertising. A brief scroll through their website shows an eclectic who’s who of A list clients that ranges from shows, like Vice News and Southland, to musicians, like Lady Gaga and Migos. Working with even one of the names on this list would be a wet dream come true to all but the most prolific musicians. 

It seemed uncanny that a company, like BLKMKT, would be able to successfully carve out a lucrative niche for themselves in such a notoriously difficult market. Nathan and his team were somehow delivering on a consistent basis what most spend their entire lives hoping to achieve. On top of that they are producing music for such a vast array of genres that they practically have to invent them as they go along. So, what’s the deal? How are there so many starving artists out in the world when BLKMKT is flipping songs like food truck tacos? Fortunately, Nathan had a recording session lined up a couple of days and he invited me to get a first-hand glance at some of BLKMKT’s black magic.

DS: So what are you going to be recording at this session.

NJ: We’re doing jazz in a very ambitious and different way. The way we’re doing it is kind of punk rock.

DS: What do you mean?

NJ: It’s as cheap as we can do it. How do we spend the least amount of money without cutting quality? That’s punk rock. The sex pistols, black flag, etc cut albums in 4 hours. Historical albums that were made in a sliver of time. We are operating off of that methodology, but there’s a twist. On Tuesday, we are making it specifically for television and film. The recordings are gonna be used to compliment and support whatever picture or story they are used for. The music will never be listened to as music.

DS: Do you do a lot of sessions like this or is this another step?

NJ: No. We’re spending money to do this. Mostly we avoid spending any money. We have to hire musicians, rent the space, hire an engineer, we have to sit down and write the charts the musicians are going to play. It’s expensive and it takes a lot of man hours for us.

DS: You’re leaving a pretty small margin for error. How do you know if it’s gonna click on the day?

NJ: We put a band together that has played before. Mostly what you want is a band where the rhythm section. The bass player and guitar. To be locked. If you have that you have set the foundation. So we picked a band where the musicians have played together and know each other. If you have listened to great jazz like Charlie parker Thelonious Monk etc they have been playing together all day, every day for years. And they play live, but they are so locked in with each other that it seems effortless. There are no mistakes and the mistakes that are made are by choice.

We went out and got the right guys for the job. And that’s a big piece. I mean a lot of what I do as the guy who helps run the company is finding the right person to do the job. You know what I mean? The challenge is finding the guy who can really do that 60’s Asian shit. And also recruiting guys to be in our camp that can fulfill those needs when they come up. I need an arsenal of guys so that I can say, “Oh, you need trap? I got a guy for that. You need jazz? No problem. My jazz band has you covered. You need alternative country? I got it.” I need the guys to fill those spaces. This session is actually a good one because this is not what we do all the time, but if it goes well it would be awesome to do all the time. So, it’s kind of an experiment for all of us.

DS: So it's all about the challenge?

NJ: We are stretching the capacity with this assignment in a way we would never have on our own. The cool thing about our company is we just did ten tracks that were south east Asian 60’s and 70’s funk. Say it out loud. I want Taiwanese 60’s funk. No one is ever gonna write that music. And the shit is sick. Like if I played it right now. You would say that’s dope as fuck. It doesn’t sound like some bullshit.

DS: Where do you come up with it?

NJ: They send us references. They’ll send an email saying something along the lines of “20 southeast Asian instrumentals and then they give me psychedelic Thai funk, Japanese funk, Indian/Hindu funk, psychedelic world. And they will have a vague reference that they will pull off of Youtube or some shit. And we have to decode, decrypt and find other artists and other sounds that make sense to this genre.

DS: Is that what’s going down on Tuesday?

NJ: Not exactly. On Tuesday, we’re building out our own catalog of music and filling the holes for requests. For instance, everyone who watches television, most of that music is shit, but there will be these scenes where they walk into a lounge. Maybe it’s a Soho house type lobby at a really nice hotel. Some establishing shot of creating a space. A lot of times they will use really shitty jazz. And we have all heard it.

DS: Elevator music.

NJ: Elevator music. So, this is our answer to it. We’re doing an all live musicians quintet bass piano drums and either sax and trumpet or one or the other. On Tuesday, we are going to put elevator jazz to rest. Quality man. BLKMKT is all about pushing quality to the limit.

Quality is such an elusive characteristic. It is talked about in depth in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which has been a favorite of mine ever since I was in highschool. Nathan’s invitation to experience BLKMKT divining quality out of a warehouse was a more than generous offer. Unfortunately, dear reader, I never made it to the recording session. Instead I was summoned to fucking jury duty where I received the pleasure of experience the antithesis of quality. I will make it up to you with a follow up with BLKMKT and I will sweeten the deal with an article about the trial of a paranoid alcoholic who defended himself against the United States of America and won.

If you want to check out some of BLKMKT's music library just click here.