"A Brave New World" of Possibilities within the Music Industry
Q&A with Lecturer Scott Saunders
Scott Saunders has had a remarkable 40-year musical career as a composer, performer, musical director, producer and educator. Best known as the founder of dig (aka Direction in Groove), a band that has enjoyed success locally and internationally playing at major venues and festivals including, Montreux Jazz and The North Sea Jazz Festival, as well as receiving a Gold Record, a MO, two APRA awards and several ARIA nominations.
Scott has also composed for screen and theatre, including Dying to Leave (Logie - Best Documentary) and Bondi Rescue, and has been Composer/Musical Director on large-scale community musical works for the Queensland Music Festival and Festival of Sydney. Scott is currently working with Opera Queensland as Musical Director, Composer and one of five performers to develop an innovative touring production for regional areas – designed to engage regional audiences using opera and popular music.
As a lecturer at AIM, Scott is very excited to be working with students on the passion that drives them and forms the core of their studies. Whether that means the desire to be a singer, musician, actor, composer, technician or manager, it is this motivation that brings students to AIM and will sustain them through their professional careers when they leave.
We were lucky enough to speak to Scott about his career, teaching and what he is currently up to.
Tell us about your role at AIM
At AIM my main focus has been in the composition and music production department. I am a composer, producer and musical director and I have been able to share those valuable skills with composition and music production students at AIM. I have also worked on developing a course for synthesisers and teach critical studies and academic classes. I am a bit of an all-rounder and I think that in this industry that’s a real strength.
What drew you to work in the music industry?
I guess it’s the same thing that drew me to music. I love that music is immediate, emotional and powerful - it is a fantastic artform in that way. Like most artists I was wanting to create music like the musicians who inspired me, to emulate them. And of course there is always making a living!
What do you love about being a teacher?
I think the most important part of teaching is giving students the skills and motivation to learn. In my experience, particularly as a composer, learning is a very important part of the job. There has been a number of times I’ve had a contract job, anything from a TV documentary to a musical, and I’ve had to learn something completely new, one example being when I did a big community musical project there was a brass band so I had to create my own educational program and learn how to write for a brass band. The same thing happened with bagpipes - so it’s all about going out of your comfort zone.
Working in music production, you’re forced to do that with technology too. As computers develop and new software and hardware comes along you have to constantly keep up to date and learn new stuff. It is really exciting when it works. There was a period, I would say in the 90s, when digital audio first appeared, that was really torturous for a lot of musicians and producers because everything kept changing so much. Now everything has kind of settled down and students have everything they need in a laptop. There was a terrible time where you would buy a new piece of gear that was really expensive and it was the latest thing but then two years later it was obsolete - you just had to throw it in the bin.
You need to keep learning, keep moving and challenging yourself. I tell students to always be curious and keep asking questions. I love to see how students develop, grow, define themselves and get excited by new ideas.
Tell us about your work outside of being a teacher?
For forty years I have been involved in the music industry professionally. In the 80s I was touring and playing synthesizers in bands. I had a band in the 90s called Dig that was relatively successful - we got a gold record and played at international jazz festivals overseas.
I had always wanted to be a composer and that is one thing I really like about The Australian Institute of Music - anyone can come into AIM, show that they are really keen and understand a level of software and we can work with them from there. When I was young, I wanted to do composition and tried to get into university but my piano grades weren’t high enough so I had to find another pathway and teach myself.
I am the sort of person who really likes a challenge and doing new things. I’ve now done three big projects with the Queensland Music Festival. They create large community music theatre projects in regional towns every two years. The first town I worked with was Longreach, an iconic town in the middle of Queensland, where over a period of 18 months, we would visit the town with a producer, writer, composer/musical director and technical person to find out what musical resources are there and who wants to be part of the show.
We would go not knowing anything about the town or community and we would learn about its history and community stories. The writer then writes a draft and starts to suggest songs for the show.
We would then come together and rehearse. Eventually, in the case of Longreach, we would do two big shows in town’s showground with 50 people on stage - a couple of professional actors, a whole lot of local people, the local choir, the local brass band and even choreographed horses. The whole community comes to see their friends and family onstage and it is a really interesting experience. It is the complete opposite of a professional show, where you audition to get the best people. Here, you are just finding out who is there and figuring out what can be done with the talent.
I believe there are lessons to be learnt here and it has formed part of my world view - what I call the idea of the ‘democratisation of culture’. When people hear the word ‘culture’, they tend to think about highbrow like Opera for example. I believe that culture is just being human and it could be the Opera or it could be the local choir. It is all culture and it is all important. It is really important to value all culture.
When it comes to yourself, what were some of the biggest opportunities in your career?
There have been a few really interesting things that have happened to me. The very first band I got into was off a cover band in Perth, where I did a lot of gigs and learned a huge amount very quickly as a bass player.
The next thing that happened was that a band I was in supported an Australian band called The Reels, who were very influential and almost Australia’s first electronic pop band. I was living in this sort of squat in Darlinghurst that had a piano. The band had lost a few members and saw me playing and invited me to go on the road with them to play the synthesiser. It was amazing - suddenly bang, I was into the Australian music scene and touring.
Another opportunity was when I started a band called Dig. I got together with some friends, we loved Jazz Funk and the whole period when Jazz went electric. We didn’t know it but at that time, in the UK and Europe, there was a whole movement of this sort of music coming to the fore. We didn’t really know about it but we were doing it in our own way in Australia. A record label that was involved in the movement in the UK was launching in Australia and they wanted to have a gig with live Jazz Funk, so they asked me to put together a band to play at the gig. The room was full of record company people, DJs, publicists, managers - it was the ideal first gig - right place, right time. We ended up getting a publishing deal, a recording and sold quite a few records. We even played Thailand International Jazz Festival in the King’s Palace for the (previous) king - who was a huge Jazz buff.
What particular skills do aspiring industry professionals need to develop?
I think it has to be life skills. Resilience, to be able to take criticism, communicating effectively, being curious, to be diligent and organised, and not to give up. I would tell anyone who is a creative person, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and unsure. The whole thing about being creative is that you’re going where no one has ever been before, because if you’re not doing that, you’re not being creative. It is important to be comfortable with ambiguity. Keep going no matter what, fail, try again and get back up.
What are some interesting trends within your area of professional focus?
I started doing a PhD and I was looking at new business models within the music industry - a brave new world of possibilities as I like to call it. I am interested in how the whole industry is changing - at the moment, the music industry and entertainment culture is going through a massive shift, starting in 1999 when digital audio was made free - we’ve been dealing with a whole lot of stuff ever since. We are still trying to find new business models and new ways of working because all of the old ones are gone. The new developments are exploring ‘where do we go next?’. The most interesting things have probably not appeared yet.
What is your top tip for any young person starting out in the industry?
Get a lawyer and an accountant.
If you could have dinner with any musician (alive or dead) who would it be and why?
It would totally be Duke Ellington, who I imagine would be a very gracious host. He is one of the few people who created genuinely valuable and beautiful music, which highly sophisticated European composers were looking at for ideas but was also the music of the streets of Harlem that people went to a club to dance to. He had all bases covered. My band, Dig was inspired by this.