BMI’s Doreen Ringer Ross: Stoking the Creative Fires of Film & Television Music

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Doreen Ringer Ross has been at BMI since 1985, currently as Vice President of Film & Television Relations. We were pleased to interview her in Los Angeles during the fourth quarter of 2000.

Mark Holden: How would you best describe your job at BMI?

ROSS: Certain aspects of my job are complementary & parallel to what Alison Smith does, with an emphasis on outreach, education and promotion– less with the design of distribution systems. My emphasis is in relations and outreach work in the area of film & television music.

MH: What kind of outreach programs does BMI implement?

ROSS: A great variety! Anything from organizing conducting workshops, composition labs, awards dinners, film festival outreach, promotional activities and creative collaborations.

MH: Before we go further, it’s our understanding that prior to your tenure at BMI, you had a rather colorful background in the record business.

ROSS: I worked for a number of record labels in the 1970’s and early 80’s, primarily in artist relations and/or development. I started at A&M Records, which in those days was the Utopian independent label. Over time, I continued with ABC, MCA and a record subsidiary of CBS– always as a conduit and bridge between the artist, the management and the record company.

MH: If there was a ‘single greatest lesson’ between the interests of artists and those of corporations, what would that be?

ROSS: I learned that artist relations & development is more about long-term vision rather than short-term gain. The early 80’s were tumultuous days in the record industry– pre-MTV, pre-“Thriller.” At the end of my tenure, it had become way too ugly for me. I realized how deals got done, how many artist’s hearts got broken, how many people were misled and how corrupt the whole darn thing was.

MH: That’s candorous talk. But in spite of that experience, it sounds like your love of the artists survived.

ROSS: Absolutely. But my love of the system didn’t. It was a brutal time. However, my fondest remembrances were at a company I still idolize, A&M Records. Founded by an artist, Herb Alpert and a gentleman-genius businessman, Jerry Moss. They taught us to DEVELOP artists, not buy them.

MH: Who were some of the artists A&M had in development at that time?

ROSS: An eclectic array of gems, actually! From Joan Baez to Supertramp. From the Carpenters to Styx. From Cat Stevens to Peter Frampton. As a matter of fact, “Frampton Comes Alive” was the first album I ever worked.

MH: That release was hugely successful.

ROSS: Phenomenally so. At the time, I thought to myself, ‘This is easy. Wow, you just send out the records and everybody goes crazy!’

MH: So you feel you got your share of highs and lows in your record label experiences?

ROSS: Definitely. But through it all, the doctrine I believed in was that of art. And of talent and of sticking with your artists.

MH: Additional to the record labels, what other experience did you gain?

ROSS: I went into television production working on reality-based shows. It was a great change of pace for me. I got to do some meaningful things on cable television that hopefully made a difference in a few lives.

MH: So how did all those experiences parlay into a position at BMI?

ROSS: At the time BMI was pitching me, I thought that was the place where the lawyers and the nerds hung-out. I wondered if they’d reached out to the wrong person. But I started to understand that the position was far more related to artist development than I ever imagined.

MH: So you took the job. Was it a good fit?

ROSS: Surprisingly so, especially to me. But because of the nature of my background– I’d worked in television, I’d worked in music, I grew up around the film business– it was sort of a perfect partnerstone. Then a great thing happened in 1985-‘86: Frances Preston took on the reigns of BMI management, ascending from Senior Vice President, ultimately, to President & CEO of the company.

MH: How did things change under her administration?

ROSS: Frances Preston turned BMI into an inspiring place to be. The management style reminded me of A&M in the old days when the leadership of the company would ask, ‘Is this good for artists? Okay, let’s try it. And if it costs a little extra to implement something good, let’s find a creative way to co-finance the solution. Be proactive. Be pro-artist.’ That turned me on, then as now.

MH: So, how did you make the transition from the world of singer/songwriters and record labels to film & television music?

ROSS: I fell in love with the community. To be a composer is a hybrid experience. To compose for television & film is vastly different from writing songs in isolation. It’s a collaborative environment involving movie studios, production companies, different sorts of business minds and creative minds. A composer, even more than a songwriter, has to be able to handle that diverse environment.

MH: From your perspective, what are some of the attributes of a successful film & television composer?

ROSS: It’s having all the pieces that fit. Not only the musical chops, but the personality, the diplomatic skills, the imagination and the charm. You wind up with this A-list, such as Variety’s top-25 working composers. You look at the people on that list and they’re all amazing individuals. All radically different from each other in many respects. And an intriguing, incredible bunch of people.

MH: As diverse as the top-25 are– each from the other– you do observe some common threads?

ROSS: Absolutely. They’re all charming, brilliant, possessing superb musical chops, people skills and artistic sensibilities. They’re the kind of people a filmmaker would have a good time hanging out with. You look at the folks who are doing a big chunk of TV– it’s not only about their music, it’s also about personality, rapport, their business savvy and how they make producers feel. There’s an intangible, human element that these folks possess which contributes to their success. And it’s that human element that I feel so connected to which has inspired me to hang around and do this for the past 15 years.

MH: Let’s talk about the outreach & education programs you’ve implemented at BMI.

ROSS: We continue to invent as we go along. The constant programs that are currently in place have to do with nurturing new talent. BMI sponsors the Sundance Composer Lab every year. We just completed our third year at the Institute in Utah. It’s the only place of its’ kind where we’re actually running a composer lab in tandem with a filmmaker lab, educating directors as well as composers in how to deal with each other. It’s an element one doesn’t get in film school.

MH: How does the BMI program apply from a director’s perspective?

ROSS: In film school, they’ll teach you how to hold a camera, direct your actors, light your set and cut your movie. But they rarely if ever get around to helping a director cope with music, relate to a composer or even how to license a song. It’s amazing what’s missing.

MH: That’s wholly bizarre, considering the enormous impact that music can bring to a given production.

ROSS: It is. But practically speaking, a film school curriculum just runs out of time. From my own inquiry, I’ve not found a film program that really addresses music– which makes our labs at Sundance so unique.

MH: And from the composer’s perspective?

ROSS: The film scoring programs I’m aware of don’t really deal with integrating the director’s POV. They’ll allude to it, of course, but there’s no practical way to actually create a director/composer relationship within the separate disciplines of film school and music school. That’s why our Sundance program is such a bridge between those worlds.

MH: If you would, give us a practical sense of how that works at Sundance.

ROSS: We overlap the director and composer labs, setting up communication sessions between filmmakers and composers. It’s still an evolving thing, but we mentor director and composer simultaneously into a deeper understanding. That’s why I’m so excited about it. The BMI program aspires to fill a gap that really isn’t addressed elsewhere.

MH: How many participants in the Sundance/BMI labs?

ROSS: Currently, it’s eight directors and six composers. However, these numbers aren’t etched in stone– we expect to build it. It’s something we’re extremely proud of. Truly, it’s an impressive program.

MH: How about an overview of other BMI outreach & education programs?

ROSS: Certainly, promoting our people within the film festivals. At BMI, we always seek to create an environment where we can introduce our writers to filmmakers and music supervisors to promote career development and the relationship base of our affiliates. Though we vary our venues, some of the constants have been Sundance, South by Southwest and the IFFM in New York. One of the new venues we’ve become involved with is the Woodstock Film Festival.

I also want to mention the BMI Conducting Workshop which occurs in August, taught by the incredibly talented Lucas Richman. It’s a program we offer to our professional, working composers– ten at a time. It’s kind of a life-changing experience where they can develop their conducting skills in contrast to a world where the thrust may be away from orchestral music. In this workshop, we take people who aren’t necessarily trained in dealing with orchestras and give them the opportunity to really improve their level of communication with live players– at whatever level they happen to start at. David Low is our orchestra contractor and we get the most amazing, A-list studio players to perform these dates. We’re very proud of that workshop as well.

MH: Does BMI interface with some of the larger music colleges? Say, North Texas State University or the Berklee College of Music?

ROSS: Sure. I’m going to Berklee week after next. BMI awards a scholarship to the college in the name of one of our top composers who then conducts a master class and presents the award to the student recipient. Some of our participants have included Michael Kamen, Alan Menken, and this year’s participant is Basil Poledouris.

Additionally, we award a scholarship at UCLA– now named for Jerry Goldsmith who’s been very generous with his participation. BMI also awards a scholarship at USC.

MH: We’ve yet to touch on the BMI Film & Television Music Awards. Does your office oversee these awards?

ROSS: I believe we can even take credit for creating them. We’re in an entertainment community that’s largely dominated by stars with very public name-recognition factors and marquis values. These awards are a great opportunity to recognize in public those folks who are relegated to the non-televised Emmy Awards. We relish calling attention to those composers scoring the top-rated primetime television shows and the top-grossing films of the year. We get to make noise about composers who’ve won Emmys and Oscars– and most typically, we do a career tribute. It’s a great opportunity to put the spotlight on the film & television music community.

MH: Thanks so much for your time today. Before we wrap, is there anything additional you’d like our readers to know about your various roles & functions at BMI?

ROSS: Only that the thrust of what keeps me here, and the thrust of what makes me proud of what we do is that BMI is really doing artist development. There’s a great continuity to my life because that development is essentially what I’ve been put on Earth to do. We have a wonderful staff of people– Linda Livingston, Ray Yee, Steve Frangadakis and Ivanne Deneroff, who’s just been made Associate Director. Our role at BMI, in a very creative way, is to be supportive of our artist’s dreams.