From time to time, Allegro publishes interviews and personal essays from our members. Below, Bob Magnuson remembers how a lifetime of music sprang from his early days and how he has used technology to stay ahead in the field. Bob has been a member of Local 802 since 1980. If you have a personal essay or story to share, e-mail Allegro@Local802afm.org.
I grew up in a humble small town in New Jersey, near the Hudson River. It was the mid-1950s, and I lived on a dead-end block. Every dream that I ever imagined was born from this place. My father was a laborer, as were most men of the neighborhood. All my focus and energy was towards planning my escape through music. I seized every opportunity that came my way. My talents grew and my inspiration was on full throttle. Living so close to New York City allowed me to have goals that felt attainable. There was so much work in so many areas of the music business.
Early on I was fortunate that my interest in doubling on many woodwind instruments led me to join Local 802 and find my way into musical theatre and Broadway shows. A job with union wages and subbing rights allowed me to pursue my many musical interests and yet always have a gig to come back to. The contacts I made on Broadway made me visible as a young hotshot who was willing to do anything to keep playing and get better all the time.
I started to do road gigs. I traveled to different parts of the world and enjoyed every second of it. The sights and sounds stimulated me in so many ways. But bad road managers, no union contracts, hotel life, big egos and airline delays all inspired me to keep a journal to vent my anxieties and to dream of a future when I could have more control over the road and its perils. Coming home to a steady union gig, giving other players sub work, and moving from show to show was very comforting to me for many years.
I was very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time to find my way into the New York recording scene – particularly the jingle business in the early 1980s. I loved it. I enjoyed all the amazing musicians I would hear on every session. Such a variety of players and styles of music kept me practicing and staying on my game. And – residual checks! Those payments for commercials that could run anywhere from 13 weeks to several years, paying me a healthy dividend for my efforts, were the backbone of that area of the music business. Local 802 was always there when payments were late or when I wasn’t paid for doubles. Living this new life of a union recording artist made me wonder why would I ever want to go on the road again, just to sit in airports, sleep in hotel rooms and sell someone else’s career for some sideman paycheck. Instead, I could be at home practicing, studying, and hoping that tomorrow would be that call for a Diet Coke commercial that would be a hit campaign!
This phase of my career lasted for over a dozen years. In the early 90s, synthesizers began to emerge, and less and less live woodwinds were getting hired. I started experimenting with sending short mono audio files to my nephew the computer geek, via a dial-up modem. He helped me build an early, prototype Web site that allowed users to send and receive files – something that’s taken for granted these days, but something that was new back then. I started talking up the idea of recording at home and sending tracks through the Internet to all the jingle writers I worked for. My pitch was rejected many times until I got the chance to do it once. Suddenly, word of mouth validated my efforts, and it caught on for me. Dial-up connections evolved into high speed DSL and cable modems, computers got faster, and files got larger. Thanks to technology, I was able to maintain a spot in the shrinking jingle business.
I bought a house 40 miles away from New York City with my Walden Pond on it, and have expanded this way of recording and performing remotely, via the Internet. To my delight, I have utilized the valuable resource of the Local 802 membership directory to find musicians in my area – and to my surprise there are many amazing union members who commute to New York City from here. Who knew? I’ve built up a roster of string players and brass groups, all of whom I contract for film and record sessions.
There is another bonus to recording at home: I’m able to pull out the “big guns” – like my contra bass clarinet – without charging a cartage fee to lug it around town. I also utilize my bass flute and wind synthesizer and everything else in my arsenal. Composers welcome it when I suggest another instrument for a track – so I send them an additional file for their consideration. (I have even become a “punch and play” trumpet player as well!)
The road has now become cyberspace and the world continues to shrink. I use PayPal and Skype, and even an old-fashioned fax machine to send union contracts and W-4 forms around the world. Money conversions, language translators, and even recording itself can all be done on a smart phone or tablet. I work with film composers in Australia, house and dance music producers in Milan, and horn sections in Russia, as well as all my clients in New York and the rest of the United States,all from my country house in the hills of New Jersey.
Even as the world changes rapidly, I am optimistic. It seems so natural that the musicians’ union will have a role in the future of the recording business and maintain a platform for musicians of all cultures to work together and feel comfortable exchanging their music.
I was recently traveling and got a call to record a jingle. Even though I was away from my home studio, I was able to record an oboe part for a Waldbaums commercial with a free app on my iPhone. I frequently see an HBO film on cable or a current TV commercial and think to myself as I hear my own playing, “How cool is this? I played in a T-shirt and sweatpants and now I am hearing myself on five speakers in my living room – and I got paid!”
It feels good to get out of the house now and then, so I do occasional subbing on Broadway. I still take some road gigs with name artists with whom I have worked for many years – but finally it is on my terms. I find myself networking wherever I go, and a business card connection has led to cyber collaborations with many musicians I meet in my travels. My nephew says we have not seen anything yet. The future is bright and full of amazing new ways to collaborate.
Ultimately, I am glad to have the support of Local 802 for contract negotiations, health benefits, a union pension, and live representatives always available for my questions and concerns. I have been a union member for more than 30 years and I am so happy to be able to continue to work in the recording field this way.
Bob Magnuson heads the woodwind department at Sarah Lawrence College. He is a woodwind doubler, producer, music educator and motivational speaker. Bob has played on Broadway and with the Radio City Orchestra, and has appeared on numerous recordings. Contact Bob at www.LeftEarMusic.com.