Jonathan Wolff

Jonathan Wolff

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This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Jonathan Wolff, Seinfeld Music Guy.

“BUM, DA, DA, DUM, DUM, DU, DU, DU, POP.”.

Composer Jonathan Wolff’s life changed forever after he received a phone call in 1989 from comedian Jerry Seinfeld seeking a theme song for his new television series, then called “The Seinfeld Chronicles.”

Something catchy that would underscore the stand-up routines he was doing at the opening of each episode, and that also could be used between scenes during the show.

With “Seinfeld,” Wolff’s reputation, of course, skyrocketed; and his life began moving at a dizzying speed that might overwhelm others.

While best known for creating the theme and music for 9 seasons of “Seinfeld” (180 episodes in all) Wolff was also the composer for about 75 other TV series, including “Will & Grace,” “Who’s The Boss?,” “Married… with Children,” “Saved by the Bell–The College Years,” “The Good Life,” and “Reba,” racking up an astounding 44 original themes.

The once self-proclaimed “busiest composer/busiest dealmaker” in Hollywood—there were years where he was working for 14 or 15 shows per week—has retired from providing music for TV, but this Louisville native’s royalty statements are hundreds and hundreds of pages long, from who knows how many countries.

Today, Wolff lectures to music and law students at universities throughout the United States about how his understanding of business strategy and the intricacies of copyright law shaped his life and colorful career.

I’ve watched your YouTube video honoring such acts as the Eagles, Walter Becker, Elton John, Michael McDonald, and Henry Mancini. The ‘70s musical period also included Carole King, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Steve Wonder whom you greatly admire. A  wonderful musical era wasn’t it?

Oh man. And then there’s that whole Kenny Loggins, James Taylor and Emmylou (Harris) camp with Lowell George. There were a lot of singer/songwriters going on. For a young songwriter like me in my teens, I had plenty of heroes to turn to for those overwhelming questions of youth.

I also saw a memorable performance video of you playing piano on a rendition of Natalie Cole’s 1975 breakout hit, “This Will Be.”

That song spoke to me so clearly. Everybody loved that song, I was not alone in that. Everybody loved the zippy lyrics, the great vocals, the fun happy love lyric, and the groovy beat. But, for me, I heard that piano player who is so prominently featured in the mix, and he sounded like me. That gospel rock thing. That groove sensibility. “Man, that sounds like me. Maybe, I can move to L.A. and play on records.” That’s one of the smoke signals to me instead of narrating my life Walter Mitty style as songs did all through my childhood

You chose Billy Joel’s 1980 hit, “You May Be Right,” as the theme song for CBS’ “Dave’s World,” and it was sung by Southside Johnny.

Of course.

Until the ‘70s, rock and roll with the exception of Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard, was dominated by guitar players. In the ‘70s Elton John, Carole King, Billy Joel, Michael McDonald, Leon Russell, and Billy Preston were among those who positioned the piano front and center.

I did have a special connection to some of those pianists, and keyboardists like Billy Preston and Michael McDonald with whom I identified with because they played my primary instrument, and were songwriter singers. I just loved identifying with these people. I would figure out how to play whatever piano parts that they were playing on their tunes. I was one of those guys.

You honored the late composer/arranger Henry Mancini on his April 16thbirthday on YouTube.

Possibly one of the reasons I started picking up saxophones in pawn shops was that I wanted to play Plas Johnson’s tenor sax solo on “The Pink Panther.” I told him that the first time I met him on a (session) date. He then asked, “How is the horn playing coming along?” (Laughing) By that time, I had sold all of my horns.

The essence of a good pop song or good theme music I’d argue is centered on elegance, simplicity and, perhaps, utilizing simple chord progressions.

That is almost universally true. Keep it simple, stupid. I would not argue with you, but there are occasions where something more sophisticated might be appropriate. But, in a general way, I’m thinking of my themes—44 themes by the way, I didn’t write all of (75) themes–most of them were pretty straight ahead. Most of them were pretty simple chord structures.

The theme of NBC-TV’s “Will & Grace” is a good example.

Thank you. It’s simple and direct.

Really about 12 seconds in length.

It depends on what episode it’s in, and with what credits. There are a bunch of different versions. It’s just piano and percussion so it was easy for me to create as many (versions) as I wanted. That theme was not always the same. It was the same basic composition. The reason for the piano on that show was because I knew these (producer) guys, Dave (Kohan) and Max (Mutchnick). I had worked with them before. So when “Grace” came up, we chose piano because it’s efficient. I could do it (the music) in real time. I could do a 22-minute episode in 22 minutes. I just lean my head over the keys, and the music falls out onto them. If there’s time, I will do a percussion pass. I particularly liked that combination of piano and percussion which was a homage to Elton John and (percussionist) Ray Cooper. What a great duo they were. I loved that relationship. I love that sound. That beautiful rock and roll. That was kind of in my head when I chose that combination. That intimate pairing between those two instruments. It is also a pairing to the intro of “Feeling Alright” by Joe Cocker (1969)

Composer Gary Portnoy was just 25 in 1982 when he co-wrote (with Judy Hart Angelo) “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” the theme song for “Cheers.” He was paid a $150 fee for the copyright and publishing. Was that a common composer fee for TV shows back then?

Not for me.

Did you get a good price for the themes you provided?

Price implies that I sold it  (the music) I did not. I pretty much did work-for-hire.

Normally, when you work on a work-for-hire basis, you give up your copyright and publishing rights. The TV studio or production company usually retained copyright and the publishing?

Yeah, part of the work-for-hire agreement is that the employer is the publisher and the copyright holder which is the most important thing. I get half of the royalties which is commonly referred to as the composer’s share.


Gary had never previously written a theme before. For much of your career, you were an in-demand musician and composer. You were obviously paid at a higher rate.

God, yes. My general fee was $10,000 for an instrumental theme. And $17,000 for a vocal theme. That seems like an arbitrary number, but it had to include half the first payment of the singers.

You received $10,000 for the “Seinfeld” theme?

Yeah. There are plenty of people who made more than that, but I was happy with my rate. I got $10,000 for a theme and $5,000 for an episode. That’s pretty good especially when you do 200 episodes a year (with different shows). Just by itself, that’s $1 million. I was never interested in raising my rates because that was not my business plan. My goal was to impregnate the airways. It was not to charge higher fees.

Any ballpark estimate of how much your contributions to “Seinfeld” have made you over the years?

I can tell you that from my deal with (the U.S.-based performance-rights organization) SESAC made in 2000 it has certainly made me more than $1 million a year. That’s $29 million by itself, and the deal goes through to 2028. During the first run of the show, it wasn’t that rate, but it was probably a half a million a year because by the time it ended after 9 years (in 1998) the show was in widespread syndication.

With a good theme, you can’t get it out of your head.

Ain’t that neat? One thing I love talking about is the value of theme music in society.

In many ways, TV themes are the soundtrack of our lives.

Yeah.

Like “Welcome Back Kotter.”

I love that theme. I loved “Welcome Back Kotter.” I got to tell John (Sebastian) that when he came on “Married With Children,” and he sang a song of mine. That mattered to me because his song influenced me. The way that it just welcomed you. He even had “welcome” as the first word of the song. You as the viewer felt welcomed.

You had a high bar to pass in doing themes.

Why is that?

“People let me tell you ’bout my best friend/He’s a warm hearted person who’ll love me till the end.”

Oh God, I love that. (Harry) Nilsson. I’ve always loved that.

“The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” Hard to beat that.

I love that.

There’s also Mike Post’s theme for “Hill Street Blues.”

That is my favorite Post theme.

I see a line between the themes of “Hill Street Blues” and “Seinfeld.”

(Laughing) It’s a circuitous line but yeah, okay.

Both quickly establish moods, and both play up the more human aspects of their shows.

Yeah, there is something about a sonic brand that speaks quickly and does its job.

It was comedian George Wallace who suggested to Jerry Seinfeld that he should call you?

Saint George. My buddy.  We are still buddies. He texts me at weird times, and we remember each other’s birthdays. He was responsible. It was kind of a favor because at the time, the “Seinfeld Chronicles” only had—Are you ready for this? Four episodes. That’s not an order (from a network). That’s an insult. All my career working on many hundreds of shows, I have never seen an opening season order of four episodes. It is just unheard of. But that’s what “Seinfeld” was. I figured as George Wallace’s friend, “Sure. have him give me a call.” And Jerry did. It turned out to be the best phone call of my career.

[While NBC executives were unsure about "Seinfeld Chronicles” they decided to try a pilot. The test audiences, however, reacted extremely negatively to the pilot. While NBC still broadcast the episode the network decided not to pick up the show due to the test results. However, several NBC executives, including VP Rick Ludwin, felt the series had potential, and NBC’s entertainment division ordered four more episodes of "The Seinfeld Chronicles,” which formed the rest of the show’s first season.  Castle Rock Entertainment, failing to find any other buyers when it tried to sell the show to other networks, accepted the order. The show was renamed "Seinfeld,” to avoid confusion with ABC’s "The Marshall Chronicles.”]

Before Jerry met with you to hear what you had, you had watched his HBO special, and figured out the pacing of his words to go with his tempo–the 110 beats per minute, the brisk walk and so on? And the melody being Jerry’s voice? You seemed to have used sounds that could go with his voice, like bass, which has a frequency range that does not interfere with the voice. 

Correct. What he described to me was a sound design issue. It wasn’t necessarily a musical assignment. He wanted his stand-up to be accompanied by music. In the late ‘80s, theme music, was largely melodic with silly lyrics, and sassy saxophone. I did a bunch of that. But that conflicted with the audio of his stand-up routine. So I said to him, “My job is to stay out of your way. To create an audio path wide enough for your human voice to fit through, and I will accompany you. Instead of using drums and trumpets, the organic human nature of your voice telling jokes might go well with the organic human nature of my mouth making noises like this— “BUM, DA, DA, DUM, DUM, DU, DU, DU, POP.”

And I had his attention.

That’s when I said, “C’mon over Jerry and I will show you how it works.” He came over, and that slap bass—which had not yet enjoyed celebrity status as a solo instrument—that bass line is so simple, so basic and sophomoric. It does not require meter. It does not require four beats to the bar. It can stop and start like Lego music to make room for his jokes, and his punchlines, and the audience laughter. And I wove those “Seinfeld” elements into each monologue. Every monologue was like a variation on the theme…

So every “Seinfeld” opening theme is a tad different?

They basically have the same element, but each one was put together in a bespoken manner so that they fit the timing, and the punctuation of his jokes.

With all of the sounds elements stored in memory, you could put together music for a “Seinfeld” episode in about four hours?

Yeah. There were sequencers, but there were not timing computers yet (to work with time codes). They were not programmed like Oracle that would work out the math for you. I had to do it the hard way by spotting the beginning, and the ending of every joke, and when he (Jerry) did hand gestures or foot gestures or when he did little dances, I had to spot all that. That took more time than creating the actual monologue.

Growing up in Louisville you were fortunate to have a mentor in Jamey Aebersold, an internationally renowned jazz musician, and teacher. He created the chord-scale system, and his Play-A-Long series, “A New Approach To Jazz Improvisation,” forged the cornerstone of music instruction.

Nobody was doing that before Jamey, and I was practically raised in his basement. There were four of us, and we were his lab rats. He would experiment on us the teaching techniques to find out if the teaching materials worked well. How quickly we could grasp certain modalities and scales. He really worked us hard doing R&D (research and development) on what eventually became, “A New Approach To Jazz Improvisation.” I was there.

How old were you?

I started with Jamey at 10 or, maybe, 11.

Until when?

Until I left town at 17. He was my primary mentor for music. Larry. The music was deep, and my music training was intense and comprehensive in that basement. More importantly, I witnessed up-close a guy who was a world-class musician, and a global business owner.

I think there are over 60 volumes in the “A New Approach To Jazz Improvisation” series.

I have no idea. I thought there were more, but okay. Before they existed, we would create tracks in his basement, and they would be on cassette. Then he started to release them on CD. It was just a magical thing. What I started to say was there was that intersection of art and commerce that Jamey mastered. Even at my young age, I looked at Jamey, and I thought, “I want that. I want to monetize my skills, and make money, and have a career in music like Jamey.” Noted that Jamey’s business is not jazz. His business is selling Play-A-Long records. Of course, his catalog also expanded to include other peoples’ teaching material also. But I watched how he constantly updated and enlarged his catalog; how he managed his database of people on a Rolodex. Little cards on a Rolodex. He taught me how to answer the phone, take the order, and pack them in boxes.

Back then Jamey was doing mail order from his home.

Correct. And when I say mail order I mean mail. There was no Amazon or anything. That was a wonderful experience musically, and business-wise. And there were other lessons involved. Jamey is an avid basket ballplayer and, just as the music was deep and scary because I was constantly playing with superior players, the same was true with the basketball.

Did you attend Jamey’s summer workshops?

Oh yeah. He used to drag me to those. It was wonderful. That was my summers. There were stage band camps. A lot of those. Then Jamey started these combo camps so more people would have a chance to improvise and play more. I spent a lot of my summers at combo camp during my youth.

The origins of music publishing was publishing pitchmen playing songs to artists on pianos in their offices or backstage at clubs and theatre. My Warner Brothers Records friend Dion Singer’s first job as a kid was at a music shop in South Africa playing tunes, like “Tico Tico” and “Spanish Eyes,” on Yamaha organ to sell sheet music. It was a form of boot camp like you were going through with Jamey.

Yeah, and by the way, I also did that part-time as a child, working in an organ store. I was a demonstrator. I didn’t particularly love the organ I was demonstrating. It was not a Hammond store. I think it was Lowery.

Lowerys are okay.

Yeah, and the Kimball. It was okay. But, from a young age, I was smitten by Hammond. So it was disappointing to me that they weren’t selling Hammonds because I could really demonstrate that.

You wanted a Hammond B-3?

Yeah, that was just one of my little joblets. They would pay me $25 or whatever and I would sit there and play silly organ. The sillier the more they liked it. I would play “Alley Cat,” and “12th Street Rag.” Things that sound good on a home console organ. They sold sheet music, and I would just read through the books of sheet music, and people would buy the music.

As you began performing in public you might have had a Farfisa Mini Compact.

Of course. Everybody had a Farisa. The combo organ. I would occasionally use that. The Farisa was good for rock and roll gigs if I couldn’t bring my B-3. But the one I brought mostly was my Wurlitzer electric piano because it was light enough. I was scrawny little kid. And I couldn’t carry my (Fender) Rhodes Stage 73 by myself. It was too heavy for me. I needed somebody to help me with it.

At 14, you were playing at local restaurants, clubs, and beauty pageants?

Yeah. I had joined the union at 13 because I was working in the hotels. By the time I was 14, I was working full-time. I had a five-nighter all through high school. Tuesday through Saturday, I would do 6 to 8 PM in the restaurant solo, playing restaurant music. Then, from 9 PM to 1:30 AM, I had a band, and we played whatever we felt like, Top 40 or jazz. Those were five nights. I had three jobs on Sundays. A church gig in the morning, a champagne brunch at mid-day, and an afternoon gig down on the river. I was a sideman in a jazz combo.

You also did ID spots for local radio stations?

Yes, I did. I did station IDs for WAVE and WHAS. I did whatever local commercials they needed. They were mostly political ads and for car lots. They (the stations) used to get their music from bigger music centers. I figured out that I could do them more efficiently, faster, less expensively. I could do (singing), “Happy holidays, Saint Patrick’s Day in Louisville.” Whatever it was, I could cough it up, and they could have these folks unique stuff going on whatever the occasion was. It was a great experience for me. I made a lot of mistakes, Larry, experimenting with vocal arranging. I listened to a lot of the Hi-Lo’s. I tried to emulate that kind of arranging. Yeh, there’s a trail of mushroom clouds and blast craters behind me.

The Beach Boys credit the Hi-Lo’s for their vocal direction.

There were no vocals before the Hi-Lo’s. I just made that up. Here’s an unknown story. When I moved to L.A. in 1976, I was 17, and I went down to the (American Federation of Musicians) union office. I had changed my membership over to the L.A. local, and you get this directory. I see all of these giants, all of these legends, who are members of Local 47. I get up to the Fs, and I see Clare Fischer, the arranger for the Hi-Lo’s. “Oh, my God.” I called him up, and I said, “I have been studying your work forever. Would you be my teacher?” He said, “Nahhh. I don’t teach. I don‘t have time.” Somehow, I talked my way into his house to shake his hand, and by the end of that visit, he was my teacher. I learned later that I was his only student. That was a great experience.

[Pianist and arranger Clare Fischer worked for the Hi-Lo’s in the late 1950s. In the 1960s, he worked with Donald Byrd and Dizzy Gillespie and recorded popular Latin and bossa nova recordings. Starting in the early 1970s, Fischer was a much sought-after arranger and worked with Prince, Robert Palmer, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, and others. Herbie Hancock credits Fischer’s Hi-Lo’s arrangements as being an inspiration, saying, “Clare Fischer was a major influence on my harmonic concept.”

What did your parents think of your musical activity?

They were busy with other things. They had way too many kids, and I had a brother with special needs. Parents spend a lot of time warning their kids about the dangers of negative risk, the risks of drinking, and driving and drugs, and unsafe sex. So me, playing with all of these grownups, and working a lot, they saw this as a positive risk.

What did your father and mother do?

My mother had temp jobs as a secretary, and my father worked for a wholesale liquor distributor. He wore a lot of hats. He worked in the office, and he drove trucks. They were hard working folks. They were just glad that I had something that was mine. I was making money and, for the most part, staying out of trouble. They weren’t thrilled that I wasn’t going to school, but it was okay because I was working on my career.

You were supposed to be attending classes at Atherton High School.

I was never there. I was working all of the time.

You later went to L.A. on a national merit scholarship.

I did really well on the PSAT exams because there were these two teachers who I knew from 10th grade who sat me down one day and said, “We get it. You are the music kid. We get it. But you still need an education. We don’t care if you come or don’t to school, but after school every day, we want to see you. They were a math teacher Miss Sturman, and an English teacher, Miss Henry. So I went every day, and they drilled me, and they tutored me. They made sure that I was familiar with math and literature. So on that day when I showed up with the PSATs, I had better training in math and English than the average bear. So I did really well on this exam.

You then had to take the SATs to validate your PSAT scores which another teacher had disputed.

I had a teacher who hated me because I was a juvenile delinquent. It offended her that I never showed up for her class. When I became a semi-finalist on that PSAT she wrote a letter accusing me of cheating on that exam. I was in the principal’s office with her and in bursts Miss Sturman, the math teacher who had been tutoring me. Now she’s (being) my lawyer. She wheeled on this other teacher, and stuck her finger in her face, and said, “Just because you couldn’t teach him.” She negotiated a deal that this old biddy teacher would proctor my SAT. She then sat directly across the cafeteria table from me with her scowl and watched my hands carefully as I did my SAT. Before that date, Miss Sturman, and Miss Henry said, “Now this is serious. This is personal.” So they drilled me each day preparing me for the SAT. At the SAT, I got an 800 in math, and a 790 in English. It was the highest score that year in the country. That automatically earned me a national merit scholarship.

Why pick a school in Los Angeles?

I knew that I wanted to go to L.A. because that where all of the best players went. So I used that scholarship to get to L.A. I went to USC (University of Southern California) for a few weeks. Once there, I started working, and I excused myself from USC.

Where did you first live?

I lived in a dorm for those first weeks. I was pretending to be a math major at USC. Then, as soon as I could, I got a little apartment way down—it was terrible—in Watts. When you are 17, you do really stupid things, Larry. I wasn’t sure of the money. I had some money because I had been working for a few years, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on rent until I knew that I was working. I started working almost right away. So very quickly I got an apartment on Sunset Strip.

What kind of work did you first get?

It happened almost right way. I started working for the TV and film studios.

What studios?

All of them.

What was the first show you worked on?

I have no idea. The studios treated me very well; as a Swiss army utility multi-purpose tool for musical chores. Anything at all that smelt like music, Wolff would take the job. It didn’t matter. If they needed someone to teach an actor to sing or to show someone how to play the fiddle, whatever. If there was accompaniment needed on the stage. If it was doing musical direction or being a sketch pianist for a choreographer . Remember that the synth revolution was going on at the time so I could do sound design. I did whatever I could get my hands on. That went on for about 10 years, Larry. I did chores and along the way, I picked up a couple of real jobs like “Square Pegs” (1982-83) which was my first series where I was the composer Where it said, at the end of the show, music by me.

What shows had you worked on up to that point?

Before that, I was in the rotation for a bunch of shows. I did weekly chores on a number of shows including “Dallas,” “Knot’s Landing,” “Falcon Crest,” “Dynasty,” and “The Colby’s.” I was weekly on “The Love Boat” for 7 years, and weekly on “Fantasy Island” for four years. Those shows had musical guest stars, and my job was to figure out what song they were going to do, figure out the key and arrangement, do the arrangement, record the arrangement, produce it, record the songs, and bring them to the stage. That was a nice weekly job on each of those shows. I met a lot of people. The studios were starting to have faith in my professionalism, and have confidence in my abilities.

Meanwhile, you were also doing session work.

When I started doing sessions. I was a sideman. That’s good work. Then I figured I could make more money being a multi-keyboardist. So I stopped taking piano jobs. Then I figured out that I could make more money if I was the leader on the job. So I stopped taking jobs if I wasn’t the leader. I was the orchestrator, and the arranger, the conductor. Little by little. I worked my way out of being a sideman until in 1986 I was able to declare myself a composer. I actually sent letters to all these folks who had been so kind to me, generous and supportive of me for those past 10 years, and thanked them for their generosity, and their confidence, and I said, “Now, stop that.”

Had you been working with an agent?

No. I have never had an agent. I would use it as a weapon, Larry, when I was trying to close deals, and I was good at closing deals. You don’t get 75 primetime series as a composer just be being good at music.

Being business savvy as well?

Oh yeah. That component is more (Important) because it separated me from the pile than just my musical superpowers. I was not the only guy in L.A. with musical superpowers. There were plenty of them.

You were ambitious.

I was ambitious, and remember that I was trained by Jamey Aebersold, who was very ambitious. He invented an industry. That Play-A-Long industry did not exist before Jamey Aebersold. I needed to find a way of creating my own space so I wouldn’t be in competition with all of these other talented folks, and I approached it in much the same way as Jamey did. I’d find a market that was undersold, a niché that I could fill, and hard target it.

The whole thing about not having an agent, sometimes it would come down to, “Look, I know that you are looking at these three other composers, and they are all excellent. I have nothing but respect for these folks. If you want great music, you can get it from them, but they all have agents. Which 15% of your music do you not want? Because before they even start, their agent takes 15% of your music budget away from the composer. I have no agent. That means you get 100% of me and, as a bonus, you don’t have to deal with an agent. We can shake hands right now. There’s the go button, and I start working for you at 100%.”

The ‘70s was an era of the synth revolution, Sequential Circuits, Oberheim, Arp, Moog and so on. You had access to that world.

I did. In the late ‘70s, the Sequential really took off with the Prophet-5. I had Prophet-5, serial number #5. Boy, did it drift. They fixed that later. They looked cool, but (if I recall) it had heat, and drift issues, and were clumsy and awkward to crate and carry. I had Prophet-5 synths, but never wanted or needed a P-10. I was on the bleeding edge of that technology. So all of those manufacturers you mentioned I had to buy their gear. I had Oberheim, Moog, and Arp. You name it I had it.

The late ‘70s and early ‘80s saw the emergence of the “home studio geek” working with advanced technology, in effect, being able to replace traditional and expensive studios, backing musicians, even orchestras. A producer or a composer could create everything needed for their TV and film music work in their home studio or, at least, in a smaller, less expensive studio.

That’s true. Before that announcement of “I am a composer,” before that date, I had owned two houses in L.A. which were full of studio gear. I had home studios in both of them. But I realized that there were certain clients who were never going to pay the big bucks  to anyone who worked out of their home, no matter how great the studio was. So I sold everything I owned. All my gear, my vintage instrument collection, everything including the houses. In 1986, I bought a commercial building on Burbank Boulevard in Burbank, right in the heart of the studio district. I built for myself what I had always wanted. A dream studio with the best gear, and with the best beautiful space. That was part of the letter that I sent. I had also said, “Here’s my address. Let’s do business.”

What was the name of the studio?

Music Consultants Group.

Was your initial intention to also rent the studio to others as well?

Well, the reason I called it Music Consultants Group was because I did not have absolute confidence that this was going to be my end game. That wishy-washy name could mean anything. I was not certain about the future. You write a letter saying, “Start hiring me,” and I had to hold my breath because I may have just nuked my career. I figured, at the very worst, I would be a producer for hire and work for other composers, which I had been doing for years. But, as it turned out when I sent that letter all of these music department heads, they all shrugged their shoulders, and said, “Well, that’s too bad. He’s a good utility guy. Okay, we’ll hire him (as a composer).” They started hiring me to write songs, to create scores, and to write theme songs. Real jobs. I declared myself a composer, and people saluted. That was a major turning point for me.

Were you also producing musical acts?

Not so much. Not really. I did a few artists in my home studio before and during the hiatus. Nobody that you would know.

Much of that type of production work is doing favors for friends.

I learned at some point that favors don’t help anybody. If you put it out there that the value of your services is zero, then it’s not the fault of employers that they are predisposed to agree with you.

On the flip side of the coin is securing large fees for recovery work.

I learned that early on because some of my jobs were cleanup jobs. I was scooping poop from other people who got the job because they were related to somebody. This happened twice with the same guy. The third time John Spector at (VP of production) at Columbia TriStar TV called me and said, “We really need your help. This is the worst one yet. We shoot in three days, and what the guy delivered we can’t listen to it. It’s terrible. What do you say?” I said, “$30,000.” John said, “What are you saying?” I said, “$30,000 is my fee to rescue this episode in three days.” Anyway, he said, “That’s crazy. We don’t spend that much on the whole season.” I answered, “Well, that’s my price.” He paused for a second, and said, “Thank you. I’ll get back to you.” The reason he thanked me was that he could finally go to his boss, and say, “Look at what this guy cost us. It’s $30,000 to fix what he messed up.” I knew that if they had to cancel the episode, then that’s a non-recoupable loss of probably $100,000. So he paid me for the work, and I replaced the guy from that point on those jobs at Columbia TriStar.

What was the first series or first show that you can remember somebody specifically requested that you compose music?  That you didn’t have to send in a spec demo of music?

Here’s the deal. Every show had desks and chairs, a stage, cameras, and a box for spec demos that people like me had put time, money, love, and effort into because they are hoping that their piece of music was going to be the theme for this new show because they knew somebody on the show. Well, everybody knows someone on a show. So there would sometimes be 50 or 100 demos in this box. I used to be in that box so I can tell you that the system does not work. I did themes for 75 series, Larry, and not one of them was from (being in) a spec demo. People didn’t start hiring me to do their themes until I stopped doing the spec demos.

It gets worse.

We all know around town about these spec demos extravaganzas going on, and the closer it got to air date, the more certain we all were about, “That is my job,” because they had burned through everybody else.  I got a number of jobs because I wouldn’t do the spec demo. I remember the first time that happened. It was that time of the year. I hadn’t slept for days because I was doing other spec demos. I got a call from (line producer) Franco Bario for “Saved By The Bell.” He said, “We hear you doing great work. Can we get a spec demo from you?” I was just exhausted. I said, “Franco—that’s your name right? I will do your demo, and I will meet with the deciders, and I will do another one the next day. Every day I will do one until it is exactly what you want. It’ll be like your script. You never shoot the first version of the script. You revise it until it is perfect. My way is like doing the script. If you get a bunch of spec demos, they are all first versions. My way is better, but you have to hire me first.” He said, “Well, that’s not what we are doing. Bye.” I said, “Before you hang up Franco, just remember my name is Wolff. I’m the guy that said no to the spec demo. You find exactly what you are looking for, I’m proud of you. Hire that person. Good for you. But if you don’t hear exactly what you are looking for you call me back, and we will do my deal, okay?” He calls me back two weeks later. Now he’s exhausted because “Saved By The Bell” is a huge deal, and they had hundreds of spec submissions, and he just couldn’t tell the difference anymore. He said, “Okay, I give up. We will do your deal.” I wrote for “Saved By The Bell: The College Years,” and I never ever ever again did a spec demo of any kind. It wasn’t from some moment of startling clarity, it wasn’t the zenith of understanding. I was just exhausted, and from that, I learned a great business lesson.

Over the years I’ve been hired to find music for jingles and often the instructions are to find more obscure music that sounds like an existing hit.

I did a lot of sound-a-likes, and sort of-a-likes in those days. As a composer, when I started doing real jobs, it was part of my job to make sure that the conversation never slipped into that cul-de-sac of, “Oh, the music should sound like” because it doesn’t matter how the sentence ends, it is already derivative music because it sounds like something. So my job was to steer the direction (of the conversation) into the function of the music. “Do you need me to accomplish a time period? Are we looking for a particular audience demographic?” Those kind of things are important. “How does it function?” Like for “Seinfeld,” It functions as an accompaniment to Jerry’s stand-up. Those are the kind of instructions which are good to give your composer. Any sentence that starts with “It should sound like” is not good.

You came to position yourself solely as the creator of music for episodic television.

Yeah. Part of starting my business and buying that building and starting my business was that I implemented a business plan for myself. My business plan had a single goal, and that goal was to impregnate the airways with Jonathan Wolff music. And, with that goal as my north star, I only accepted jobs that would serve that goal. So if there was an award show or pageant that came up–those shows have no legs. they are never going to air again—I was not doing them. I focused on episodic TV, and I realized in time that prime time pays better royalties so I focused on prime time episodic. Then themes were where it is at. Themes pay way more than any other kind of music. In an hour you can either have a one hour show or two half-hour shows. That’s two themes if you can get the jobs. And I could get those jobs. So I focused on prime time, major network, half-hour TV series.

With “Seinfeld” did the big music royalties start with syndication, and from the show being sold into foreign markets?

We didn’t even deliver M&E mixes (music and effects mixes which includes audio, (music, ambient atmosphere, horn honks, sound effects, but not the actors’ dialog) for the first couple of seasons. Why spend the money, time and effort when the show was never going overseas? It’s so linguistic. It’s so New York. I was surprised it was exported as far as Kansas. But somehow, someway, it came to resonate all over the world. Of course, we went back and retrofitted those first couple of seasons (with M&E mixes). What you said is true. My royalties to this day are more foreign-driven than domestic.

At the same time, you didn’t own the copyright or publishing of the themes or music used. You retained the songwriter’s share. These are works-for-hire, works subject to copyright that are being created by you as an employee as part of a job.

That is correct. These are jobs for which I was paid a composer’s fee. So I was, in effect, an employee of sorts, and the employer—usually the studio, sometimes the network—owns the copyright for the music that I created. They also own the publishing.

Prior to you creating music for the bigger studios and networks, you created non-exclusive music for numerous low-budget, independent “B“ movies.

I did do some of that. That was before I was doing the real TV work. I was only able to do that before. Once I started doing real TV work, it was no longer appropriate for me to be doing “B” movies. That is what that (non-exclusive music license) was for. There are lots of films out there, at least in the day, slasher movies and full movies and such, that they wanted good music for, and I could really do it well at a low cost. At the time, I would have been about 20K for a movie, and it would be work-for-hire of course. But for these independents I noticed something. They only wanted two things. One, they wanted to finish the film and get it to market. They had mortgaged their houses to get this film made…

These low-budget, productions usually had used all their money in the filming and had no money left for music. It was usually, “What can you do for us to help us out?”

Well, here’s what I could do for them. Of course, the only way the only way they were ever going to recoup any of their money was if they could get the film to the festivals and get distribution. That is what they cared about the most, and not having to spend a lot of money. I put those two things together and I offered them a deal. Instead of my regular fee of $20,000, it was $10,000 for this non-exclusive master license which meant that the original music that I had created that they could use. I made sure that I did a really good job of it because the non-exclusive part of it meant that I could use the same music in a similar deal on another picture.

After an agreed upon time period?

No. There were timing issues but they weren’t on me. For $10,000 they get to use Jonathan Wolff’s music for domestic theatre release, but they only get it for a year. Now if the film has legs they would know within a year and, at that time, it was built into the license a whole bunch of reserve rights. Å la carte options. So for $5,000 they could get it in perpetuity. If it went to a secondary market, like TV or cable, $5,000. If it went to home video another $5,000. If it went overseas another $5,000. You got the idea. All these ways were so that when they made money I would share in the income stream. On a decent film, I would end up making between $30,000 and $40,000. The filmmaker could defer music licensing expenses for those categories until he had secured income streams from those additional territories and distribution markets. And the beauty of that deal is that I still owned all of the music. I was getting way more revenue in the long run. They were happy because they didn’t have to pay it all out in the beginning. If they were getting money, they didn’t mind paying the bill.

One of the difficulties working in the independent film sector is tracking down the filmmakers after the film goes into distribution.

Compliance wasn’t really a big deal. Of course, the companies that they set up would go bye-bye, but the client was not the company. The client was the actual filmmaker whom I made the deal with. But the movie itself would still be earning money. That is how that non-exclusive master rights worked.

You stopped doing non-exclusive licensing.

It became inappropriate for me to keep doing them because I was doing real (TV) work. I made plenty of money. It was like an ATM machine. Clients were happy but as pipeline money (from TV work) started to come in, I decided that it was time to stop doing this. I sold the music I had to one of the music production library companies… I can’t remember which one.

“Real work” where you couldn’t ask for non-exclusives.

You are right with new clients. That deal has no place with the new clients. TriStar and the others were never going to do that deal.

They want all rights in.

Yes, and they are entitled to it because they are going to pay my fee.

Working on 10 to 15 shows a week there must have been times when you created music that was never used on air.  

In each of those shows there would be some call for, maybe, there’s a biker bar where there’s a scene. So I would create, in advance, raunchy blues coming out of the jukebox for that biker bar, and then I’d kind of set it aside. Now sometimes by the time that show was edited that scene had gone bye-bye. Well, that raunchy blues belonged to me. I owned everything because it wasn’t turned in as part of the work-for-hire. It was extra work that I did for nothing. That could happen 10 or 15 times a week. So those built up over time, and I owned them, and then I sold them (the tracks) to the music production library

Over the years,  you have lectured at Yale University, Harvard Law School, the University of Southern California, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Berklee College of Music and other universities on the business of music. So many musicians and songwriters fail to understand that while they are musicians and songwriters, they are also small business people. If the Beatles were screwed, they can be too.

There’s a long list of great artists who have been screwed. Part of what I lecture on is the importance of business in addition to your musical skills. Yes, it is important that theory and harmony and orchestration and arranging and recording arts, all of that stuff is important, but it’s equally important to have working skills related to intellectual property, copyright, contractual rights, publishing, licensing, and royalties. It’s a long list. But that made such a difference to me. That I was so well-versed in those things so I could make more money. If you learn how to use these things to your advantage you can make more money. I do lecture about that. I lecture at a lot of law schools on that stuff.

The fun part of being a musician or a composer is creating music. The not so fun part is dealing with business

Well, I kind of got off on some of the intricacies of the business side.

You learned to navigate complex copyright and royalty issues with the help of your lawyer, Steve Winogradsky who has since retired. You once told him, “My highest-earning TV shows are paying out about the same amount as my losers are.” How does that happen?

The parameters that the PROs (Performance Rights Organizations) and the networks use to determine the collection value of music—to make corporate, and to make CRB (Copyright Royalty Board) decisions—it is the sum of the dollar. We’ll use SESAC as an example. When SESAC only had a couple of production libraries, and most of the music was being aired on TV at 2 o’clock in the morning the network was not going to pay them big bucks for the license because they weren’t earning big bucks on the programs with the music. That’s the collection value based on viewership, income from advertising.

Now the distribution value, which ends up on the statement of the composer, the way that they determine that value is how long was the piece of music? Was it a visual vocal or was it background? At ASCAP, I had the top three shows on TV, and I had the bottom three shows on TV. I looked at my statement, and I figured my top three shows should be earning more money, right? But that’s not how it works. That was just the way it is. It irked me. “Why is that?” I was complaining to my lawyer Steven Winogradsky. “C’mon, Steve they are collecting tens of millions for this one series in collections, but that does not translate for me for me. The performances are paid out at the same rate.” So he reached out to someone who would understand the question, and that was  Dennis Lord at SESAC (as senior VP Business Affairs). At the time, the SESAC repertory included no significant TV music and there were no SESAC writer affiliates with established TV credentials. This meant that SESAC was not able to collect substantial broadcast license fees from any TV broadcasters. SESAC wanted to increase TV collections. They really wanted to really be able to go to the table with NBC and others and say, “You better pay us.” The way that they did that was that they acquired me as a client, and I said, “I am no longer in the distribution value business. I am in the collections’ value business. I want to be compensated on a guarantee for the value of the use of my music.”

The SESAC deal was sealed in 2000, and I announced my retirement the same day.

What exactly did SESAC gain from you?

When I joined, SESAC acquired the right to collect on my behalf and on behalf of the publishers, for broadcasts of music I had created (past and future). Mostly, SESAC was interested in the “Seinfeld” music, and soon after, “Will & Grace.” This enabled them to immediately demand larger license fees from both NBC, and TMLC (The Television Music License Committee).

You remain with SESAC?

The deal is in place and enforced until 2028.

You actually planned for a voluntary dissolution of your corporation Music Consultants Group to take place in 2005.

Instead of accepting assignments from new clients after 2000, I mostly referred new assignments to individuals on my team, ensuring that they had steady composing work. If needed, I loaned them money to start their own studio. And they were happily removed from my payroll. Those on my team, who stayed with me until 2005, inherited my clients. It worked well so I could just leave and focus on my family and our new life in Louisville.

In 2005, “Will & Grace” announced another—extra–season. Composer Paul Buckley, and music editor Jack Diamond, both long-time members of my team, took over the episodic special material assignments for “Will & Grace.” The show continued using my theme, and piano transitions from earlier seasons. The new “Will & Grace,” currently on NBC, is still using my theme and transition music. Jack is the music editor. The episodic music cue sheet entries list my name as composer for all the cues.

With all of the different re-transmission of music, including via cable, satellite the internet, third-party licensing, there are almost insurmountable issues at stake today, first and foremost the sharing revenues by all the claimants involved. To compete more efficiently with other high profile claimants seeking re-transmission revenue from the fund created by CRB by a compulsory license, ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC collectively submit to the CRB in those hearings as one music claimant rather than submit separate claims.

ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC are generally in competition for a piece of whatever the royalty pie that they can squeeze out of the broadcasters. Once, every few years, they work together as a collective, and apply as one music claimant to the Copyright Royalty Board dealing with re-transmission of cable and satellite broadcasts is concerned because those two sets of copyright laws—I think it’s 111 and 119—are written, okay it make sense. It’s a retransmission. You turn on the TV and there the NBC affiliate from Oklahoma on your TV. That’s a re-transmission but it’s not covered by any blanket license. So the CRB created this compulsory license. The funny thing is that nobody really complained about paying it because it’s not such a big deal. It’s not a lot of money. But cumulatively it is a lot of money. And the way it’s written is all copyright holders can claim a piece of that compulsory license. The problem is that means not only ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC but also a long list of claimants whose copyrights are included in those secondary transmissions are going after the money. All these people saying that they have content there that needs to be compensated for.

Your testimony last year to the CRB on behalf of the music claimants, ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, was detailed. You significantly argued that the monetary value of the music in a television show should be tied into the success enjoyed by the TV show, and its broadcasters.

That is exactly the stopgap measure being addressed by the current copyright regime. It might be going through. For 2010 to 2013 statuary licenses that just happened, the music claimants which was through the PROs (BMI, ASCAP and SESAC) asked me to give testimony on behalf of them. My job was to convince them (the CRB judges)  that the monetary value of the music in a television show should be tied into the success enjoyed by the TV show and its broadcasters. Sure, the wardrobe, set furnishings, building exteriors, and props are all important and necessary, but a good TV theme is a bespoken non-fungible production element, and it transports you into the world of the show itself.

So a lot of my testimony was about the value of a theme. Theme music plays a functional and practical role in the success of a TV show.

In the United States, section 203 of The Copyright Act allows authors (composer) to reclaim rights to their works after 35 years.

Yes, it’s 35 years. That is the reclamation for copyright here in the United States.

That may not be the case for the bulk of the music on TV, which was created under work-for-hire. As we have discussed, a work-for-hire—or “work made for hire”—agreement essentially states that a person or company who commissions a work from an author (composer) retains actual ownership and is, in fact, considered the legal author of the work. So composers of TV music likely won’t be able to reclaim rights to their works after 35 years.

That’s a million dollar question. The copyright holders (the networks and production companies) would say, “No. It was work-for-hire. It was not subject to reclamation options.”

Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”

He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.

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