Harvardwood is pleased to launch Two by Two, an occasional Q&A from two alumni who interview each other. Our participants are longtime Harvardwood volunteer Megan Goldstein (Vice President, Film & Television Music at BMG) and Harvardwood Advisory Board member Robert Kraft (musician, producer and former President of Fox Music) who discuss music, creativity, and the gift of no and the curse of yes.
These are highlights from that interview.
Megan Goldstein: The first thing I want to bring up is that I remember you speaking in one of my classes at Harvard. The class was Broadway-focused on writing and creative and the music industry through Broadway. I don't know if this is ringing any bells for you.
Robert Kraft: Totally ringing bells! I also remember telling the story at the beginning of class, which is kind of appropriate for us to kick off this conversation. It was ironic for me to be the guest speaker at a class at the Harvard music department. As a Harvard freshman, I had wanted to be a music major because I was a musician, full stop. I had thought about going to different schools but got into Harvard. My brothers said, “If you get into Harvard, you go,” but it didn't change what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in music and in the music department. And to get into the music department, you had to audition for Elliot Forbes, who was the chairman at the time, may he rest in peace.
I went to my audition, and though I had written songs and been in a band since I was in fifth grade, I was asked to read a Bach Prelude. I was a terrible sight reader. I started to read and fumble through, and Mr. Forbes said, “You know, let's just stop.” I told him that I was there to focus on my interests, which are Black American artists. I loved Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Muddy Waters, and I loved the Rolling Stones who played Willie Dixon songs. When I started to tell him how much I wanted to study that, he said, “You're in the wrong place. The music department's not for you.”
Thankfully, I was taking a freshman seminar in visual and environmental studies, and I was really happy to be admitted to that department. Fortunately, things have changed. White Eurocentric teaching is dead and buried, and now there's a Quincy Jones Chair of African-American Music at Harvard.
MG: That’s a pretty upsetting story. I do think it has changed, or at least started to change. That said I also found it was a bit of a struggle to find the right place to study what I was hoping to study. I was a double concentrator, anthropology and music, not because I had any interest in anthro, but because I was very interested in film. I went to film school afterwards for grad school at USC, but at Harvard, all the film-related classes were in anthropology. So I ended up in this concentration, which I had no interest in, because all the classes that I wanted to take were housed there. But to speak to diversity of perspectives in the music department, I definitely think I had a better experience than you did. One of my favorite classes in the music department was on Middle Eastern instruments like the actual technical writing and playing of these instruments. It was one of the best classes I took while I was there. We had to learn to play them a little bit. It was awesome. Looking back, I feel there was a lot of interesting classes that were pretty great.
RK: That’s really the exact opposite of my experience. In this way, you were exposed to non-European music. There's a recent academic debate – of which I couldn't possibly quote all the pros and cons – that music theory is racist. It's kind of been flaming online for a couple years that there's a professor who is very much in favor of the idea that if you're going to be in a music department, you need to understand Eurocentric music. Then there's this kind of counterpoint to that, which is exactly what you did, which includes micro tones and Middle Eastern music and whole other traditions.
I really loved my time at Harvard. I played exactly the music I wanted to play. And hearing what you did, you solved the problem. In my junior year in visual and environmental studies, I wrote a paper on Leonard Bernstein’s score for On the Waterfront – that's about as close as I came to film music – and how it was kind of the antecedent to West Side Story, which Bernstein wrote it in 1956. But I didn't have any clue that film music is where I'd end up. I thought it was just a cool thing to write about. I then went on to start a band in New York and just do what I wanted to do, which was trying to be Led Zeppelin. Which didn't work out.
MG: Well, in your defense. it worked out okay!
RK: You went from music and anthropology; you could have ended up following in the steps of Margaret Mead.
MG: I didn't want to at all. In fact, I remember as I went through the anthropology department really hating anthropology! Like you and I think so many people, when I got into Harvard, I didn't expect it to happen. I, too, was going to go to NYU, to New York, and do music and film. That's where I wanted to be. And then this thing happened to me. So I thought, I’m going to go there, because I guess that's what you do when this happens to you. When I got there, I thought I needed to be a history major and “get serious.” Everybody does that when they arrive, they forget about what they want to do and who they are because they're in this place that's scary and serious and smart or something. I had always been a musician. I always played in bands. I also studied classically, but jazz was what I really liked in high school.
After I arrived at Harvard, I thought, “My extra credits will be music and theater and dance and film. but I will study straight.” I was unhappy, and I hated it. I also came from a high school where I had to take some remedial classes, like writing, because I didn't come to Harvard ready the way I should have, and I was miserable. I thought, “What am I doing?” And I just switched to music. And I just loved old film, the history of film. It was just my whole thing. And Harvard had nothing. Now they have a film major ...
RK: Sort of, I think it’s part of the visual environmental studies.
MG: Yes, but I think they have something more focused that they didn't have when I was there, more film centered, because they didn't have anything at all, really. Once I decided what I was going to do, it was like no one could stop me. I just found the classes and made the major be what it was going to be. I took the classes that I loved in anthropology, the film classes, I took this Brazilian documentary film related to literature class, just incredible classes that were really small. They were the best part of my whole academic experience.
I appreciated the music theory classes and all the piano, too, because I had always been a musician. But my theory background was somewhat limited. The piano was really good for me. I came out being able to conduct, write and arrange music in a much more sophisticated way. It allowed me to have church gigs, write music and be a band member in a more supportive and integral way than I had been going in. So it all kind of worked out. But it was a long process of figuring out that you just kind of have to do what you want to do. Which is, for some reason, really hard. Sometimes.
RK: It's interesting that you figured it out. I stumbled along and, as they say in Hollywood, “shit happened.” I knew one thing I wanted was to write songs and be in a band. But in the film music thing – which has become me on both sides of the coin – making music for film and making films about music, which has become my main thing – was accidental. I'm envious of you having that focus. You know, as my favorite tattoo says, “No Regerts.”
I mean, it was hard enough. 1976 was an interesting moment. I had a couple firsts; one of them was, I was the first person told to go to the Harvard Office of Career Services, which had just opened.
MG: Wait, so that office only existed since the 70s?
RK: Yeah. There was a Harvard Office of the Arts that started giving out stipends to study a topic. I wanted to study piano in my own way, and I was given $250 to pay a piano teacher for a year. I took really weird piano lessons in Cambridge with a kind of conceptual John Cage-like dude. I went into the Harvard Office of Career Services and said, “I want to be a songwriter. What do I do next?” And the guy who ran it, who I loved – we became great friends – said “I have no idea”. He said “I know a guy, he's editor of Time magazine in New York, you should go see him.” I went and saw him, and he said, “I don't know why you were sent to me, but I know a guy who writes music for Hawaii Five O, he lives near Lincoln Center….” I could trace the breadcrumbs of my entire career from that. He said, “You should go talk to a friend of mine who's at BMI.” And then somebody at BMI said “You need a music publisher,” and so forth.
MG: So it was the best advice you ever got.
RK: I think you've identified a life lesson. Which is that often, when we are getting advice, whether it's the best advice we've ever gotten, or the absolute worst thing we could do, we need our own antenna to suss it out. Consider the source who's giving you the advice. Is it an idiot? Is it a genius? Is it someone in between? Is it a person with a big, big heart, or a person who is basically saying, “This is what I would do,” which comes from their projection of who you are? I didn't know that then. But now it's very much a part of my life because I ask all the time, “What should I do next?” Because I never know what I should do next.
MG: Even now you feel that way? Even though you have a whole career to draw from and endless relationships?
RK: I do very much, particularly because I started a new career. I left Fox eight years ago, where I’d worked on film music for my whole time there. At Fox, I had fallen in love with making films and telling stories about music and through music – films like Walk the Line and Waiting to Exhale, and other films like Garden State were so much about the music. I realized that the record companies didn't understand the assets they had. So I decided this should be easy. I'm going to go make films about music – films that focus on music and use music in a certain way. What I didn't realize is that it's not easy at all. Big surprise, famous last words. I've had to learn and ask all the time, “How do you do this?” I think the hurdle of my new career was that no one took me seriously as a filmmaker. Because I was just the music guy. But I developed relationships with truly gifted filmmakers, where I could approach them and say, “I have an idea – would you like to work with me?” So I've ended up doing these projects with people who absolutely are my true heroes of filmmaking. I’ve learned so much from them.
MG: That’s such an exciting second career! I went to film school right after college, not wanting to be a filmmaker but just wanting to be in that headspace. To spend a couple of years in that headspace just for the joy of it and be able to get myself behind the camera and just do the whole thing even though I think I always knew I wanted to be more music focused. It’s like a dream to think you can have this successful career in music and then afterwards be, like, I'm going to produce – it’s like you’re living my dream.
RK: Well, first of all, success is very interesting and a non-fungible token. What really is a successful career? I am getting so much joy out of the struggle to get these films made. I’ve got to get there or die trying. With these big projects, it's one step forward and about 330 steps back. You're just about to go, and a pandemic hits, or you're just about to make a deal with an actor, and they get offered Indiana Jones. But as I was taught by one of my partners – a wonderful, brilliant producer named Stephanie Allain – pictures only die when you stop producing them.
That has given me the energy to push forward another day. It’s a lot different than making a record. You and I can make a record tonight.
RK: Yeah, boot up your laptop!
MG: At BMG, we have a department that's involved in film and TV. I have a lot more visibility on that than I did five years ago when we weren't doing as much. It takes so long to get anything accomplished in that space.
I was telling someone recently that I recently listened to an interview, and the interviewee was saying, “When I started no one wanted to give me a chance. All I kept hearing was ‘no, no, no, no, no.’ Finally someone said yes, and my project got made.” I remember being younger, and hearing similar stories from successful people. I remember thinking, “Wow, all those people at Netflix and Hulu and Fox, they all didn't recognize talent when they saw it.” I remember thinking that as a 15 or 21-year-old. Now when I'm listening to that story, I think “You probably needed to be told ‘no’ 25 times. You probably needed every single one of those ‘nos.’ because you weren't ready or it wasn't right.”
You went back and you went back. and you reworked it or you got another person's opinion, or you took more time with it, or you took something out. Today I feel totally different about that narrative.
RK: You are very wise.
MG: You’re so stupid when you're 21. You think. “That person is a genius, and no one could see it,” but you can’t see it’s really the whole point of the process! The struggle is hard. It’s about being told no. So that you end up at the best place and then this thing gets made, and when it's really good, it's because you were told no.
RK: There's a flip side to that, too, particularly for Harvard alumni, which I've inherited and have seen with other people, too. When you get a “yes” fast, you think you are golden. I remember I got signed to my first record deal. I mean, it wasn't fast. It was 1979, and I'd been humping it in New York City for three years making demos, trying to get a band signed and get my songs recorded. But I got a record deal, major label, all excited and thought I’d made it. I went home on the day before Thanksgiving from New York. The record was supposed to come out in the first week of January. A terrible time for records to come out, which I have subsequently learned.
I traveled home to Princeton, New Jersey, on the train, which I did all the time, but now I'm 24 and signed to a record label, and I'm more excited than I've ever been. The Princeton train stops at a little station near the campus, and I walk up to Palmer Square where my mother would pick me up. You had to walk past the Princeton University Store, it's like the Harvard Coop, I always went in there to look for records. I thought, now that I'm a recording artist, I'm going to go and see what the recent releases are. I looked through the miscellaneous records – and my record’s been released, I didn't realize it. It was in the Miscellaneous K section – Moodswing by Robert Kraft. I pulled it out. I showed the guy behind the counter and said, “Remember me? I've come in here and bought records since I was 13 years old. Look, I'm in your store!” And he was unbelievably blasé. “Oh … cool.” And I thought, “This is the biggest deal in the world, dude.”
MG: So you didn't feel any anger that you didn't know that your album was out?
RK: I thought as a Harvard grad, that I was done. I’d made it! I have a record in the store. I thought it was coming out in six weeks, but they had already shipped it. I didn't realize that was a peak moment, which lasted a year or two before things went downhill, which happens in every career – which is the record label folds. The guy who signed you leaves the company, so you're suddenly looking for a new deal. I thought, “Why me? I went to Harvard and Harvard people have it all worked out, we're special!” No, I was not special. A big lesson. So I think the flip side of hearing a “no” is that getting a “yes” can be a distortion of how, as they say, success and failure are flip sides of the same coin. I've known some Harvard folks who have come out and gotten lucky, gotten a deal, a song recorded, a publishing deal. And where are they now? There was probably a minute where they thought “I'm golden,” but it's never easy in this business.
MG: It's promised.
RK: Is music supervision a very challenging field?
MG: Yes and no. I've worked internally at larger companies so it’s a little bit different. In grad school, I played with a band – I don't know if you're familiar with the Milk Carton Kids.
RK: I have heard of them, they're like Americana.
MG: Yep. Anyway. Ken (one of the Milk Carton Kids), I played with his project before MCK, and it was so great. I was all about it. It was awesome. And then I was also working at Warner during that time and did both for a while and it just felt like everything was making sense and going the right way.
RK: We were at Warner together. I was a consultant for Warner Brothers Records from, like, 2012 to 16.
MG: Oh, for maybe six months to a year. I was there from 2007, right out of grad school, and then I moved to BMG in 2013.
RK: I think I started in 2013. Cameron Strang hired me when he was the president of the label. I tried to get record companies and publishing companies to open a film and TV division to take their assets and make movies and TV shows. This is my big fantasy, and you are actually living it.
MG: We are doing that at BMG. I have always expressed my love of film and my interest to be in that world. Anyone who knows me at BMG knows this. Now that we have this team, I want to be a part of that conversation.
RK: For something that is not definitive yet, the way I use the energy in the world, I say, “I am that person.” And let someone tell me that I'm not.
MG: Well, I don't sit in that department.
MG: I don't know the answer to that question, which probably just proves some point about what you're saying. But the truth is I love where I'm sitting at BMG right now.
RK: It's the future.
RK: I have a project with an artist that BMG publishes, and I am waiting for the right moment to come in to BMG to say, “I'm making a documentary about something that is a huge topic, and you're the publisher of one of the components. We could either do a sync deal where I have, you know, six tracks that are going to be in the film, and I'll give you a couple quid for that … or you can be more involved,” which is a conversation I’m having at Columbia with their premium Sony content. At some juncture, I want to come to you.
MG: This is that moment! It's happening right now.
RK: Thank you! Or another way is that you go into BMG and tell them that you’ve been told about a project ...
MG: That I would shepherd it.
RK: Right. I'm bringing this to you, and we'll take it over the finish line.
Megan Goldstein is a Los Angeles native who, after graduating Harvard '05, returned quickly to her home city to attend graduate school at USC in Cinema/Television. After finishing school she spent six years at Warner Music Group negotiating sync for film, television, and trailers on the record label side. She is now a Vice President at BMG heading up the U.S. synch licensing team. In addition to leading the team, she works with a variety of music supervisors and studios. Megan also stays active as a musician both as the Director of Handbells at First United Methodist Church of Pasadena where she writes and arranges music and conducts various groups, and by keeping her chops up performing around Los Angeles on sax and clarinet (and flute when she's forced to). She also sings with a small ensemble, The Dulcet Singers, and is active in the theater space, directing a community production of a Broadway musical each summer.
Robert Kraft is an award-winning songwriter, film composer, recording artist and record producer. As President of Fox Music from 1994 to 2012, Kraft was the Executive in Charge of Music for more than 300 Fox feature films, as well as dozens of TV shows. Highlights during his tenure at Fox include the record-breaking scores and soundtracks from Titanic, Moulin Rouge, Waiting To Exhale, Garden State, Walk The Line, Slumdog Millionaire, Juno, and Once. Kraft has earned Academy Award, Grammy Award, and two Golden Globes nominations for co-composing the song “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” from The Mambo Kings and “How Can I Not Love You” from Anna and the King. In 1989, Kraft co-produced all of the Oscar- and Grammy Award-winning songs from The Little Mermaid. Hudson Hawk (1991), starring Bruce Willis, was based on his song “Hudson Hawk.” In 2013, Kraft started Kraftbox Entertainment, with projects currently in production across several platforms, including the feature film Sugar Hill at Warner Bros Studios, the independent film SCORE! The Film Music Documentary, The Lion, an Off-Broadway musical, and the solo debut of trumpeter, singer and songwriter Spencer Ludwig on Warner Bros Records.