An Interview with Tom Phillips of OBT Music

March 6, 2018

Music can have an indispensable influence in the impact of a film’s storytelling. Whether it is used to punctuate, create a mood, or reflect an atmosphere or era, a film’s score is as vital as lighting, scripting and editing.

We recently met up with composer Tom Phillips who, along with his business partner and fellow composer Tom Martin, runs OBT Music. Our conversation was wide-ranging and very insightful. But for FC members in particular, Tom was generous enough to extend a very special offer! Read on for more details!

Tom Phillips’ credits include well over 400 films for national broadcast networks such as PBS, ABC, CBS, National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, TLC, Lifetime, A&E and HBO, which have amassed an impressive list of industry awards. His scores are regularly heard on national broadcast television, including the Antiques Roadshow theme, programs for American Experience, and for Nova.

His resume includes four national Emmy winners as well as many other Emmy nominated films, including Freedom Riders which won 3 national primetime Emmys. He has scored many independent films which have won film festivals including multiple Sundance Film Festival winners such as The Murder of Emmett Till.

His scores are heard in countless exhibits, installations, and multimedia shows for museums and planetariums such as the American Museum of Natural History in NYC and the Museum of Science in Boston, as well films for universities including Harvard, Yale, Duke, Boston University, Cornell, and the University of Chicago to name a few.

So, Tom, how did you get into writing scores for television and film?
My music background is that I was 4 years when I started taking classical piano lessons. Almost immediately I would compose my own compositions. I was an English major in college, but dropped out in my last year to go on the road with a band that played the hotel circuit around the country. I wrote all of the parts for the band, writing instrumental and vocal charts
and arrangements.
That experience lead me to be a session player / arranger in Boston, and then I was in the right place at the right time for a producer to ask me if I could write a film score. That was in 1979, a WCVB series called Bodyworks. Later that year I scored Summer Solstice,  a WCVB / ABC movie of the week starring Henry Fonda and Myrna Loy. Kathryn Dietz worked on that production as well.
That’s the short version. The longer version is that it takes time to develop a creative craft that reflects who you are as an artist / producer / composer. And writing for so many diverse films requiring very different styles is a sink or swim proposition. I gradually “got it”, so to speak and learned how to compose a film score instead of just writing music that was in a film.

What are some of the series, films, documentaries that you’ve worked on?
I have scored hundreds of films, many for Nova, American Experience, Discover Magazine, and Nature. The Antiques Roadshow theme is perhaps my most nationally recognized work, and I still compose theme-oriented packages for the series. I’ve worked with Stanley Nelson since 2003 and his films are very rewarding as I feel that they cover important events in the
Civil Rights movement. The Murder of Emmet Till, Freedom Riders, Black Panthers, Jonestown, all great films. The Great War is a 6-hour American Experience that I scored that was extremely emotionally draining. I tend to immerse myself emotionally in the film projects and that can take a toll on me. I’m sure film producers and editors feel the same.

What role do you see a film’s score playing as it relates to storytelling?
The music score needs to be the creative vision of the producer and it’s my job to fulfill that. Some producers want the music to be like the wind at your back. You don’t notice it when it’s there but you would notice that something is missing if it weren’t.
Other producers want music to help tell the story. That can mean defining a time period, create an emotional dramatic tug, highlight a sense of dread or foreboding, paint a scene or mystery (as in film noir) etc.
Sometimes the music needs to provide energy, or provide a specific unique combination of instruments that help to create interest. My rule of thumb is that after I compose something and think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread I play back the cue without the music to see how the music affected the cue. Did it make it worse? Did it change the producer’s intent and is leading the viewer down an unintended path?
Obviously it’s subjective and it’s not a rule locked in stone. And some film producers miss that music has as much of an impact leaving as it does in entering. In other words, they have a fear of sonic space and tend to put music in wall to wall. I can’t tell you how many times in the final mix music cues have been pulled out to leave breathing room.

What drew you to this type of work and were there any film composers that inspired (or continue to inspire) you?
I took a film class in high school that set me on the path. We screened and analyzed films like The Loneliness of the
Long Distance Runner, The 400 Blows, Citizen Kane, The Woman in the Dunes….then I shot my own Super 8 film
for that class and edited it, adding in my own score that I had to sync up free hand. So I think it was inevitable
that I would not follow through being pre-law but go into film scoring. I love composers like Bernard Hermann,
Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Erich Korngold, there is a long long list of great film composers. There are plenty of really
good contemporary ones, like Thomas Newman’s Shawshank Redemption score.

You recently made a very generous offer to all FC members. Can you please share the details of the offer?
Sure, our offer is that all of the music in the OBT Film Music Library (OBT Music) would be available to
FC members on an annual subscription basis for a vastly reduced rate. As a benefit of being an FC member and supporter, we’ll offer unlimited use of the library for $750 for the year. The music for any application is good for perpetuity, and that includes all rights for all uses (national and worldwide broadcast, local broadcast, non broadcast, film festival, internet…etc.). Paper work is only required for broadcast productions, and we’ll be glad to help you with that. We feel that we can benefit FC members as a cost effective resource for film music. If a member comes across a situation where there is a need for a piece to be altered to fit their film better we can work with them to do that.
Obviously a cost for that would be determined by how simple or complex the alteration is.
Licensing music can be simple and painless. When an FC member subscribes to OBT Music they are given a blanket license which covers all rights but not for any specific film. When the need arises for a sync license that applies to a specific film, we’ll provide that.

OBT Music is myself and my partner Tom Martin. Our composing styles are very different, which is a good thing as it provides diversity in the library. All of the music in the library was written for films that we scored, so there’s an organic sense to the music that is not necessarily music for music’s sake…it’s film music. There are currently close to 2,800 original compositions in the library and we continue to add pieces regularly.