Chances are good you’ve heard music touched by Jeff Freundlich, even if you’ve never heard of him. The New York City native, 36, is co-owner of Wild Whirled Music and Fervor Records, whose music is played on film and television 7 days a week. Music from the licensing catalog and record label has been featured on everything from major network comedies to hockey games, and when he’s not helping build up the perfect soundtracks for film and TV, he’s also making music on his own. Next Tuesday, January 1, Freundlich will release a new album, Floodgates, under his project’s name The Blue Flood, which features a diverse range of sounds including hip-hop and electronic. Read on for how he thinks his business affects the music industry and for what inspires him as a musician, as well as to hear five reasons why he loves living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
While I was in college, I knew I wanted to be in the music industry, and I was a college marketing representative for EMI Records, for 3 years. My senior year, the label folded. I got really panicky about the volatility of the music industry, so I worked for this huge consulting firm and then this Internet startup, chasing money. My wife was a book publisher, and both of us were making gobs of money but were totally miserable, because I wanted to be writing music, and my wife wanted to paint. She had grown up out here. I was writing my sister’s graduation card in 2000, and I realized I wasn’t following any of the advice I was giving her. We realized we needed to get out of New York to pursue our dreams. We literally hopped on a plane to Phoenix, looked at 30 houses in a week, found one we liked, made an offer, got it, flew back, and told our jobs that we were quitting to go pursue our dreams rather than chasing dollar bills. We had built up so much goodwill with our jobs, and they were so blown away with what we were doing, they let us telecommute, in 56k modem world, from Phoenix until we got things figured out. We’ve been here ever since.
Tell me about Wild Whirled Music and Fervor Records.
Wild Whirled music is the parent company, and Fervor Records is the label. For the business-to-business marketing world, we license a lot of music via Wild Whirled. An extension of our label is Fervor Records Vintage Masters, which is basically the legacy artist side of what we do. Phoenix has such a rich music history, and not a lot of people know about it. The idea behind Fervor Records Vintage Masters was to take this incredible body of work that was created in the 50’s-80’s and promote it and champion the artists. We have music going back to 1921 now, from Morrison Records coming out of Seattle. They’re one of the very first record companies from the Pacific Northwest, and we place those types of old tunes in shows like Boardwalk Empire.
What was music like in Phoenix in the 1950’s?
You had an incredible roster of artists coming through here. Waylon Jennings came through here, Wayne Newton. We actually have the song that got Wayne Newton his record deal when he was 12-years-old at Capitol Records. You had incredible producers coming through here, such as Lee Hazlewood and an intern named Phil Spector. It was an unbelievably fertile place.
How did Wild Whirled and Fervor Records get started?
My two business partners Dave (Hilker) and John (Costello) have been writing together since the late 80’s, and around 1990, they started putting out compilations together under the name Fervor Records that were predominantly sold retail to raise money for charities like St. Mary’s Food Bank. They had a couple really successful releases, and it was one of the first successful compilations of Phoenix artists. Dave and John started writing for film and TV for other companies, and the label kind of went on hiatus.
I met Dave and John in 2002, and rather than writing for other film catalogs for film and TV, we decided to create our own licensing company under the name Wild Whirled Music. Everybody brought something to the table. I really needed someone to teach me how to be a better writer, they needed somebody with a business background like myself. We started getting music on shows like One Tree Hill, and the next day, we would get all these e-mails from teenagers asking where they could buy the music. We decided to reactivate the label to market the music we were placing in film and TV shows. We now have over 100 retail releases, and it’s really cool to lift up these other artists, as well as our own stuff.
What got you interested in making music your career?
It’s always been a part of my life. My grandparents played four hands piano and toured around the world, and from the earliest age, I remember sitting on the piano and playing with my grandmother. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a drummer. Music has always been important for me, and around 7th or 8th grade, it started becoming a coping mechanism for life — that’s what music is for me. It’s a way for me to express myself and get out my frustrations. I played drums in high school, and the bands I was in played all the clubs in New York, like CBGB’s and The Bitter End. You start getting wrapped up in this musical history, and it’s always just been a really powerful thing for me.
What’s your songwriting process like?
It takes a really long time to figure out something worthwhile to say and then have the tools in the toolbox to say it in an eloquent way that will relate to other people. There are times when there is something I need to get off my chest, and there’s an opportunity to express it, and hopefully everybody else can latch on to that, and it’s meaningful to them, as well. Other times, especially if you’re writing for film or TV, there’s certain subject matter you know is going to be relevant to the film or TV world. The trick is finding a balance of what’s meaningful to you as well as the things that are important to the industry and finding a way to make it your own and keep it interesting.
What’s your typical week like?
When I’m here during business hours, it’s doing licensing and talking with clients and figuring out what they need on shows like Arrow on The CW or Parenthood on NBC. For myself, personally, two or three nights a week, when I’m in writing mode, it’s staying up until 1:30 or 2 in the morning and cranking out music. The most recent has been The Blue Flood, which will come out in January. I’m also creatively involved in two to three commercial releases a year. Other than that, there’s a ton of other music I write for film and TV. We just don’t release it on Fervor because it’s score-based music. My goal is to try to write or co-write 60-70 songs a year.
What’s the process like when a TV network or filmmaker approaches you for a song?
Every now and then, they’ll send us a clip and say, ‘Could you throw a bunch of music up against this and see what works and send us your best five selections?’ Other times, they’ll say, ‘We’re trying to replace a Linkin Park song. What do you have that has the energy of that tune?’ Other shows will come to us at the beginning of the year and say, ‘This is the tone of the show, this is what’s going on, send us a basket of songs, and we’ll just start filling them in in the TV season.’ They know we’re a trusted source, and the quality of our music is good, so we get to play ball with them.
What’s the licensing landscape like?
It’s unbelievably competitive. We know if we’re pitching, there are probably 15 or 20 other companies pitching for the exact same spot. It comes down to what works in the scene. A lot of times, music supervisors will come to us and say, ‘We really like this, it just doesn’t work for this particular scene,’ so they might hold on to a piece of music for 2 years and then come back and say, ‘Finally, we have a chance to use this piece of music.’ The trick is to continue to be in the conversation and be writing and creating and encourage others to write and create really high-quality material. If you do that, there’s a really good chance that we can place it for you.
Is there any show you’d like to get Fervor Records’ music placed on?
If you name the show, we’ve probably been on it. We’ve been on everything from Mad Men to Boardwalk Empire to Parenthood. We work with both nationally televised and local sports broadcasters. We have a hip-hop song from our artist Tarik NuClothes, “Miney Mo,” that has literally been in every single FOX Sports hockey game for the past three seasons.
Is there any tone/genre that is more difficult than others to write for or one that comes more naturally?
None of it is easy. That’s the truth. Coming up with something unique to say or something that you think somebody else wants to hear, or writing something in a way that is beautiful or scary or whatever that mood is, is never easy for me. It’s constantly an uphill battle. I don’t enjoy doing it — I enjoy when it’s done. It’s like working out. When you’re in the grind of doing it, it’s not necessarily enjoyable, but the endorphin rush afterwards or the satisfaction of knowing you did it is what’s powerful to me. I really enjoy writing in all different styles — it could be R&B or sugar pop or electronic or punk.
How do you find inspiration for the instrumental music you write?
There are a lot of emotions that can be expressed without lyrics. Mozart said music’s in the melody, so there’s a lot you can communicate without words. I think the important thing is beginning with the end in mind, knowing what you’re trying to accomplish, whether it’s the mood, feeling or tone, and just kind of pushing through and getting to that end result. Being creative is about the willingness to play, and not being afraid to fail and try different things. We live by the mantra of just playing and not being afraid to fail.
What do you look for when you’re signing an artist to Fervor Records?
We have a ton of artists who are signed to Fervor Records commercially, but then there are a select few we’ll take to MTV, make videos for, etc. So far, we’ve done that with Super Stereo and Tarik NuClothes, and the third one will be Fayuca. Their record will come out in May. First, they have to have their head screwed on straight. There’s this misnomer in the entertainment industry that you can be a party freak and do lots of drugs, and there can be this total lack of accountability. The truth is, it just doesn’t work that way. You need to go in with strong heads on your shoulders, understand how to be creative and do that piece of it. But really, the work starts after the record is done, having a level of commitment to go out and do shows and build a fan base and do all the things necessary to go out and promote the record. The second thing is that good artists kind of meet at the intersection of having a unique point-of-view and having the ability to say something eloquently. When you do that, you get this explosive result.
How did The Blue Flood come about?
Andy Gerold and I have known each other for 8 or 9 years. He’s written a lot of music for our catalog, and maybe 2 or 3 years ago, we started talking about doing something together. The first project we did together was a record for Anna Vivette, and we fused classical music with hard rock, electronica and opera. It was really fun working with him, so when that project ended, it was very clear on both sides we wanted to continue working together. The beauty of technology is you don’t have to be in the same place to collaborate anymore. I was writing songs at home, and I’d track vocals here, and I’d send it over to Andy, who was on the road touring with the musical Rock of Ages. There’s some music you write because you kind of know it will do well, and then there’s other music you write because it’s meaningful to you. For whatever reason, it was extremely cathartic to write this record together.
What’s your view of the music industry in general?
There’s so many sleazebags, and we’ve always tried to be the honest guys and try to carry ourselves with integrity. It is hard to sell music. Everybody in this world broadcasts now, and nobody receives. It used to be people listened to the radio non-stop and were watching MTV. That world doesn’t exist. We’re on Facebook and Twitter and have our own blogs, so it’s very hard to get anyone’s attention. The good news is that if you’re an indie artist, it’s never been easier to get your music out there and connect. It’s never been easier to discover new music. The question is just, ‘Who’s listening?’ because everybody seems to be doing their own thing.
What kind of impact do you think film and television have on the music industry?
Film and TV are great platforms for finding new artists, and we live in a world where people Shazam things now. The question now is, ‘Are people passively or actively engaged with anything?’ You can be at an Arizona Diamondbacks game, but you’re Facebook-ing and Tweeting about it instead of watching the game. You could be watching TV, and you’re probably also sitting there with your iPad. My general concern in life is, how present are we in any given moment, because it seems to me like people aren’t that present anymore, so they’re kind of passively experiencing these things instead of being actively engaged.
Having said that, if you are an artist, you have to have a digital presence. YouTube is the second-largest search engine in the world right now, so you better have music up on YouTube for people to find you.You should be on Pandora because it’s a great way for people to find new artists, and I feel people are actively engaged trying to do that on Pandora. If you’re really committed to being an artist, you need to do 150 shows a year and build a fan base. There’s very little money to be made in selling music on a consumer level, because we buy our music a la carte now. We had a song called “City Lights” on Smallville on The CW, and we had, in its final season, the most important song in the most important episode where this main character dies and is in this funeral procession. There’s literally no talking for 2 minutes, and it was an artist named Paul Taneja, and he had the defining piece of music. We sold over 1,000 downloads because the music was emotionally connected to the scene. None of these people thought, ‘Oh, what other songs does Paul Taneja have out?’ Nobody bought the full record. Nobody wanted to explore other songs. They all bought that song a la carte, and that’s the retail environment we all live in. Fewer and fewer people buy the full record anymore.
Do you see artists moving towards more of a singles model?
I think there’s certainly value in doing EP’s and throwing it out there and seeing if it sticks, but I think the power of doing live shows and building a fan base the old-fashioned way is that if you can convince people to spend $5 or $10 on a ticket, and they have a few drinks, and they’re engaged at your show, there’s a good chance they’ll open up their wallet if you’ve made an emotional connection. They’ll buy the full CD for $10, and they’ll buy a T-shirt, and then the artist can make some actual money. It’s hard work, and you’ve got to go out there and sell and make an emotional connection with your fan base.
Is there anything that stands out to you about the Arizona music scene?
There’s a world of talent here. Coming from New York City, you’re kind of like a music snob because you assume the best talent is going to be in New York or LA, and it’s not true. There are incredible producers here, there are incredible studio musicians, and then there’s this local scene of artists. We’re based here, but we’re really an international company. Our music is distributed to 37 countries, and our client base is in LA and New York. Our job as a record company is to be to filter and bring the best to a national and international stage. We like to comb the local market and find the best artists, singers and songwriters and lift them up.
How does Fervor Records stand out among other record licensing companies?
The competition is fierce. There are so many companies who do what we do, and there are so many artists trying to get their music in film and TV. That’s primarily because the cost of recording music has gone down dramatically. It used to cost at least $10,000 to make a record, and that’s not the case anymore. You can go out and buy a Pro Tools rig and a Mac, and if you do know what you’re doing, you can come up with something quite special, so the market is flooded with good music in a lot of ways. We differentiate ourselves with integrity, following the letter of the law with copyrights. There are a lot of brokers out there re-titling music and claiming it as a separate copyright, but any artist with integrity would never do that. It’s our ears. Dave has some of the best ears in the industry. From an A&R perspective, he really knows what works and doesn’t work. We have a unique point-of-view in regards to the artists we bring to the table. It’s our diversity. We don’t specialize in one style of music. We have an incredible jazz collection, and then we have R&B and hip-hop and pop. By taking this wide approach to offering music to film and TV clients, we become more relevant in that conversation because we have so much more to offer.
What advice do you have for people who want to make music their careers?
Do not give up on your dreams. Most people give up too early. When my wife and I moved out here to Phoenix, maybe we were too cocky or stupid to realize the risks we were taking, but I’m so glad we made the commitment to make it work. If you’re good or willing to learn to get good, you have to give yourself a fair chance. When we started Wild Whirled, my partners and I were working 15-hour days for months on end, and it takes an incredible amount of drive and passion, and you have to get some thick skin. We’re on TV 7 days a week, and we still hear “no” 95 percent of the time. It’s really easy, especially on the artist side where things tend to get more emotional, to want to give up and quit. If you really think you have what it takes, the trick is to continue educating yourself, and do not give up.