Text: Susan Karlin
The mischievous grin is the first clue. The second is the dog joining the interview. But to truly grok the cocky attitude behind Los Angeles music scoring company Bleeding Fingers is to relish the larger-than-life energy of its creative lead.
Russell Emanuel’s punk band days may be decades gone, along with outré marketing antics like launching a then-fledgling production music library with condoms whose packaging read: “Extreme Music: The Only Safe Thing You’ll Ever Get From Us.” Nowadays, the rebel-turned-work-aficionado shuttles the kids to school before arriving for 8.30 am at an office awash in instruments and mementos from the road. Yet, his brazen creativity hasn’t left his leadership style – it’s found a more refined channel matching invention with discipline.
Bleeding Fingers is a joint venture between Academy award-winning German composer Hans Zimmer, his long-time business partner Steven Kofsky and Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which now owns Extreme Music, but which Emanuel still helms. It resides in a nine-building, steel and concrete complex housing 50 state-of-the-art studios, vending machines dispensing free snacks and water, Zimmer’s personal office and studio, and Remote Control Productions, the scoring com-pany owned by Zimmer and Kofsky.
Although Zimmer will refer Bleeding Fingers a project or get involved in those coming through its doors, the secret sauce luring most of its business is the sonic mix of its thirteen in-house composers. They hail from eight countries, and sport different styles, influences and backgrounds. This blend has spurred the firm to being a leading player in music scoring and production for film, TV, gaming and virtual reality media, enabling inventive soundtracks on tight deadlines.
Additionally, the days of figuring out music lines on a piano for each instrument have given rise to powerful com-puter set-ups that can create polished demos before they are mixed and produced for release, or sent to orchestrators to draft music manuscripts for live orchestra recordings. Composers access libraries of high-quality sample sounds, single instruments and orchestral recordings via connected electronic keyboards. Their skill is in the manipulations of those libraries in ways that makes the visuals soar – and at a pace that might demand as little as two days to score an entire TV episode.
“We started Bleeding Fingers to be something very different – a collaboration-led composer collective,” Emanuel says. “Traditionally, it’s not unusual for composers to be insular; it’s often a single person, whereas here there’s an entire creative team assigned to any one project. When we’re considering new talent, we’re extremely surgical about it. Of course they have to be exceptional composers, but also they can’t disrupt the equilibrium of our finely tuned team.”
The diversity of composers echoes that of their directors. Emanuel, chief executive officer and chief creative officer, is the boisterous wise guy, whose business cards title him “O.G.” (original gangster). He’s the creative force, who cut his musical teeth in London’s punk scene in the 1980s as a guitarist, manager and producer. Chairman Kofsky is the business guru and the significantly quieter of the two, his soft-spoken South African lilt and wry reserve serving as a calm ballast.
“We were seeing incredible talent come through, because Hans is this magnet for talent,” says Emanuel. “They would either do their apprenticeship and leave or have nowhere to go because of the tier of other
composers that were creating a glass ceiling. By creating this business, we gave opportunities to the spectacular talent coming through this campus.”
A case in point is award-winning lead composer Jacob Shea, who works with both Zimmer and Bleeding Fingers. “There is very little quashing bold ideas,” he says. “There are a lot of people working on disparate projects in close proximity. It fosters a collaborative spirit and sharing of innovative ideas – and sometimes, commiseration. A community in a much larger sense.”
Bleeding Fingers is Emanuel’s second time revamping the music scoring business since co-founding Extreme Music in London in 1997. “At that time, it was a space that was underserved. It was McMusic,” he says. “We disrupted it by creating a catalogue that was exceptional and full of A-list artists including Quincy Jones, Snoop Dogg and Hans.” After selling it in 2008 to Viacom, which Sony later acquired, he stayed on as president and CEO.
Bleeding Fingers was born in 2013 to meet increased requests for custom scores from the torrent of reality and unscripted television trending at that time.
“Quickly we realized that what we wanted to do were these big shows,” says Emanuel. “We were getting such great talent that we felt we were able to do that. So, we had a quick reset. It took us two years to find our way.”
A seismic shift came in 2016, when the BBC selected Bleeding Fingers to score its docuseries “Planet Earth II.” That score went on to earn Emmy and BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award nominations. A second boost came the following year when “The Simpsons” tapped Bleeding Fingers to score its 29th season. “‘Planet Earth’ was a huge get, but we were also growing to the right level,” says Kofsky. “Quality shows like ‘The Simpsons’ expanded our appeal to a lot of people, so it was just kind of a massive acceleration.”
“A key difference is our adding a tier of seasoned music producers, whose role is to maximise the composer team’s creative flow and ensure that when the client hears music from Bleeding Fingers it has already been through a significant set of golden ears,” adds Emanuel. “Our clients often tell us, that they quickly build a different level of comfort because of this extra service.’”
As such, their business model has as much to do with workflow, hitting challenging deadlines, and artist incubation and retention, as it does with fostering creativity. Their stable of composers means Bleeding Fingers can accommodate last-minute jobs and tight turnarounds by assigning others to those
One client – Emmy and Peabody award-winning documentary filmmaker Tom Jennings, whose “Apollo: Missions to the Moon” airs on National Geographic in July 2019 – tells a story that exemplifies how conscientiously Bleeding Fingers con-siders its projects and integrates its resources.
National Geographic initially referred Bleeding Fingers to Jennings for his 2016 film “Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes,” about the 1986 space shuttle explosion. Because it relied solely on archival footage over interviews, music became integral to making the visuals pop.
Jennings originally planned to have a Bleeding Fingers composer do six themed music cues to begin each act and use Extreme’s music library for the remainder. However, Emanuel and his colleagues were so moved by the footage and its historical significance that they offered to score the entire film, to the point of using real instead of computer-generated stringed instruments. The film won an Emmy for research and a nomination for music and sound. “It became a really intense film, a tear-jerker, and a lot of that is because of the music,” says Jennings.
Jennings has since brought all of his subsequent work to Bleeding Fingers. “They pay attention. They’re extremely creative and highly responsive to what you need,” he adds. “They stepped up at a time when they didn’t have to, because they saw something in us that was really unique, and wanted to take the music and project to a higher level.”
Part of that process includes knowing when to step back. There’s only so much calculation and intuition Emanuel and Kofsky can put into their recruiting and guidance before they need to put the lid on the pot and let the ingredients simmer.
“We start by selecting composers who are already a 10. And then you put them together and you watch it percolate and it creates something special,” says Emanuel. “For everybody who comes here it’s a baptism by fire. It’s a very busy place and there’s a lot of expectation on all concerned. It’s truly an honour and a privilege to be on the ride.”
Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles who has written about the nexus of science, technology and arts for Fast Company, Newsweek, The New York Times, Scientific American, The Times of London, NPR and BBC Radio, among others. Despite having covered sound design and next-generation audio technology, this was her first encounter with Bleeding Fingers. “Their energy is infectious,” she says. “It’s like a high-tech music commune.”
“Working on disparate projects in close proximity fosters a collaborative spirit and sharing of innovative ideas – and sometimes, commiseration.”
Jacob Shea, composer with Bleeding Fingers
“To be honest, I’ve never really mastered any instrument because I’ve always wanted to do everything. I use my production software as an instrument.”
Andrew Christie, composer with Bleeding Fingers