Neil Argo (MM-79) is a successful composer who has worked in the television and film industry for the past 28 years. In addition to being recognized as an Honored Alumnus, he has made a lasting contribution to UNC’s arsenal of educational resources by donating a massive collection of his commercial compositions to our university’s music library. The latest film to feature his work, Chavez: Cage of Glory, recently received its Hollywood premiere on September 5th. Mr. Argo took the time to talk with us about his student experiences and share some career advice for Bears who want to break into the entertainment industry.
How did you get your start as a commercial composer?
When I graduated from UNC and had to start hitting the streets to look for work it was a bit scary. Most of the friends I graduated with were starting their families and seeking out more stable work as music teachers. On top of that, I was trying to start a career in the entertainment industry later in life than most people since I had served in the Air Force before going to college. To cap it all off, there were almost no major television or film productions operating out of Colorado at that time.
That’s why I considered myself very lucky to get my first real job as a commercial composer working with Marty Stouffer on Wild America. See, Marty had done a bunch of one-hour specials for NBC with people like Robert Redford, Henry Fonda, and Joanne Woodward in the late 70s. Then he decided to move his production company back to his hometown in Aspen. He sent a letter out to the local colleges inquiring for folks who could assist with his production. Dr. Bob Ehle, my advisor at UNC, passed that message along to me. Well, I called Marty up and went after that opportunity like a dog on a bone until they hired me.
And how have you evolved as an artist since then?
My professional background was based in the old school production model: recording with real strings, brass, and woodwinds. That all changed shortly after I moved out to Hollywood in 1985. By 1990 I was working on the original Beverly Hills: 90210, which was one of the very first television shows to use an all-digital dramatic score. Since then, digital scores have become the industry standard.
So how did this shift toward digital technology affect the way that you work?
It was a true turning point for the entire field, so I rather unexpectedly ended up on the front lines of a major transition. After writing acoustical scores for Wild America out of Colorado, I continued working with live orchestras for five years in LA on primetime shows like MacGyver, Dynasty, and Mission Impossible. And then in 1990 it was all over and we found ourselves in an environment where no one was willing to spend that kind of money any more. To give you an example, on Mission Impossible it cost $30,000 per episode to make the score with live musicians. You can see why production companies were saying, “Hey, if a composer working in an all-digital environment can turn out a similar product working alone in a home studio, why not use that to cut our costs?”
Now working as a commercial composer means taking on what used to be the work of several different professionals. We have to write the score, mix it, go through several editing steps with input from our clients, and then package the finished product in the proper format. All of this on a very tight schedule!
How did your experience on Chavez: Cage of Glory fit within this newer production model?
Well, Chavez was my first time working on an action movie! After years of working in television I’ve gotten used to working very quickly in a number of different styles, but this was an exciting new experience. It’s also being marketed and distributed on a very impressive scale. We’re even having a major premiere at the TCL Chinese Theatre. LA is a unique professional environment in that your ability to get work is often based on the size of the projects you can land. Seeing Chavez get so much exposure is really encouraging!
On a practical level, making the score for Chavez was fairly similar to independent film productions I’ve worked on in the past. The entire finished and edited movie was delivered to me in five pieces, 15-20 minute “reels” which I actually received as digital files on Dropbox. From there I set to work in my home studio using just my keyboard and a software package called the Vienna Symphonic Library. This software includes the entire orchestral palate so I can perform each part of the score as I’m writing it and play the whole thing back instantly. As I said, this is all fairly standard now, but the composition process has changed a lot since I was a student at UNC!
What made you decide to study music at UNC and how did your experiences here help to prepare you for a career in Hollywood?
After finishing my undergraduate degree in Texas, I knew that I wanted to keep going with my studies so I could continue learning and gaining experience before going out on my own. I chose UNC primarily because of its strong school of music, but I also knew its reputation for being a teacher’s college. In a typical music conservatory, students are often secluded off in their practice rooms. At UNC, the environment is much more social. The faculty have a great record for teaching students how to relate their skills to others, including potential employers.
As someone studying composition, I was able to take full advantage of others’ willingness to collaborate! I wrote a lot of music at UNC and I had plenty of opportunities to work with live musicians. My Master’s recital was one of the largest performances in the school’s history, partially because I wanted to meet a personal goal of writing and conducting for as many different instruments as possible. Even though commercial composers these days are doing most of their work digitally, the experience of writing for live instruments really helps you to refine your musical sensibilities.
When I was a student, we had no way of hearing our compositions in advance other than playing them out line-by-line on a piano. You wrote everything down on paper and puzzled over the arrangements, but in the end you just had to hope that it would all work out! I still remember going to the recital hall for the first time and hearing the musicians play my music. It was thrilling! I went back to my apartment and I literally jumped up and down on my bed with glee! That feeling is something I’ll never forget.
Since graduating from UNC, you’ve donated over $100,000 worth of your original scores to the university’s archives and you’ve been recognized as an Honored Alumnus for your contributions to the arts. What has your continued relationship with the university meant to you?
Being nominated to receive an Honored Alumni award by Dr. Gene Aitken, who is extremely successful in the entertainment industry in addition to being a fantastic educator, was a total shock. It was a deeply moving experience to be recognized in that way! I still have some of the letters I received from the university at that time hanging up in my office.
One of the things I’ve always wanted to accomplish with my career is to leave some sort of legacy behind, something that will be of use to others. When I was at UNC, we had a much smaller music library. There were plenty of classics to browse through, but it was difficult to find examples of works made for film and television. I was able to track down the main title theme from Star Trek, but not much else. Thinking back on that experience, I decided that I wanted to help build a resource for future UNC students with an interest in studying commercial works. If anything I’ve done can have a positive effect on today’s aspiring young composers, I’ll be happy.
And what sort of career advice would you give to those aspiring young composers?
Take advantage of your time at UNC and try to get as much real world experience with live performers as you possibly can. Remember: studying up on your music theory is essential, but it’s just as important to practice building professional relationships within your community. You’ll always be better off if you can meet people who are willing to mentor you or introduce you to new opportunities. Take it from someone who has been working in the entertainment industry for 28 years: if you don’t have relationships you’re not going anywhere.
Thank you, Mr. Argo, for taking the time to share your insights with us! For more information on his past and present creative projects, be sure to check out Mr. Argo’s homepage here.
UNC’s Performing and Visual Arts alumni are such an accomplished group that it can be difficult to keep track of all their awards and exhibitions! Be sure to follow PVA on Facebook and get all the latest buzz. Is there another Performing and Visual Arts alum you’d like to see profiled on the Bear Den? Tell us about it in the comments section or contact our editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.