Ian McLeod is the founder of Cleod9, a music production company that creates music and sound design for commercials, documentaries, and film. The company has filled a void in the industry by focusing less on price points and more on personal relationships, swift delivery, and partnering with quality content. Since inception in 2014, they have produced music for many independent filmmakers and brands like National Geographic, Red Bull, Adidas, Sony, and Outside Magazine.
As a pianist, Ian grew up in the Jazz scene of DC where the music is a fusion of sounds between funk, hip hop, and go-go. His first introduction to recorded music was making beats for local hip-hop artists. Then putting music on the back burner, he studied advertising in college and worked for an agency after graduation. “I thought it would be cool to be the next Don Draper in Mad Men. It was a lot less appealing than I thought it would be. I think I romanticized what I’d be doing.”
After one year of corporate life, Ian started to miss music. While working on commercials, he realized that finding suitable music for each production was a pain. Working with composers is slow and expensive and vast music libraries can be canned and impersonal. This was the catalyst for Cleod9.
Before quitting his job, he sought the advice of entrepreneurs, designers, and musicians to learn how to build a brand. “In no way am I entrepreneurial. I didn’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body so I learned to be an entrepreneur on the fly.”
Ian began making cold calls and for the first six months he barely had any business. “I was reaching out to local realtors and making music for homes they were selling. It was brutal,” he laughs. “I live by a quote, ‘good things happen to those who hustle'”. He had zero contacts in the industry and relied completely on a phone call. “I think it’s a lost art these days. A lot of people email, but if you have the balls to call somebody to pitch what you’ve got in 30 seconds, I think that other person will respect it.”
Also, when you’re starting out, Ian believes that nobody needs to know how small or inexperienced your company is. “If you come across a certain way, believe in your talent, and know you can deliver, why exclude yourself before you get in the door? I remember having a couple calls with Nat Geo where they were asking about my portfolio. There were a couple of times where I had to build up what I had done to even get in the door. But once we did, I think we proved our talent.”
Cold calling is a tough and thankless pursuit, but his big break finally came.
Ian called a company in Jackson Hole, named KGB Productions. At the time, they were making great content for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. He made his pitch and the man on the phone said “it’s a really good thing you called because our music guy just left the business”. KGB had no budget left so Ian did the job pro bono, hoping for a chance to prove his talent.
The resort and KGB’s founder loved the music. A few months later, professional skier Sierra Quitiquit was filming a feature documentary of her life and hired KGB Productions. KGB instantly referred Cleod9 for the score. “Here I was after 6 months of just doing music for local realtors and all of a sudden I had a full feature documentary that was going to all the festivals like Banff and Telluride.”
Working with KGB introduced him to the outdoor industry where many of his projects are now focused. “There are so many people in this mountain film space that are willing to talk. Whenever I call these big LA or NY agencies I get ‘who are you, and what do you want’ and when I call these [mountain film] folks I get ‘oh that’s really cool, tell me more’.”
Cleod9 started to land jobs for bigger brands like National Geographic, Red Bull, and Nikon that all need quick turnaround times. In order to meet the increased demand, he hired three more composers with diverse musical backgrounds. This allowed him to build out a full music library with pre-made songs for quick turnarounds and smaller budgets.
Finding the right people was no easy task because he not only wanted great musicians, but people who also believed in his mission. “If you were to pick up the phone and call ten composers, I’m willing to bet that seven or eight of them are going to ask how much the project will pay. I learned quickly that in this industry, it’s not always about price. People are creating unbelievable content, often for social change, and telling stories that need to be told. I wanted people on my team who wanted to partner with great content and worry about price later.”
Music In Film
Unless written by a famous composer, music is often an overlooked aspect of film. However, it defines how the viewer feels at any given moment. Scoring a film requires turning a feeling from a visual into a piece of music. No easy task.
“That’s an interesting dynamic because what we are delivering is subjective,” said Ian. “It took time to get that process down. It requires an open dialogue between us and the filmmaker and a lot of detail.”
Sometimes the composers are given a rough cut of the film beforehand, but frequently they must rely on conversations with the filmmakers. Filmmakers don’t speak musical jargon, but Cleod9 can take general broad terms and redefine them in the studio. “We speak music in layman’s terms. Maybe the filmmaker wants something that’s bright and sunny that reminds them of blue skies and open fields. We know that’s going to have upbeat pace, orchestral elements, and it’s going to build to an inspiring epic head, then drop.”
Working on multiple projects at once often requires a drastic shift of focus. “We just finished a National Geographic documentary with Marcus Bleasdale about the conflict in the Central African Republic and at the same time we were finishing up a Ben & Jerry’s commercial. In the morning we were working on a conflict ridden piece with dark, ominous tones. Then at lunch we were making something for cookie dough pint slices,” he laughs. “It’s hard to get your head around, but that’s the beauty of having a team.”
The Curiosity Spark
What sets an unconventional person apart from the conventional? Ian believes it’s curiosity. “The people who I’ve met who are doing what I do have always asked questions and are curious about other things in life besides their job. People that are willing to take risks are all curious. It inspires you to reach out and learn more about that subject which sparks something in your mind; an idea, a drive to do something, or a passion. For me, it was reaching out to entrepreneurs and talking to people before I quit my job. Even though I didn’t see myself as entrepreneurial and would never have dreamt about leaving a job to start a company, I became more curious and thought maybe it was possible for me.”
Taking the first leap is half the battle and Ian admits he isn’t necessarily wired this way. “Some of that grit you can point towards a genetic backbone; meaning you are a person who is just wired to fight through adversity. If you’re not, I do believe there are still ways to combat that. Believe me man, I had doubt. Not earning money for six months after earning a steady paycheck really brings anxiety.”
However, to combat this anxiety he broke down his goal into smaller, more manageable tasks. “I set a deliverable of 50 calls per week, which meant 10 calls per day. After that I worked on music for two hours. Then I spent time working on my website and branding. When you’re busy, structured, have a tactical approach, and you really believe in your product, I think that’s a pretty good recipe man.”
Hollywood & Socially Conscious
Currently, Cleod9 has a good balance between commercial work, fun digital web campaigns, documentaries, and films throughout the year. But Ian wants to drive his company towards projects with meaningful content.
“I really love what Duct Tape, Then Beer (adventure production company) did with trying to save the Bears Ears monument. They are very environmentally and socially conscious with their business decisions and I want to continue to work with people who have that same mindset,” said Ian. “That being said, I’ve always had a goal of scoring a Hollywood film. We’ve done a lot of film festivals between Telluride, Banff, and Crested Butte, but I want to go to Cannes or LA for a film premier. I want to prove to the doubters that I can hang with my favorite composers like Phillip Glass and Hans Zimmer.”
Occasionally he rediscovers his passion for performing live music in DC jazz clubs and hotel bars, but he has found a greater sense of fulfillment in Cleod9. “What I love about what I do is that we’re building a body of work that I can show my kids, family, friends, and make them change or feel inspired. Because it’s not just my music, but it’s also someones masterful visual. Maybe it will inspire them to recycle a bit more, reconsider what they throw in the ocean, pick up a new craft, or become healthier. So the body of work is what really drives me as a musician.”