By: Felicia Widjaya
Like most musicians, Steve Winarto dreamt of the glittering Hollywood lights. He certainly has the talent to make it in Los Angeles; after all, he received a merit scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music, graduated summa cum laude, and has since won many awards for music composition. But Steve learned to balance big dreams and reality, finding the sweet spot in the middle of the two by building his own studio – W Music Productions – in his hometown of Jakarta.
Steve’s work in the city of stars continued even after he left LA to return home to Indonesia. In fact, his company now has clients from all over the world, boasting an impressive portfolio with brands such as Uniqlo, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola as well as Youtubers Wong Fu Productions and JinnyboyTV as clients.
In spite of his success, Steve is not disillusioned with the often misleading promise of fame. He remains down-to-earth, preferring to keep a low profile and letting his musical creation speaks for itself. To Steve, a fulfilling career in music is not measured by the number of people who recognize his name, but how great his composition impacts the audience.
How and when did you first discover your love for music?
I started musical training when I was 5. My dad was a piano teacher who owns the Yamaha music school, so he taught me classical piano until I was 12. I’ve always loved the piano, so when one of my dad’s students went to Berklee College of Music, it became my dream to study there too. I received an invitation from Berklee to attend their 5-week summer program when I was in high school. Because of the program, I knew for sure that I wanted to go to Berklee for college.
Since your dad owns a music school, have you ever faced pressure from your parents to pursue music? Or did they give you the flexibility to pursue whatever you want?
You know the Asian stereotype: parents usually want their kids to study music as an extracurricular, but my dad always taught me to be good at something whether it be sports or music. But whatever you choose to pursue, you must be good at it and stick with it. My mom’s view is different, she actually didn’t want me to pursue music. She wanted me to be a doctor, you know the typical career path. I also applied to ITB (Institut Teknologi Bandung) when I was in high school, and got accepted to their mining and petroleum engineering program. At the same time, I was also accepted to Berklee.
I told my parents, I could probably be a doctor or an engineer, but my true passion lies in music. Now, they would say to me, “Thankfully, you didn’t become a doctor or an engineer.” They can see that I truly enjoy life by doing what I love the most.
Have you ever faced stereotypes from the people around you when you decided to enroll in music school?
From my relatives – my aunts and uncles often underestimate me, even until today. They would ask, “Why did you pick music? You’re the type who can succeed as a doctor, or maybe something more technical.” They would also say, “You study in America right? You spend so much money just to pursue music.” My answer to them is “Having a career in music is not just about playing the piano or performing. It’s more promising than that.” Until now, I always explain my role to them because some people are still quite close-minded about the subject. I admit it is hard for me to explain or change other people’s perceptions of music.
How was your experience at Berklee? Why did you pick film scoring as a major?
When I enrolled, I knew that I wanted to apply for the film scoring major. Ever since I was little, I didn’t like performing on stage. I got nervous whenever I have to perform in front of a large audience, even until now. There’s this stereotype that if you wanted to be a musician, you need to be able to perform well on stage, but that’s just not who I am. In my second semester at Berklee, I started thinking about my major.
I knew that I always liked films, especially Star Wars. I remember that was back in 2005 when online music sheets weren’t as common back then. I would listen and replay the melody on my piano. I thought ‘Wow, the Star Wars music is amazing, I’d love to be able to compose music like that.” The film scoring major at Berklee allowed me to fulfill that dream. I was certain of my choice.
How did you advance your dream of becoming a film composer after college?
After graduating from Berklee, I went to LA to work with two film composers: Lucas Vidal (film composer of Fast and Furious 6) and Henry Jackman (film composer of X-Men: First Class, Big Hero 6, and Captain America: Civil War). Lucas has his own company called Music and Motion Studio, so I was mainly involved in doing the orchestral part of this composition project. After some time, I then worked for Henry Jackman, where I had the chance to work on the music for the film “Pixels.”
In Hollywood, you can’t just come in and suddenly make it big as a composer. You have to start with something small and build from there.
As a musician, do you think networking in school is also important?
Networking is king. Even from school, I learned that I needed to make connections with people who were working in films. Even when I’m currently working in Indonesia right now, I still network with people in LA, just like saying hi or asking if there are any projects I can help with. To be honest, I think in LA, the most successful people are the ones who network the most.
Why did you decide to leave LA and move back to Indonesia for good?
I decided to go back for good last year, but I still have some projects in LA. The reason why I decided to move is that I wanted to have my own studio. Building a studio in LA is very expensive and difficult. 70% of my clients are also in Asia. Logistically, I think it’s a wise thing for me to move back to Indonesia. I do still travel back and forth to LA because of my work with Wong Fu Productions.
Tell us more about how you landed your gig with Wong Fu!
My church friend knew Phil [from Wong Fu] so he introduced me to [Phil Wong]. A couple of months later, I sent an email to Wong Fu, saying that I really wanted to work on the music for one of your films and that it’s okay if I didn’t get paid. Even after a few emails, I didn’t get any reply. One day, Christine [one of Wong Fu’s producers] replied to me, saying that I can work on the music for one of their upcoming projects. I didn’t get paid at first, but they kept coming back and asking me to compose more for them. It started out as a freelance job, but now I do have a contract with them.
Since you work in both Indonesia and States, do you notice any differences in the music styles between these two countries?
There’s not much difference because film scoring depends on the genre of the film. So if we’re working on romantic dramas, then the music style would be quite similar [between the two countries.] One of my clients in Singapore has quite a different style compared to my other clients because they have a Chinese target audience. So I need to adjust my music composition to what the client wants.
Since you have your own studio, what were the first challenges you faced as a company?
The biggest challenge for me was to find a client. Since I do freelance, sometimes the projects we receive aren’t fixed. In a good month, we would receive 10-12 films, while in other months, we would receive 5. This is a challenge since [as a company] we need to give fixed salaries to my employees. The next challenge is to expand my client base so that they keep coming back. We need to continuously build our portfolio as a company.
What are your dreams/goals for the future?
My dream is to someday write music for Hollywood. I admit that’s pretty cliche for me now because [when I decided to return to Indonesia] I let go of my American dream to focus on my studio at home. Another dream I have is to score music for documentaries that raise thought-provoking subjects. I really want to work for the Discovery Channel, for example. Writing music for documentaries is where I want to be headed in the future.
What impact are you hoping to make through music?
I want the music I compose to help deliver the message of the film, which is why I said I’m not too fond of performing on stage. I’m more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. I get the most satisfaction whenever I’m reading the comment section on Youtube and someone would comment “The music really hits home for me” on one of the compositions I help create [for that Youtuber.] People don’t need to know me. As long as they know my music, that’s enough for me.
Advice for the younger generation who’s thinking to pursue a career in music?
You shape your own success. However, I do think it’s important to cross-check with other people’s advice. People often say “Don’t listen to what everyone says. Just focus on your own passion.” But I think that tends to make people ignorant because it creates an “I don’t care what other people think at all” mentality. Whenever my aunts and uncles would question my decision to pursue music professionally, their comments made me think, “Do I really know my own purpose in pursuing music?” People’s comments gave me a chance to self-reflect. Their feedback hones my conviction to stick with music as a career.