Last November, on Friday the 13th, for those who are superstitious, Jeff Koz, head of Santa Monica-based Hum Music + Sound Design, came dangerously close to hearing "Taps." His car was struck by a speeder running a red light, and besides a broken foot, some severe lacerations and three busted ribs, his right elbow was so badly injured it required five hours of surgery, six screws, two plates and a rod. It would have been an ordeal for anybody, but it was a nightmare for a guy who makes his living playing keyboards and guitar.
"At the time of my injury, I honestly didn't know how well I'd recover," says Koz, 39. "The nerve damage in my right arm paralyzed my wrist and fingers for a while. Even though the doctors said, 'Don't worry, it'll all come back,' being a musician faced with the possibility that it wouldn't, basically scared the shit out of me."
Now for the good news: "All the hardware's still in there, but I'm surprisingly well along in the rehabilitative process, considering how serious the injury was," he says. "The arm is almost fully functional now, and my keyboard playing is back to about 80 percent."
Koz, formerly at Who Did That Music, opened Hum in 1996. "Who Did That Music was a little too big, a little too corporate," he says. "Too many people and not enough attention paid to individual projects." He's built an impressive client base at Hum, with work for top shops like Wieden & Kennedy (Nike), Fallon Mc-Elligott (Miller Lite, Gatorade) and Goodby Silverstein (Pac Bell and HotBot). Surely there was a moment of fateful reckoning; did he consider how he'd run the business if he permanently lost the use of his right arm? "I didn't really want to go there mentally," he recalls. "I tried to keep a positive attitude. It crept into my mind, of course, but while a lot of people come to Hum to work with me personally, we also have a company profile and plenty of other creative entities here." Those entities include his wife and business partner, Unique; head of sound design Marc Levisohn; and composers Bill White Acre, Garron Chang and Martin Erskine. "I always felt there'd be a continuing flow of business even if I could only keep one creative hand in, so to speak," Koz adds.
Indeed, Canice Neary, a Wieden & Kennedy copywriter who's done several jobs with Koz for Nike, says, " I haven't worked with him since the accident, but I'm sure he's as amazing as ever." What Koz does so well is not simply a matter of hands-on playing; "It's a question of personality and an intellectual thing," Neary believes. Koz's authentic flamenco sound on Nike's "Toro" spot, which is built around the running of the bulls in Pamplona, impressed Neary tremendously. "He works in so many different genres, and it always sounds like the real thing."
Technology has certainly helped Koz's comeback -- he notes that had this happened 10 years earlier, it would have taken far longer to effectively return to musicmaking. Thanks to the digital era, "I was able to segue back into composition early on in my rehabilitation without using my right hand at all." He was forced even to mouse-click lefty, which may have its upside. Being one-handed "changes the way you think about music," he discovered. "For example, one of the things I've always been good at is lyrical, emotional piano parts that rely on right-hand dexterity. That was lost. Without that hand, I had to think about putting a performance together more analytically. I had to build it one note at a time with my left hand. That was really challenging -- and frustrating. But I think my compositional skills were sharpened in the process."
Those compositional skills even extend to jingle-writing, as in the satiric Geico "Duet" spot, from The Martin Agency, directed by Charles Wittenmeier, which features a cheesy "I'm So Happy" song, sung by a guy who is thrilled to find a lower auto insurance bill in his mailbox.
Jingles aside, how does Koz view the current state of commercials music? "Techno and dance music of all kinds have permeated the ad business, and that's not my number 1 strength," he notes. "I have other composers here who do that better than me. I think my chief strength is melody, but what keeps the company successful is the ability to fulfill a lot of different musical orders. People in advertising are listening to their own very diverse CD collections and they're coming in with very sophisticated directions. More and more often, there's already an established musical direction when we get involved. I have views on that both ways, but we need to be very versatile. One of the things that distinguishes Hum is that when we use a style, we do it authentically. I can't stand music that tries to sound like techno but doesn't quite get there, or music that wants to be worldbeat but doesn't have the right percussion sounds."
A good example is Koz's "Kids" spot for Nike, which won a '98 Clio for Best Original Music -- it's worldbeat featuring a sampled African mouth harp and live African instruments and singers. As for techno, Koz may claim it's not his specialty, but he's the one who did the raving-good audio tag for Goodby's HotBot campaign. He recalls it as "a very collaborative session, which I find is the best way to work and another thing that I believe distinguishes this company. We all sit in the same room and try different ideas together, instead of sending things back and forth and reading each other's notes. It took all day and all night to get three seconds of music, but it was worth it."
What about the future of commercials music? Is all the emphasis on tech resulting in sonic boredom? Koz doesn't think so. "There are people who are coming up now who are not well-versed in the fundamentals of music and are just slicing and dicing with the technology, but that's just part of the overall palette. There is nothing like the sound of live musicians playing together, and I don't think that's going away. There are lots of sophisticated agency and client people who appreciate these qualities. The recording aspect has certainly changed. Now we're going directly to the hard drive."