“Wild Win” for Cleod9 Music
“Wild Win” for Cleod9 Music
Ian McLeod ’09 and company win Best Original Score at the 2022 Jackson Wild Film Festival
ARTICLE BY SUSIE ZIMMERMANN | STUDIO PHOTOS AND NOTES BY MELISSA ULSAKER MAAS ’76
In 2014, Ian McLeod was grappling with his newly-formed company, Cleod9 Music. He had made the courageous leap to change career paths and follow his passion by starting a business in the music industry. But getting through to talk with the right people was a challenge and landing work was proving harder than he had anticipated.
Ian thought a project with D.C.-based National Geographic could be the springboard Cleod9 needed and he was going to do everything he could to get in the door. After calls went unanswered, he went to the company’s offices and, without an appointment, talked his way into a conversation with one of the executive producers. “I had nothing to lose,” he said, “and everything to gain, so I set aside any anxieties and just went for it!”
Ian has a great rapport with his band in the studio. His effervescent, open, and friendly character fills the room with an affable atmosphere. Jokes and stories are intertwined with spontaneous bursts of music.
Fortunately for him, he caught a break and scored a short film project with the company’s magazine team. It would be the first of several assignments. And with that, doors started opening.
Cleod9 provides original music, sound design and audio mixing for films, commercials, episodic TV, and other platforms. In September of this year, Ian’s company won “Best Original Score” at the 2022 Jackson Wild Film Festival in Vienna, Austria, a global film festival that celebrates the best in wildlife and natural history storytelling. The Jackson Wild Media Awards are the nature film’s equivalent to the Oscars. Cleod9’s musical score for “Miami Wild” (presented by Smithsonian Channel and Terra Mater Studios) was recognized for “elevating the film’s unique wildlife footage and capturing Miami’s rich musical heritage.” Past recipients of this award include film composer Hans Zimmer (Lion King, Inception, Interstellar) in 2021.
“Awards don’t validate my creative goals and pursuits…but the respect of my colleagues certainly does,” Ian says. “Winning at Jackson was a career defining moment. There were so many people in that room whose work I admired and grew up watching (BBC Earth, National Geographic, Discovery Channel)…so to win in front of them was extra special.”
Ian’s start in music began at age 7 playing piano. Years later, he grew restless with the rigid structure of classical music. “I liked moving the notes around,” he recalls. When he wanted to quit piano, his father suggested that Ian try jazz, where improvisation is encouraged. Ian took to it immediately and quickly expanded to “hip hop, soul, R&B…my passion took off,” he says.
Once he reached high school, Ian pursued his passion for jazz by playing piano for the SSSAS Jazz Ensemble. He also formed a small jazz troupe with fellow Ensemble classmate Wilson Miller (The McLeod Miller Jazz Combo) that gigged around town. In his free time, Ian would make jazz inspired hip hop beats and sell them to local artists in the area. He balanced his love for music with a matching dedication for athletics. He played several sports during his time at SSSAS with basketball being his favorite. Ian remembers finishing a game and rushing to change out of his uniform as he ran to the CPAC for a Winter Ensemble concert. He made it on time.
As graduation approached, Ian planned on another creative path for college and career. He majored in advertising and communications at James Madison University. “I wanted to be the next Don Draper, like Mad Men,” he says. Music remained important in his life, and Ian earned a minor in Music Industry and continued to perform small gigs around JMU’s campus. He also DJ’d a weekly jazz and hip hop show for the school’s radio station, WXJM.
After graduation, Ian accepted a job with an Old Town-based ad agency servicing the federal government. However, it did not turn out to be the creative outlet he had hoped for. He considered a job opportunity with an agency in New York City, but had second thoughts when his parents advised that living and working in New York might mean less time to focus on his music. “I wasn’t willing to give up that part of my life yet.”
Ian’s prowess on the piano is evident as he transitions easily from classic rock tunes from the Beatles to Gershwin to classical music. Then he sits and snaps his fingers and “bops” to a favorite jazz tunes “Bopilicity,” by Cleo Henry and Gil Evans, or hums a bit of the romantic “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”
While pursuing his dreams of being Don Draper at his ad agency job, Ian noticed that music was a constant presence on the commercials they were producing. “At the same time content was really starting to explode with Netflix, Hulu, other streaming networks, and a variety of branded content. A light bulb went off when I realized that I could make music for all of these platforms.”
Their creative process starts with a team call led by the director…to learn about the film, characters, emotional arch and musical needs. They essentially build a mood board for the score, combing through potential sounds, genres, vibes and instrumentation. Then they watch the rough cut of the film and start to build out ideas. Much of their inspiration comes from the visuals.
“Powerful imagery is such a source of inspiration for us. When we don’t have the luxury of scoring to picture, we lean on the director’s descriptions as our framework.”
Ian started Cleod9 in 2014 and faced a challenging start. Just when his friends were settling into careers and moving forward, he moved back in with his parents and struggled to get business. “I thought I’d made a serious mistake,” he remembers, until encouragement from his father led to the “what the heck” push at National Geographic.
Landing that small Nat Geo assignment led to other connections inside the company. It also beefed up his portfolio and jump-started his business development pursuits. Projects began to come in, including work with Red Bull, The North Face, and Disney—“big brands I’ve known all my life!”
Eight years later, the Cleod9 team features five composers and a sound engineer. Despite his success, Ian continues to hustle and build his client base. “I’m always looking 5-10 years out…working to build and maintain relationships with directors and agencies,” he says. “There are plenty of competitors out there, so I work hard to stay in the mix. A closed mouth don’t get fed!”
Ian is now working to expand into episodic television. “The drawback in scoring commercials or a one-time feature film is when it’s done, it’s over. Episodic series allow us to explore and develop musical themes over the course of many seasons.
Ian credits his music teachers at SSSAS for influencing his career and love of music. Jerry Mirliani, James Criswell, and David Tauler were more than just teachers, they were mentors. “They made music fun; teaching us to improvise, to trust each other and be comfortable on the big stage.”
Ian also fondly remembers English teachers Roberta Klein and Joe Wenger (now the associate director of Institutional Equity and Diversity) for promoting discussion and encouraging the students to engage with each other. “Those classes really helped me find my voice, especially now that I’m running Cleod9. I learned communication skills that help to this day, whether I’m pitching news clients, jumping on podcasts or asked to speak at film festivals ”
Left front: BUDDY SPEIR, excellent musician, engineer and owner of the incredible 38 North Studio, is a new collaborator and will help Cleod9 score bigger productions in his studio. Left back: GARRETT CLAUSEN plays drums and bass, but is mainly their photographer, capturing behind the scenes footage of their scoring and studio soundtracks. Front right: EVAN HULEHAN, guitarist, engineer, and a Cleod9 composer, Ian and Evan have been collaborating for the past five years. Evan has worked on major film productions with Ian, including “American Horses” (PBS Nature), “Cowboys: A Documentary Portrait” (Amazon Prime) and “The Push” (Hulu). He’s also been a steady hand on the commercial side, scoring for Patagonia, Strayer University, and Cavenders. Back right: IAN MCLEOD.
Ian and his wife, Tori, welcomed their new daughter, Evin Ila McLeod, earlier this fall. Along with enjoying family time, Ian returns often to James Madison to speak to music industry students and share his own experiences. He still plays basketball in a weekly men’s league and is an assistant varsity basketball coach at Thomas Jefferson High School. He continues to perform around D.C. whenever he can, usually solo piano “to keep my jazz chops sharp.”
What advice would he have for today’s Saints: “Be kind and build community, treat the gatekeepers well, and if you have a passion let it be your compass in life.”