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Jon Baker: Themed Entertainment’s Music Guru

Now that Theme Park University is starting to gain steam, about every week Ron or I will receive a letter from a fan of the site asking how they can land a job in the themed-entertainment industry. Short answer: it’s complicated. There is no magic bullet or ten-step process in order to get you to that magical dream job in the sky.

However, no matter what line of work you are looking to get into, there isn’t one sure fire skill that will get you to where you want to be faster than networking. Luckily, the world of creative themed entertainment isn’t a huge one. Many people that you can network with early on can get you in touch with the right people to get you to that next step.

Jon Baker

Courtesy Jon Baker Productions

From time to time, we will focus on someone who has gotten the dream job in themed-entertainment and today marks our first feature with musical composer Jon Baker. His credits include music direction and composition for Universal Orlando’s Superstar Parade and sound mixing for Hershey’s Great Chocolate Factory Mystery 4D. Jon Baker Productions also produced the audio for the films used in the new Atlantis Exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center in Port Canaveral as well as all the audio used on the new Sesame Street Spaghetti Space Chase attraction at Universal Singapore.

However, the process to get all of these great gigs wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight. Jon made a lot of great contacts throughout his career. As he told me several times during our interview that being in the right place at the right time is, “Just that complicated and it’s also just that easy.”

Jon started his career as a bass player in Disneyland’s Kids of the Kingdom show. He became friends with one of the dancers and started writing songs together during their lunch breaks. At first, it was mostly pop songs, but after a while it lead to a professional relationship where he could show off his talents as a composer, audio designer and soundtrack producer.

In the early 90’s, Jon started a recording studio called “The Bakery Studios”.  He had many clients in the theme park business that would use his facilities to help mix various soundtracks that would be used in various projects. Some of his clients included Gary Goddard, who created T2 3-D:Battle Across Time and The Amazing Spiderman attractions at Universal Studios, among others. Others include Rick Dempsey, who does a lot of work with the Disney character voice department, Jon Rust, the Media Producer for Islands of Adventure as well as Steve Davison at Walt Disney Imagineering.

So Jon’s way into the business was not through song writing, but rather through production. Most of the folks who came and used his studio thought of him as just a sound engineer. At one recording session Jon was engineering, he overheard Bruce Healey saying their next project would be music for a new nighttime fireworks show at Disney’s California Adventure. Jon told them he was also a composer and asked if he could submit a song or two to them and see if they liked it. Since he already had an established working relationship with Steve, he agreed!

After all was said and done, Jon got the contract and composed one of the songs for Disney’s LuminAria, a holiday fireworks show that took place on Paradise Bay in Disney’s California Adventure. The show only lasted one season, mainly due to logistical concerns about doing pyrotechnics on that side of the resort. This was Jon’s first real foot in the door to show what he was capable of to people within the theme park industry.

Jon Baker

Courtesy Jon Baker Productions

That’s not to say that when you’re in this business that you only work on one project at a time and wait for the next. It’s constantly putting as many irons in the fire as you can handle. From 1996 to 2008, Jon served as musical director for the Sesame Street Live traveling shows. Jon had a hand in just about everything musically in those live shows that toured the country. This gave him a chance to develop his skills and make some great connections with the head honchos at Sesame Street.

In 2007, Jon Baker was tapped to help create the music for a new show at Sea World Orlando’s Bayside Stadium. Elmo and The Bookaneers was an original production about pirates who loved to read featuring Elmo, Cookie Monster and Bert and Ernie. This coincided with a direct-to-video release by the same name, for which Jon provided musical direction.

Jon Baker

Courtesy Jon Baker Productions

In 2011, Sesame Place Park in Pennsylvania needed musical direction and guidance for their Neighborhood Street Party Parade and since Jon had already done years of musical direction for Sesame Street Live for the VEE Corporation, he was tapped for music direction and soundtrack production for their new venture.

You never know where one project and the connections you make from it may take you. A perfect example, earlier this year Universal Studios Singapore created the world’s first Sesame Street dark ride, Spaghetti Space Chase. Sesame Street has done a lot to expand its brand over the years, including its own small theme park and a 4-D movie, but never a true dark ride.

You might be thinking that since Jon had done so much work for Sesame Workshop over the years that one phone call was made and he just accepted the gig. It’s not quite that simple. In most cases, the company in charge of creating a new project sends out a request for proposal, or RFP, to as many people as they can think of who are capable of doing a particular job and can do it within the restraints of the budget. Getting an RFP is pretty much always a “who you know” scenario.

In Jon Baker’s case, he was known as the Sesame Street live entertainment guy for years. However, around seven or either other people/companies were sent the RFP for the music for this particular job. Jon won the contract based on his proposal from a creative and financial standpoint – plus, it doesn’t hurt knowing some people on the other side of the negotiating table!

Once onboard, Jon was sent artist renderings, a script and a rough computer animated ride through to give him an idea of what the story beats were going to be. From there, he started to create rough tracks that could go along the ride path as well as onboard audio inside the ride vehicle. After everyone from Sesame Workshop to Universal Singapore bought off on those rough cuts, he flew to New York to oversee the character voice sessions. In this particular attraction, the voices of the characters were used not only in robotic figures, but also in onboard video that is used in the ride vehicles.

Jon Baker

Courtesy Jon Baker Productions

In the case of Spaghetti Space Chase, Jon created all the music for the attraction including onboard audio, music for the queue and all of the music heard along the ride path. You would think this would be a walk in the park for him with all the experience he had under his belt, but a dark ride is a different animal. By its very nature, it’s dark, to which many children equals scary. Jon had to work with the ride creators to make sure that during the darker portions of the attraction, the music was upbeat. He also worked closely with the Universal Singapore Creative Team to test and adjust the ride to make sure everything synced up properly and listened to feedback from test audiences to tweak everything accordingly.

Atlantis Scoring Team Jon Baker

Courtesy Jon Baker Productions

Jon’s most recent contribution into the world of themed-entertainment was for Kennedy Space Center in Port Canaveral, Florida. Jon Baker Productions produced music for the new space shuttle Atlantis exhibit, which uses a series of films and video mapping technology to create a unique immersive experience – something we will be covering in a future article here at Theme Park University!

As Jon stressed several times to me, when it comes to this business, you need to have courage and believe you can do any task. Instead of selling yourself, you need to move people to get them to believe in you. They need to not only believe in your abilities, but they need to be truly moved to get behind your vision for any new project. That is what will make you truly excel in this business.

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