Advice For Aspiring Film Composers

As you may have found out yourself, there is no "recipe" for how to become a film composer, but it usually boils down to the following: Become a film composer by composing music for films.

That might sound too simple, but think about it. There are numerous people with daytime jobs who want to become composers. What keeps them from composing? Their daytime jobs. People may be forced to give up their dreams because of financial pressure. That is very understandable. However, it doesn't make you a film composer. Even if you work within the music business, say as a music editor, it won't make you a film composer (extremely rare exceptions apply). Composing music for films will.

Network with directors, producers, music supervisors, music editors, and anybody else who could be in a position to hire you directly or recommend you. Once you have established contacts, keep those contacts fresh by informing them occasionally about what you've been up to. Some A-list composers spend more than half of their time shmoozing, not composing. As a general rule, try to avoid networking with other composers. Most other composers are only interested in you if you can help further their careers, as a ghostwriter or an assistant of some sort. They will become non-responsive very quickly if they sense that you are not willing to work for them. When you, as a composer, compliment another composer on his/her work, it will be most likely interpreted as an offer to assist or ghostwrite.

You are probably aware that there are some composers who have started out assisting other composers, thereby learning a lot through their employers' experiences. They have "paid their dues", including (in some instances) making coffee, running errands, washing other people's cars, dealing with unsolicited phone calls, watching over the composer's children, cleaning up after the composer's dog, and picking up chewing gum from the garage floor. The key is to do all those activities with a smile on your face, knowing that, eventually, they might lead to some, initially uncredited, composing work. There's always a risk, of course, that they never will. Know that, when you work as a ghostwriter, in the vast majority of cases, you are advancing somebody else's career while at the same time sabotaging your own.

When starting out, expect to work for either
1. credit but no money, or
2. money but no credit (when working as a ghostwriter).

If you are hoping for an "Additional Music by" credit from another composer, you will most likely be disappointed. It is up to you to decide what kind of sacrifice you are willing to make, and for how long. If you are a principled person, your ethical behavior will only score you points with other principled people, and statistically, those are in a minority. The majority of people will exclusively pay attention to things which will benefit themselves, their careers, and their families. By their own definition, they are not "ignorant" or "mean". They simply do what makes good business sense, and helping out other composers is not part of their job description. Do not expect kindness in this business.

Don't let people tell you that you're not done yet "paying your dues". They may be right. In most cases, they are wrong. Some composers assist others for decades without ever receiving proper credit for their creative work. Occasionally, a completely unknown composer, who has never assisted anyone, will land a big movie. There is a lot of room between those two extremes. While there are many things in the business which cannot be controlled, a substantial portion of it is about you making your own rules as you go.

If you are currently unemployed as a composer, keep yourself busy. Work on a concert piece or an album project. Uncover some unused cues from ages-ago and submit them to a music library. Be productive. Work on your craft. Find your own stylistic voice. That's a key element. (However: Be aware that sometimes, composers are hired because they can write in the style of another composer but only cost a fraction of what that other composer would charge.) Do something that has to do with composing every day. Write every musical idea down.

Familiarize yourself with the technical aspects of film scoring: synchronization, click tracks, VSTi's, sample libraries, effects plug-ins, etc. as well as the business side: music budgets, PRO's, musicians' fees, union assumption agreements, etc. Be prepared to deal with exotic video frame rates and something called pullup/pulldown. Patiently explain to filmmakers and their assistants what exactly you need, regarding technical things such as temp music on a separate audio track, or a timecode windowburn for synchronization. You might be surprised about how many professionals don't know about the technical basics of synchronizing sound to picture. Ever-shrinking music budgets might force you to also do your own music editing, mixing, and mastering.

Do not do any work for free (except for charity)! If you do not charge for your work, people will start taking advantage of you. Do not sign away your Writer's Share! You should aim to receive all or most of the Publisher's Shares on smaller, independent productions which pay very little up-front.

Recognize the fact that there are far more composers than new projects. Then ignore it. Don't waste precious time worrying and whining.

Know that even though there are some notable and welcome exceptions, most people in the industry do not care about the quality of your music. They do not care about how many people cried because of its beauty. What they do care about is recognizable credits. In other words, a mediocre score for a well-known feature will open more doors for you than the best music ever for an obscure independent short film. Again, don't let that discourage you. Ignore it. Do your best work on every project!

Stylistically, today's film music is primarily focused on avoiding elements which "draw attention to themselves". Melody is one of those elements. Instrumentation-wise, most standards established in Classical music or 20th-century film music are no longer sought-after. As a general rule (rare exceptions apply, of course), using those elements in your writing can easily earn you the label of being "old-fashioned", which could possibly become the kiss of death for your career. Therefore, if you aren't already a fan of contemporary popular music, familiarize yourself with the bands that currently make the charts. Even if you're not a fan, study the music, and most likely, you will find elements in it which you can adapt and shape so they fit your personal style. Being a member of a popular band is one of the most promising ways to find film scoring jobs these days.

Promote yourself. Let business contacts know what you are up to. Avoid sending out mass emails or "unsolicited" demos (via mail or social media). Make an impression as an individual, as yourself - not exclusively through your music. Very few "industry" people actually listen to demos.

As much as we might wish otherwise, most of the criteria about hiring you have to do with you, and not your demos. One hears the following mantra very often in the industry: "People like to work with people they like." Therefore, act professionally, make your clients feel at ease, use humor to your advantage, do your best to fully understand and anticipate your clients' needs. Very importantly, be confident, not cocky.

If you are looking for an agent, be aware that agents are only interested in "hot" clients. When they call a producer, director, or music supervisor, and they say that they are representing you, the last thing they want to hear is, "Who? Never heard of your client". What agents want to say is, "I represent the composer who scored the #1 movie at the box office."

Tell everybody that you are a composer, and people come to think of you as one.

Here's a great quote from Alan Silvestri: "When somebody asks you if you are ready, you are."

Most importantly, keep a sense of humor.

And last but not least: Living in the Los Angeles area is not mandatory, but strongly recommended.




P.S. There are books that will give you more information. A good resource is Jeff Rona's book, The Reel World - Scoring For Pictures, available on his website: The Reel World. Also for a glimpse into the bizarre thinking mechanisms behind the Hollywood corporate system, check out Art Linson's excellent book, What Just Happened?. It might be more useful than all your harmony/counterpoint lessons combined. ;-) Also, check out this Facebook group: Perspective: A Forum for Film, TV, and Media Composers.