Become a Composer

1 GETTING WORK AS A TV or FILM COMPOSER

I wish I could answer this question, or at least get paid every time someone asks it. Initially I was interested in composing music for TV commercials. After a long time taking my demos around to advertising agencies and being told  The music on your showreel is great, but you haven’t composed for any real commercials yet so we can’t give you a job. I realised I was trapped in a vicious circle: you need to have worked in order to get work. Finally I got a chance, I was playing in an R & B band in a pub and someone in the audience who liked my playing introduced herself as the marketing manager of a multinational corporation and asked her ad agency to try me out. They weren’t very happy at first (being advised by their client about who to hire to compose music), but I was asked to do a demo which they liked and recommended me for other commercials.

These days it can actually be easier in some respects, though harder in others. Easier to prove you can compose to picture as it’s now possible to present demos not just as audio tapes but as a professional sounding and looking video showreel thanks to relatively affordable music and video production software. Although not ideal, you can make up a video reel by dubbing your music onto clips of existing commercials and films, even with just the free Apple Mac software, Garageband and iMovie, some very good results can be obtained. This leads on to why it can also be harder to get the work: thousands of others like you are out there creating great sounding and looking showreels at home.

So how to I get my foot in the door?

In order to have an advantage over all those others, you need to adopt a marketing strategy. However good you are, the world doesn’t realise that it owes you a living. This requires three things: a good product, good advertising, and happy customers

In this part we’ll look at the first aspect:

The “Product” – your showreel

The first question I’m always asked is “What standard of production does my showreel need to be?” It must be as well produced as possible. Gone are the days when directors and producers had any imagination and you could walk into the office, play your theme on the piano and expect them to realise how good the final score would sound. If you intend to be a professional composer you need to invest in the best possible composing tools, these days that usually means a computer, recording software and software sound library. To see what I recommend just visit my  studio page to see what I use.

Do I need to go to college to be a film composer?

It’s entirely possible to learn the composing skills yourself, especially more pop oriented music which often works better without the constraints of a formal music training. However in order to get the best chance of getting work, a degree of versatility is a good idea and as long as you never let the formal academic side of composing get in the way of your creative flow, then a college or university course in composition, arranging and music technology is extremely valuable. BUT remember this:

The qualification won’t get you the work – only your abilty to write good music and your ability to sell it will get you work

The next two parts deal with how to go about getting the work, and keeping the work coming in.

2 SELLING YOUR MUSIC – AND YOURSELF

Networking

This suits the extrovert. It requires being on the same social scene as the media folk who might employ you, and the ability to talk to them without turning into a gibbering wreck. However, it’s not cheap: the clubs and drinks are expensive. You need to be able to survive in this environment without getting drunk and falling over (unless your intended client does!). Make sure you are knowledgeable about all aspects of media, not just your own field of film scoring but general media knowledge such as who directed what, the Oscars etc. You don’t necessarily need to target directors – assistant directors, editors and production assistants are all very useful contacts.

If you are the shy type, it’s still possible to get yourself known. Consider getting a job as a bartender at or near a film or TV studio – if you’re lucky a desperate director will stagger in late one night having just fired a composer. You just happen to have your showreel handy. This sounds a bit unlikely but I have heard of this working. Otherwise any kind of job or work experience for a production company could be useful:

Apprenticeship (aka Teaboy or Teagirl)

You may be able to get a job (or more likely these days, unpaid  work experience) either directly for a composer, for a music agency or for a studio that does soundtrack recording. In this situation you may be grossly overworked, treated like dirt or totally ignored, but if you can keep cheerful, helpful and useful eventually you will get a chance to move up the ladder. Don’t be pushy, just wait for that moment when everything is going wrong and inspiration has dried up – they’ve run out of ideas late one night and suddenly turn to the teaboy/girl and ask your opinion. Try to have a good suggestion… (And make sure you can also make a good cup of tea!)

Being Visible

If you can perform, get out and do as many gigs as possible – ideally with a band that plays original music. Sooner or later there will be someone important in the audience. It worked for me.

Direct marketing

This means sending out letters, CVs, multimedia, showreels, emails etc. It may appear to be like junkmail so make it as personal as possible. There are several ways to prevent your letter ending up in the bin:

  • Take note of end credits to find out who people are at film and media companies making productions relevant to your style. It can be worth contacting not just the director but the  lesser mortals: Very often the editor and/or music supervisor chooses music
  • Write or email personally, not  Dear Sir/Madam
  • Follow or precede the letter with a phone call. This is more likely to succeed lower down the pecking order (assistants and receptionists may be flattered that you consider them worthy – and often do have some influence). Be polite and professional sounding.
  • Originality – think of a way to make your letter or showreel stand out from the crowd.

Advertising Yourself

The best thing to do these days is to learn web authoring and multimedia technology. Create an attractive, informative and/or witty website. Even if you don’t yet have any work to boast about, a website can help to promote you personally. A website can introduce you as a personality and can help make people aware of you and remember you.

3 HAPPY CLIENTS – HAPPY COMPOSER

This section deals with what to do once you’ve got some work. It can be a fine balance between being too accomodating (hence possibly being taked advantage of) and insisting on your rights at the expense of appearing to be too greedy. Most clients know that as a freelance composer you may well be desparate for the work – in spite of the fact that your highly paid and charismatic publicist (yourself) apperars to be representing the most talented and sought after composer in the world!

Identify The Client

1 – Producers

Often your first point of contact will be with a producer. You may meet many kinds of producers – executive, associate, line, assistant, assistant associate etc. These are mostly concerned with money and organisation – getting the money, working out efficient budgets and making sure everyone on the creative side can do their job within those budgets. The important thing to realise is that roles are often blurred and are often delegated so any of these may have some involvement in hiring you, negotiating with you and even discussing the creative aspect, although this should more properly be in the hands of the director (or if it’s a commercial, the creative team of copywriter and art director ).

Assistants

Whether it be assistant producer, director or editor these can be more important than you think. They may be delegated a lot of responsibility. They may be inexperienced or they may be the ones actually running the show. Either way these could well be the producers and directors of the future. Or else their opinions may be sought at future meetings when discussing composers for the next production

2 – Directors

The director is probably the person who gives you the brief, and of course you should stick very closely to this. To avoid any future confusion, make sure you are either given the brief in writing, or you summarise it yourself in writing, then send a friendly email including this summary. With the best will in the world, people often forget what they said or change their minds – if this happens having the brief in writing can often stop an argument developing.

3 – Editors

Another person who can be extremely valuable to you is the editor. You probably won’t meet the editor until the end (and it is a good idea to volunteer to go to the music dubbing session even if you aren’t contracted to do so). Many editors know more about music than directors. They spend all day every day cutting music in and out of pictures. Inexperienced directors end up relying on the editor to know what works, and even experienced directors and producers appreciate the editor’s experience and may ask them advice at the very early stages about music and composers so  be nice to the editor

Decide on Your Approach

There are two types of client, they either seem to be very professional and able to give a meaningful and unambiguous brief or else they seem to be complete half wits. Your first job is to work out which one they are so you know how to deal with them. Usually you will be having one or two initial meetings, and even if a meeting is not required it’s worth making the effort to arrange one – it will help you get to know which type you are dealing with.

It’s usually easy to be sociable with the first type, but It takes a particular skill to be able to deal with the second type. Most people hope they can climb up the ladder of success quickly enough that they are soon in a position to ignore them. The problem is that they crop up when you least expect them – you can find yourself working with a perfectly reasonable director, only to find an incompetent executive producer suddenly crawls out of the woodwork.

The main difference between the two is that you can usually put forward your own ideas, and have a good healthy debate (even disagreements) with the first type, but with the second type you usually come off best if you agree with everything they say, get on with the job, head down, and hope your next client will be better.

Bribery & Corruption

I don’t think it’s a good idea to offer “backhanders” in return for commissions, however there is nothing wrong in showing your gratitude.

  • Take your client out for a meal (only if you really can afford it – they will probably have expensive tastes.)
  • Don’t shirk when it’s your turn to buy the drinks
  • Send a thank you letter after the job is finished. It can be little things like this (as much as your music!) that will make your name crop up in the future when they are thinking about composers
  • Send a Christmas card and gift (e.g. a bottle of wine, champagne, chocolates).

Don’t Get Ripped Off

The legal side of things can be a minefield. In the UK you will often be “coerced” into working under the “standard” PACT (Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television) agreement. This is a very one sided agreement, and guess whose side it is on. Wherever possible I try to persuade the producer to use something that is a bit fairer, not only for the composer, but actually for both sides, e.g. the Musicians Union or (if it is a commercial) the PCAM agreement. If you really have to use the PACT agreement (and a composer just starting out will not want to rock the boat – especially at such an early stage of the process), then you may be able to get some of the worst clauses removed. I will talk about this agreement in more detail in a future article, but the clauses to particularly watch out for are 3.1, 3.5, 4.3, 4.4, 5(g), 6.2, 7.1 and 9.2. You will probably not be able to afford a specialist lawyer to check the contract, but in the UK if you join the Musicians Union you will qualify for free legal advice.

You may also be coerced into signing a publishing agreement. Try to avoid this. Traditionally a publisher is someone who actively exploits your music on your behalf. A production company that wants your publishing is just trying to get more money (i.e. some of the performance royalties that you get every time the music is broadcast). They are not likely to do anything to promote your music.

Only you can decide how tough to be when negotiating. You will gradually acquire a sense of diplomacy and be able to tread the fine line between being too pushy and too subservient.

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