I was asked not to long ago by a producer if I would talk to an aspiring composer friend of his, and speak to him about how to make a living as a composer. I always cringe at having to talk to anyone about that subject, as I think the nature of gravity is more understood than the career of a composer. I also hesitated immensely with regards to writing an actual article about the subject as there is no definitive answer. I would much rather stick to music theory and recording articles. However, since I’ve been in the that place of uncertainty before, and I’ve been asked this question consistently a multitude of times I will share what I know.
Now, for an “Expert” to be deemed viable, there has to be credibility behind their craft. It can’t be based upon believed notions, but upon experience, trial and error, work that shows effort, and a continued good working relationship with past and current clients.
As a professional composer I have worked on many different media projects with entities such as: Disney, Kyocera Camera, Public Storage, Infiniti, Digital Domain, University of New Mexico, Sandia National Labs, and great deal of great independent film makers.
Does this make me the end all be all of film scoring? Absolutely Not! However I do offer to you for consideration, experiences that can be very helpful to anyone who either is a professional, is a hobbyist, or just starting out as a composer.
Basically being a composer , if you didn’t know already, is a career not a job. It doesn’t have an application you can fill out in order to be hired. Although it’s possible, I would be very taken aback if I ever met someone who did fill out an application and was hired full time. For now I just consider it a unicorn…doesn’t exist. Anyway not to get you down, but with this general fact, if you know the odds are not in your favor how do you navigate through the proverbial waters?
Well the first thing any composer has to hands down do is ask themselves one simple question? Why am I a composer? As cliché as that question might sound it’s absolutely imperative to know the answer. And no the answer can’t be, because you’re good at it.
I know plenty of talented composers -a few that are even better than me- that are not successful with their talents. I also know some composers that are only okay yet seem to do great. What’s the difference? Well at some level these people asked themselves the question whether they knew it or not, why am I a composer? I believe they answered with: I am willing to persevere during the lean times, overcome harsh criticism, keep an open mind with regards to what people think of my music, keep working and striving to become better, and the most important feel completely at a loss if I weren’t able to compose. I mean if living meagerly means you get to write everyday then that in itself is a success.
With that said let’s talk about what doesn’t work to make a living as a composer. Todays technology has made most people incredibly lazy. I was once guilty of indulging in the lazy wonders of using technology to further my career and it did not work! Many years ago I had a simple software program that would scour the internet for composing job postings. The second they were posted it would fire off a pre-composed generic email immediately to the post, expressing my interest to work on said project. This software program looked at websites such as Craigslist, Indeed, Music-Jobs and a few others. I did this for months and I unfortunately only got one bite from that. Sadly, I did not end up getting the one gig where I actually interacted with someone.
You could say that my obvious issue with this technique, was that I was essentially sending spam. As we all know spam ends up in the trash can! You could then proceed to tell me that crafting a personalized email to each posting would have yielded better returns. Yet, that is in fact not the case because with most things in life it’s a numbers game. Composing personalized messages to posts takes a lot longer too. The type of people who have their projects posted on websites are generally students, unprofessional, or just plain crazy. They are not like a company and most likely will not read every email sent to them. By the time you send off your nicely crafted email 20 “Composers” will have already expressed their interest in the project.
Now let’s say that you do somehow get a gig from an internet posting. The amount of work to pay ratio is awful. Generally, you will be busting your butt for very little money. Even if you do not have a lot of experience and need more projects under your belt to improve your skill set, you should avoid internet postings. If you need more work experience, you are better off going to your closest university, with a film and tv program, and look to work with the students there. Most university media programs allow students to work with people who do not attend their school, on their projects. Years ago I personally contacted USC and the University of Long Beach and got permission to come down to their film departments and introduce and interact with their film students. I got many projects and experience from doing that! Even though there was little to no pay, the students had access to professional equipment and resources that really helped me broaden my skill set.
The one other thing that I need to mention that doesn’t work is online pay services for “Industry Posts” that need music. You are cattle to all of these companies. It is completely like gambling in that the house always wins. What I mean by that is the companies that get exclusive dibs on professional projects, ask you to not only pay a monthly subscription, but pay a submission fee and take a portion of the monies paid from the gig. Essentially you could pay a monthly fee and then submit to a bunch of projects with a piece of music that you worked really hard on, and get nothing. Moreover, the company doesn’t care because someone from their really extensive roster will get the job and they’ll always get paid from that. Meanwhile, you’ll be out of time, effort, money, and goodwill!
All of the online submission companies are very very bad for your health. I have not had one good experience with any of them. I had a piece of music selected on the Film Music Network website (after I paid a monthly subscription and a submission fee) where after months of not being compensated, I had to sue the production company that posted the gig. The Film Music Network was completely worthless and washed their hands of me. I finally decided to seek legal action. The minute I dropped a case in the production companies lap, they paid the next day. What a hassle! Taxi primarily caters to Singer Songwriters, so if you’re a composer you have very little chance of being placed. BroadJam may be the biggest scam, but they did give me statistical information that was useful. They want a subscription fee as well as charge you for your submissions. When you do submit to a post it tells you how many people have submitted music. One post I submitted to had a count of almost 300. I was competing against 300 people. That was terrible odds! Funny enough though, I did happen to have one song selected even with these terrible odds against me. Unfortunately the track that was selected on Broadjam, was from a music library company that offered me 50% of my royalties if they happened to place the track on a project. Essentially, I paid this money to Broadjam, put time and effort into the music and beat out a ton of people, just to have an opportunity to possibly earn money!
Now being the big dummy that I am, I thought that maybe it was the caliper of company that I was dealing with online that was the issue. The companies I mentioned above have very low standards across the board. I thought that if I could work with a higher end company with higher end clients that would be the difference. Unfortunately that is not the case either. I was able to get on a top tier roster for an online outfit that caters to really big names and companies. Due to the fact that I am currently still with them I must leave their name out, but they were able to place a piece of music of mine for a Taco Bell advertisement. We’re now on month 4 since the placement of the music, and I still haven’t been paid.
Okay, now before you get depressed or label me a complainer or whiner about the trials and tribulations of being a composer. I would like to convey that I only wrote about my poor experiences as a warning and lesson to others to not make the same mistakes that I did. I do not regret getting involved with these companies or my spamming techniques as they gave me immense amounts of helpful knowledge. As of today, I’m extremely happy and grateful the career I currently have. I’m working on fulfilling projects and working with great people. Thankfully I do not depend on spamming or internet postings for my livelihood.
With that said, you may be asking yourself how did I do that? For me it was through personal live interaction with people in the real world. You see, the internet allows for a great many things, but as far as personal interaction goes, it does not. When you email, or submit to a project, you are just a number. You get lost in the vast sea of people clamoring to be heard and to be paid. Although you could possibly get discovered or make a decent once in a while check, it is extremely inconsistent. The people who post the jobs have no personal connection or loyalty to you….. and why should they? There is no rapport or trust to base the relationship upon.
How my very long adventure into my career came to be was through developing relationships with good people who gave me a chance. This was done by asking the people that I do know to put me in touch with people that they know that could help me.
If you go into your email or social media accounts and look at all the people you know, one of them is bound to know someone who could use a composer. I firmly believe in the 6 degrees of separation, so if you say that nobody you know, knows anyone that you would like to know, then you’re not trying hard enough. Moreover, the people that know you, will vouch for you and can put you in touch with the people they know. If you keep at it you will eventually land a meeting (whether at an office or just coffee) and they can put a face to the name. If you’re positive, friendly, knowledgeable and patient, eventually someone will give you a chance. If you are really good at what you do then you will get referrals, and then you’ll be able to support yourself solely by composing music. Referrals are the most important gift you can be given, and you have to give thanks to those who trust in you and what you do. These relationships are extremely important and valuable. They offer the friendship, loyalty, and continued opportunity that hiding behind a computer doesn’t provide. It just takes a little bit of courage to talk to the people you know, to talk to the people you want to know. You’ll also need some considerate persistence to create opportunities as with many things in life, it won’t be easy, but anything worth doing usually isn’t.
My final thoughts on this subject is that I think it’s very important for the composer to find joy and contentment with just composing. If you keep writing and striving then all that extra good stuff will come. I’m sure by now if you’ve read this far you might feel as though this is rhetoric. However, if you’ve studied music for years then don’t let all that technical knowledge you’ve learned be for naught. If you’re that passionate and put in all that time, then you have to be willing to wade through the muck, to really realize your dream.
Besides, those lean times can really have a profound effect on your composing. Your perceptions will change and like any great composer, you’ll have this wealth of experience to draw from.
It also makes for a good story when you’re at some Hollywood producers’ mansion at a wrap up party for a movie you just completed…….