Taking Control of Your Composing Career: The Creative

By • March 17, 2009

In an industry where too often it seems that luck, fate and the fickle tastes of directors and producers are the driving forces of careers, it’s easy to overlook the fact that there are a great many things that composers can do to exercise positive control over their careers.

Most composers in the early stages of their career are ready to write in any style, any genre in order to get more experience and credits. While this is not necessarily a bad strategy very early on in one’s career, the downside can be a lack of creative and stylistic focus leading to the dreaded “generic composer” reputation – something to be avoided at all costs.

To be perfectly blunt, nobody needs generic composers – that is, composers who can write in a wide variety of styles, but do not excel at any of them. There is simply too much competition out there for composers to be successful without writing really outstanding music. If filmmakers want bland, generic sounding music, there’s plenty of that available for free from the lower end music libraries – and plenty of great music from the higher end music libraries too, by the way!

Some ideas to consider in taking control of the creative aspects of your composing career:

* Write what you’re good at. Take a really good luck at what style(s) of music you excel at writing, and then consider how marketable those styles are in today’s film and television music market – do you hear styles like these in film & TV today? Would they work with the shows and films being produced today? No matter how good a “product” is, whether we’re talking about a car, a bar of soap, or a musical style, if there isn’t a market for it, it probably won’t sell.

* Avoid sounding like a knock-off of a “name” composer. Nobody wants to hear a composer try to sound like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer, etc. This is usually attempted with an inadequate sampler rig and tags a composer instantly as desperate and naive. If you want to make a unique name for yourself, you had better make some unique music as well.

* Forge new ways of working with filmmakers in a tough market. Even in a marketplace where composer fees are dropping like a rock for everybody but the very top composers, competition is fierce. Rather than simply competing on “how good” your music is, consider new ways of working with filmmakers including collaborative composing, where the filmmaker becomes part of the composing process rather than only hearing the music once it’s in mocked up demo form. Today’s filmmakers have never heard of “locked picture” and are constantly editing, making tremendous demands on composers for flexibility right up until the score is recorded. Successful composers embrace today’s filmmaking workflow and find new and interesting ways to work within it. By offering filmmakers new and more contemporary working relationships, composers can successfully compete against others with more credits and more experience. Sometimes it’s not always the “biggest name” that gets the job, as evidenced by all the relatively new names showing up as composers on feature films today.

* Take advantage of the global recording marketplace to get the best musicians or orchestra for your project. Recording orchestras all over the world are competing for scoring work from composers today, and new technology including the Source Connect ProTools plug-ins allow composers to connect directly from their project studios to scoring stages around the world with audio, video and timecode connections to facilitate the recording process without the travel hassles. This doesn’t mean that your local orchestra players should be overlooked, but in the final analysis, those who judge your scores and decide whether to hire you or not won’t know or care where you recorded them – they’ll only judge the quality of the music, performance and recording. Figure out what size of an orchestra or band you need, and get bids from a variety of locations that are suitable for your requirements to maximize the money you spend on musicians and recording.

* Meet more filmmakers. This is a very relationship-driven business, and successful creative relationships with filmmakers are by far the most popular way composers get hired. Filmmakers talk to other filmmakers, and even one highly successful filmmaker relationship can lead to many others through referrals and word of mouth. Go to film festivals, don’t be afraid to meet filmmakers, and be ready to talk about filmmaking first, plus what’s unique about you and your music if and when the opportunity presents itself. Filmmakers generally don’t want to talk about technology or money, they’re focused on the creative aspects of filmmaking. Use this to your advantage by being ready and prepared to have comfortable, interesting conversations about the creative aspects of filmmaking and film music with directors you meet at various events. And if your people skills need some work, work on them!

* Try to make each new project you do a step forward creatively. It can be easy to get stuck in a rut of doing the same kind of project for the same kind of filmmaker, and this can easily lead to a stalled career and being overlooked for projects that are a rung or two “higher” on the career ladder. This is especially true of lower budget direct-to-DVD projects some some filmmakers seem to crank out ad nauseum. The extreme opposite of being known as a “generic” composer is getting known as a composer who has an extremely narrow musical and creative vocabulary who can only do one type of film or score. This kind of “musical typecasting” can be a considerable problem for upward mobility in a composer’s career, and can rule a composer out of contention for projects that aren’t “like” the ones that he or she is “known” for being able to do. It’s essential to develop some sort of a career plan for yourself and decide how you want to move up in the business and in what direction. When considering new projects, look beyond the money and consider on a creative basis how each new project will fit into your career plan and advance your reputation and career as a composer.

The suggestions I’ve made here are somewhat general in nature – the real key to successfully using these is determining in what specific ways you can apply these to fuel and focus the creative aspects of your career. Next week, we’ll talk about how you can take control of the business aspects of your career. Until then, my challenge to you is to write some music that doesn’t sound like anybody else’s – other than your own, of course. Happy composing!

Comments

By Santiago Walsh on March 18th, 2009 at 3:43 am

Hi Mark,

First of all, thanks! it is a really good article!
I knew certains things like not to copy known composers because it’s simple not so original for a composer. Is is hard to make what you are good at, and nothing more. I think because you reduce your work more that than is already reduce, if we think of finding the right filmakers for “your kind of music” only, then the competition, and the world crisis!…anyway; exploring new things or be open with others styles of music doesn’t mean that you are “burning” your style and getting worst on what you do best…no?…
Maybe I’m wrong; Today, the sad part it is not if you are good, original and open, it’s all about contacts and a little good luck together. Contacts means friends, “family” and eventually regular jobs.
Sory my english!!!
Best regards!
s.w

By Nicholas Atchison on March 22nd, 2009 at 10:27 pm

Great Article! Thanks for all the advice.

Something did strike me as a little odd though. I’m an Australian composer, and I can’t help but notice this was written:
“While this is not necessarily a bad strategy very early on in one’s career, the downside can be a lack of creative and stylistic focus leading to the dreaded “generic composer” reputation – something to be avoided at all costs.”

Being a forgeigner (non American) composer, I have been taught that a big advantage about going for USA based projects is that we generally have the advantage of being able to compose for more genres and styles. This is because to break into our own countires (much smaller) markets we have to be open to this kind of stuff. My understanding is, that this is veiwed as a good thing.

Im curious because in this article this is apparently something to avoid. Perhaps this means the only way for foriegn composers to make it in the US is to try to specify their compositional style.
Thoughts anyone?

Thanks again for the article
– Nick

By Adrian Ellis on March 26th, 2009 at 8:43 am

Great and timely article.

The aspect of honing your artistic voice is especially well taken. Not only in terms of building a career, but in terms of the artistic integrity of the industry as a whole. Look to the careers of people like Jon Brion, and Carter Burwell – a couple of brilliant ‘models’ for doing your own thing and succeeding.

Also, being creative and adaptive are key traits, especially these days. Entrepreneurial thinking is as important as having skill at composing; reading books on entrepreneurial behaviour as important as those on orchestration.

Cheers!

Adrian

By Adrian Ellis on March 26th, 2009 at 9:02 am

Hey Nicholas,

I think Mark is focusing on the idea of ‘steering’ your career, making conscious choices as you go along that hopefully shape your career over time. There is no single answer to any question, and yes, sometimes are asked to play musical chameleon. Sometimes very surprising things can help you get ‘up a rung’, and it might not even have to do with scoring for picture!!

What I believe Mark is suggesting is that you remain highly aware of the direction you are taking, and that you have a plan of action which helps guide that. You want to think about what kind of career you WANT to have, and work towards that. Yes, you will deviate from the path at times by necessity, but avoid getting stuck totally.

It’s not easy! To be versatile AND have a specialty/finding your artistic voice takes a lot of work. To be in control of your career and navigate those waters is challenging. Having a plan, a very specific set of goals, help guide that process tremendously.

Cheers,

Adrian

By Wouter Siteur on March 26th, 2009 at 10:41 am

Nice article.

About new ways of working: I developed a no-cure-no-pay-instant-composing-method. Together with my clients I compose in an interactive way music for commercials, movies, websites and games. This ensures they quickly get the music their production needs.

Check out http://www.woutersiteur.com for more details and music I composed with Instant Composing.

Cheers, Wouter.

By Mark Northam on March 26th, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Hi Nicholas –

Adrian is exactly right – being conscious of the artistic path that you’re going down and guiding yourself through selecting the best films and TV projects to score is important, rather than just taking whatever comes your way.

Especially in this oversupplied marketplace for composers, you and your music need to be unique in order to get people’s attention and be heard. Being attached to a very unique (and successful) film can be a great way to move up the career ladder quickly, but also remember there are plenty of people who had their “shot” at fame with a feature that got lots of play, but then failed to manage their career properly and we’ve never heard from them again.

Planning is everything, plus developing a mindset that no matter how tough the competition is, you can still maintain control over your career, both the creative and business aspects.

Best,

Mark Northam

By Nicholas Atchison on March 29th, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Cheers guys, thanks for the advice.

– Nick

By Tim Atack on April 1st, 2009 at 9:33 am

I’ve found as a working composer that to be able to cover all kinds of different styles and flavors has been quite crucial as different styles and genres can occur within a single project. The key thing is it’s absolutely vital to develop your own unique signature regardless of which hat you have to wear within a particular job rather than to overly narrow your fields of expertise.
Having said that, It’s true you can’t be absolutely all things to all men so getting to know what you do best is something i agree totally agree with Mark about. Once you have an idea of what that might be make sure you work on the authenticity as musical mimmicary is real no no..

Regards.

Tim.

By Marinho Nobre on April 16th, 2009 at 8:35 am

Awesome Mark… Another “on the money” article, I enjoyed very much reading.
Choosing good projects to score regardless of pay (although sometimes financially painful) is pivotal not only for one’s artistic output but also for one’s career resume. Having learned the hard way (an entire feature that hasn’t even made it into IMDB and another which is there just as a adornment)I do not hesitate on passing on certain work I stumble upon. A film that is bellow great standards even with a decent music budget can hurt one’s career more than helping you to move along. Yes, I could be a little wealthier right now but no regrets. Nothing is lamer than hearing from anyone “The only thing I liked on that film was the music” !! If you hear that at any stage, you know a lot of your time might be just going down the drain.

Looking forward to read part II.

Marinho

By TheDukeSantos on April 16th, 2009 at 8:59 am

Great Article!
But as a composer of more urban electronic soundscapes the avenue to feature films that use my style of music is far and few between. The sound that fits the crop of “Underworld”, “Fast & Furious”, and “CRANK” on that side of things has been hard to find music supervisors to be light. How would you advise in applying your article to this pursuit?

By Anthony Adams on May 8th, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Spot on, Mark. Looking at past films, you can usually tell who composed the score by just listening. Each composer developed a unigue style that became their brand. Once they were “secured” in the business as being a composer who could deliver, they would slightly alter their identifying style, thereby continuing to grow musically. And still, the primary reason they got their gigs was because they made a contribution to the project; added to the drama, the comedy,the love story, etc. Making those contributions while maintaining “your sound” is a true art and a craft. Once a composer has established the audio “tone” of a film, it is not often demanded that he drastically change styles; the music will maintain the opening style to provide the continuity that a good director strives for and makes their film more professional. Really, you do not see different actors playing one roll throughout the film. When I hear a score jumping from one style to another, I smell an amature about. Source music is about the only logical reason to deviate from the establish musical score. And sometimes you will see in the credits (presuming that you stay in the theater until the ENTIRE movie is over and the house lights come up) that occassionally a song or source cue appears that was not written by the composer of the score. In days past, many songwriters wrote songs for a film, but the score (especially background cues) were handed over to a composer (e.g., Irvin Berln wrote the song “White Christmas”, but he did not compose the entire score or background cues).Even today, the shotgun approach will not move your career forward to the bigger gigs. Establish your non-immitative style and forge ahead while keeping your ears open to new developments in music that you might want to “incorporate” into your style. When you are “securely” established as a know composer, THEN you can open your work to other styles, as long as you can maintain your quality.

By Anthony Adams on May 8th, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Spot on, Mark. Looking at past films, you can usually tell who composed the score by just listening. Each composer developed a unigue style that became their brand. Once they were “secured” in the business as being a composer who could deliver, they would slightly alter their identifying style, thereby continuing to grow musically. And still, the primary reason they got their gigs was because they made a contribution to the project; added to the drama, the comedy,the love story, etc. Making those contributions while maintaining “your sound” is a true art and a craft. Once a composer has established the audio “tone” of a film, it is not often demanded that he drastically change styles; the music will maintain the opening style to provide the continuity that a good director strives for and makes their film more professional. Really, you do not see different actors playing one roll throughout the film. When I hear a score jumping from one style to another, I smell an amature about. Source music is about the only logical reason to deviate from the establish musical score. And sometimes you will see in the credits (presuming that you stay in the theater until the ENTIRE movie is over and the house lights come up) that occassionally a song or source cue appears that was not written by the composer of the score. In days past, many songwriters wrote songs for a film, but the score (especially background cues) were handed over to a composer (e.g., Irving Berln wrote the song “White Christmas”, but he did not compose the entire score or background cues).Even today, the shotgun approach will not move your career forward to the bigger gigs. Establish your non-immitative style and forge ahead while keeping your ears open to new developments in music that you might want to “incorporate” into your style. When you are “securely” established as a know composer, THEN you can open your work to other styles, as long as you can maintain your quality.

By Paul Hartwig on May 11th, 2009 at 5:51 am

I enjoyed reading your article Mark.

Cheers,
Paul

By JFox on December 24th, 2010 at 11:30 am

First of all, thank you! It is a really good article! I have started getting more and more interested in reading about movies, komposinering, creating creative film. thanks again

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