The New Film Music Paradigm: Free Composers, Free Orchestras, What’s Next?
Commenter George posted the following in a comment on last week’s Final Note column – it’s a response he received from a filmmaker he had approached about scoring a film:
“I have already a roster of composers I normally work with. They compose for me practically for free. I cover their costs and some of them has [sic] also access to free orchestras. At this point of my career it’s definitely a good deal for me.”
I cannot think of a more vivid example of the situation our industry, except for maybe the top 30-40 composers or so, finds itself in. They should put this on a big sign and hang it in the Berklee College of Music Film Scoring Department, and at UCLA and USC too. They should also hang it in the registrar’s office where prospective college students and their parents come to pay tens of thousands of dollars so young Johnny can get a film scoring degree and have a career.
This is what composers are facing these days, and it’s ugly. Very few people want to talk about this publicly, but I think that’s an unhealthy avoidance of reality. Let’s take off the rose-colored glasses and take a good, hard look at where our industry is headed.
Last week I talked about what has propelled us into this situation – primarily, composers in fear of doing “uncomfortable” things and a huge oversupply of composers and library music in the marketplace today. Over the last 15 years our industry has seen cheap digital technology massively reduce the cost of creating music, and that combined with a huge oversupply of composers has fueled what most people see as a decline in the industry.
But suppose this decline is actually more of a painful evolution – a jarring, disruptive movement towards a new paradigm in film composing and film music that has at its root an unregulated, oversupplied marketplace teaming with composers working from their bedrooms?
The old paradigm, from the early dawn of film music through to the early 1980s, was based on scarcity – there was a relatively small number of composers who had the experience and skills to create music synced to picture, and to create that music on the tight timeline that was necessary. Beyond the usual composing and orchestration skills, composers in those days had to calculate tempo timings necessary to sync to picture by hand, and had to be able to work quickly and successfully with live musicians. It took years to develop these specialized skills, which served as a barrier to entry that kept the working group relatively small. As a result, this group of working composers could demand very high rates for their work, and earned the respect of their colleagues and employers as film and television music in those days was considered far more of a respected art form. Non-musician “suits” didn’t have nearly the role in the process that they do today, and music supervisors as they exist today were just coming into the picture.
The new paradigm for the film and television composing marketplace is based on oversupply – the exact opposite of scarcity. Instead of a small, highly talented group of composers, we have a massive oversupply of composers, many of whom are new in the marketplace and lack the years of experience characterized by the old paradigm composers. Prices have been driven down to zero in many instances, and the huge influx of new composers, whether they be songwriters who want to “expand” into scoring films, newbie film scoring graduates, or musicians who are tired of playing live gigs for beer money and are envious of “mailbox money” ASCAP and BMI checks arriving every quarter shows no signs of diminishing. Simply put, George’s filmmaker contact today can have his pick of any number of composers ready to work “practically for free.”
The group trying to create a composers union is working hard to create a regulated and coordinated labor force that can demand higher rates and better benefits and act in unison against uncooperative employers, and I wish them success. But if that group doesn’t address today’s composer realities – especially the fractured marketplace where thousands of composers across the country and internationally are working from their bedrooms over the Internet creating music for a wide variety of film and television productions, then I’m not sure how successful the group will be.
If you accept that notion that today’s working environment for composers is an evolution of our industry and marketplace, we then could consider two areas of action to consider to address some of the problems and challenges of this new paradigm marketplace for film music:
* Try to control and alter the marketplace through coordinated action, unionization, lawsuits, governmental intervention, or other means
* Find new ways to make a living and build a business in the new film music paradigm where a scarcity of workers and specialized skills has been replaced by an oversupply of workers, easy availability of great sounding digital technology, and a hundreds of thousands of library cues, affordable and available to any production company large or small.
In the end, I expect we’ll see people in our industry taking actions in both of these areas and in other areas too. But one thing’s for sure: it’s never going to be like it was in the 1980s and1990s.
It’s time to look forward, not back. Like it or not, the old paradigm of scarcity is gone, replaced by today’s new paradigm of oversupply. Are we in transition? Yes. Where will it all end up? Nobody knows, but to me these are continual, evolutionary changes we’re seeing, and with evolution there is no final destination, instead it’s all about the journey. Success for composers and the organizations that want to represent composers will be measured not by yesterday’s standards such as how many musicians you have in your orchestra, but by how well composers can adapt and prosper in a marketplace that financially, musically, and otherwise bears little resemblance to the way things were in our industry even 10 years ago.