College Film Scoring Programs: Selling The Dream vs. Disclosing Reality

By • July 9, 2011

As today’s students consider a career in the music business, and as expensive universities and colleges “sell the dream” of a career in the music business, I think it’s incumbent upon these schools to provide a realistic picture of the actual employment opportunities that their graduates face in this very challenging business, and to do so not during their senior year after the school has raked in tens of thousands of dollars of tuition, but before they spend a nickel at that school. Unlike buying a guitar or computer where at worst it can be replaced with another instrument or something else altogether, most students and their families can afford one shot at college. That comes at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars for tuition and expenses, and ought to provide the graduate with usable skills and a realistic preparation for their chosen career. But far too many composer graduates are shocked when they find that it will likely be years before they can even make a minimal living ghostwriting or working as an office assistant for a composer while completing a few student films each year for little or no pay. This is an indication that these students were not properly prepared or informed of the real-world employment outlook, and much of that blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the university or college they attended.

I read today how a graduate from Thomas Jefferson School of Law has sued the college, saying she was misled into attending by employment statistics provided by the school for a national survey. While many film scoring programs may not publish statistics on the employment their graduates achieve, by not disclosing before accepting a student how tough the current work environment is for composers, the end result is the same and the school is no less guilty.

As we watch the composing world undergo huge changes in how composers work and what skills are required for what employment there is, it is incumbent upon schools to provide absolutely up-to-date skills to their students. That’s why it’s concerning to see some programs featuring instructors who haven’t scored a commercial film in many years preparing students for a career that, in essence, doesn’t exist any more. What it took to be a film composer 20 years ago is vastly different than what it takes to be a working composer today. Obviously the technology is different, but the ways composers work are different too.

What can these schools do as they turn out hundreds of composer graduates each year into a completely saturated marketplace where only a few stand a reasonable chance of making a living after graduation doing what they were trained to do?

* Invite current working composers into the classroom and encourage them to speak candidly about the state of the art, craft and business

* Disclose to prospective students the realities of the workplace, and emphasize how the school prepares the students to succeed in the challenging environment

* A composing education should be as much about the art and craft as it is about the business. Film composing programs need to stop treating business courses as an optional subject and mainstream these courses as a significant part of a student’s education. It’s great to be able to write music well, but without the business chops to create and build a career, those talents can easily go to waste.

Finally, I hope more mentorship programs are created so graduates and new composers can learn from existing composers. Given the mercenary attitude of so many in this business, this may be a long shot, but at least one of our leaders has the right idea – Composers Guild of America president Alan Elliott is working to create broad coalition across colleges and universities that reaches into the professional ranks. That’s the kind of thing we need a lot more of in our industry, both with composer organizations and educational institutions.

Comments

By PT on July 9th, 2011 at 11:14 am

You’re dead on, Mark. As a well connected Berklee grad and finalist in the TCM Young Film Composer’s competition, I thought climbing into the guild would be a 1-year project. Luckily, my Berklee mentors humbled my expectations and helped me outline a 5-year plan, with room for failure, that has helped me always stay ahead of the game and prepare for the punches. My most memorable ‘jaw dropping’ lines from Berklee are:
1. Film composers don’t get Jobs – they get Gigs.
2. Your music will probably be turned down too low to be audible during the dialogue scenes, so don’t spend too much time on the notes.
3. By the time you’ve realized the director’s vision, you have little time to write a symphony.
4. A director will always see you for what you once were. If you started as a Music Supervisor, you have little chance of getting a gig as a composer.
5. You may be the greatest composer out there, but if you can’t express the mood of whats on the screen, you’re worthless to a director.
6. A composer can’t miss a deadline. You may never be hired again.
7.Composer’s have to prepare to write fast to make up for all the lost time during production and editing. It all gets dumped on us.

—and my favorite—

8. The only relaxing parts of scoring a film are when you get the gig and when you finish it!

By Chris on July 11th, 2011 at 8:43 am

I’m not convinced that this is a burden for the school. Many schools, like Berklee, have numerous majors and the truth 20 years ago AND today is that making a living with music is tough wether you are a songwriting major, music production major, film score major or any other major that the college may offer. It would be nice if the school you choose to attend had the power and resources to help each and every student get a job after graduating and was able to help warn them of all of the possible pitfalls but it’s simply impossible and impractical to expect that. I think this is a well intentioned commentary and your suggestions make perfect sense but a student needs to do their due diligence when investing in their career just like any other investor. Frankly, I’d even argue that a little bit of naïveté can be helpful. Sometimes NOT knowing how difficult things are going to be is what helps you pound on the doors, make the phone calls and start a path to success. Warning everyone before hand that “the gig you hope to get once you finish your studies doesn’t exist anymore, so don’t even bother trying” seems pretty ridiculous to me. And it’s simply not true. There are jobs out there. There is music on every single television program, every single movie, every single video game and someone has to write it….why can’t it be YOU?

By David Portugheis - Film composer on July 11th, 2011 at 11:29 am

I completely agree. I’m an emerging film composer living in Argentina and about 99% of the people I talk to tell me I should go to the US where the industry is much broader and richer, where work should be everywhere. I must admit I have been dreaming about studying the Film Scoring degree at Berklee for a long time but I believe that without business knowledge your leaving yourself more in the hands of luck than talent.

Of course I still want to learn more and meet interesting people, and hopefully will travel eventually, to wherever things take me :)

By Mike Marino on July 14th, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Interesting article, Mark. I think the Composers Guild of America is moving in the right direction.

- Mike

By Scott Hallgren on July 25th, 2011 at 10:24 am

Mark,

As a full-time composer/producer who works part-time in education, both public university sand as a board member of a non-profit, I’m grateful for the gist of your article, and agree with many of the posted comments. It is timely.

However, one of the things I’ve always appreciated about FMN is its willingness to call a spade a spade, Mark… which is why I’m puzzled a bit by your lack of mentioning any specific programs or teachers.

Given that facts that:

1. FMN has provided support for people who fit this description; and,

2. FMN has sold ad space to people that fit this description; and,

3. There are actually quite a few programs out there, whether it’s USC or Hummie Mann’s summer session or Columbia or Scott Smalley’s workshop, or UNC School of the Arts… and so on.

Isn’t a bit disingenuous to be so vague?

– S

By Anthony on July 25th, 2011 at 10:38 am

I have to agree with Chris above. It is not the responsibility of the school to guarantee any graduating student a career or job after they get their degree, no matter the industry, I am not just referring to music or art related programs. I think that the arts are definitely a tough career to sustain, whether you attend school or not. What school does offer is an opportunity to build and nurture your skills for a few years, without all the pressure of trying to learn on the fly in the “real world”. It allows students of all ages to just go with their feeling, learn from one another, from the professors, share experiences, and challenge each other. That is what I feel students should focus their energy on. There are tons of great resources and information available about the business side of music, that if a particular student wanted to add that to their arsenal, they could. Or, even take some extra classes that focus on music business during the summer or after they finish their main degree.

I think that each person learns and interprets their surroundings differently. No one size fits all approach for any aspect of life, just humans being human. Some, will succeed, others may do it as supplementary type of thing, others will drop it after a couple of years. That is life. There are a lot of humans on this planet, and we are all vying for a chance to show what we have, in all areas of life. Some will win, some will break even, and some will lose. That is something that can never be planned for, just have to stick by your decisions once you make them, and move on. Best wishes.

By Bruce Zimmerman on July 25th, 2011 at 1:45 pm

While I agree with the general gist of your comments, especially about schools teaching the business side of things and making sure students learn the newest technology, I think your bleak outlook on jobs ignores the fact that there are tons of jobs out there for film composers who do not limit themselves to “film” work.

I am a film composer who composes very few films. I do compose music for docs, educational films, corporate videos, children’s videos and games, library music, commercials, etc.

What schools have to impart to students is that there is a world of work outside of LA, and as long as a person leaves room for many possibilities, the outlook is a bit better than trying to break into the feature film business.

By Mark Northam on July 25th, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Hi Scott -

Thanks for the note. I wasn’t trying to be vague, but was trying to express a view based on feedback from many film scoring students and graduates over time. In terms of specific programs, I think it’s fair to differentiate between general programs that prepare one for a career such as Berklee’s, and programs that function more as expanded seminars (the Smalley course, for instance) and Hummie’s program which functions more as a master class about writing vs. a comprehensive program designed to prepare one for working as a film composer. Personally, I think the responsibility is on the general programs – especially the ones that are full-time four year degrees – to provide a comprehensive education as proper career preparation. And in that regard, based on comments from students, I think until recently Berklee didn’t do as well as it should. I say that after hearing from many Berklee grads how disillusioned they become when they come out to LA and realize how difficult it is just to make ends meet, much less build a stable career as a film & TV composer. In my view, a lot more should be done at college to prepare a composer for the financial realities and what will be necessary business-wise and income-wise to create a career in today’s business climate. Dan Carlin is now the head of the Berklee film scoring program and I understand he’s encouraged guest speakers to lay out the raw truth about how hard the business can be these days – that’s a great step forward in my book. I know Dan and I know he’s a person of great integrity and not one to “bury the truth” – he’s been a courageous advocate for composers for a long time, and he knows today’s realities because he’s lived and worked them.

In terms of LA schools, UCLA extension finally added one business course to its film scoring program after I and others complained for years. I can’t speak to USC’s current situation, and their program head Brian King won’t talk to us after we published an article about their school asking Local 47 for grant money to finance musicians for film scoring classes (while UCLA students get to pay for the musicians themselves). We asked questions about how much the musicians were paid, who decided which musicians were hired, etc, and they very quickly stopped talking to us. Very interesting.

Anthony, to address your comment, certainly no school can or should guarantee a graduate a job – nobody’s saying that. But schools that provide a general music education in film scoring who do not properly prepare a student for dealing with the business side of things are doing their students a disservice in my opinion. And that’s the difference between full-time programs and seminars and boutique programs that focus only on writing. Another factor that should be reflected in program content at these school is that unlike many professions, the vast majority of composers are self-employed, hence it’s important to have business skills in order to succeed.

Anyway, to wrap up on the subject, I welcome any information from current students or instructors at any of the programs in terms of how these programs are properly educating their students about the realities of the business today. There’s nothing I’d rather see published than good news that film scoring courses are including an appropriate amount of business and financial education in their programs that prepare composers for a career in the business.

By Hummie Mann on July 31st, 2011 at 11:25 am

As the creator of the Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program I want to say that I agree with Mark’s viewpoint that many programs do not, in fact, prepare their graduates for the “real world”. One of the reasons that the Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program is launching a full time Professional Certificate program is for precisely that reason. Our program will provide students with training that is real world applicable. The PNWFS program that has been in existence for 15 years was ran a series of extension classes and had the goal to be exactly what Mark said – a series of master classes in writing. At that point our focus was teaching composition technique skills applicable to scoring dramatic film which we saw as being replaced with only technology – Logic, DP, Pro-tools, etc. skills. However we recognize that having all the writing talent in the world and not enough business acumen and related skills to enter the industry is something we and all programs should address.

By RIchard Davis on August 5th, 2011 at 6:51 am

Hi Mark. Interesting thoughts. But I have to take issue with your premise and assumption that ALL film scoring programs do not give full disclosure to their students about the realities of the industry. I’m wondering if any research was done to survey these various programs? At Berklee we try to emphasize the realities or the industry and the difficulties of finding work, as well as the many opportunities out there. In addition to the faculty giving a hard-edged reality check we have frequent visits and Skype sessions with composers, composer’s assistants, agents, music editors, producers and directors who are usually quite frank about what it takes to break in and be successful in the film scoring world. Recent names to drop from the past couple of years are Bill Ross, John Powell, Richard Kraft, Alan Silvestri, Curtis Rausch, Michael Gorfaine, Tom Newman, Shawn Clement, Lucas Vidal, Haim Mazar, and Jerome Leroy – just to name a few.

I would imagine that most of the other programs around the country try to present similar folks. THe thing is that many young people just don’t hear it! I suppose that can be a blessing or a curse. So they arrive in LA all wide-eyed with great expectations, and BAM, they are in the soup you accurately describe.

FInally, here is a link to a NY TImes article on film school graduates. Very relevant….
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/05/movies/film-school-graduates-job-prospects-at-usc-nyu-ucla.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=film+school+graduates&st=nyt

By Dan Carlin on August 5th, 2011 at 8:32 am

Mark,
It is extremely gratifying to see one’s praises sung in print; so, thank you for your kind words.
As to the issues you raise, there are many insightful remarks both in your article and in the responding comments. For what it’s worth, here are some of my own thoughts.
Anthony is correct: attempting to make a living in the arts–especially in America–is a daunting proposition. I make this point with all visiting parents and potential students. As an educator, former industry activist, and the subsidizing parent of college graduates, I am well aware of the sacrifices, hard work, dreams, and obstacles involved in both earning a degree and attempting to use it to start a career. At Berklee, in our orientation for prospective film-scoring majors, we inform them that, although we graduate about 75 film-scoring majors every year, there are perhaps 10% that number of scoring-related jobs to be filled. This begs a few questions: Should 90% of the students drop out of the program? (To study what?) How many of us over the age of 40 are engaged in the field in which we focused at college? Should one ignore one’s passions in order to train in a field where jobs appear more secure?
Berklee offers the only undergraduate degree in film scoring; so, we attract students from all over the world who have a passion for this field. You are correct: we have an obligation to realistically inform them of the challenges they face, and we do that, beginning with our orientation for prospective majors. As you and some of your commentators noted, we also bring in guest speakers who are currently active composers, orchestrators, music editors, and other industry workers. Their reports on up-to-the-minute industry activities help inform our students and compensate for the fact that it is physically impossible for our industry-experienced faculty members to continue working full-time in the industry and also teach full-time at Berklee. We provide networking and formalized collaboration opportunities for our scoring students with filmmakers from colleges in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Georgia, and California. We have created 3 new seminars (2 at the college level and one within our department) that address entrepreneurialism and other professional development skills. We also encourage those with the interest to take advantage of our new minor in video-game scoring, where there currently are many more opportunities for immediate employment.
The challenge for any institution that specializes in high-visibility creative fields such as ours is to find and cultivate that fabulous middle ground between being a trade school and being an artist retreat. Toward that end, we’ve created the goal of helping young adults develop into critical thinkers, responsible citizens, talented musicians, and successful entrepreneurs (all of this during the worst global economic period in our lifetimes). Those who succeed beyond Berklee tend to be those who remained diligent throughout their educational pursuit, who worked on creating their own musical voice, who developed grace in their social skills, and who, frankly, had the luck of good timing. But, as many of us have discovered, the harder we work, the luckier we get.
Thanks for this forum, Mark.

By Mark Northam on August 5th, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Hi Richard & Dan -

Thanks for the notes and perspective. My comments are based on years of speaking with new composers as they arrive in LA and – in many cases – are shocked at the lack of opportunity to do what they love to do – write music for film. As Dan pointed out, there are jobs for perhaps 10% of grads doing what they were trained to do, and most of those jobs don’t even pay benefits as they’re assistant composer type jobs that in most other fields would be called interns or apprentices.

My concern is that in the case of many graduating students I’ve spoken with over the years, they didn’t realize the horrible odds of them finding work until they were either close to graduation or already graduated and seeking work. As other commenters here have pointed out, colleges are not employment agencies and students have a responsibility to research their chosen profession before embarking on an education. By the same token, film scoring is a rather insular field and getting dependable industry-level statistics is next to impossible as we have no union or industrial representation.

That begs the question: should college (not referring here only to Berklee) enrollees be informed of the college’s experience re: graduates getting jobs in their chosen field prior to enrollment? Should their parents be informed if they are under 18 and, in many cases, are footing the bill?

I think it’s great that Berklee is doing this during orientation, and I hope that others will do so as well so we can perhaps cut down on the number of shocked graduates who find that things are not as they had expected/hoped/dreamed when they arrive in LA.

The film school article is excellent – I saw that when it came out – should be required reading for every arts major prior to enrollment!

Best,

Mark

By Isaias Garcia on August 18th, 2011 at 3:08 pm

I really enjoyed this discussion from this all-star panel. As a current composition undergrad at York University in Toronto, I believe that any young film composer should NOT wait until they graduate and move to LA to begin finding work and start making connections and meeting directors/producers. The magic always happens while you’re in school. Last year was my freshmen year in University, and to be honest I spent more time in the Film Department knocking on doors and meeting film students than in my own Music building. Which ties to my next point: that I also believe a young film composer should do his best to attend a college that offers both a music and film program, and if that student feels confident in his musical abilities, why not apply to do a Minor in Film or simply attend a college which has a Film Department. Can you imagine the amount of projects one young composer could be doing per year in a classroom with 25 film students? Luckily at York University the Music and Film programs are literally next to each other, so I am fortunate to get the best of both educations. Now I know perhaps Berklee or USC are perhaps promoted as the ones with the best Film Scoring programs (always the topic of much fantasy for Canadian composers to attend, given the international student tuitions even while we’re a bus drive away), but I would like to conclude that if it also weren’t for the film programs next door (Boston U, USC Film), former students such as Lucas Vidal (Mr. Davis probably knows him) could not have obtained those necessary first encounters with our future Spielbergs’ and Lucas’ to kick start his career.

By Andy Hill on August 18th, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Undertaking a study in the arts–whether fiction writing, painting, cartooning, or music–has always involved a calculated risk. It’s not a “career choice” so much as a burning need to express something that drives the decision, and the only way to succeed is to see oneself as an exception to the rules, the man or woman who’ll beat the odds. It goes without saying that only 10% of arts graduates will actually find gainful employment making art. It’s always been that way. I don’t think that college and university teachers have an obligation to state the obvious. Only in post-Reagan entrepreneurial America, where the lunatics run the asylum, has this notion of commercial entitlement and educate-for-success existed. If you want guaranteed work, I know a good program in agricultural chemistry at U of Missouri that will land you a gig in fertilizer R&D at Monsanto.

But, that said, professional programs in scoring for media can do a lot to improve the odds, or at least to give their graduates a platform on which to succeed or fail on their own merits. The fact is that college professors have fallen pretty far from the Platonic model. All too many are either burnouts who envy their students’ promise or still-working professionals who aren’t eager to seed the field with competitors. All too few are real mentors. Film composers are engaged in the commercial application of an art form: the art of using music to convey dramatic meaning, whether that involves a ballerina confronting the dark side of her psyche or an on-line gamer confronting a boss in a virtual dungeon. Both situations induce heightened emotions. If aspiring composers aren’t shown a way to access those emotions through music, it doesn’t matter how many business tutorials they receive. But my approach is unfashionable in this get rich quick, 15 minutes of fame era. I authored a masters program at Columbia College that initially paired film composers in creative collaborations not only with with filmmakers, but with theater directors, writers and actors, choreographers and dancers, and game developers, with the objective of producing composers of dramatic music who could move fluidly and facilely between media. One by one, these cross-disciplinary experiments were stripped away, until very little was left that justified the granting of a masters degree in “fine arts.”

But we did manage to graduate more than 40 composers, 28 of whom are now living, learning and working in Los Angeles. And this is where the second part of mentoring comes in. A teacher has to be willing to gamble his personal stake on his students, to utilize his knowledge, juice, and personal and professional relationships to insure that his students are placed in situations where their talents can be recognized. We developed a professional internship program that allowed our students to be in the studio and in the trenches with people like James Newton Howard, Mark Isham, John Powell, Danny Elfman, John Debney, Mychael and Jeff Danna, Johnny Klimek, Blake Neely, and many others. Of this year’s 12 graduates, 11 remained in Los Angeles after completion of the program, and seven of these have already secured at least temporary employment in the industry. Two have received agent calls from no less than First Artists Management, and one is already up for an indie feature with a $15K composing package. Sure, that’s lowball, but I know quite a few “established” composers who are competing for those packages.

It’s not warning students about the brutal realities of the business that scoring programs need to be doing. That will only discourage them, and they don’t come to us for discouragement. Reality bites. Who needs it who truly wants to be an artist, commercial or otherwise? It’s actually outfitting graduates with what they need to make it out there that counts. Hell, the Marine Corps does it. Why shouldn’t a professional program?

By don chambers on September 5th, 2011 at 3:52 pm

I am the father of a current Berklee student who attended a recent seminar by Alan Silvestri. My son called with excitement and more determination than ever after the seminar. Mr Silvestri made it quite clear how long he struggled and failures he faced before achieving any real success. As a struggling parent trying to meet tuition, we also need to know the realities, as every kid cannot always get what they want. With a son who has had the same goal, (film scoring), since grade school, I feel blessed to help give him the tools to have his shot at it. The rest is up to him. Thats life. I really enjoyed reading all the comments here.

By Hequin O'Mas on September 24th, 2011 at 10:36 pm

PT Said:

“2. Your music will probably be turned down too low to be audible during the dialogue scenes, so don’t spend too much time on the notes.”

Few years back, as I was ghostwriting for a four time Academy Award nominated film composer, he taught me to write good music even if the music was inaudible in the final mix, because people DO listen to soundtracks. Some of those people might be music supervisors, music editors and directors. And it’s just the professional thing to do anyway.

By Kris Falk on November 15th, 2011 at 12:44 am

Is going to school only about getting a job later? Is an academic environment the best place to talk about the “realities” of the real world? Is talking about how difficult it is to work in the film industry a way to make film composers any better composers? I keep thinking of the advice of some of the finest film composers like David Raksin and Jerry Goldsmith who said “learn music first”. Granted, schools like Berklee are more “trade school” oriented, and so there is a place for bringing in guests who can talk candidly regarding their trade, but I must say that in the more traditional university setting these are non-issues. In over 10 years in graduate school in music composition, I never saw a serious composer come in and tell us how to get commissions or grants: that is up to the intelligence of the student to figure out. Likewise for film music. If someone is talented, determined, and perhaps a little lucky, they can get work. As with any other artistic discipline (if you believe film music to be an art form), discipline and following excellent models is the key, and I do not just mean film composers. Wagner will teach you more about orchestration than any “recipe” manual, and if you want to understand the dramatic use of music study opera. I also believe the very best training for media-related composition is knowing how to talk about music to non-musicians, because those are the people that give you the “gigs”. It’s good to know something about business, but it is incredibly uninteresting in relation to the serious study of music composition. Perhaps I am preaching to the choir here?

By Mark Northam on November 15th, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Hi Kris -

Certainly it comes down to a balance between learning the artistic and creative skills necessary to be a great film composer, and learning the business and organizational skills it takes to build a successful small business. But too far in either direction may not be the best way to build a career, especially in today’s industry which is quite different than in past decades. Frankly I’m sick and tired of seeing very talented composers come out of school with lots of talent but little or no business skills and crash/burn because they can’t generate enough income to survive. It is utterly a myth that if someone has a high level of talent, the “rest of the stuff” (business issues, marketing, finance, etc) will just “take care of itself”. Maybe long ago when there were fewer composers and they were paid enough to afford business managers, etc that might have been true to an extent, but now composers typically have to build and operate their own “small business” for a considerable number of years before they can afford to delegate the business and marketing duties. And with the huge oversupply of talented composers in the industry today, I believe that having both business skills and create skills is necessary to build a career as a film & TV composer.

By Kris Falk on November 15th, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Hey, Mark,

I must respectfully disagree regarding your comment that there is an “oversupply” of talented composers in the industry today. Granted, there are talented composers who cannot score a scene for a film if their life depended on it (witness George Crumb’s inability to even approach The Exorcist when he was asked to do it), but I estimate that the number of people with true talent for scoring dramatic situations with real musical sensitivity is tremendously small. Of course it is a myth to think talent is all that is needed, and because the film industry (or other media) is a popular medium, the recognition of real musical ability (especially with the advent of the illiterate MIDI composer) is consistently at odds with the immediate needs of the almighty dollar (i.e., producer who is a businessperson that wants to make money). Ironically, I have realized that this has always been historically true in film. However, I am seeing more and more people race after the big gig with very little talent but a lot of drive, and I keep feeling that their values are truly misplaced. For students, if they can even begin to understand the value of a lifelong devotion to music apart from what may or may not happen to them in the “careers”, I believe the better off they will be. Jerry Goldsmith used to chuckle when he saw students want to run after multi-million dollar films right after school, because he said “it will come to you when you are ready.” The tragedy to me is that he spent 6 months with GRADUATE composition students to train them how to write a decent simple 16 bar melody! If that is not evidence of a lack of musical chops on the part of the composers, I don’t know what is. OK, everyone should have some business training, but it strikes me as the same problem as learning how to time a scene: everyone can learn how to use the tools to get the proper timing, but it is the actual musical content that matters most. Anyway, I am beginning to think that in terms of musical training for aspiring film composers, the best preparation might be scoring for student-produced live television dramas, as in the early days of TV, or perhaps radio dramas (for dialogue scoring training).

By omnitech on January 24th, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Really nice blog.. thank you so much for this.. looking forward to more of it.. please keep it up dude..

By Mark Priest on February 10th, 2012 at 11:27 am

1. Observations from one who has decided to pursue a career in this industry (and what made up my mind to do so).

2. If one aims to be a composer/orchestrator for film, television, games, and even the concert stage, and one’s talent is at least comparable to (if not superior to), those who are actively and gainfully employed in this industry–WHY NOT? This is especially so for those who are passionate about it. Hey, since others are doing it, why can’t I?! As Chris states above, there are a LOT of jobs out there.

3. Vital Expansions:

a) Business courses and experience, sure.
b) Another area worth considering: REALLY learning orchestral conducting (should be a given for a serious composer/orchestrator). Well enough to effectively conduct a film orchestra recording session. You can’t fake this.
c) And of course, learn ALL the in’s and out’s of your current music software; become an innovator.
d) study song-writing for media
e) study various popular and “ethnic” musical styles, their inner workings, the instruments, rhythms, melodic, and harmonic characteristics.

4. We know there are no guarantees here, but heck… (please re-read my second paragraph above).

By Chris Boardman on September 15th, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Though I’m late to the party I am certain that the passionate prose for and against pursuing a career as a film composer is still as relevant today as ever.

All good points from relevant points of view. Let me add a couple more:

We cannot ignore the change in the media landscape due to the impact of disruptive technology. Most people are only becoming aware that the Industrial age is dying if not dead and that we will be entering the Information Age soon, if not already.

Academic institutions today are in the same situation that the record business was in 10-12 years ago. It’s a bloated relic from the past where “certification” was the only way one could get in the game of life. In this regard academia has been a “gatekeeper” to the access of knowledge….served in one location with distribution of their product (students) geared to the many. This model will most certainly become less and less important as time progresses.

Academic institutions face the unenviable task of restructuring their business model because the industry that they have served has changed….and will not recover to previous levels of (potential) employment in a post-industrial world. So, the real question is: how well is the university preparing their students for a world that is not yet defined?
Can the university change to meet the change in demand?

By Michael Ingram on September 26th, 2012 at 3:14 pm

As parents of a recent Berklee Film Scoring Major, (Summa Cum Laude) we are proud of our son’s accomplishments, and I respect Mark Priest’s positive comments.
With that said, where does a young college film scoring grad find the jobs to apply for/send a resume to, etc? Are there worthwhile and credible websites out there that post current job openings? When one has the drive, desire and passion to use and share their talent, it is only right they get the chance. I look forward to your responses, and numerous job offers!

By Mark Northam on September 27th, 2012 at 8:19 pm

Hi Michael -

Congratulations on your son’s graduation!

One thing that may be helpful to understand is that the film scoring business is unlike a traditional business where companies advertise for positions, etc. Unless you’re fortunate enough to get one of the few available jobs as an assistant to an established composer, a film composer today is essentially a self-employed businessperson who must undertake his or her own marketing, business development, etc. That means building relationships with music supervisors and filmmakers, and anyone else in the industry who may be potentially able to help.

This can be a tall order for a new graduate who has spent years focusing on the art and craft of writing music, yet may have little to no experience in how to run, manage, and market a business in a very, very competitive marketplace.

The bottom line is that there are far more talented composers in the marketplace than available opportunities to score, and with major composers willing to work for free just to keep current and try and grab the next breakout indie film, it makes it that much harder for new composers to break in. This is exactly why I believe it’s critical that film scoring students have plenty of music business courses, including coverage of managing royalties, contracts, and perhaps most importantly, how to go out and market yourself as an independent self-employed businessperson. I cannot tell you how many talented composers I’ve met over the years in LA and elsewhere whose careers have crashed and burned not due to lack of musical talent, but due to a lack of business acumen and inability to effectively market themselves in a crowded marketplace. Add to that the growing concern of film and television producers to avoid “risk” and only hire “proven” composers, and it can be a very tough road to break into this business. Not impossible, but certainly not easy by any means. While most college graduates hope to earn a living upon graduation, it can take years of underpaid or free work as a composer in order to build up enough of a reputation and business to even earn a basic living, much less a living that can afford the ability to provide for a family, etc.

I suppose in a perfect world, composing would be done by the most talented, and people would be given a chance based on their talent. But in today’s industry, talent is merely a prerequisite. More often than not it’s all the non-talent items, such as personality, attitude, looks, ability to schmooze, ability to market and promote yourself, etc that can make the different between a talented working composer, and an equally talented unemployed composer. I would recommend your son strongly consider some music business courses plus any sort of courses in how to build a small business, how to market and promote a business, how to manage a set of books, etc. in addition to looking for composing work from indie filmmakers, etc.

Hope this helps!

By Samulis on November 2nd, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Although I am only a High School student (senior) interested in film/game scoring, I have already taken lots of steps to enter into the industry. I spend a lot of time scoring small flash games and films gaining experience and contacts in the broader world. Even though the pay is slim, I have learned much about forming contracts, basic agreements, discussing artistic visions and ways to meet them, timeliness, and the general insanity the great endurance sport of Scoring is.

I may not be a visionary or expertly versed in theory, but I find true passion in scoring, and I earnestly hope anyone interested in applying themselves to scoring shares the same- even through hardships and trials. I know I am barely a step into a journey of ten thousand miles in the truth of things, but I feel I am walking in the right direction after reading this at least.

For anyone interested in scoring who is just starting out, I urge you to take steps to become involved in any sort of community where game developers, no matter how poor go. I have learned much from scoring free games and paid projects, and every new client is another lesson… I am sure a program in college could offer all that and more in a much shorter time, but it is progress nonetheless.

Who knows, maybe the developers I know now will go on to create some famous iOS game using my music or something of that nature? Or maybe they will be that link to that other developer who goes on to produce major games and might use my work. It is all a big guess, but regardless, it is win-win- I either gain business sense or I gain musical sense (or both). Flash games are small affairs, requiring only a handful of looping pieces, making them ideal for someone starting out. Anyone thinking they can jump into a film, I have learned, is too ambitious (same goes for a symphony). I have been learning and refining myself for three years and I am still not worthy for the challenge of scoring even a 20-minute work in my opinion.

Thank you for the excellent article once again,
-”Samulis Augustus”

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