For many of you aspiring composers reading this, writing music is not your full-time job. You’d like it to be, but you don’t land enough gigs (yet). You're not even sure how to get yourself into the pool of available candidates. Read on for some ideas and a little perspective… after the following Tinseltown fairy tale:
One day you’re toiling away, cheerfully losing money and hustling your ass off… constantly looking for ways to up your composing game, while working a separate job (or two or three) to pay the bills. It’s taking a toll on your energy level, but you’re passionate. You’re committed.
Before too terribly long, you see a tiny little payoff (beyond the endless chain of freebies and low-paying gigs that have so far seemed to be your lot in life as a composer). Someone—almost certainly someone you've worked for before, for little or nothing—finally says "you're hired; here's your budget," and you’re one of the few people in town with a paying gig.
So you do that for a while. You’re diligent about follow-through, you’re a “good hang,” and your music gets the job done… and then some.
Eventually some of the people on that gig move on to other productions and spread the good word, and one day the phone rings and you get another gig. Then you’re one of the even fewer people in town with multiple gigs. You throw a massive party to celebrate. Maybe you wake up the next morning a little hung over, still incredulous that this thing is actually starting to happen.
You leverage your new position in the community by publicizing and taking meetings, getting to know the gatekeepers in the creative and executive ranks, while all the time being a real person. Suddenly you’re “hireable” for the next level of gig. You miss a few opportunities, land a few which underperform, and then one day your small studio picture breaks through.
Now you’re a hot commodity. You’re worried about becoming a “flavor of the month,” but purely in terms of getting the gig, the equation has turned around. People are now calling you, wanting that unique thing you bring to the table.
I love a happy ending… but this isn’t that. Far from it—the story is actually just starting to get interesting.
But what’s the takeaway here? What are the underlying principles that you can apply to make this your story—even if the little details will inevitably be different?
1. Treat it like a full-time job, even when it’s not. In other words, fake it till you make it. If you’re not earning a living at this (and you’d like to be), you actually have two or more jobs. One of them just doesn’t pay any money yet.
Does this sound like fun to you? (hint: it’s not.) Expect long hours, little sleep and a sizable outlay of funds to get yourself to the place where you might actually be considered for a paying gig.
Also, expect to do lots of freebies. Ask me some time about student films… starting out, they were a full-time, non-paying career for me. Eventually that career began to pay dividends. In fact, the subject of “paying dues” deserves its own heading…
2. Pay your dues. Your career “breaks” will usually come on the coattails of, or by a referral from, someone you’ve helped out on a smaller project. The rewards of landing even a single successful paying gig can be so disproportionate, so profoundly life-changing, that making a long-term plan that only comes to fruition over a course of years can be a smart move.
In fact, it is essentially the only move available to you, if you’re looking (eventually) to score Big Studio Pictures. That is a rarefied terrace (more on the “terrace effect” below) that is only approached by a few people. If you’re not already in a certain position, you have zero chance of being considered. Zero.
The good news: the lower the rung, the more different ways in which it can be approached. As you move higher, you find that there are fewer and fewer ways by which you can approach landing a gig. Which is natural: the more money someone’s paying for a product, the more selective and risk-averse they become.
3. Make friends with people who can hire you. This one, by the way, goes a long way toward alleviating the woes of budget, deadline and collaboration. People are much more likely to hire people they know. People are also much less likely to take advantage of people they know.
By the way, filmmakers and composers are naturally inclined to be friends. We both care intensely about storytelling; we both have knowledge of the same body of art; we both swim in the same social and geographic pool. We both have to manage creative teams. And we both understand the strange dichotomy of “interacting socially and politically with the world” vs. “sitting in an isolated computer cage for hours on end” that is necessary to do what we do.
So don’t be intimidated. Seize any opportunity that comes your way. Think in advance about some things you’d like to talk about with filmmakers you admire. Develop some opinions about what turns you on about movies, TV, etc. Do your homework. Then, when the opportunity presents itself, simply introduce yourself and start talking. If it’s a bad time you’ll know it, if you have any social graces at all… but usually people love to talk about what they do.
Get over the slightly uncomfortable feeling of talking to strangers. Assign yourself the task of “befriending” five complete strangers a day for a week. In a shopping mall, grocery store, wherever. If you can hone your “gift of gab” to the point that you actually have cool things to say—and are careful to listen even more than you talk!—you’ll find it easy and fun to engage in conversations with all kinds of creative pros… and they’ll find you equally fascinating.
4. Learn to speak effectively about film music. Ultimately, the factor that will turn the entire work equation around—what will cause people to seek you out—is your musical opinion. Learn to express it passionately but concisely, and without veering into the strange and frightening territory of musical geek-speak. Read every interview you can find with the A-listers: they all have an unerring way of talking simply about what it is they do, while at the same time revealing their personality as human beings.
Unless you’re a very rare sort of person, this takes practice. So practice with a willing friend, colleague, lover or other sympathetic soul. Keep at it. Record yourself. You may be shocked to hear all the “um”s and “well”s that you don’t even notice when you’re trying to think and talk at the same time. Relax into it and practice until you’re as comfortable as you would be conversing with yourself, inside your own head.
5. Broaden your horizons. Video games, online content, industrial films—these are all gigs you should be targeting. There’s a parallel here with writing words: it’s the journalist who makes a living reporting on the neighborhood flower show, while simultaneously developing sources and chasing leads for the blockbuster exposé on industrial waste. Someday, if you’re successful, you’ll be pigeonholed into one genre, one medium or one industry. Until then, the fact that you’re not known as a “reality music composer” or a “documentary composer” to your advantage. Go for as many different things as you can.
6. Hustle. I don’t advocate running your health or your personal life into the ground… but yes, committing to developing your career means you’re going to miss out on some other stuff. For you, the work itself has to be more intrinsically fun and rewarding than lounging in front of the TV. If that isn’t the case, get out now. Seriously.
You’re adding a significant pile of obligations to your plate. In fact, if you’re doing it right, your plate should be completely full—optimally, 24 hours of each and every 24-hour day should be accounted for. Which means that anything else you wish to add to your plate should come at the cost of something else. In short…
7. Prioritize. There are two things in life: results and excuses. When you take the day off, that’s a choice. It may be a wise and correct choice, but the work doesn’t go away. When you buy a sample library, that’s a choice. You’re spending money you could be spending on your family. When you sign up for folk dancing lessons, that, too, is a choice. Those Wednesday nights just became unavailable for work. Make your choices with your eyes open. Be ambitious, but be reasonable… and be aware that for each door you open, another closes (and often that’s just fine). There’s a fine line, though, between hard-ass and dumb-ass…
8. (don’t) “Sprint the Marathon.” This was the unofficial title of a personal blog entry I wrote several years ago. And it’s absolutely wrong. This is a distance event, and going about it full-tilt, all the time, to the exception of everything else in your life, is merely going to burn you out. The idea of working hard all the time was what I was trying to get across—defining a harder “base level” of output and hustle than you think you’re capable of, because most people underperform, most of the time. But forgetting that it is a lifetime pursuit is, in fact, dangerous. Be aware. So much of what we undertake is about output; without corresponding input, you’ll simply run out of steam.
9. Get real. Once again, you’re being hired for your opinion… and faking an opinion just because you think that’s what the filmmaker wants to hear is a difficult lie to sustain. In a best case your project will be a roaring success—and you’ll be labeled as someone whose opinion is, in fact, contrary to your own. And you’ll have to continue to do gigs like that. You’ll be making money, sure, but you’ll hate every gig that comes along. It’s not worth it. Be yourself—have strong musical ideas and storytelling opinions—and find those filmmaking partners whose tastes align with your own. It’s the best way to end up in one of those “magic relationships” (think Burton/Elfman, Spielberg/Williams, Hitchcock/Herrmann) we all dream of having.
Of course, it’s no guarantee. Which leads me to…
10. Accept the terrace. Notice that the story I began the column with doesn’t proceed smoothly. There are months, years, spent on one level of the terrace… and then, with a single gig, things change. I don’t know of a single career in film music that has proceeded along a smooth upward slope (of the sort you might see in, say, business management). There’s no “expected path,” no “annual performance review” beyond what you set for yourself.
Finally, I’ll throw one more small detail that makes a difference: pick a physical style for yourself (hair, wardrobe, accessories, etc.) that matches your persona as an artist and cultivate that image. It’s shocking how being awkward, antisocial and sloppy doesn’t do much to advance your career, but I wouldn’t write this as advice if I didn’t see it in would-be composers out here in LA all. the. time.