Be The Solution, Not The Problem!

Composing is a very tough business. The massive oversupply problem, a market swamped with free music from the rapidly growing number of music libraries, and lousy performance royalty rates for custom score music add up to a trifecta of trouble for score composers today. And while it’s only fair to point out those in the industry who work against the interests of score composers, in the end WE are the problem – and that’s a fact that not many want to confront these days, especially when it’s far more comfortable and easier to blame the production companies, the royalty societies, and others.

The problem is, too many people are looking for someone else to create the solution, so they can ride along and get the benefits without incurring any of the costs of actually creating the solution themselves. It’s a fear-based approach that has cost us as an industry dearly.

Even today, I think one of the most attractive prospects to many of the new effort to create a composers union is that they think “the union” will stand up for composers who dare not stand up for themselves, if recent history is any indication. It’s time we got over the fear of creating change and started making some change. After all, it is our failure to act for decades that has allowed many of these problems to fester and grow. We must stop waiting for others to solve our problems and get involved and start solving them ourselves.

How to accomplish this? It’s not an easy task – in fact, it’s a monumental task, especially for those of us who are in denial or afraid to even discuss the problems our industry faces, much less get involved in creating a solution.

That being said, here are three basic guidelines for positive change:

1. We must, as individuals and as an industry, acknowledge the reality of the overuspply and overcompetition we face and find ways to constructively build our businesses and careers, even given the negative business climate we now face.

2. We must, as individuals and as an industry, constantly work to focus on and maintain the quality and unqiue nature of custom score music and find ways to support the value of this music as we help our clients realize the value and benefits of choosing high quality custom score music.

3. We must find ways to constructively work together as an industry to end the era of composers being “divided and conquered” and we must do this in the most inclusive way possible recognizing that today, a great number of very talented composers live outside LA.

Today, composer apathy and fear has brought us to the point we’re at now, perhaps the worst business climate for composers that has ever existed in our industry. The apathy of not caring or not believing that you can make a difference, combined with the fear of being edged out for jobs if you dare speak up against those who work against the interests of score composers is a lethal combination and one that we simply cannot afford if the art and craft of composing score music for film and television is to survive.

I challenge each of you to find a way to be part of the solution. But this means action, not inaction. It means being willing to confront the reality of the situation and undertaking actions to proactively improve things. It means daring to become a leader, instead of sitting back and being a follower. It means taking charge of your career instead of waiting for others to “fix things” and acknowledging that you need not be at the mercy of outside forces and the actions or inactions of others.

In short, it means being part of the solution through action, rather than being part of the problem through inaction. And even if each of us only does something small, for our industry as a whole, it would be a huge step forward.


  • January 14, 2010 @ 7:49 am

    So what should we do when we are trying to be part of the solution?

  • Mark Northam
    January 14, 2010 @ 7:57 am

    That depends on your individual circumstances in the industry. What action(s) are you able and willing to take to address the issues we face in the business? It’s really specific to your own individual situation, though.

    For example, if you are a composer and believe that the ASCAP 80% penalty for a one minute custom score cue as compared to a one minute song cue in film/TV is unfair, are you willing to contact ASCAP board members who determine these rates and argue for better rates for score music?

    Another example: are you interested in organizing a group of composers in your area to help educate filmmakers on the benefits of custom score music as opposed to generic library music for their projects?

    And another – would you consider offering your time to visit film schools and other educational programs to talk about film scoring and the importance of that art form?

    Again, it all comes down to what skills, abilities and preferences you have as an individual in determining what you feel is most appropriate to further the goal of preserving and enhancing the art and craft of film composing.

  • January 14, 2010 @ 11:20 am

    Timely article, Mark. Your suggestion to visit film schools, etc. to help educate filmmakers on the benefits of custom scoring is good. I’ve been asked several times to be a guest speaker; once for the a local filmmakers collaborative and another time for a filmmaking class at at a local university. Both times I was struck by how much interest there was for this information (high attendance) and by how much need there was for it. The groups I spoke to were glad to have the opportunity to hear from a working composer about how to go about the business of contracting an original score, when to get a composer involved, how to collaborate with a composer, the issue of rights, the cost, etc. Not only is it an opportunity to share some much needed information, it’s also a way to network and develop more clients. A two-fer!

  • Jeff Hull
    January 14, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    First of all good article. it’s a topic most composers and songwriters won’t address, especially younger ones.

    I think the real problem that has gotten us into this mess which nobody wants to talk about is the fact the most composers and songwriters today give their music away for very little or no money at all. If composers and songwriters would stand their ground then music libraries and production and film companies and whoever else would be forced to pay a decent wage. I know very well that it’s hard in this business to get your foot in the door in the beginning but giving stuff away for free is not the answer and only ends up hurting everyone in the long run. It has created a climate of “Oh you mean I have to pay for music…… I thought it was free” which is where we’re at now and why there is such a glut of product………. half of which is pretty bad. So add that to the list of composers and songwriters not taking responsibility for the problem we created.

  • January 14, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

    I would really have to strongly agree with Jeff. It’s a matter of perceived value. In essence, we’ve sold ourselves short by giving away our music. I have found that when I place a strong value on what I do, my clients understand, and also value my work. I know it’s hard when you really want the gig, but step back for a moment, and remember that you’re worth something…

  • mike
    January 17, 2010 @ 7:16 am

    This site…sometimes you (Mark) confuse me. You spent the last half of 2009 praising the efforts of union organization. Now in 2010 we get entrepreneur Mark. “Take your career in your own hands” well I’d say I like 2010 Mark better.
    To answer the next batch of questions…
    I’ve seen the Union where I live actually stop efforts that you mention as options to generate a positive work environment. So I am not sure both worlds can coexist.
    I have found people still hire 3 skills…. Talent, Creativity, and Professionalism. Keep your energy focused on that.
    A dreamer.

  • Mark Northam
    January 17, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    Actually I think if the composers’ union is put together the right way, it can be a helpful tool in achieving some of the outcomes I talk about in this article, especially if it creates a stable framework for pricing and benefits. The union would also be a great mechanism where composers might finally band together and stop accepting such lousy royalty rates that custom score is paid by the performing rights societies compared to what’s paid for song. (A one minute score cue is paid only 20% of what a one minute song cue is for film/TV at ASCAP, for instance.)

    Then again, the union could be a bust – especially if some of the spineless political do-nothings who run claim to be our “leaders” now end up running the union and continuing their policy of being unwilling to question this kind of outrageous discrimination aimed at score composers. Their silence on these issues has literally sold out an entire industry, but we have only ourselves to blame for allowing it to happen – again, it’s fear – fear of speaking up for one’s self and one’s livelihood.

    I’m not sure both worlds can coexist either, but I’m willing to give the composers’ union a chance. Most of the details about what they want to do have not been worked out yet, so I’m willing to give it some time and support them at this point, however that support is contingent on me believing that the union will prove to be a help, not a hinderance, to the composer industry – and I mean the ENTIRE industry, not just the guys in LA.

  • Hequin O'Mas
    January 18, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

    If custom cues and song cues would cost equally much to have in films, wouldn’t that encourage film makers to skip composers and use just songs, Tarantino/Scorcese style?

  • George
    January 18, 2010 @ 11:45 pm

    Very disturbing – Here is a reply I received today –

    “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 also access to free orchestras. At this point of my career it’s definitely a good deal for me. However I liked your work. If you are interested in trying to collaborate on my next project maybe you can write something for a scene/teaser…..”

    NOT ONLY he would like me to work for free – he expects a free orchestra, and a free pitch to see if I am good enough to work for him for free – Is it worth it at the end? Is there really a solution for us?

  • Mark Northam
    January 19, 2010 @ 12:54 am

    A classic example of oversupply at work, George. And guys like this will get away with it as long as they are protected and their names are kept secret.

    You want to make a difference? Name him publicly, quote his email verbatim so there’s no misunderstanding, and I’ll invite him on here to respond and let’s see if he’ll defend his business practices.

  • George
    January 19, 2010 @ 1:43 am

    this was my reply –

    As I am a professional composer, it seems it would be very difficult for us to collaborate since your angle is very dismissive. You would like me to compose for free, you would also like me to pitch for this to see if i am good enough to compose for free, as well as explore the possibility of using a live orchestra for free (which I never heard before in my 10 years in the industry!) And you also did not bother to check out my work before this – :)

    It is somewhat disappointing to hear up-and-coming film-makers undervalue the role of music so much. It seems that for some “paying no money at all” is more important than taking the time to choose appropriate music for a film. I am just giving you a little info on what composers are thinking about these days. With this attitude, eventually only “hobbyists” will be writing music “professionally” and of course this music will be of below reasonable standard.

    Thanks for your time and best of luck with your shoot. :)


  • George
    January 19, 2010 @ 1:48 am

    I agree Mark, but naming one filmmaker publically will not make a difference – someone, somewhere SOON needs to put down some rules – then we can alienate all the people that are taking advantage.

  • Mark Northam
    January 19, 2010 @ 2:46 am

    Hi George –

    In my opinion, expecting a composer to work for free and find a free orchestra are not things that require “rules” in place to be recognized as clearly abusive business practices.

    And until those who break the rules have something to fear, all the rules in the world won’t make a difference. No offense, George, but you’ve just illustrated my point about all of us waiting for “someone else” to do the uncomfortable work. We are an entire industry who are afraid to even name those who treat composers so poorly, all waiting for “someone else” to do the things we are not ready to do ourselves.

    Until we take our own industry, and our careers and businesses a lot more seriously, taking the comfortable way out of things like this is only going to encourage those who believe that composers are sitting ducks to be treated like crap, barely paid, etc. who will roll over or shut up, even in the face of exploitative treatment like “free music” and “free orchestras” etc.

    On the other hand, making this guy’s name and actions public might just send a message to other indie filmmakers who want to take advantage of composers and don’t want their name forever preserved on the Internet and search engines as an abuser of composers.

    But you’re not alone, George. With most composers in the industry, I’ll bet if a bank or a gas station or some other business treated them poorly, they’d be the first to name them and call for public outcry, not doing business with that particular business or brand, etc. Until we both individually and as an industry are ready to hold employers responsible for outrageous and abusive behavior, it’s naive, not to mention lazy of us to think that others will do the job for us so we can avoid doing anything “uncomfortable.” Again, no offense intended towards you, George – the problem is much bigger than you or I – it’s a problem our industry has been dealing with for many years.

  • George
    January 19, 2010 @ 3:14 am

    Hi Mark

    I am not saying I do not agree but it’s very easy to point the finger at me or individual composers. You know what is going to happen? If I would name him, there may be a debate etc and yes we may create temporary awareness. Then what? Do you think this will continue? I doubt it. Because there are no boundaries to protect us. The majority of composers will do nothing because there is no infrastructure to “blacklist” these people.Someone needs to create the “rules” and then people will follow them.

    Why don’t you show us the way and make the film music network take the first step?

    You seem to have somewhat of a stronghold for film composers and you are far more equipped than an individual composer to make the first step. I am sure within all your job requests you had one or two filmmakers who had asked for free music? On Craigslist you can find everyday request for composers required to work for free? I am sure they can be very easily found.

  • Mark Northam
    January 19, 2010 @ 4:48 am

    George, we’ve been exposing people who exploit composers, from the PROs and their 80% penalty on a minute of custom score music compared to a minute of song on down, for many years now. Read our coverage of events like the PAX network debacle when they tried to rob composers of their performance royalties, etc. Us going on a witch hunt for filmmakers who “might” exploit composers is far different than an actual composer who has been told what you were by this filmmaker standing up for himself and his industry.

    Bottom line: if composers are not willing to stand up for themselves, nobody else is going to do it for them, because in the end, no matter what positive movement might be created by third parties (like us), if composers are unwilling to take responsibility for their own businesses and the collective state of our industry, that positive movement will fall apart the minute composers don’t want to do anything “uncomfortable”, like enforce whatever rules might be created by a union, etc.

    Composers are always looking for rules, infrastructure, blacklists, or someone else to expose these guys when the fact that composers themselves are unwilling to do this is at the root of the problem. Until we solve *that* problem, all the rules and infrastructure won’t have a foundation to stand on.

    As a high-ranking music exec told us (off the record) when we exposed the PAX episode, “Composers shouldn’t be surprised – they’re willing to work as ghostwriters and give up royalties every day in this town – in this case, they’re giving it up to a network instead of to another composers, but the process and end result for the composer is the same. If composers are so willing to give up royalties for the music they’ve written, they shouldn’t be surprised when executives and others are willing to take them.”

    Also, for what it’s worth, we turn down incoming job postings almost every week that we find exploitative for composers. It’s done with a fairly strongly worded email, and encouragingly in almost half of the cases, the person or company who wanted to do the posting writes back and asks how they can alter the terms they’re offering to make it acceptable.

  • Till
    January 19, 2010 @ 9:00 am

    Mark, I think there is one simple yet crucial aspect in George’s posting that was not said loud and clear:
    If George tells the name of the producer, will George be blacklisted on the filmmakers side and kind of end his career by this?

    Well, hooray, he might be a martyr – but a very dead one as most of them. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should all duck our heads. But maybe there IS a smarter way to archieve our goals than turning a lot of individuals into living memorials. We do need some kind of accepted framework. A composers’ codex? Let’s work on that.

  • Mark Northam
    January 19, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    Hi Till,

    I understand your point and certainly understand George’s reluctance to name the person who is treating composers so poorly – it vividly demonstrates the kind of fear that has and is causing so many negative events for score composers. We’re divided, conquered and scared, and the people hiring us know that and have no problem treating many of us poorly.

    But I’ll repeat my point that it doesn’t matter how many rules can be thought up and agreed upon, unless we individually and as an industry are willing to stand up and enforce them and take the RISK that we might be pissing off some potential employers (filmmakers, etc) by doing so, the rules are meaningless.

    It’s that RISK – of doing something uncomfortable – that most composers simply aren’t willing to take, in my experience. Everybody’s looking for “someone else” to do it, so they can sit back and enjoy the results without having to do any of the work it took to create those results. It’s why we’re paid at such low rates by the performing rights organizations, and it’s why we’re treated so poorly by many filmmakers – both groups know well that composers can be trampled over day in and day out and won’t make a peep because there is so much fear in the composer industry.

    What else would explain an entire industry remaining silent in the face of an 80% penalty on CUSTOM score music imposed by the very same people who are supposed to be protecting and standing up for the VALUE of music? It would seem some people’s music (if it has lyrics, that is) has a lot more “value” than other people’s music… A sad legacy we leave our children and the next generation of score composers to say the least.

  • January 20, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    Hey guys, give me the name of the dirtbag producer/composer and I’ll say he solicited me. Frankly I don’t give a #(^@ about anyone who would treat a songwriter/composer/musician…….. or frankly anyone like that. This seems to be the standard business practice today this country/world has taken for any line of business and it has to be reversed. The individual who can MUST stand up for himself in order to initiate change. Not doing anything is the worst that can happen.
    In case you want to shoot me the name you can send it to

  • January 24, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

    The Digital Millenium copyright act which gave the Big 5 media companies the right to WFH and direct or source license your performing rights to themselves needs to be overturned. nowhere in the world can this be done. Give exclusive performance rights to the composers. Then composers will have power. That requires a massive political and legal effort against some of the largest corporations in the US….any idea how to do it?

  • Mark Northam
    January 24, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

    Actually it was the 1976 Copyright Act, if I recall, that codified the concept of work for hire. The Buffalo Broadcasting court decision in the 1980s paved the way for what we see today as direct and source licensing – interesting how that court decision was motivated by the performing rights societies targeting instrumental music with huge penalties because it didn’t have “lyrics”.

    If you give up copyright, you give up your rights, it’s that simple. And whoever owns the copyright has the ability to direct license, or do about anything else they want to with the music they own the copyrights to. We need to think about moving into a situation where composers either share copyright with production companies, or retain copyright and license the music to production companies, just like the songwriters and their publishers do.

  • January 25, 2010 @ 7:01 am

    Mark: While I see no ‘answers’ in this article you have framed the important questions that set the groundwork for answers to emerge. I believe we need to put our attention on having a seat at the table where future delivery methods are being established. Software developers and coders are in a similiar boat of working harder for less money and rights as the industry evolves and we need to align with them to establish digital rights. I believe that the Itunes store was a bad turn on the road to the promise of the internet to link creators directly to consumers bypassing the middle man. There’s gold in them there hills. Thanks for having this forum and being an instrument for the revolution we must have to regain our rights and respect as composers and musicians.

  • January 25, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

    Nice article Mark. You hit the nail on the head as usual. I agree with you. The time is now. Our community needs to organize. I think the FMPRO list is a great place for discussions. You are absolutely right that all of us need to be active in the Composers Union efforts. I have become active in the efforts.

    Keep up the great work.


  • February 6, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    Nice article Mark, and nice responses George. You are both right.
    Now a new twist on abuse to composers.
    Composer abuse and stealing from a fellow composer. I have scored many films , credited both onscreen and ASCAP royalties, with a “more famous ” composer than myself. I then scored additional music for 10 episodes
    (8 to 15 min per episode) for a big series. I later discovered that my name was omitted from the cue sheets on more 1 of the films and the Big Series. I approached the “Famous composer” about this and he then gave me cue sheet credit for the films. But he will not put my name on the Big Series. He claims I am an orchestrator, not a composer on that show.

    I even approached the MAJOR prod co about this and they told me they had a similar situation with the same composer on the same big series and all we had to do was get the composer to add me to the cue sheets and that would be it. The money is pretty big on this series I’m sure and the composer still refuses to add me to the cue sheets for my original music for the series. He even re-used my music on at least 15 other episodes on the series.
    Yes, he has been asked to comply by an attourney, yet he still claims I am only an orchestrator.
    I have all the original DP computer files I scored, and the Famous composer does not. I am now dealing with Statuit of limitations as the series was several years ago.
    In your opinion, should I publically address the sit.


  • Mark Northam
    February 6, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    Hi Alex –

    I would definitely address the situation. If you indeed were composing original music, you deserve cue sheet credit unless you had a specific deal in place to give that credit to the “name” composer. We’re talking about a lifetime of royalties here potentially, plus royalties for 70 years after your death, so it’s a big deal.

    A key question: did you write original melodies, and/or to what extent did you use melodies originally written by the “name” composer in the series? To the extent that the melodies are yours, the authorship is yours – that’s a simplistic approach, but usually effective.

    Your next steps: 1. In writing, formally request that the cue sheets be changed since a) you wrote the music, and b) you did not give permission to be replaced as author. If that does not work, you have 2 choices – you can either go public with your demands, or hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit. The legal precedent for music ghostwriters involving Joseph LoDuca is somethng you’ll need to consider carefully in your approach if you choose the legal route.

    One way or another, it’s potentially a lifetime of royalties we’re talking about here – definitely do not just roll over for the “name” composer if you wrote the music. You’ve already approached the production company, which means the “name” composer already knows about that and the “you’ll never work in this town again” threat used often against ghostwriters won’t work. Stand up for yourself and your music and make sure you get what is rightfully yours!

    Also, feel free to contact me directly if I can be of any assistance as you decide how to move forward.


    Mark Northam

  • February 6, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    Hey Mark, Wow , thank you for responding so quickly.
    The series started as a movie which was not composed by the “name” composer. However the original movie’s themes were used in the series. The” name” composer did use the movies themes for the series on occasion and I am sure the movie’s composer was listed on the cue sheets. I also use the movies themes two times in the 10 episodes I wrote additional music for and I had it noted on my cue list where Iit was used. (20 sec one time and 17 sec the other) And I did on occasion use the” name” composers theme on a couple of episodes, also noted on my music cue list. My breakdowns of all the cues I composed include the “name” composer on the cues his themes were combined with my own. 95% of the music I wrote was original.
    The “name” composer has been notified formally in writing numorous times.
    How do I contact you directly. You may e-mail me if you wish.


  • April 23, 2010 @ 11:16 am

    Chiming in late to this discussion, but I would gladly out the very large game developer that required 4 original tracks of thematic music in a bake-off, but I signed an NDA. So, they don’t indicate there will be a bake-off at that level before you sign an NDA. I suppose we could ask BEFORE signing an NDA if writing music for no pay will be required, and then if they are not willing to drop the requirement, naming and shaming will be legal.

  • September 26, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    I do not see what the problem is with giving away music for free.

    People do not know how to pay dues or humble themselves. These TV and film companies give us opportunities for exposure, and we shoot ourselves in the foot by begging for money and complaining. Why must every composer demand money for a song or two?

    We need to expose those greedy compsoers who are still getting big checks for making music. Things will not work until we level the playing field. No one, and I mean no one, deserves to make more than $100,000 a year for composing music.

    Music does not hold that great of a value these days. We need to make everyone earn the same amount of money so more composers can get paid. We need to be willing to have our earnings pooled together and divided up equally in order for everyone to make a living. All of this effort spent trying to get more money for the few is what is really causing the troubles.

Comments are closed.