Composers Could Learn A Lot From The Writers Guild

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I have a lot of respect for the Writers Guild of America writers who went out on strike last week. While the strike has already shut down many shows and delayed the planned midseason start of others, composers could learn a lot from the writers.

Form a union, or the next best thing. Composers, saddled with the lyricists for reasons I can only assume have something to do with making sure composers never have a powerful organization of their own, have tried to unionize a couple of times in the last 30 years. Most recently they attempted this in the 1980s, only to be denied the right to unionize by the National Labor Relations Board. Composers desperately need their own professional organization to fight for better treatment by both the production companies and the performing rights organizations that so heavily penalize instrumental score music because it doesn’t have lyrics. If forming a union is not possible, then let’s put together a new non-profit group that accepts funding from no outside societies and is solely dedicated to serving and protecting the interests of film and television composers. As they say, united we stand, divided we fall.

Let’s start getting paid for DVD sales and film and television downloads. The writers have correctly recognized that “new media” distribution of television shows and films is the future. One of the top demands of the writers in the current strike is to be paid better for DVD sales and downloads. This is clearly a booming trend, but thanks to no union and no solidarity among composers, composer contracts over the last 15 years have gotten steadily worse, providing less and less rights to composers, and leaving composers as the only music suppliers in Hollywood who have to routinely give up copyrights, unlike music libraries and songwriters.

Let’s form bonds with other Hollywood unions. Now would be a great time for composers, despite not being unionized, to join with and support the Writers Guild on their picket lines. That kind of support does not go unrecognized, and an alliance with the Writers Guild could be a very good thing for a new composer organization. A curious piece was published in Daily Variety some months ago claiming that the Writers Guild was organizing composers. When we contacted him, the President of the Writers Guild says the article was wrong, and the author of the article refused to discuss the matter, but it did raise some intriguing possibilities. On thing is for sure – an alliance in support of the powerful Hollywood unions would send a loud message to those unions about how ready composers are to act as a group, instead of an industry of mercenaries.

Build a closer, better relationship with the Musicians Union. The AFM musicians union wants better relationships with composers, and at a landmark Film Music Magazine event in Los Angeles this year, AFM President Tom Lee opened the door to composers being represented by the AFM. And just this week the AFM became a sponsor of the Game Audio Network Guild, the primary organization for game composers. It’s time for our industry leaders to begin serious talks with Tom Lee about what AFM representation could mean for composers, and it’s time for composers to get serious about whether or not we, as an industry, want to build a better and more supportive relationship with the AFM. And on a related note, it’s high time for the AFM and the renegades at Local 47 in Los Angeles to grow up, mend fences, and start acting as one union if they have any hope of surviving in anything close to their current state. That particular “civil war” is only hurting themselves, and badly.

Develop a professional organization with benefits that people need to belong to. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is an organization that writers are proud to belong to and support with their time, energy and money. Let’s create a composer organization that people are proud to list after their name (brilliantly done by the American Society of Cinematographers – how many times have you seen “ASC” after a cinematographer’s name on film credits). And let’s get some real benefits for organization members – not just car discounts and such, but great group health insurance, retirement plans, and other benefits that can make a real difference in our lives and careers. Fancy parties, social events and screenings are nice, but what we really need is a strong, dedicated professional organization for film and television composers that isn’t beholden to or supported by any outside groups and is willing to act strongly and proactively in the interests of composers.

The writers have come together and are willing to make individual sacrifices to support their industry. It’s an admirable thing, and something composers can learn a lot from. Acting together, the writers wield significant power to influence the activities of those who hire them – the production companies. Acting together, composers could also exert great influence – from demanding that the performing rights societies end the discrimination and start paying score music the same rates as songs are paid, to demanding that composing contracts include provisions for composers to retain copyright and be paid mechanical royalties for DVD sales and downloads, and much more. Acting together, composers could do a lot – but only if we’re truly willing to get past our differences, let competitive issues among us not keep us apart, and commit to working together to support the betterment of our industry.


  • Nancy Bolkan
    June 12, 2008 @ 9:08 am

    My son, a student at Santa Monica College, is majoring in music and wants to work in the entertainment business(preferably film scoring). He will be transfering to a university next year. What advice do you have so he can make the right decisions in getting where he wants to be in a few years?

  • June 12, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

    Since you’re in Los Angeles, I would strongly recommend setting up lessons with Jack Smalley because mentoring will take him further than academia. He has to learn writing techniques, score reading, etc. With that, he should take business courses, and I would suggest, get a part time job as a salesman because no matter what professors and some composers say, you have to know how to sell and close to get the job. I strongly suggest he take keyboard lessons to build his sight reading skills. Download this pdf:

    Peter Alexander
    Author, Professional Orchestration Series, Counterpoint by Fux, Applied Professional Harmony

  • toxic avenger
    April 23, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    Someone needs to tell this woman that there are already too many struggling to make a living in the entertainment business. The best thing she can tell her son is find a real way to make a living.

    June 24, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    Composers cannot learn from anything. They are born knowing it all. Why, I bet they think they’re qualified to perform a heart lung transplant.

    Learn? Indeed.

  • October 6, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    Toxic Avenger gives the worse advice, and I wonder if he/she is a real supporter of this publication or composers in general. A student should never give up on their dreams and whatever God has blessed him/her with. If the Santa Monica student wants to do film composing, then we need to support him, not criticize his mom for supporting his future career. With the internet and the rise of more independent filmmakers, we have a greater chance of making it in this industry. One does not have to be flocking to the major films to do well in this industry or get paid. My advice to your son is to do what the one of the poster learn more about business and even learn a little something about sales. But, the most important thing is to know how to network with others in the industry. If you know how to network, go to the events or festivals where the influencers are, and strike up conversations and further communication with them; then you have your foot in the door. A student, regardless of what anyone says here, does not have to have a degree in music to be successful in film composing. There are classes that can help you become sharper in your skill, but I have been told (and have noticed) plenty of times, people do well without having an official degree in music. Plus, there are composers who come from many other degrees and fields of study who have a more “overall and diverse” liberal arts background; therefore, able to add this broad liberal arts experience with greater insight to the music they create for their client. A musician, or any other artist, become masters when they themselves have a wealth of insight and experience from a variety of areas…such as history, fine art, global studies, etc….which can feed into the creation process and be limitless sources of inspiration to meet the film client’s unique desires.

    As for composers not getting together, Toxic Avenger, AGAIN, is being the negative sourpuss. Instead of us bashing composer for not willing to work together, we need to build them up and keep talking to them about the urgent need to come together. The more you bash them, the more combative they will be to you.

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