One of the biggest challenges composers face is getting so wrapped up and personally invested in their music that they lose sight of the bigger picture: we are hired to create a product designed to someone else’s specifications. Avoiding this pitfall can easily make the difference between whether a composer, 5 years from now, is building a successful composing career or flipping burgers in LA, still hoping for their “big break.”
One of the greatest film scoring instructors of our generation, Don B. Ray, used to talk about how film and television composing has many parallels with being a custom suit tailor. In the first client meeting, the custom tailor takes careful measurements of his client and engages in extensive discussions and demonstrations about the choice of style and fabric and other client wants and needs, not unlike a spotting session where a composer gathers notes and hears examples of what a director wants at various places in a film. Just as a suit client probably has a basic idea of what he wants before he ever arrives at the tailor, directors usually have a pretty good idea of what they are looking for in a custom score before they hire a composer.
Just as a tailor invites a client over for a first look and fitting, film composers demo synth mockups of their scores to get initial feedback and see how the score “fits” with the director’s expectations. But here’s where composers often go wrong…
If at that first fitting the tailor’s client said, “Sorry, that jacket just doesn’t fit right in the arms,” the tailor’s response of course would be to take more measurements, determine what the specific concerns of the client were about the jacket arms (ie, too long, too short, too tight, etc) and do some more work on the jacket to address the client’s concerns. After all, the client is in the best position to judge the look and fit of the suit, yes? Can you imagine what the client would say if the tailor said in response to a misfit suit, “actually no, I think it does fit – I spent a lot of time cutting an measuring the fabric, and I’m sure it fits.” That tailor would not have a business for long.
And too often, when composers are told at the first demo session that the music that they have poured their heart and soul into is “just not right” or “doesn’t work”, composers take that rejection personally and get defensive about their music – after all, what gives some non-musician the right to judge, criticize and even reject the composer’s passionate, heartfelt, intricately crafted, beautifully produced work of art that is the culmination of 20 years in the business and produced in six-figure studio? The completely inappropriate defensiveness of the composer is often felt by the client through a vibe, rather than voiced with specific words, but the end result is the same: the composer has “made it personal.” And that, my friends, begins the downward spiral that more times than not results in a composer getting fired or the composer-director relationship being damaged beyond repair.
When I do seminars for new composers or composing students, one of the most important messages I relay to participants is: In almost every case when your music is rejected, the problem is fit, not quality. Never, ever confuse the two.
As film composers, we must never lose the perspective that in the big picture, we are in some ways like custom tailors – we are in the business of creating something to someone else’s specifications – an artistic “product” whose acceptance is determined not by us, but by our client. It is our client’s vision we are writing to, and it is our client who will determine whether our music “fits” their vision or not. And if they decide it doesn’t fit, it’s up to us to avoid “making it personal.” Instead, we must dispassionately focus on our music as a custom product and determine what, if anything, can be done to make that product it a better fit to our client’s vision and expectations. As composers we must always be diligent and thorough in our efforts to understand our client’s vision, and if there’s a fit problem, we must realize that it’s more than likely the result of us not completely understanding and fulfilling our client’s vision.
For many aspiring film composers, the utilitarian aspects of this profession can come as a big shock. These composers find themselves unable to mold their own artistic vision to match that of their clients, and as a result scoring gigs become a clash of the artistic visions – composer vs. director. And if that’s what a composing gig devolves into, you can bet the composer will not come out the winner.
That’s not to say that composers shouldn’t inject their own creative and artistic view into the composing equation, but as composers we must always place the creative vision of the director first and foremost, and must understand that rejection of our music is not about quality, it’s about not being able or willing to write to the direction and vision of someone else – the director.
In creating a custom score, a film composer’s job is to first thoroughly understand the vision of the client, and then to realize that vision musically by using our composing skills as a creative tool to craft an artistic product that in great detail matches our client’s creative vision. While composing certainly is our creative process, ultimately it is the client’s creative vision we must follow.