In an industry where too often it seems that luck, fate and the fickle tastes of directors and producers are the driving forces of careers, it’s easy to overlook the fact that there are a great many things that composers can do to exercise positive control over their careers.
Most composers in the early stages of their career are ready to write in any style, any genre in order to get more experience and credits. While this is not necessarily a bad strategy very early on in one’s career, the downside can be a lack of creative and stylistic focus leading to the dreaded “generic composer” reputation – something to be avoided at all costs.
To be perfectly blunt, nobody needs generic composers – that is, composers who can write in a wide variety of styles, but do not excel at any of them. There is simply too much competition out there for composers to be successful without writing really outstanding music. If filmmakers want bland, generic sounding music, there’s plenty of that available for free from the lower end music libraries – and plenty of great music from the higher end music libraries too, by the way!
Some ideas to consider in taking control of the creative aspects of your composing career:
* Write what you’re good at. Take a really good luck at what style(s) of music you excel at writing, and then consider how marketable those styles are in today’s film and television music market – do you hear styles like these in film & TV today? Would they work with the shows and films being produced today? No matter how good a “product” is, whether we’re talking about a car, a bar of soap, or a musical style, if there isn’t a market for it, it probably won’t sell.
* Avoid sounding like a knock-off of a “name” composer. Nobody wants to hear a composer try to sound like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer, etc. This is usually attempted with an inadequate sampler rig and tags a composer instantly as desperate and naive. If you want to make a unique name for yourself, you had better make some unique music as well.
* Forge new ways of working with filmmakers in a tough market. Even in a marketplace where composer fees are dropping like a rock for everybody but the very top composers, competition is fierce. Rather than simply competing on “how good” your music is, consider new ways of working with filmmakers including collaborative composing, where the filmmaker becomes part of the composing process rather than only hearing the music once it’s in mocked up demo form. Today’s filmmakers have never heard of “locked picture” and are constantly editing, making tremendous demands on composers for flexibility right up until the score is recorded. Successful composers embrace today’s filmmaking workflow and find new and interesting ways to work within it. By offering filmmakers new and more contemporary working relationships, composers can successfully compete against others with more credits and more experience. Sometimes it’s not always the “biggest name” that gets the job, as evidenced by all the relatively new names showing up as composers on feature films today.
* Take advantage of the global recording marketplace to get the best musicians or orchestra for your project. Recording orchestras all over the world are competing for scoring work from composers today, and new technology including the Source Connect ProTools plug-ins allow composers to connect directly from their project studios to scoring stages around the world with audio, video and timecode connections to facilitate the recording process without the travel hassles. This doesn’t mean that your local orchestra players should be overlooked, but in the final analysis, those who judge your scores and decide whether to hire you or not won’t know or care where you recorded them – they’ll only judge the quality of the music, performance and recording. Figure out what size of an orchestra or band you need, and get bids from a variety of locations that are suitable for your requirements to maximize the money you spend on musicians and recording.
* Meet more filmmakers. This is a very relationship-driven business, and successful creative relationships with filmmakers are by far the most popular way composers get hired. Filmmakers talk to other filmmakers, and even one highly successful filmmaker relationship can lead to many others through referrals and word of mouth. Go to film festivals, don’t be afraid to meet filmmakers, and be ready to talk about filmmaking first, plus what’s unique about you and your music if and when the opportunity presents itself. Filmmakers generally don’t want to talk about technology or money, they’re focused on the creative aspects of filmmaking. Use this to your advantage by being ready and prepared to have comfortable, interesting conversations about the creative aspects of filmmaking and film music with directors you meet at various events. And if your people skills need some work, work on them!
* Try to make each new project you do a step forward creatively. It can be easy to get stuck in a rut of doing the same kind of project for the same kind of filmmaker, and this can easily lead to a stalled career and being overlooked for projects that are a rung or two “higher” on the career ladder. This is especially true of lower budget direct-to-DVD projects some some filmmakers seem to crank out ad nauseum. The extreme opposite of being known as a “generic” composer is getting known as a composer who has an extremely narrow musical and creative vocabulary who can only do one type of film or score. This kind of “musical typecasting” can be a considerable problem for upward mobility in a composer’s career, and can rule a composer out of contention for projects that aren’t “like” the ones that he or she is “known” for being able to do. It’s essential to develop some sort of a career plan for yourself and decide how you want to move up in the business and in what direction. When considering new projects, look beyond the money and consider on a creative basis how each new project will fit into your career plan and advance your reputation and career as a composer.
The suggestions I’ve made here are somewhat general in nature – the real key to successfully using these is determining in what specific ways you can apply these to fuel and focus the creative aspects of your career. Next week, we’ll talk about how you can take control of the business aspects of your career. Until then, my challenge to you is to write some music that doesn’t sound like anybody else’s – other than your own, of course. Happy composing!