It’s unfortunate when dated stereotypes outlive their “use by” date, but that’s exactly what happens when the term “working composer” is defined by Hollywood film music types as a busy Hollywood composer working on a busy network series. For those sad folks still living in the past, the 90s called and they want their definition back.
There’s no doubt that the 1980s and early 1990s proved to be a very busy time for composers, largely in Hollywood. Music libraries were nowhere near as popular or numerous as they are today, and the number of television series being scored weekly with live players was impressive. In these years, “working composer” could indeed be defined as a busy Hollywood composer working on a network series. And the ability to write, orchestrate and conduct for live players was often a requirement, often effectively weeding out the amateurs, hacks and posers. But then things changed…
In the late 1980s and early/mid-1990s, cable TV took off, high quality digital sample libraries emerged, sampling technology got much more affordable, music libraries started expanding, multiplying and creating much better-sounding music, and as a result production companies started dropping their music budgets. To say this was the beginning of a sea change for film and television composers would be an understatement.
Since the mid/late 1990s, music libraries have exploded and the vast majority of scores for television are done with “electronic” with samplers, sometimes with some live players added. For many television shows, main title “themes” as we knew them are all but gone, replaced by 10-second musical soundbites played minutes into a show to prevent channel “surfing” over the theme if too long or aired at the beginning of a show. More and more “network” shows and cable shows are using music libraries, especially comedy and documentary/nature shows. Shows like “The Simpsons” and “Battlestar Galactica” still use orchestras of varying sizes, but the vast majority of television scoring today is done either with libraries or electronically, and composer per-episode fees are often a fraction of the $15,000 – $20,000 per episode paid in the early 1990s.
The proliferation of library music in television and film has created a virtual land of opportunity for non-LA composers, since with libraries the geographical location of the composer is not a concern of the production company – as long as the library is available to promote music for use, library composers can live wherever they want. Libraries now find themselves deluged with submissions from “bedroom” composers around the country, indeed around the world, and it has quickly become a buyers market with some libraries actually expecting composers to “give” them their copyrights for free(!), with a hope that the library will get some placements and provide accurate and honest bookkeeping to the composers.
The rise of retitling libraries where composers retain copyright but get no upfront fees from libraries, instead depending on a share of sync fees from placements (maybe) and writers performance royalties from placements (if accurate cue sheets are filed) has profoundly changed the music library industry, dividing the industry into traditional copyright-ownership libraries and retitling libraries. For better or for worse, composers today are presented with a huge number of library options as to where to submit and place their music, and composers working in their bedrooms and home studios across the world are busy competing for library placements that are becoming more and more difficult to get.
The bottom line for composers? Most “working” composers today are NOT working on a fat, juicy network series, although congrats to those who are. In fact, most “working composers” are working very hard dividing their time and talents among multiple avenues for gaining work including breaking into film via indie and low-budget films, doing library work to make ends meet (or as a full time “working” career!), pitching for lucrative network and series work in hopes of a lucky break, and just trying to make ends meet as part of a severely oversupplied industry in a severely sagging economy. The numbers of THESE new “working composers” vastly outnumbers the Hollywood guys with regular series gigs, and some of the Hollywood guys are not happy at all about this fact. It shows as they continuously try to “write off” non-Hollywood working composers as insignificant in their attempts to define themselves as THE “working composers” and everybody else as hicks, amateurs, or otherwise undeserving wannabes.
The next time you hear some Hollywood bigshot or “veteran” use the word “working composer,” make sure you’re not allowing an elitist try to (re)define an industry to include his or her own pals, peers and wished-for local realities. Years ago composing for film and television moved beyond the bounds of Hollywood, and into bedrooms and home studios across the country. That’s a fact of life that more than a few old-school Hollywood composers would rather not admit, because to do so would entail the realization of the massive national and international competition that composers face today. And many of these guys just can’t face that fact after spending a lot of time and money building a career based on the outdated assumption that if they were willing to pay the price of living in LA, their “local advantage” would position them to provide a steady flow of work. That may have been the case in the 1980s, but not today.
Indeed, the geographical requirements and bounds of the world of score composing have dissolved with the advent of technology and the Internet, and today’s “working composers” are just as likely to find themselves living in Houston as Hollywood. And that’s a reality that many in Hollywood just aren’t ready to hear, much less admit.