The New Film Music Paradigm: Free Composers, Free Orchestras, What’s Next?

Film Music Institute > Film Music Magazine (Archives) > Final Note (Archive) > The New Film Music Paradigm: Free Composers, Free Orchestras, What’s Next?

Commenter George posted the following in a comment on last week’s Final Note column – it’s a response he received from a filmmaker he had approached about scoring a film:

“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 [sic] also access to free orchestras. At this point of my career it’s definitely a good deal for me.”

I cannot think of a more vivid example of the situation our industry, except for maybe the top 30-40 composers or so, finds itself in. They should put this on a big sign and hang it in the Berklee College of Music Film Scoring Department, and at UCLA and USC too. They should also hang it in the registrar’s office where prospective college students and their parents come to pay tens of thousands of dollars so young Johnny can get a film scoring degree and have a career.

This is what composers are facing these days, and it’s ugly. Very few people want to talk about this publicly, but I think that’s an unhealthy avoidance of reality. Let’s take off the rose-colored glasses and take a good, hard look at where our industry is headed.

Last week I talked about what has propelled us into this situation – primarily, composers in fear of doing “uncomfortable” things and a huge oversupply of composers and library music in the marketplace today. Over the last 15 years our industry has seen cheap digital technology massively reduce the cost of creating music, and that combined with a huge oversupply of composers has fueled what most people see as a decline in the industry.

But suppose this decline is actually more of a painful evolution – a jarring, disruptive movement towards a new paradigm in film composing and film music that has at its root an unregulated, oversupplied marketplace teaming with composers working from their bedrooms?

The old paradigm, from the early dawn of film music through to the early 1980s, was based on scarcity – there was a relatively small number of composers who had the experience and skills to create music synced to picture, and to create that music on the tight timeline that was necessary. Beyond the usual composing and orchestration skills, composers in those days had to calculate tempo timings necessary to sync to picture by hand, and had to be able to work quickly and successfully with live musicians. It took years to develop these specialized skills, which served as a barrier to entry that kept the working group relatively small. As a result, this group of working composers could demand very high rates for their work, and earned the respect of their colleagues and employers as film and television music in those days was considered far more of a respected art form. Non-musician “suits” didn’t have nearly the role in the process that they do today, and music supervisors as they exist today were just coming into the picture.

The new paradigm for the film and television composing marketplace is based on oversupply – the exact opposite of scarcity. Instead of a small, highly talented group of composers, we have a massive oversupply of composers, many of whom are new in the marketplace and lack the years of experience characterized by the old paradigm composers. Prices have been driven down to zero in many instances, and the huge influx of new composers, whether they be songwriters who want to “expand” into scoring films, newbie film scoring graduates, or musicians who are tired of playing live gigs for beer money and are envious of “mailbox money” ASCAP and BMI checks arriving every quarter shows no signs of diminishing. Simply put, George’s filmmaker contact today can have his pick of any number of composers ready to work “practically for free.”

The group trying to create a composers union is working hard to create a regulated and coordinated labor force that can demand higher rates and better benefits and act in unison against uncooperative employers, and I wish them success. But if that group doesn’t address today’s composer realities – especially the fractured marketplace where thousands of composers across the country and internationally are working from their bedrooms over the Internet creating music for a wide variety of film and television productions, then I’m not sure how successful the group will be.

If you accept that notion that today’s working environment for composers is an evolution of our industry and marketplace, we then could consider two areas of action to consider to address some of the problems and challenges of this new paradigm marketplace for film music:

* Try to control and alter the marketplace through coordinated action, unionization, lawsuits, governmental intervention, or other means

* Find new ways to make a living and build a business in the new film music paradigm where a scarcity of workers and specialized skills has been replaced by an oversupply of workers, easy availability of great sounding digital technology, and a hundreds of thousands of library cues, affordable and available to any production company large or small.

In the end, I expect we’ll see people in our industry taking actions in both of these areas and in other areas too. But one thing’s for sure: it’s never going to be like it was in the 1980s and1990s.

It’s time to look forward, not back. Like it or not, the old paradigm of scarcity is gone, replaced by today’s new paradigm of oversupply. Are we in transition? Yes. Where will it all end up? Nobody knows, but to me these are continual, evolutionary changes we’re seeing, and with evolution there is no final destination, instead it’s all about the journey. Success for composers and the organizations that want to represent composers will be measured not by yesterday’s standards such as how many musicians you have in your orchestra, but by how well composers can adapt and prosper in a marketplace that financially, musically, and otherwise bears little resemblance to the way things were in our industry even 10 years ago.


  • Ge0rge
    January 20, 2010 @ 7:02 am

    this has happened everywhere – look at the software industry: why should I buy some web-server software, when I can get a free one? Communications has expanded the freelance market, but why do you fear the competition so much? A good director understand that with “almost free” composer “almost nobody” enjoy that score. There’re lot’s of video materials that needs no top composers, but a synth library or a scoring student could be just fine, and there’s no problem with that. Hollywood wouldn’t contract a free composer and a free orchestra for a 150 million buget project, they know how to earn money.

  • George
    January 20, 2010 @ 7:57 am

    this is the first George – Don’t steal my identity Ge0rge! ;)

    Pretty grim really – I have to say that I posted the same letter to a filmmakers forum and I did not get even one thought on the matter…silence…of the guilty!

    Since we are on the subject what about – !!!??? Is this the future of film scoring being paid peanuts to write additional music just to get yourself on imdb? ? Perhaps we must accept that we will be the next “working class” of the film industry -nothing wrong with that title, but the under-development is a shame.

    I agree with Mark that each composer has to have the pride and say NO to under-paid or free work – I obviously do, but the majority will not. Unless there is a “leader” who can back us up. Perhaps a big hollywood veteran composer name gets involved in this. One who has respect from both film composers and film makers and who is not afraid of “consequences”. One who will save our souls…we need a hero! (epic motive playing in the background) :/


  • January 20, 2010 @ 8:40 am

    Without a doubt, the oversupply paradigm is at the root of the industry’s ills and is the chief reason that evolution will take a huge turn. Unfortunately, I don’t believe the dreams of many composers who want to make a living at their craft can be realized.

    I have been vocal for a long time, advocating for a composers’ union or guild or simply some structure to prevent the dreaded “downward spiral” that has continued for the last several years. When the proposed union with the Teamsters was first announced, I was excited about it…for about three days. And then the “oversupply” phenomenon reared its ugly head to present another reason that a union will not work. The goals of that proposed union, if they were to come to pass, can be helpful mostly to television composers who already have a series, and to some film composers that are not on the A-list. But the huge laundry list of problems that affect the majority of composers who are trying to eek out a living are not a part of the agenda…nor can it be in an oversupplied marketplace.

    And while we worry about free composers and free orchestras, there are some people hard at work trying to use algorithms and artificial intelligence to take composers out of the scenario entirely. If that sad development happens, it will be time for all of us, including the most talented composers, to find a new “day job.”

  • January 20, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    The world is flat:

    You have to remember that film makers are in trouble as well – maybe not as much as the recoding industry yet, but it is coming. On the other hand, new opportunities are created everywhere as independent films blossom like there is no tomorrow, the video games industry is growing rapidly etc.

    The lesson, I think, is that everyone needs marketing skills. Go and create your own personal brand.

  • Steve
    January 20, 2010 @ 9:32 am

    I have never scored a feature. Opportunities have come my way over the years and I’ve turned every one of them down. The reason: low or no wages. I’ve stood up on principal for the good of my comrades (I hope you appreciate this!). I have never believed that working for free and getting that “credit” was ever going to be of value to my career.

    I receive requests often to score a project for some up-and-coming filmmaker. A recent email went like this:

    “Hey! We love your music! Would you be interested in scoring our independent film? We have a budget of $500…”

    It gets better.

    “…but we’ve already spent $450 of it…so…do you think you could do it for $50???”

    I’m not kidding. This is for real. So, I go on with my life of a “wanna-be” composer and dream of doing real work some day.

    I suspect I’ll never score a feature. :(

  • January 20, 2010 @ 10:08 am

    Boohoo Steve, don’t be such a bitch. Do some freebies and get on with your life. Jesus fuck. I never would’ve gotten anywhere if I had been that tight about things. Who the fuck is gonna trust you with even a shitty movie if you’ve never done one before??? Stop acting so entitled. Get real

  • Michael L
    January 20, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    Mark you are absolutely right. It IS time to look forward — wait — we’re already there.

    The new paradigm is one that FMN helped to create. FMN educational materials offer “how to” guides for would be film composers. FMN posts job listings for library music, hosts banner ads for multiple filmscoring courses and for sample libraries. So what did you expect — that people wouldn’t buy these materials, take these courses and then God forbid, actually want to go into the market place and compete? Competition is a fact of life.

    Kristian is correct. That glass may be half empty for old elite, but its half full for those embracing the future. See also.

    I’m not sure that a union is the answer. There’s a great many SAG members waiting on tables in L.A.! How would a composers union help the 99 and 44/100 % of us who are not on the “A” list? Might it not even make it harder for outsiders to compete?

    @Steve — any work is real work! — not just feature films.

  • Steve
    January 20, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    @Michael – I do real work all the time (TV, libraries, documentaries, etc.) – I just haven’t done a feature yet. I get to pick and choose the work I do and I prefer to pick quality work.

    @Matt – I’m really not whining. I just don’t believe you must do work for free. You’re selling yourself short. Besides, I also have to pay for a roof over my head and eat food, raise my family, etc. I can’t work for almost nothing for weeks at a time. Maybe if I lived with my parents and didn’t have any bills, then it would be a different story. Maybe you have that freedom, but you’re still hurting our cause and setting a bad precedent when you do that.

    Don’t misunderstand my statements. I’m happy with the work that I do, I would just like to score a feature at some point in my career, but not at the cost of continuing to hurt our industry.

  • January 20, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    “What’s next.” Obviously; have the composer pay to have his “score” in a film. I’ve already seen it around on some of these “mags.”

    BTW, it is and has been the way in Europe for many years.

    Start saving up now.

    Joe R

  • Michael L
    January 20, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    @Steve — Sounds like me — TV, libraries and documentaries for 25+ years. It can be satisfying work. I once asked a well known TV/Documentary composer in New York if he wanted to score features. He said he had no interest — and he’s doing very well. I scored a feature many many years ago. I think I got paid $500. It didn’t hurt our industry.

    @Joe — I have a copy of Electric Tommy. Tony told me not to touch your telecaster. Cheers. ML

  • January 20, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    You know…with such a glut of film composers and technology
    and schools to learn it…you would think the quality would be
    better. But its really not. A glut of neophites and students.
    I quote from the film “Planet of the Apes” after observing an archeological dig site he stated…”It looks like the older civilizations are the more advanced. Hmmmm.Keep writing.You just need one.

  • Oliver R
    January 20, 2010 @ 11:13 am

    I think there’s a part-B to be had in this conversation that hasn’t really come up yet: what happens a year or two or three down the road when so many people are trying to cash in on the performance money that it begins to reduce the value of a credit at ASCAP and BMI?

    About 2 years ago, when new libraries started popping up left and right, it was because people began realizing that there was a pool of money to be tapped into at ASCAP and BMI. If they could round up a bunch of willing composers (not hard to do, let’s face it) they could then pitch themselves to all the various cable nets and networks, and as an “in” they would offer their entire library for free, doing everything exclusively for the performance money, because they’d just retitle everything and then keep the publishing side of the PRO money.

    From a business standpoint, I really do wonder if this will begin to shrink the value of a credit on my regular ASCAP and BMI statements. It’s something that i Haven’t heard either PRO addressing yet, but it HAS to come up at some point. If everyone is foregoing sync fees now, and working exclusively to dip into the pot of gold at the end of the ASCAP rainbow, what’s going to happen to that pot of gold??

  • Hequin O'Mas
    January 20, 2010 @ 11:18 am

    I still can make heads or tails what Mark is proposing to solve the problem of oversupply. Doesn’t that work out itself automatically? Why would you want to be a composer if wages are zero? No government intervention needed. Every day the government tries to manipulate the free market – natural result of supply and demand – it makes the whole thing worse. It’s worked in banking, agriculture, monetary policy, and it would work in these markets as well.

    I think it is silly to turn down films because they don’t pay anything. That’s the way EVERY single film composer started out.

    As I said before, there is always scarcity of true talent, and oversupply only concerns average and below average composers.

  • Guy
    January 20, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    Film makers I worked with who paid nothing for the music have stayed in the no budget hell.

    The short film makers I worked with who came up with a budget are all without exception making large scale commercial work.

    draw your own conclusions

  • Michael L
    January 20, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    My experience is in line with Guy’s comment. And, I would add one formula: those with the LEAST amount of money always want/expect the MOST.


  • […] 21, 2010 · Leave a Comment This is such an interesting article about the oversupply of composers in the marketplace. If you have them time, I would recommend […]

  • January 21, 2010 @ 2:36 am

    I am doing a short film for a young director right now. Vancouver Film school grad, regional project, low budget. He is extremely professional, organized, and appreciative of my skills as a composer–and is paying me what he can.

    No one is entitled to be paid anything to be a composer, just because s/he decided to be a composer.

    Also: I am a MUCH better composer now than when I was 22 and right out of school… How old was John Williams when he scored Jaws and Star Wars? Late 30’s or early 40’s I think. He had to earn it too, my friends.

  • George
    January 21, 2010 @ 3:48 am

    @ Damon – I think you pointed one of the main problems that make our job difficult.

    If a film maker does not have a budget, then of course a composer should not be demanding and work on a collaborative basis. However, how can you check if that is true? You can’t. I recently scored a feature film for a decent low-budget, and then on imdb I saw that the overall movie was budgeted much higher than what I was initially told, deserving in fact a better budget on the score and even a small orchestra. Perhaps imdb is wrong – but who knows. You can only trust your instincts.

    How do we react with the “take it or leave it” attitude by many (not all) film makers ?

    Also look at this…..,16,0,0,1,0

    It’s an article supporting on how to make films with micro-budget or no budget at all at Raindance this year. This is becoming more common, which means that it’s not only composers that are dealing with oversupply, it’s also filmmakers themselves. In such instance I am sure if a composer knew that a particular movie would be a success then he would work on the dreaded deferred payment -but as we all know, low-budget films rarely have the quality or impact to make profit.

  • January 21, 2010 @ 7:37 am


    Something to keep in mind is that most films put their “retail” budget on IMDB, not the actual “real” budget that was spent on the film. I have seen 150,000.00 films listed for 1.5 million on IMDB…it’s a perceived value thing :)

  • George
    January 21, 2010 @ 7:56 am

    yup I am aware :) imdb is not a 100% reliable source for any information anyway….

  • Erik
    January 23, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

    Ive heard from a very valid source that Post Houses in LA are going to be gone too… if you want to live as a composer, being a film editor isn’t a bad idea either.

  • mike
    January 24, 2010 @ 6:52 am

    2 things….

    1) 99% of the people on this forum are using samples… many can play maybe 1 instrument…but your music has a full orchestration of many instrument you are unqualified to play…likely couldn’t even get sound out of them.
    So how many musician lost a gig?
    And the same 99% percent wouldn’t even have a place to bitch about it if these samples didn’t exist. Be freakin happy you can even pretend to score. Cause without samples, midi and the fact that most the films you all bitch about would NEVER happen… except a filmmaker today can shoot, edit and produce a descent film with a $500 camera.
    So do the free shit and get good…better yet get AWESOME…people pay for awesome.. people want good for free.

    Ed Soph once said at North Texas…they tell people they might not have what it takes to be a musician. He justifies this by realizing… If they quit from my advice they didn’t have it…but if it motivates them to be great…then it’s good…no harm done.
    Maybe Mark is on to something?

  • January 24, 2010 @ 7:16 am

    1 more thing : )…you all should read “Secret Lives of Great Composers” by Elizabeth Lunday. Good stories about the struggles and trials of those we hold so dear. I don’t remember too many stories of regular, good paying composing jobs for many of them though. Just a bit of the same…from a hundred years ago!

  • bladap
    January 24, 2010 @ 7:17 am


    I feel I should be paid if I’m a composer, because that’s what I am and what I do. You are telling me that Hanz, Danny, John, ect… should not be paid for the work they do? What makes them any different from me, from a composers standpoint? The Film maker knows there’s a value to what I do, that’s why there’s always a problem squeezing my services in the budget

  • George
    January 24, 2010 @ 9:55 am

    @ mike

    1) I agree that within the over supply 90% are of average standard composers. However, what you FAIL to understand is that awesome VS good music is often very hard to distinguish within an oversupply of music. Talent is not good enough anymore.

    2) “except a filmmaker today can shoot, edit and produce a descent film with a $500 camera” What??? In my 10 years career have not seen this happen Mike. This is exactly where things go wrong with this attitude.

    3) I DO NOT agree that the professional composers need to work for free to get better – you are over generalizing and taking for granted some of the people on this forum ( I compose, orchestrate and conduct). If you ask anyone who really cares for their trait, and is truly professional, would take a real orchestra over a sampler ANYTIME. Live musicians are what make music really come alive..

  • mike
    January 24, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

    first I’m not saying work for free…. I’m saying don’t avoid work because it won’t pay. You make the call. 2nd… Sorry you have never seen a good low budget film…. maybe if you we’re more open to the ideas or the possibilities you might find some. My point is 30 years ago there were maybe a tenth of the opportunities there are today and it’s because technology has brought the price point down. Consider it a plus. And fine sit around and wait for pay/only gigs… I personally have had a number of paying gigs from free ones I have done…I don’t do them all, but I do some!
    And then I don’t bitch about the one I do/don’t take.
    My point on live musicians is…sure we all like live better, but you wouldn’t even have a career to bitch about if sample didn’t exist…you couldn’t afford it.. Likely. So then use only paid live musicians for everything you do…let’s see how long you last… And Hey I’ve made my living playing gig for many years. But that’s life.
    Ok nuff said…Best of luck…

  • George
    January 25, 2010 @ 7:43 am

    @ Mike – without wanting to go on a personal one to one comment here I will reply to you so you can understand how biased you are in your thoughts. I will not reply again on this subject to avoid this.

    You assume that everyone on this forum is amateur, or doing this part time, in their little bedroom – you are wrong and you seem to be the most frustrated out of everyone.

    Let me prove to you how many times you are wrong:

    1) Quoting your new message :first I’m not saying work for free…. I’m saying don’t avoid work because it won’t pay” Quoting your previous message”So do the free shit and get good”.

    So, yes you DID.

    2) And again- new quote

    “My point on live musicians is…sure we all like live better, but you wouldn’t even have a career to bitch about if sample didn’t exist…you couldn’t afford it.. Likely. So then use only paid live musicians for everything you do…let’s see how long you last… And Hey I’ve made my living playing gig for many years. But that’s life.”

    and previous quote “but your music has a full orchestration of many instrument you are unqualified to play…likely couldn’t even get sound out of them.So how many musician lost a gig?”

    Decide how many issues you want to deal with on this forum and what you prefer. You either like live musicians or you like samples, or both or neither?

    2) I’ve seen low budget films that are good, but not for $500.00 as you claim. Give us one example of a great $500.00 movie please….

    3) I work full time in writing music, so I am not “waiting around” for paying gigs. I am concerned about our future occupation that you take for granted. So without knowing you shouldn’t give advice.

    4) And last but not least – you use the word “BITCH” too much. four times already…

  • January 26, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

    Hey Guys,

    Hey George, I see and understand your frustration, or at least I agree with you on many points you made…… Mike has also got a point but not the right way of saying it….

    It is out rages to blame the composers about lost gig of musicians. Mike, I urge you to consider what you are saying here? Perhaps you should start blaming film makers and producers for not being up front with many composers, not to mention that some directors don’t even consider post production as a vital part of their film and spend whatever budget they have on pre-production and production period…… What do you do? I usually laugh…..

    I agree with George, if you have a chance to write for film and were given some budget you would have to be stupid to stay on samples and not to use musicians, specially the one who can actually play lol, I make an example for you,
    I’m scoring a feature film and yes it’s one of those called independent and so on, there is a budget on it, and fair enough it’s not huge, but guess what, because the director and producers have attitude to pay people for what they do and dedicated a budget for the score I’m able to contact few violin players and cellist and so on to score this film, even if that means that I would have to pay the musicians out of my own creative fees, I wouldn’t want to work on samples and sequencing if I can have a real one,,,,, I enjoy working on computers and samples and so on, but there are moments and many of them where you just want a real one,,,,,, We all agree with that,,,,,, A good violinist spend 10 years of his/hers life on just getting the notes right, so there is no comparison here….

    Yes it may be true that you have to start somewhere and gain experience, build your show reel and so on, but what happens when you have done all that? are you suppose to stay the same and not to consider a bigger picture,,,,,,

    I simply believe in negotiating with directors/ producers and consider their potential and the possibilities they have to make it out there…. it’s hard to justify and every case is different, but there is one rule and you are the only one who knows it, if you write well and have done this long enough, you know when and how to draw the line and stop the abuse…..

    Keep positive as well that may help…..


  • January 27, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    The name is crowd-sourcing; based on the assumption if 400,000 people contribute their work for free then one or two works will be “good”. If I’m not mistaken, I believe I-stock photo was launched on this premise, culminating in their acquisition a year or so later by Getty Archive (or another stock photo company), to preserve their business model (Hard to compete against “free”).

    The new music library and library websites models are all based on this assumption. These days one of the first question prospective clients ask is how much it will cost; course they expect it be good (or maybe they can’t tell the difference) but you’re being shopped from that moment on. Regardless, if you look hard enough you can get your score done at practically no cost at all. There’s always going to be someone less expensive.

    If the current lawsuit regarding blanket-licensing agreements are reduced as the broadcasters wish, due to declining audience, then we will see some attrition in the the ranks of wannabes. Until then, we’re all going to be caught up in the “race to the bottom”.

    One last thought, that all the people who make VI’s and related music software/hardware are feeling this too, notice all the half price sales??? Why should I invest in new gear when the market is clamoring for cheap? Are they going to notice that everything stroke is a down-bow, especially if it means saving a few grand?* The next “bubble” we’ll see bursting is in the musical equipment trade. Definitely not going to be a growth industry until the profitability factor returns to its prospective customers!

    *Director ignorance abounds. Actually had an orchestrator tell me that the director was so in love with the sound of the synth temp score that he had all of the bowing marking removed (slurs) so that the strings would be “closer” to what he was “hearing in his head”. More than once the director asked, “Why are we re-recording this? It sounded fine!”.

  • Jessie
    January 27, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    First of all, no one is going to get a FREE orchestra consistently that’s comparable to LA musicians. There’s just no room for snobbery in a working composer’s reality today. We have to use all the tools available to us, live and MIDI. We have to prioritize and not overwrite the cue. We need to become better mixers and producers to overcome the challenges of budgets. When sample-based music is really done well it sounds like the real deal though it requires a lot of equipment, time and a few soloists.

  • […] “Very good music is unheard every day, because very good music is not in short supply.” This article about the trend for film music makers points out at least one area where it’s very clear. In […]

  • February 17, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

    Love it. I’m so glad we have a place to discuss this stuff. Seriously! Also, read this forum while drinking a beer. It makes it seems like we’re all hanging out at the pub talking (and complaining about) shop.

    My $.02 = We’ve been given lemons. Gotta make some lemonade. Brand yourself, as has been stated. Branch out into as many areas as possible. The generalist is the new specialist.

  • Peter Reilich
    April 26, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

    “The four horsemen of our apocalypse.” – Leonard Bernstein on the Beatles

    The recording arts has stolen music from musicians. The decline in respect for instrumentalists is easy enough to see during the past 60 years. I don’t know what you think (someone commented) will be a ‘working class’ for film composers, but there really is no hope for respect in the future.

    There was a time when film composers shared a comradery with the instrumentalists who performed their composed music. (I should know, I grew up in Studio City, CA) But that day has come and gone, for the most part. This separation is key to understanding what’s been happening to our music culture. Trombone player joke? No thanks.

    I believe Huxley called it a brave, new world. It moves forward, without a care for what it has stepped on and destroyed. Insensitive. Bully. Bottom line. The element of music that includes the term’s root “muse” (aka the joy of music) has hardly a chance to exist in that kind of ruthless environment.

    Excellent article.

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