Truth be told? Creating a Top Ten List about art is a dubious and pretentious endeavor at best. My goal was to create a format to be able to share my life and experiences in an effort to spur your mind and help you on your way.
Dreams. Goals. Desires….
…we all have them. Maybe you want to be famous? Maybe you want to be rich? Or, maybe you have such passion for the work that all you want to do is to have the opportunity to be engaged in the process of doing it more regularly.
If I were presumptuous to give you advice it would be these two things:
- be yourself!
- never, ever, stop learning
Think about it. There is only one of you. That, by definition, makes you unique. Celebrate and embrace your individuality. This is what will differentiate you from everyone else! The hardest thing for any artist to do is to understand and be clear about who they are. Give yourself some time for reflection to figure out who you are and what you want to be.
What do I have to do to “make it”?
If there is a “myth” we haven’t discussed it would being successful in life (let alone being a film composer) is not a destination to reach. It is a process to engage in!
There will always be new challenges to face, hurdles to leap and mountains to climb. Embrace these as problems to solve. Remember that very few problems do not have answers….they may just be difficult for you to see. I am very confident that if you are engaged in writing music for film that you are a “creative problem solver”. Learn to apply this special skill to everything obstacle you face and I guarantee you will be surprised at the results.
I’ve talked about branding, marketing and sales…methods to help you reach your goals.
There are no guarantees in the music business OR life! It may sound trite but remember that expectations not met create disappointments.
- Be engaged in the process without attachment to a specific result.
- Be in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or fantasizing about the future.
- Be kind and generous with everyone you meet…you never know when they will re-emerge in your life.
- Being an artist is a noble endeavor…one that feeds your soul and affects all who listen to your work.
What Is A Brand?
If I were to ask you this question would you have an answer? If I asked you to describe your brand could you tell me? Do you even know why it is important?
Let me ask you a few questions:
- What are your “Core Values”?
- How do you support (pillars) your core values?
- What is your “promise” (mission statement) to your customers/audience?
- Where do you want to go? (aspirations)
- If you asked someone to articulate who you are what would they say? (Brand Characteristics)
- How do you work? Who to you work with? (Culture)
- Describe your professional “personality”.
- Can you identify where your best opportunities are? Can you describe your image?
Your music is a commodity.
To be successful in marketing yourself you must start think of what you do as being a “product” that is bought and sold. Yeah , Yeah….I know this sounds hardcore. It doesn’t have much to do with making music. Or does it?
Believe it or not, I still get uncomfortable when talking about my music and my career…even after all these years. I have found, through painful trial and error, that when I think of my music as if it were an inanimate object I am much more at ease and less self conscious. I remind myself that I am expressing my brand not myself. I can then focus on the other person and be confident. Never forget- it’s all about connecting with who you are talking to.
What does that mean to you?
Think of your music as your “brand”-
which is to say that “you” are different than your brand.
The questions above describe the basics of branding a company, product or individual so that the reader or potential buyer can determine quickly (10 sec. or less) if you have given them sufficient reason to engage them in what you are offering. Doing this effectively requires you to be able to articulate your message (promise or mission statement) succinctly without hesitation. Rehearse your elevator pitch! It will give you a big boost of confidence.
In recent times there has been much emphasis on “branding”. You might think “branding” is cool graphics, great trailer style music, attention grabbing etc. Ever ask yourself how they come up with that stuff? (a great video describing what a brand is).
That being said: branding is about creating a shared experience that denotes quality, service and value that the user carries with them. To express these ideas to a listener, reader or employer you must be clear about the meaning of the message you are delivering. Here is an analogy: to be a successful orchestrator one has to learn how to write in “in the language of the orchestra “. Getting to the heart of who you are, what you stand for will make your sales process more effective.
What does this have to do with making music?
The more you work, the more chance you have to make music.
I don’t need to be concerned about the business of music-
You can call me “Schroeder”. I spent my youth playing the piano incessantly. I started writing songs when I was about 9. Most every waking hour I had a radio blaring in my head. I couldn’t stop it. So, I spent all my time pursuing that which I could not ignore…making music.
Because I had developed skills as a musician and was gifted with talent, opportunities presented themselves and I started working as a musician at 14. By the time I reached college I was a “working musician”. Even so, my goal was not to make money. My interest was always to find a way to stay immersed in the art of making music. This desire to led me to leave college the first chance I had to go on the road. I didn’t really care how much they paid me- I probably would have done it for free!
Setting myself up…for disaster.
Fast forward to years later. I had been working steadily for years…not because I had a great business acumen but actually in spite of it. I had an employable skill, was dependable and, for the most part, easy to work with. Things were great- until there was a problem with the business side of things. Because I had not paid attention to “the business of music” I found myself in numerous situations I was totally unprepared for.
The constant dilemma for the artistic person is to “balance”their need for expression with the pragmatism required to make a living.
In a perfect world I would wake up every morning and joyfully make music all day. “Oh… what a wonderful world it would be.”
Unfortunately the business or “your” business has to be taken care of just like any chore. If you have support staff: business managers, agents, managers, copyists, programmers, tech support, musicians, accountants, they have to be managed. You must maintain and be in control of yourself in the relationships with those you work with.
A few things to consider:
- Not everyone is a “friend”.
- Confide only in those you trust
- Be clear and focused about the job you are asked to do- if you don’t understand…ask questions.
- If you are going to subcontract or look for help be “specific” about what you expect from them.
- Use the golden rule with everyone you work with. This is terribly important. Your reputation precedes you. If you rip someone off, sooner or later it will come back to you. Conversely if you treat everyone with respect and integrity you will have more time to spend on music rather then wondering what people are saying about you. This is now more important than ever due to the transparency of the internet.
To manage your team effectively you need to be comfortable with basic business principles such as:
- read your contracts- fine print too!
- understand the “actual” roles of all those involved (agents, managers, copyists, etc) and how they relate to one another
- knowing how to budget your time and money.
- understand the “market value” of the services you provide.
You may be wondering about why business acumen is important? Today not only are we required to be expert musicians- we have to also create and manage a personal “brand”. I’ll go into branding in a future post.
The takeaway from today’s blog should be: understand business to the extent that you can operate effectively with those you work with and take care of yourself in the process.
Don’t kid yourself: this is difficult for everyone!
But- it is not insurmountable.
“How Do I Deal With Deadline Pressure?”
Many moons ago when I first entered into the business I vividly remember being panic-stricken about coming up with ideas on demand. At the same time I knew that if I didn’t meet the deadline I might never get another opportunity. I lived in a constant state of fear and anxiety. I had stress for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In hindsight I realize that the anxiousness was due in large part to the fact that I was completely undisciplined and unorganized about my time. I had no idea how to even approach the problem let alone deal with the situation effectively.
My mentor, Billy Byers, always used to say: “if you sit there long enough it will get done”. He was referring to the fact that most of us would rather be doing ANYTHING but sitting at a desk in a quiet room alone–for 12-16 hours a day. (remember- I started in the business prior to the advent of the PC). Needless to say I endured many, many sleepless nights.
Live TV has to be the most demanding job I can imagine. I would get an assignment on Tuesday for a show that would record on the following Monday and be on the air on Tuesday night. You have to be on your game because there is no time to do any rewrites. There was no time. And, if I didn’t deliver my reputation would read: doesn’t deliver on time meaning I was unreliable and no one would risk taking a chance on me. I couldn’t afford for that to happen.
What did I do?
I learned how to divide the number of score pages (or minutes if I was composing) into the days available to create a benchmark of how much I had to complete each day to stay on schedule. For example: I have 10 days to a session or deliver for a final mix. If I have 40 minutes of music to deliver that means I have to do 4 minutes a day to make my deadline. If it were an orchestration I would divide the number of days by the number of pages and then create an excel doc to keep track of all the details. I became a slave to my spreadsheet. I made a video about this that you can see on youtube.
The 15-Minute Deadline.
Back in the day I would write through the night to have music ready for pick up first thing in the morning. I would keep a small TV on my desk to keep me company and help remind me of the passage of time. I didn’t want to get “the stares”. Did you know that you can fall asleep with your eyes open? Many times the end credit music would wake me up on the hour.
When I really got stuck I would arbitrarily mark up the sketch into increments I felt I could accomplish in 15 minutes. That way I could kick myself in the butt if the alarm went off and I wasn’t keeping up.
I only used that in extreme cases. Whenever I had to do an all-nighter it proved to be very effective.
The point is this: to keep your sanity, maintain your health and relationships I strongly suggest learning how to be disciplined about how you spend your time. You can thank me later. 🙂
Coming up next: “Oh Great! I have to deliver on time AND BE BRILLIANT?”
I don’t have to worry about technique
Let me ask you: Have you every tried to build anything? Have you ever tried to put something together without reading directions? Have you ever cheated on a test or tried to get some one to do homework for you?
Let’s say you wanted to build a simple box out of wood. Sounds simple enough. But, if you look a little deeper there are many, many things you need to do to successfully build a square box out of raw wood. First you need a design with dimensions. Then you will need to figure out how to purchase the wood, what kind wood you want. Then you will have to cut the wood to size. Assembly is next followed by finishing. Building a box from scratch out of wood requires expertise (or at least working knowledge) of many tasks. If you are a carpenter for hire there is another dynamic to consider: you are building this box to suit some one else’s taste!
This is not as crazy as it may sound.
Direction (what type of score does the director want) = Design
Budgeting for production/ instrumentation = What type of wood do you want?
Writing cues that fit the film = cutting the wood to size
Recording your score = assembly
Mixing = applying finishes
I meet a lot of songwriters and entry level composers. Invariably when they find out I’m a film composer their eyes drift off as they daydream about hearing their music in film, darkened rooms, tv etc. Internally I chuckle because they have no idea what is actually entailed. If they only knew.
There is very little glamour in being a film composer. It’s just a lot of hard work.
Unfortunately the only way to survive in this business is to have a deep seated passion for it. I always say: “the only thing that will keep you company at 3am while working on deadline is your passion for what you are doing”.
So much to know…so little time.
The truth of the matter is that to be a good if not great composer requires a lifetime of learning and maturing. It never ends. Therein lies the attraction for me…every day is different. As a creative person this is why I can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning.
Of course there are the obvious musical disciplines to be aware of. Add learning about relationships, networking and people to the list. This will carry you as far if not further than any musical chops you may have.
The 80’s were boom times. There was so much work that it became acceptable for less than competent composers to be hired to score films. If you needed help there was enough money to hire a support staff.
Times have changed.
As fees continue to slide it is more important than ever to become the best you can be. From a purely selfish, pragmatic point of view: the more hats you can wear….the more money will stay in your pocket.
From an emotional point of view….there seems to be a direct relationship between knowledge and anxiety. The more you know the more comfortable you will be in every part of the process.
From a creative point of view….if you embrace learning as a lifetime endeavor you will never be bored. There’s always something new!
“I’m the composer- I’ll write what I think is best…”
Is there truth to this statement? Yes. Most of us, save songwriters who are accustomed to collaboration, are the masters of our universe. We spend a HUGE amount of time alone…we even talk to ourselves or our muse. One famous composer friend even has a name for his muse. He calls her Shirley. Long durations of muteness (being wrapped up in the moment) can create problems. When I was young I would spend hours upon hours, by myself in my studio. When I would take a break if the phone rang it felt like I had a mouth full of cotton balls. Long hours spent alone is something we all face in different ways.
I’m going to assume that you have already gone through the interview process, made a deal, spotted your project and are now left alone in your room to begin work. An empty canvas waiting to be filled with paint.
Early on in my career I had the attitude: “I’m the expert. I’ll make the musical decisions. I’ll be in charge of what music the direction the music takes. After all, I’m the one who has spent a lifetime becoming an expert. Right? WRONG!!!
Film is a collaborative medium
It became apparent to me almost immediately that I was uncomfortable and ineffective in a collaborative environment. I didn’t know how to ask questions.
More importantly- I really didn’t know how to listen.
I was so used to making decisions by myself I was a fish out of water. Sure, I was confident that I could write great music. But to be an effective film composer there are a couple of things to consider:
- The director (or producer) will not only have an idea about what the music should be- they will have strong opinions.
- Chances are if the director could do it themselves, that would…and you wouldn’t be needed.
- Directors are control oriented people. Talking about something they can’t control (music) can be very intimidating
- We, as composers, are not hired to be “right” about our opinions. We are hired to serve the vision of the director/producer.
- Arguing with your boss about this lick or that sound is career limiting. It works for some…but they are the exception
We are hired to bring our expertise….but our experience and expert opinions must always be expressed in a way that supports the director/producer’s vision be it correct, misguided or flat out wrong. I’ve heard it expressed in these analogies:
“I layed a lot of carpet today”
Where do you want the couch? The same place it was before we moved or where it is now?
Making a movie is a study in collaboration and compromise.
The quickest way to get fired is to argue about your vision being better than the director’s. I am not suggesting that you be entirely subservient (although it can be that at times). I am suggesting that you learn how to communicate in language that the film maker understands. Learn the language of storytelling.
If you express yourself by extolling the virtue of this chord progression, or the incredibly clever musical solution you’ve come up with…chances are the response will be a blank stare. If you learn the language of the film maker: plot, protagonist, subplot, character development, story arc, spine, backstory etc. you will be easily understood by the director and thus be able to communicate effectively.
The art of the film composer is this to:
- take direction
- understand the story that is being told
- bring the sum total of your experience and talent to bear to serve the direction you have been given
- collaborate with those you are working with effectively
- fashion a creative compromise that is satisfying to those who are paying your bills.
To paraphrase Carter Burwell: “I’m in the business of making people happy”.
The biggest challenge for the film composer is connecting the dots….learning how to integrate all of these non-musical elements successfully into a piece of music. (Yes…you ARE being paid to write music…not wallpaper as some might suggest).
Learn to identify all of the different pieces of the puzzle, serve them jointly and independently, and you will on the road to becoming a competent film composer (which means you are a “safe” hire).
Tip of the day will come on Thursday.
Next week: Top 10 Myths About Being A Film Composer-#7 “I don’t have to have any technique…I can hire someone to do that”
If you are interested in a private lesson or consultation via Skype email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Next week: “I don’t have to worry about technique”
9. “ All I have to do is write wonderful music and I will be a success”
I think it would safe to say that if you are reading this you have a passion for music. More than likely I wouldn’t be surprised if you spent large amounts of time pursuing your passion. Some might describe it as an addiction, a compulsion, or worse. They are most likely correct in their assumption. Not to worry- to achieve your goals all of these attributes are needed and more.
You might be prone to sitting at the piano, composing or improvising– envisioning your music being heard in a darkened room with hundreds of people sitting in rapt attention. There is nothing wrong with that either.
Undoubtedly there are some of you who have a healthy ego and believe that your musical skills are well suited to the task. You’ve studied Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Strauss, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky and more. You’ve also are fanatic about the latest scores from James Horner, John Williams, James Newton Howard etc etc.
You’ve also done your homework regarding popular music. You understand pop, rock, rap, rave, electronica. I imagine you are a programming whiz…highly adept at making samples and sequences rock.
All of what I’ve described above are pre-requisites for a career in film music.
But, and this is a big but, most of this really doesn’t matter to a film director.
Did you hear me? …it doesn’t matter.
They may appreciate your expertise but at the end of the day all they will truly care about is whether or not you can deliver a score that will help their movie be successful.
Directors, in my experience, are single-minded people.
From the moment they begin a project they are, and have to be, consumed with their movie. Directors not only have to answer to studios, investors etc.,hey constantly have to manage everyone who is involved in the process. Can you imagine being asked questions from everyone you see 24/7? I can’t imagine being in that position…it has to be exhausting.
Why is all of this relevant to the statement above?
Music is only one part of the process of making movies. In a sense you are part of a hierarchy that includes, actors, production designers, cinematographers, writers, producers, lighting designers, costumers, editors, dubbing mixers, adr engineers, gaffers, best boys, etc.
Important points to remember:
Understand your place
Be prepared (know the story, the cut, each character, their back story if possible)
Learn how to communicate effectively (more on that in subsequent posts)
Above all- don’t waste your director’s time. Time is their most important asset.
Being talented enough to be able to write wonderful music is a given. It may even get you a meeting.
Being talented will only take you so far.
Acknowledgement and understanding of what I’ve said above will be needed if you want to create a career as a film composer.
Coming next: #8- “I’m the composer- I’ll write what I think is best”