What is the fastest way to become a better composer? It’s probably to stop doing everything by yourself.

The traditional division of labor in the scoring process has eroded completely. Composers used to be one player in a fairly large music team. They put notes on paper, attended recording sessions, and bore few other responsibilities. As our industry has evolved our responsibilities have steadily increased. Today’s composer is responsible for every step of the music team’s process, and very often a lone guerrilla composer replaces the entire team of yesteryear. The support network which used to be built-in has evaporated.

We don’t have the luxury of being specialists any more. As scoring budgets shrink, our responsibilities move towards infinity. Today we must have a thorough balance of artistry, craft, and business, wearing all of the hats and managing many disparate tasks single-handedly. We are expected to own and operate our own studios and do a huge number of other tasks not expected of us ten or twenty years ago. We’re not composers, we’re the CEOs of small music businesses and we’re responsible for every aspect of music production.

Lower budgets and package deals naturally give us fewer incentives to hire help. The less we spend the more we keep, and without adequate funding the music team shrinks. Although the music team shrinks, our workload doesn’t. A guerrilla film composer also has the job description of every team member he doesn’t hire: orchestrator, copyist, studio owner, producer, performer, conductor, recording engineer, music editor, and mix and mastering engineer.

Guerrilla Film Scoring is now the norm. It is an irreversible reality imposed by the relentless progression of technology and the massive surge in independent film production. A lucky handful of composers still have the luxury of working within a Hollywood system that is well funded and has clear division of labor. The rest of us must fight our way through the wild jungle of the music industry. But must we do it alone?

Be Business-Minded

Core music team for the Dreamworks film Need For Speed (some people missing)

Core music team for the Dreamworks film Need For Speed (some people missing)

If you want music to be your business, you should treat it like a business. There is a big difference between a sole proprietor and a small business owner, and most composers operate more like sole proprietors. A sole proprietor’s business begins organically. They take a liking to a certain type of work and begin to charge money for it. As they get more and more successful they get busier and busier. When they start to get very busy their career begins to own them, not the other way around, because they are time-poor and yet continue to do everything themselves. The need for total control is a very common malady, and it often limits professional growth.

A small business owner has a better plan for future growth. Those with the mentality of a business owner are more prepared to build a team and are always looking for good help. They try not to do work unnecessarily, and they recruit more troops instead of increasing their personal time commitment. There is no shame in getting good help. On the contrary, a team of people is an admired and respected asset that converts easily into income. It is possible for you to be successful as a sole proprietor artist, but you will have better chances if you think like a business owner.

Although it may feel like you need to work alone, it’s often possible to build a team. There are always other people working at your level, and you can usually find mutually beneficial ways to team up with them. Even if you’re a brand new composer with no budget who is trying to break into the industry, you could team up with a brand new sound engineer who also needs credits. If you’re creative and you reach out to other people in the industry you can always find a way to collaborate and build a team.

Have Your Team Ready

A collection of skilled people isn’t necessarily a team. When you assemble a group of people for the first time it may work out wonderfully. If they are seasoned professionals, they will surely get the job done. However, a team is something more than an assembly line that functions well. A team has a connectivity and a synergy that generates energy, ideas, and superior results. A newly assembled group may work like a team, but you might get a collection of impassive service providers instead.

The only way to know a team’s dynamics is to test it, and that’s why it’s important to have your team in place before you need to rely on it. To find team members get recommendations, meet people, try them out on small jobs, or do any number of other things to test the waters. Doing that will give you experience with those people, and that’s very important. A very skilled individual might not be the right fit for your music or your personality. If you explore your options and try out lots of people you’ll know whether to keep those freelancers in your back pocket or not. Then, when you need your team you’ll be able to pull everybody together and the team dynamics will be based on the relationships you have already built. That situation is much more likely to produce good results.

The deadlines and pressures of the scoring world can sometimes make scoring feel like a battle. Once you have experience with trusted collaborators you will be better prepared to go to battle together. When you have some history with people they are more likely to want to see you succeed, so you can more easily trust your team and put your reputation into their hands. When they are invested in you to the point that your goals become theirs, then the team’s effectiveness rises to a new level and carries your music much further. That means the final product is much stronger, and you effectively become a better composer as a result.

Gather Your Troops

First and foremost, your schedule will dictate the size of your team. Many composers like to keep their teams small so that they can make as much money as possible, but that’s not always practical. Delivery dates are usually non-negotiable because our work fits into a much larger production timeline. Even if you have the expertise to do all things well, if you don’t have the time to do them you need to find help to be successful. The majority of composers hiring help do so not because they’re unable to do things, but because they don’t have the time to do them alone.

Second, your weaknesses dictate what you must outsource. They are the bottlenecks in your schedule and the limitations in your production value. Begin by delegating the tasks that are the most tedious or unfathomable to you. They will be the easiest to let go of, and you will be more willing to trust in the expertise and authority of your colleagues in those areas. In the long chain of scoring production tasks, from the first concept to the last cue delivered, identify your weaknesses and get help with them. It’s a smart way to begin building your team and the fastest way to strengthen your position.

Thirdly, your budget dictates the size of your team. Deadlines and production values are usually non-negotiable. Only after you are confident that you will meet your schedule and quality goals can you assess your budget and decide if it can support additional team members. You may want to get additional help for creative reasons, hiring more live players for example, or to free up more time. If your budget won’t allow it then you have to take care of everything else yourself. Because composers feel attached to their work it is a consistent temptation to use all of the available money to make the best product possible, but if you do then your career quickly becomes a hobby. There are times when that investment is appropriate for your business, but unless you have a clear business plan that requires investment your budget should probably limit your team size and you should take some profits on every gig.

Another important factor in deciding which tasks to delegate is the kind of experience you want to have. Whatever you want to be doing in your ideal successful future, you should be doing that thing right now. We become known for the things we are actively doing, not the things we hope to do. Work brings more similar work, and success breeds success. You should try to delegate anything that gets in the way of the work you want to do. The other side of that coin is that you should identify your weaknesses and get help with them. You don’t want to become known for sub-par work, so always try to avoid doing tasks that you know you can’t pull off very well.

Delegate Effectively

Core music team for the orchestral album Dream Gallery: Seven California Portraits

Core music team for the orchestral album Dream Gallery: Seven California Portraits

A lot of composers do things incorrectly when trying to delegate. Delegation is not giving instructions and monitoring the result. That is supervision, and it is what most composers do. The reason most composers supervise instead of delegate is that they don’t correctly transfer authority. Supervision is very involved, and the people under you need to check in with you continuously to stay on track. Delegation requires that authority is transferred to your team members, enabling them to take the actions necessary for accomplishing their task autonomously. Only then are you truly free to focus on other things. When you bring somebody onto your team you should focus on the result that you want, not the process that your team members use to get there. When you micromanage their process you are not giving them the freedom and authority to help you in the best way possible.

When delegating you should let go of the details and embrace the value of your team members. Give people credit for their work, even if it’s just through verbal affirmations, and adequate space to do that work to maximize their potential. If you’re working with a mix engineer then you should give him as much authority over the specifics of the mixing process as possible. If you have an orchestrator doing something for you, let that person re-voice your ensembles and just check it at the end. You should arm your team with information about your goals and your artistic intent, but you should also empower them to make their own decisions and accomplish your goals their way. You should be a guiding force, but you should not be in the middle of what they’re doing.

Learning to delegate is sometimes difficult. It’s very common to believe that nobody else could do a particular task as well or as efficiently as you. That’s a struggle that most small business owners in most industries have. It will serve you well to remember the humbling fact that all of us in the music industry are highly replaceable. There is a huge world full of musicians and very little of what we do is actually unique to us. That’s a bit depressing for the individualist in every artist, but it can also reassure you that there is plenty of good help out there. When you find good help you are free to let go.

The best way to make the process of delegation easier is to work with people who have expertise that surpasses your own. You have excellent reason to trust them, it’s much easier to let go, and the end product is better as a result. Many composers begin their team building by going in the other direction and finding younger inexpensive helpers. This is a good way for you to get help, but it is difficult to truly delegate because you need to supervise and educate. If instead you look up the experience ladder and find ways to collaborate with people whose skills surpass your own, delegation becomes a real pleasure. It also becomes a situation in which you can learn and grow, and that has great benefits as well. It may cost you more to do so, but it may be well worth it.

With good delegation it won’t take long until you are a more focused composer, more productive, have more free time, and are creating a product of much higher quality. There is an extremely wide spectrum of how people delegate, ranging from not delegating at all to team composing. The choice of what to delegate and what to control directly is very individualistic and very personal, but in the music business the value of teams can’t be understated.

Want to be a better composer? Stop doing everything yourself.


Guerrilla Film ScoringJeremy Borum is the author of Guerrilla Film Scoring.
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