Your Composer’s Career Toolbox
As a composer looking to cultivate your career, you need to have the right tools in your career toolbox. This includes your resume, cover letter, demo reels, a 30 second elevator pitch, and an email signature/brand.
Resumes are extremely important when pitching to a prospective client or composer. When you are pitching for a job, please customize your resume to fit its unspoken (or more obvious) needs. You have to address that you have a body of work and breadth of experience that is relevant to the client’s needs. For example, I will shuffle my credits around depending on the job I am pitching. When pitching for games, I will put game credits first (all of them, not just the big names.) When pitching for drama films, I will put my drama credits first, as well as all of my awards (and put at the end that I scored an action sci-fi iOS game titled “IronKill”.) If I’m pitching for a horror film or game, I will put my vast body of horror credits first. You get the point. Don’t send the same resume to everybody – customize it and show that you’re the right fit and that you’ll bring the goods to the table.
On the receiving end: When I’m reading your resume, I need to see that it’s carefully thought-out, that you have considered my needs, that you are willing to embrace the demands of the specific job. Generic, un-customized “one-size-fits-all” resumes get deleted. I need to see your full commitment, passion and enthusiasm about the job at every step of the way.
Employers will be looking to glean answers or assumptions on the following unspoken questions they have about you:
- What marketable skills do you have that are relevant to my needs?
- Do you show a progressive experience (growth in related career fields)?
- Your people skills/character
- Your commitment to my needs / agenda and passion for my projects
- Will you be easy to work with? Or will you be a pain in the neck …
- Are you attentive to detail?
- Are you committed to excellence and supreme professionalism?
Use these questions as a checklist when sending out your resume. Make sure that you highlight your volunteering, community building, and leadership experience rather than your hobbies, travel, or cute things you did when you were young. If you are an early-career professional, your body of professional creative work is also very important. Your talent matters tremendously.
Cover Letter / email & 30-Second Elevator Pitch
Now that your resume is customized and ready to go, let’s work on your cover letter or email. First, don’t write more than five sentences in your letter. Media composers are extremely busy professionals who work 16-hour days, so keep it short. In this letter, you need to answer succinctly these questions:
- Who are you?
- What do you want?
- How useful are you for me?
- Why should I care?
Do NOT be presumptuous in your pitch. For example, writing to the client, “I am your man.” Seriously, I once got such cover letter. Here is an example of how I would pitch myself to a video game developer at GDC, when making the rounds to developers’ tables on the Expo floor. (This is my own “30-second elevator pitch”)
Since many of you are branding yourselves based on where you went to school or your teachers, your-30 second pitch might look like this:
This above is a genuine pitch I once received, and I hired this talented young person on the spot based on his cover letter. As is often the case, luck also played a role. Truth be told, he also got hired on the spot because I needed a guitarist for a demo and just got his pitch on the day when I was working on the demo.
When you send a pitch letter, please always spell out your agenda clearly. Are you pitching me to apply as a composer assistant? Intern? For mentoring advice? For moral support? If your agenda is not clear, I wouldn’t know why you are writing to me. And I would not hire people who are not super-specific about their career goals. No one wants to be stuck in a situation they are not passionate about and dying to be in. It’s not good for you, and a waste of time for me. Being the right fit for the right job at the right time is the magic that propels careers forward. Passion, commitment and drive are fuel for career growth.
Email Signature & Brand
Your resume and pitch are looking professional and sharp. Now to close your pitch email to a prospective client, you need to always include an email signature. This signature communicates your brand and the highlights of your career trajectory in 3-5 lines. For example, here is my email signature that I use when pitching for game composing jobs:
Penka Kouneva, Sundance Composer Fellow Composer: PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE FORGOTTEN SANDS game (theme by Steve Jablonsky) Additional music for: GEARS OF WAR 3 TRANSFORMERS: Revenge of the Fallen (themes by Steve Jablonsky)
Penka Kouneva, Sundance Composer Fellow
Composer: PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE FORGOTTEN SANDS game (theme by Steve Jablonsky)
Additional music for: GEARS OF WAR 3 TRANSFORMERS: Revenge of the Fallen (themes by Steve Jablonsky)
Here I have established my brand as a Sundance Composer Fellow, and then listed career highlights as a composer for a few big name games. I have also branded myself as someone who has repeatedly worked with Steve Jablonsky. This shows that not only have I worked with top composers, but that I have proven my value to them by being hired again and again.
What should you write in the SUBJECT LINE when soliciting via email someone who does not know you:
- Your school and who recommended you to me. (example: USC student; met at the February’16 seminar. Or, Berklee Student, via Prof. XY)
- A place / lecture / GDC / seminar etc you met me, even for 5 seconds. (“met at Game Sound Con’15” or “GDC’16 follow-up”)
- If someone recommended you, their name. (“XY suggested that I connect with you”)
- Please avoid putting the following as subject (it’s generic and tells me nothing as to why I should reply):
- “Film Composer Seeks Internship” (well, you and hundred others)
- “Composer Available” (I get 5-6 like this weekly, on all my 3 email accounts, Linkedin, Facebook, etc)
The art of writing the nucleus of your agenda in the Subject Line is vital. Please do not leave it blank, because then it would look like a spammy email. Remember that every busy Hollywood professional receives about 50-150 emails every single day.
First, I want to touch on file formatting for demos. Please inquire about the composer or client’s preferred format before the submission – do they want CD, a streaming weblink (most likely), or mp3? Be weary of emailing unpublished music when pitching to a client or composer. Most people in Hollywood will not review unsolicited or unpublished work. You cannot pitch unpublished music to anybody because if they download this unreleased unpublished music, you could sue them down the road for “plagiarizing” your ideas. No Hollywood professional, or music supervisor, or studio music executive will listen to unpublished music. Their Legal Departments prohibit them from doing so (plus, they are way too busy.) I keep this in mind when I send my demos. I write explicitly, “Every track on this demo reel has been published, and is owned by its respective publisher.” Then, I’ll proceed to use my published work from Gears of War, trailer libraries, games, etc. Sending links from Soundcloud or YouTube is also acceptable since they are already out in the universe for all to hear. Sending music from your Graduation recording session constitutes “published work” as it has received public performance.
Now, we’ll focus on the content of your demo reel. You should include 2 or 3 or 4 of your strongest compositions or excerpts. The music must be skilled and professionally crafted, cinematic, and most importantly, personal. Composers and clients seek to hear your own distinctive voice; so do not include anything that is generic. Also remember that these people are incredibly busy; so do not send 35 links to all of your music because they will not have the time or patience to listen. Composers/employers won’t listen to more than 2 tracks, unless you have absolutely wowed them and they want to hear a 3rd track, or are still seeking to determine your skills and sensibilities.
The subject of making demos is deep and complicated. I will devote an entire future blog on it. Even today, I still put tons of time and thought into making every single “audition reel,” my folder of mp3s, which I pitch for a scoring job.
I make a big effort to understand the film or game: I understand the genre, aesthetics, style, and past antecedents. By doing this, I develop an intuition regarding the perfect score for this movie or game.
Then, I research the taste of the creatives: I review what they have done in the past, such as who they have worked with in an effort to glean a sense about their taste. I take it upon myself to know how similar movies have been scored recently. To accomplish this, I check out a couple of movies most similar in terms of genre, storyline, and characters to the one for which I’m auditioning. Infrequently, I would receive a note such as “they want music ala “X” title.” Then I would spend hours listening to that soundtrack, trying to determine what about it is suitable for the movie I’m pitching.
And finally, I ask myself the question, how will my talent and skill be compatible with the needs of the film / game? What cues from my past work will resonate with the needs of this film / game?
For every single job opportunity I select mp3s from past jobs, put them in a folder, and shuffle them for hours, until I feel my reel shows an understanding of the director or game maker’s vision, and how my skills are the best fit for his/her vision. It’s a laborious and painstaking process; it’s not easy or quick. Even after 17 years… Remember, it’s ALL about the film or the game. Not about you showing off. It’s about demonstrating that your music is the perfect fit for the needs of the job.
In pitching to AAA video games, the composer always receives a detailed brief which gives fantastic guidance for style, aesthetics, and the musical needs of the game. On indie and casual games, sometimes you will receive a brief (with art, concept words, YouTube links), and other times – maybe a YouTube link (“we like this”) and 1-2 images. Then, I submit music that I think the developers will resonate with based on my knowledge of their game.
In my 17 years in LA not even once have I ever mass-produced 1000 copies of the same “general sampler” CD. (These days hardly anyone sends CDs anyway.) I have never had one-size-fits-all general demo. (The ONLY exception to this is when I went to Sundance Festival, I made a “Sundance sampler” – indie, subtle, quirky music. And another time I made a reel for horror directors to give out at a Festival for horror movies.) Every single pitch, submission, introduction to a potential client has been customized with all considerations I described above. In summary, let me restate again: put your strongest, most personal work on your reel. Music that is skillfully done, imaginative, evocative, personal, and memorable. Don’t try to second-guess what you think the client “expects to hear.” Put your strongest foot forward.
I hope this helped you get a sense of what is needed when pitching for jobs. I wish you all much success in all your endeavors!
Additional Article in this Series
About The Author
Penka Kouneva is a Game & film composer of “exquisite talent.” She began her career in film/TV in 2000. She composed on PRINCE OF PERSIA: FORGOTTEN SANDS, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN games (themes by Steve Jablonsky). Her solo composing credits include the indie features THE THIRD NAIL, MIDNIGHT MOVIE, PRIMROSE LANE and telefilms ICE SPIDERS, CHUPACABRA, NUCLEAR HURRICANE. Recently, Penka scored the award-winning PS4 game Rollers of the Realm, H-Hour: World’s Elite on STEAM, the iOS games Intense Life, Galaxy, IronKill, Hades , VR rides and others.
Special thanks to Natalia Perez, Alexandre Cote, and Michael Sweet for their Editorial Assistance.