The Three Patterns of Building A Career as a Media Composer
In observing the trajectories of hundreds of composers over the last 15 years (2000-2015), I’ve seen three patterns in building a media composer’s career. One could build a career based on One: a Hit film or game; Two: work as an apprentice/ protégé of an established composer; then stake it out on your own; or Three: Rebrand yourself from rock/pop artist/producer into a film or game composer. All three paths have pros and cons.
Pattern One: A Hit Film / Game / TV Show
Building a career based on a hit film or game means that at one point you got extremely lucky and scored an indie film or game that became a huge hit. The “luck” factor is unpredictable. I personally believe, the harder – and smarter – you work, the luckier you get… Then your task is to leverage your hit film (while it has “heat”) into building relationships and getting new worthy jobs. A great success story is Austin Wintory, composer of the award-winning game, Journey. He scored a global hit game created by a USC schoolmate Jenova Chen. Austin met him and first worked on his previous game, flOw, while still students at USC. After Journey Austin focused on fostering relationships and building his composer’s brand. He worked very hard to make his career skyrocket. The career path of having a hit title and building a career upon it has worked for composers with exceptional talent, entrepreneurial savvy and artistic charisma. They have truly embodied the meaning of “carpe diem” – “seize the day,” or “strike the iron while it’s hot.” They have fostered relationships, received referrals, promoted their brand through vast publicity efforts, cultivated a large community of fans and champions. Their own strategic, consistent efforts and vision propelled them forward. At the end of this blog, with Austin’s permission, I have reprinted his story of how he first connected with Jenova Chen, the maker of Journey game.
On the dark side, there are composers (and directors as well) who did have a hit title, and never built a career. For example, the composer of a phenomenally successful indie comedy from the early 2000’s had a great opportunity scoring a mega-hit film, but then never built a career. Just because you have a big credit does not mean a career will fall in your lap — unless you develop your talent and propel yourself upward with your own business savvy and brilliant entrepreneurial energy. There is also a story about a filmmaker who received an Oscar, and then, instead of scheduling a hundred meetings, he went on a road trip with his buddies. He never built a career after his Oscar.
A quick side note about agents. Don’t expect an agent to come to you after doing only a few successful indie titles – they’re looking for a big hit film or game that becomes a major success story! The agent needs “marketable credits”: a successful title that gives you “heat” and “juice” and will be your selling point. Your career needs to have a great momentum already for the agent to be able to propel you further. Then, there is a financial aspect: you need to receive a solid annual income in creative composing fees for an agent to pitch you aggressively for jobs. Otherwise they can’t justify the expense of taking you on as a client and “breaking” you onto the market. A fantastic Facebook thread was started on Feb. 14, 2016 by the iconic agent Richard Kraft on the topic of agents; be sure to read it in detail and spend some time mulling it over. He answers most questions about getting an agent, and beyond.
Pattern Two: Becoming a Protégé / Apprentice
The second pattern is becoming a protégé/apprentice to a big composer. Many composers launch their careers after being an intern, apprentice, additional composer or assistant to a master composer for about 5 to 8 years. While you are an assistant, you are working 14-18 hours a day, getting credits as “Score Technical Assistant” (if you do synth programming) or “additional cues.” You are negotiating for years with your boss to pass along an opportunity to you where you are the sole composer. The pros are that you are mentored, perceived as part of that composer’s circle, and you build a body of professional work on big titles. Then it takes willpower and focus to stake it out on your own – you need to make your agenda clear in a diplomatic way, that you want an opportunity to score on your own. It’s all about timing when the senior composer will pass an opportunity to you (when the right opportunity presents itself.) Again, it takes your own talent, business and political savvy to stake it out on your own. Bear McCreary, Hans Zimmer’s team composers from Remote Control Productions (notably, Trevor Morris in recent memory – he left RCP a few years ago,) David Buckley, and John Frizzell began their careers after working for a senior composer who facilitated their “break” as composers. On the dark side, there are also stories of people who blew up at their bosses, burned bridges, tarnished their reputation, and never worked again.
The cons are: when you work as “additional composer” you are perceived as second tier to the composer, or as just an assistant. As a result, you have the challenge of reinventing your brand from assistant to a lead composer. You need to be an alpha personality, a charismatic leader and artist. There are many composers who could not change the perception that they were assistants. Really, the only people who care about your assistant/programming/additional music credits are other composers who can hire you as their helper. Directors and Game makers want a visionary artist with a personal voice and distinctive style, with charisma and leadership skills. Still, most current A-list composers were at one point assistants, such as Steve Jablonsky, John Powell, Junkie XL, and many others. In my opinion, the path of assistant & protégé is a more likely path to a professional career than relying on an indie film or game becoming a hit, which is out of the composer’s control.
There are a handful of job titles where you can begin you career as a protégé. You can become an assistant to a composer, such as Chris Bacon, who was an assistant for James Newton Howard. You can also become a MIDI programmer like many junior composers at Remote Control. You can also work as an orchestrator for a big composer, a career approach taken by Deborah Lurie (orchestrator for Danny Elfman) and me (orchestrator / additional composer for Steve Jablonsky.) You can also begin your career as a music editor. Marc Streitenfeld was the music editor on many of Hans Zimmer’s projects, and now has gone on to compose for big movies such as The Grey, Prometheus, and Poltergeist. You can be an additional composer. David Buckley was an additional composer for Harry Gregson-Williams for a few years before staking it out on his own and getting signed by the top agency Kraft-Engel Management.
This is my story. In 1999 I began my career in LA composing for AFI student shorts and indie features. To pay the bills and to learn the ropes, I orchestrated for Emmy-winning composer Patrick Williams. On one of my jobs for Pat, I brought in another orchestrator, Elizabeth Finch, whom I met through Pat. In 2000 Elizabeth introduced me to Bruce Fowler (Hans Zimmer’s orchestrator) to help him in the 11th hour on a grueling animation film score. Pat Williams recommended me to Bruce as well, to vet me in. At the time, I was one of the first orchestrators who had mastered MIDI transcription, going directly from the MIDI sequence into a Finale sketch file, and then crafting a complete Finale score, without printing reams of paper for every MIDI track (and then, engraving from the paper, like a traditional copyist.) I also knew Logic and Finale fluently, so my skills became useful to Bruce Fowler. In 2004, after 4 years of keeping him aware of my progress, he introduced me to Steve Jablonsky to orchestrate on Steve’s TV show. This was one of the most career-changing and life-changing introduction to-date. In 2007, I did orchestrations on the Transformers film (Bruce Fowler called me in the 11th hour, to help with the heaviest cues.) Having access to all scores, I learned every note of every Transformers score. In 2008 my “lucky break” happened – one of Steve’s team composers was not available to help compose on the Transformers game (2009), and Steve said to me, “You know the style; if you like to compose on the Transformers game, write 1-2 “test” tracks to see what you do.” I was tremendously inspired and nervous. Of course, I had to audition for this opportunity. He gave good notes on my “test” tracks (“beef up the low end”) and then gave me my “real” composing assignments. My 2nd-ever composition for the game was this high-level combat loop between Megatron and Air Force (link below). All my loops and cinematics were approved by Activision without revisions. I so loved game scoring that decided to reinvent myself as a game composer. It inspired me, energized me, made me happy and creatively fulfilled. Flash forward 7 years later – in 2016 a Playstation 4 flagship game, Bloodborne (on which I was the Lead arranger) has been nominated for Game Of The Year by D.I.C.E and GDC’s Choice Awards.
Penka Kouneva – Air Force Fights Megatron from Transformers game (2009)
There are great, viable possibilities for cultivating a career starting out as an assistant or additional composer. I would encourage you to consider each possibility. The pros are: learning tons on the job, accumulating professional credits, meeting people (although you cannot schmooze your boss’ clients for your own composer agenda!), learning invaluable know-how, workflow, technical savvy, industry standards and so on. Count on working 18-hour days – which also teaches you to stay in excellent health, pace yourself, structure your day and your schedule in most effective way, learn to handle “difficult” clients and unrelenting stress, and learn to deliver on time and on budget.
Pattern Three: Artist Brand Turned Film Composer
The third pattern – not really available to recent graduates or emerging composers – is being an artist brand (e.g., rock star, touring star musician, rock band) and rebranding yourself as a film/TV/Game composer. You need to be an established brand. An excellent success story is Trent Reznor (NIN), who established himself as a visionary rock musician and artist before scoring such films as The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. In Video games, many composers have come from the rock world – Stuart Chatwood (Prince of Persia franchise), Jack Wall (Mass Effect, Call of Duty) and Tom Salta who began as (and still is) a producer of hit recording artists (his game credits include Prince of Persia, Halo, Tom Clancy.)
For Further Research and Study
In Part 2 of this Masterclass Series, Seeking a Composer Assistant Job or Internship, I compiled a list of current top composers. I recommend that you familiarize yourself with their work and life journeys. Read slowly their long-form biographies and career trajectories with a discerning eye. Try to see where, when, and in what circumstances their first break happened. Was it a great relationship, recommendation, or a great demo that lead to their breakout scoring job? After you determine their first break, then read and discern where are they now? How are they self-propeling and forging their own journey? Please, add to this list, found towards the end of Part 3 of this blog, to your own favorite composers.
Here is my suggested methodology for reading composers’ biographies to learn from them: For example, film & TV composer Atli Örvarsson worked for Mike Post for many years (since 1998 till about 2004.) In 2004, Mike Post referred him to score a Sony animated feature – direct-to-DVD Stuart Little 3. The film came out in 2005. Atli leveraged this credit into a relationship with Hans Zimmer and an invitation to join Remote Control in January 2006. In summary: Atli’s first scoring break was by referral from his mentor-boss, and then he leveraged a worthy credit (famous franchise) into a career-changing relationship and a job position at RCP. Flash forward: recently, Atli’s film Rams received a screening at Cannes and numerous awards.
A side note on the importance of relationships. Whether you scored a hit title, got your first break from your mentor, or were a touring rock star reinventing yourself as a media composer, at the core of your success is your ability to foster and nurture relationships. Career growth in any business – and especially the entertainment — is based on your reputation (who knows you), your brand (who wants to work with you because they have seen your previous brilliant work) and your ability to grow as an artist. In entertainment there is huge risk (will my game be a success or a flop?) and always tons of money at stake. Being trustworthy and being known as consummately professional is a given. Yes, it is all about who knows you, who wants to work with you, and who is energized and inspired by the possibility of working with you. So…. cultivate meaningful relationships. Stay present in the minds and hearts of potential employers. Impress people with your genuine musical talent. Charm collaborators with your authenticity, inner confidence and leadership. Roll with the punches and be a team player. Be a problem solver. All of the above, and much, much more is the fuel for your success.
Once you get a lucky break, it’s through your own hard work, willpower, vision, savvy, talent and tenacity that you propel yourself upwards. It takes hard work and laser-focused vision for success to leverage that first “breakout” scoring job into the next career-changing job. It could take up to a few years. The phone does not just start ringing on its own after your first bigger movie or game. Emerging composers hustle tremendously to get their next scoring jobs. I hope that reading the bios of these successful composers and listening to their brilliant music will give you a sense of the pivotal moments in their composing careers.
Here is the clipping from the fateful conversation between Austin Wintory and Jenova Chen:
Designing Music NOW Podcast Interview with Penka
If you would like to get to know more about Penka’s story as a composer, starting from her childhood in Bulgaria and culminating in her beautiful album, The Woman Astronaut and beyond, be sure to check out this Designing Music NOW Podcast. – Editor
Links to Previous Master Classes
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.