Top Ten Myths on How Media Composers Get Hired on a Film or Game Scoring Job
Here are ten common myths and false assumptions made by emerging media composers that I hope to dispel. Can you relate to any of these? Have you heard other myths? Please feel free to add your own to this list. All the vignettes in this blog are based on my story as well on the stories of many colleagues whose career trajectories I’ve observed over 15 years in film, TV and video games.
Note on the text & style. Every time when I use “he” or “his” I imply both genders. Only occasionally I use “his/her” or “he/she” to avoid the text being cumbersome. Also, when I use the word “director” there is an immediate understanding of who that is in a film. In games it is a bit more tricky. At large AAA companies, the “director” is often the “Audio Director,” but they may also have a “Music Director” who is responsible for the music in the games. For smaller companies (and even some mid-large size companies) the role of “director” may fall in the hands of a producer, designer, or founder of the company. This job is very often outsourced as well, so you may be working for an “audio director” who is not even in-house with the game company. Just substitute whatever title you like when thinking of game companies.
Attending an expensive university will out-weigh the student loans, as you will start getting lucrative jobs right after graduation.
False. Getting a composing degree does not guarantee a career as a film or game composer. A degree gives you tools, skills and basic musicality. It’s your foundation as a professional musician. It’s the beginning of your journey of building yourself as an Artist and Collaborator.
The career building of a freelance composer is a whole separate process not only related to talent, skills or education – your foundation. But it’s also a function of the force of your personality: your artistic & musical vision, entrepreneurial spirit, business savvy, drive, tenacity, people skills, and ability to cultivate relationships and be a desired collaborator.
The initial 5-7 years are your “career gestation” years. During this time, you will need to invest significantly into your new small business. (As a freelance composer you are running a small business). Just like any other business launched from the ground up, a few years will pass before you “break even” (in terms of earning a living from your small business – composing.)
Having said all this, I would also emphasize that MANY top film and game composers working today got a fantastic music education and went to great music schools. There are also many composers who are self-didacts and who devote time and energy to building their skills, musicality and talent outside of academia.
I’d encourage aspiring composers to get the best possible musical education available to them, in order to lay a solid foundation for their success. A college degree supplemented with Continuing Education (e.g., classes on demo sequencing, business skills such as the classes offered at UCLA Extension program) plus daily self-designed activities (e.g., listening to soundtracks, analyzing scores) would be perfect.
Artist = a life-long learner.
Who is the decision maker in hiring a composer?
FILM. Only the director hires a composer for their film.
GAMES. One person in the entire studio makes the hiring decision.
False. Sometimes the film producer is the creative leader and getting the scoring gig and music approvals depends on him/her. In TV the producers and show runners are the ones calling the shots, hiring the composer, and approving the music. (In TV, the director is often a gun-for-hire.) In feature film it’s more common for the director to hire the composer, but it’s not uncommon for producers to submit their short list of composers for consideration, and sometimes even push their choice. On indie features, often a Music Supervisor will solicit and audition composers’ reels, then suggest a short list to the director who ultimately hires the composer. Therefore, an emerging composer needs to connect with all – with directors, producers, writers, music supervisors.
On AAA games, usually the Audio Leads hire the composer, in discussions with the entire Studio and the Publisher. Often, the game developer / IP creator makes the final choice, from a short list suggested by the Audio team, and after many composers have submitted spec demos. The Publisher needs to approve the composer as well.
On indie games, the game makers hire their composer. In 99% of the cases in both AAA and indie games, the hiring decision is made by a large circle of people – Audio Leaders and Studio leaders. Understanding who are the decision makers is often shrouded in mystery; decision makers protect the integrity of the team by not revealing how the hiring decisions are made.
Film scoring & game scoring is a lateral business – as your collaborators move up, they will pull you up along with them.
False. Out of 16 directors whose indie features I’ve scored, only 1 has a Hollywood career, the other 15 do not — either quit the biz altogether, or have other ancillary jobs. Another dear friend – a producer who has a Line Producing job working on top blockbusters for Universal Studios, for which top A-level composers ala Zimmer are hired. Even if he wanted to, he cannot hire me (yet.)
Game scoring is a lateral business – once you get hired by a AAA publisher, they will always hire you on upcoming games. False. Studios have a glut of composers to choose from. Sometimes they work with the same composer. Other times, they change the composers on every installment of the franchise. The hiring decisions are a prerogative of the studio.
In my opinion, the composer’s prerogatives are:
(1) developing his/her talent. Cultivating an Artistic Vision of who they are.
(2) being as enterprising as they can be.
(3) staying in touch, sending work-related updates, developing best possible people skills.
(4) evolved personality: being authentic, gracious, charismatic, confident, down-to-earth.
If the stars align, and if it’s meant to be, you will get hired. It’s hard to offer a “scientific” answer to how hiring decisions are made. What I’ve observed is that someone with power and “pull” must want you very much to score their title, for you to get hired. Because your music is the greatest fit for their vision. Because your personality is the greatest fit for the studio dynamics. In situations where 10 composers are on the short list and are asked to compose spec demos based on the same “game brief,” your demo must float to the top.
Schmooze music editors because they can put your music as a “temp score,” and then you’d get hired on a studio film as a composer.
False. Music editors “temp” films ONLY with commercially published soundtracks from studio films released by major soundtrack labels. Music Editors would not “temp” a film with unreleased soundtracks from unreleased indie movies, due to “unknown” artistic quality, no live orchestra, and copyright issues of using unpublished music.
Having said this, there are a few stories where someone’s music (from another studio feature) was temp-ed in a film by a music editor, and the composer eventually got hired on said film. The key is to have your soundtrack recorded at the studio level (live musicians, top-notch quality) and released on a established label. There are many fabulous soundtrack labels out there. Summary: Make friends with music editors, but don’t bug them for jobs.
In games, one of the most important skills is to elegantly connect with the decision makers. HR people cannot hire you (they hire programmers). Sound designers cannot hire a composer. Project managers cannot hire a composer.
Game studios are run like a corporation. Various departments within the studio are responsible for making short lists, auditioning their contract talent, and hiring; ultimately these suggestions must be approved by the higher-ups. As a game composer, you need to be on the radar of the Audio Decision Makers.
If I mail my demo CD in a fancy package, it will get reviewed.
About Sending Unsolicited Demos
The Legal Department of any corporation (be that film studio or a game studio) expressively prohibits their employees to accept unsolicited, unpublished materials. There have been many lawsuits where person XYZ sued a studio for using their “ideas” which were pitched during the gestation of a script or IP, and somehow found their way in the hands of someone inside the studio. As a result, every single studio has a banner on their website “not accepting unsolicited scripts.”
If you handed your demo CD with unpublished music to a game or film executive at a function, they may take it to not appear horribly rude but they cannot listen to it. It is mandated by their Legal Department & job contracts that they do NOT accept unpublished intellectual property. Please understand this fact.
Instead of giving an unpublished CD, it’s better to email streaming weblinks. Better yet, release a body of significant work on iTunes or BandCamp (soundtrack, trailer album, EP, etc) and then email streaming links to it. Invest in some publicity so you can also include endorsements and quotes from press reviews. Create a fan base of people “liking” your track on SoundCloud. This way, your PUBLISHED, RELEASED music online has a better chance to be reviewed.
Please don’t email mp3s as attachments either. They clog people’s INBOX but an industry executive cannot listen to mp3s for the same reason described above – the potential of a plagiarism lawsuit. The only reason an industry professional would listen to music (that is not the soundtrack of a major, released title) is:
- if it’s published, awesome, has a buzz around it, and is generating interest
- if it’s award-winning, successful, has received critical praise
- if they need something specific and they are looking to instantly fill a need
- if it’s sent to them as a streaming link to a reputable site that would have you sign a legal form that your music is wholly original (Soundcloud, BandCamp, iTunes, Pandora, etc)
What if you want to receive feedback on your music?
Please cultivate listening circles on your own — with your peers and friends. Meet twice a month, geek out, and play and critique each other’s music. Establish your own circles with your friends and colleagues. Learn to express constructive feedback to each other. Learn to present your opinions in a way that is empowering to the others and does not crush their feelings. Learn to listen to feedback closely. Be energized by the possibility for revisions and changes. Please don’t be resentful to criticism.
If you’ve written impressive music, film or game directors will hire you immediately.
False. The music does need to be top notch, AND it’s a navigation of politics as well — who knows you, who wants to hire you, how good a collaborator you are, and whether you are established as a “hot” composer in demand. You do need to have a body of solid work to propel yourself upwards. Success (festivals, awards, distinctions) is vital for career growth. I would encourage composers who have had a recent big release to invest in publicity so there are some articles out there about your work.
Having solid credits is vital. Many directors are not versed musically and they will ask to review your credits / CV before even asking for a music reel. Please review your IMBD.com profile and be sure that all your meaningful credits are there. This is the first place I go to check people out, and many decision makers do the same. Keep up-to-date your IMDB.com, Linkedin, Moby.com and any other places where credits are posted.
You can make a living on composing alone.
False. Being a freelance composer is like running a small business. During the initial years of getting established, any start-up company operates on investments (Venture Capital or Angel investments) and normally reports “loss,” or barely breaks even. Even bigger composers occasionally have months without a project. Freelance composers embrace the notion that they are unemployed every time a project ends, as well as the reality that they will continually seek work and assignments.
There might be a few times you’d have to work as synth programmer, additional composer, music editor, orchestrator in between scoring gigs to keep paying the bills. It takes time to get a composer’s career going. Unlike traditional corporations where you send your resume, go to an interview, get a job, and stick with it for a few years, film and game composers continually audition, pitch their reels, schedule interviews, lunches, inquire about possibilities. While “between jobs.” While “on a job.” All. The. Time. I go to “job interviews” a few times monthly …. I attend 5-6 major conferences every year (GDC, Game Sound Con, WIF events), in addition to game summits, countless seminars organized by The SCL, AFI, film festivals, my Alma Mater functions, BMI events, etc.
How you schedule and manage your time, how you balance solitary creativity with hustling, job assignments with business lunches, time in your studio with time attending industry events maybe the key to success of your business. One thing is for sure – all busy composers juggle and multi-task insanely. This is the essence of the career of a freelance artist in their emerging and mid-career phases.
Song-pusher companies will help you land gigs. Just pay them $350 for the year and you’ll get a million deals a month!
False! Statistically, you need to submit 100’s of awesome, top-notch trailer or production music tracks to such services (the most reputable and established of which is TAXI dot com) in order for 10 tracks to be selected in the course of one year, and for 1-2 to be a match for the Production Music Company’s needs. Then, the production company may take forever to reply (due to overabundance of music tracks), or may go bankrupt…. Or for whatever reason, even if they liked your track, they still may not use it in ways that will monetize your track.
Now, how many of you have 100 awesome library tracks of production music & trailers to send to TAXI for consideration? … It’s better to build a direct relationship with Production Music Libraries, inquire about their needs, and compose music to fit their needs. This is a more reliable path for your music to end up in a daytime Cable show. After your tracks are used in TV or Cable, you will start seeing some residuals on your PRO royalty checks (Performing Rights Organizations – BMI, ASCAP, SESAC).
The key to success with Music Libraries is to offer product that they need and can immediately place and license. In other words, build a relationship with a library, then ask what their current needs are, BEFORE composing 100 spec trailer tracks. The library will give you “style guides” (musical models). Their turnaround is extremely dynamic and you must be a fast, proficient and facile writer. This way you could offer music that is needed and useful. Still, the timeline as to WHEN your music will be used is unknown. Until you generate a solid body of Production Music (hundred hours of Production Music CDs that get plugged in on tons of Cable shows) it’s not a reliable source of income.
When you move to LA, you need to rent an expensive apartment in Beverly Hills. When you walk down the street, you’ll meet producers/directors who will hire YOU to score their film.
Firstly, you don’t get hired off of the street. You need to attend industry events. Secondly, at industry networking events you meet a vast assortment of folks – lawyers, managers, writers, service providers, hopefuls, dreamers, and only few-and-far-between producers. Now, how many of those “producers” have an “open gig” you can pitch for? (i.e., a movie or game in production) ….
Here are some statistics: You need to schmooze 100 people at a function, for 12 to be genuine producers, for 5 out of them to have ACTUAL funded projects needing composers, and for 3 people to have projects that are “open” (no composer hired yet) and you are eligible to audition for (meaning, they don’t want Hans Zimmer, and can afford him if they did). So, whether you live in a fancy apartment has little to do with who you meet on the street or in a café, and how you get hired on paying scoring jobs. As long as you are in a media center and get out frequently and attend events, you are in the game.
Don’t stay inside your studio all day long. The key concept here is: attend events of any and all sorts where potential job-givers hang. Go fishing where the fish hang. (Example: film festivals, lectures, seminars, conferences, Game Developers Conference, GameSoundCon, GameJams, PAX, Sundance Film Festival, Sundance Composers Lab Day in LA, parties, industry mixers, holiday events, industry breakfasts, film festivals, screenings, charity fundraisers, etc.)
In my 17-year old Hollywood career and attending hundreds of industry events, I only ONCE have been hired on the spot for a worthy scoring job, from meeting someone at an industry event. Also I must add: it was an invitation-only event for seasoned professionals & industry veterans. (Not an event for hopefuls who just arrived in LA.) But I did return from the most recent GDC’16 with 3 scoring jobs. I myself have hired one assistant and one synth programmer I met at events, without knowing anything about them prior to the event. Their energy was great, and their music was strong (in this order). One was hired from an SCL seminar, and another was hired from Game Sound Con. (I was a speaker at both conferences.)
I bet there is a story out there about someone who walked into a café and got hired on a life-changing job. Or moved into an apartment and his roommate hired him on a life-changing job. I bet there is ….. But I’d rather gamble my money elsewhere… on organic cultivating of relationships through work and referrals. On attending dozens of events and focusing on the viable contacts I meet there.
Directors and producers will be loyal to you.
You can put blood, sweat, and tears into writing amazing work for their short films (or indie games). Live ensembles! All-nighters! An amazing collaboration! Trust! Friendship! … As the director gets their first studio feature, things change. The director wants to work with Hans Zimmer. Or the director marries the daughter of a big-shot producer who is a close friend with Thomas Newman, and Newman scores his first feature. Or the studio forces the director to use a big-name “studio” composer … In similar scenarios, you have no chance, not being a “studio” composer but a composer with a handful of shorts and an indie feature or two.
The director must pick his battles; for there will be a thousand battles (with the studio, with his producers, with his financiers, with his stars and their managers). While it’s not unheard of for the director to demand HIS composer if the studio gives pushback, or if the producers have their own people and agenda, the director will comply. It’s hard to fight to get his no-name indie composer buddy on his 1st studio movie … he must go along with the studio demands … But lets hope that your director friend will campaign for you to get on his studio feature!! There are powerful stories on both sides of this argument.
In games, the tastes change often. Many stars must align for a composer to be hired on an AAA scoring job. There are many decision makers, some with more powerful “pull” than others. There are countless examples of one composer scoring a franchise for years, then another composer comes along and scores a powerful “hot” new score. The studio is tantalized by the possibility of working with the latter composer, and foregoes their original composer… (regardless of the latter composer’s passion for games, or experience.) Even if the composer is not a gamer … but they had a hot title with visionary sound — they are “current,” and they are in demand!
If this all makes you feel like you don’t have control over your career, rethink your priorities. All you can control is your own skills, your talent, your passion, your growth, your relationships. Therefore, study scores, compose music, build communities of peers, create awareness about your work. Attend events, demonstrate passion and commitment, contribute to your community, cultivate hundreds and thousands of meaningful relationships. Be an entrepreneur. Be trustworthy. Become a visionary artist with distinctive style. Become a valued and visible member of the community, a member who is seen as a role model. Give back by way of seminars, lectures, mentoring (Richard Ludlow started presenting GDC Bootcamp seminars right after graduating from Berklee, age 22.) Learn to be the best collaborator you can be. This is what you have control over. This is what will propel your career forward.
Bonus Myth 11:
You and the director are equal collaborators. If you disagree with his demands for revisions, you can ignore him.
The director calls the shots in this relationship…it is his movie, his vision, his budget. You harness your talent, imagination and skills to help tell his story and realize his vision. The most important ingredient in the collaborative relationship is that the director trusts you. You are the one who will breathe life into his film or game, who will create the emotional depth, who will make his project memorable.
In the collaborative relationships, the director is always right and you will need to revise every single piece with all of the feedback he gives you. There is no “but … but … this is my masterpiece.” If it’s not working for the scene, if he is squirming and not digging it, and if you insist that you cannot revise it, you will be fired. The director has no time & energy to argue with you. The stakes are so much higher for him … investors, bean counters, pressure from the studio, in-fighting with the producers, shifty sales reps …maybe even legal problems … He just has no energy to fret over the score, or over your inability to implement feedback. Many scores have been tossed because the composer gave pushback about revisions ….
I believe that one of the most important skills for media composers is the ability to listen closely to feedback and implement tweaks and revisions. We continually demonstrate to our collaborators that we care about their film being the best it can be. This means: revise the score with the director’s feedback but keep the vision and the artistic integrity of your music. (Don’t chop it up to a point where it loses its identity.)
In game scoring, the degree of technical rigor and complexity of the arrangement is daunting. The music has to serve a purpose – it must fit the gameplay and game aesthetics like a glove. In game scoring there is an arduous process of iteration (or revisions). The composer must comply with all demands for revisions, or else his music would be hard to implement.
The creative vision sometimes changes along the way, or gets fine-tuned. The composer can never be “precious” about his music but instead, he must see himself as a team player in a large team with complicated dynamics …. A contract composer on a game is not privy to the hundreds of hours of conceptual conversations that go on among the creatives in a studio. It’s impossible to also know everything that has gone into the sound design, but the score must complement the sound design. Our ally and lifeline is our Audio Lead or Music Supervisor. It’s our duty to listen closely, approach composing thoughtfully, and fulfill all requests for iterations.
I have worked with many A-list composers but one of the most inspiring experiences has been watching how Steve Jablonsky tirelessly revises and whittles down his themes, through dozens of revisions. I’ve seen version 1.1 and I’ve seen version 1.12 of the same theme. I’ve seen 2, 3, 4 re-writes from scratch, and that many revisions on the re-write. Working with Jablonsky has taught me how to write powerful, memorable themes. If an iconic composer such as Jablonsky can revise and re-write like this, so can we. It’s all about supporting the vision of our collaborator – film director or game developer – in the best way we can as composers.
Takeaways from the Entire Series of Blogs So Far ….
I hope you have enjoyed this series of six blogs. Here are some key points to remember:
1. PROFESSIONALISM: Cultivate your composing chops & musicality. (Compose daily.)
2. ORIGINALITY: Seek and cultivate your original style as an artist. (Do some deep thinking.)
3. PEOPLE SKILLS: Refine your collaborative and interpersonal skills. (Interact with people)
4. GROWTH: Listen to music, research, and grow as an artist and musician daily.
5. REPUTATION: Cultivate working relationships and your “brand” via jobs. (Deliver above the call of duty.)
6. CONNECTIONS: Network proactively and meaningfully daily.
7. BE PROACTIVE and ENTERPRISING: Seize the moment – turn existing relationships into future referrals, and just-released scoring jobs into new relationships.
8. TECHNICAL EXPERTISE: Improve daily your tech and music production skills.
Thanks for reading. Work hard, learn your craft, and most of all, follow your passions. Good luck!
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