By Stuart Ridgway
I have the coolest job on the planet: I get to sit at home and play with my bad ass recording toys all day writing music for a great television show that airs on NBC. Sometimes it seems like such a no-brainer that I forget how fortunate I am — and how much freakin' work I have done to get here! Along the way, I have read a lot of articles, gone to many seminars, joined associations, and sought support from outside sources such as TAXI. Most of the rules I learned that truly help me succeed come from beyond the music world. I am happy to share them with you.
If you decide that you would like to try your hand at composing music for film and television, then I applaud you. Keep in mind that writing scores for visual mediums is not the same as writing songs. There are many books about scoring for film, and I encourage you to seek them out. Better still; find a mentor who can show you the finer points of scoring, arranging, and orchestration.
You may already write music very well, but keep reading. Composing well is expected. It is the bare minimum from which you start the climb up. What you also need to know is how to stay afloat in a very competitive, under-appreciated business.
Love Writing Music Scores: We start with the obvious: Love writing music. There is nothing like being paid for doing what you love to do. If I ask you, "Would you do what you're doing (writing music) even if you weren't getting paid for it?" will you answer with an emphatic "Yes!"? You might even say, "I'm not even getting paid for it now and I still do it." That is a good sign.
Money is good for paying bills and even for justifying your career choice and/or existence, but that cannot be the reason why you write music for film and television. There will be too many times where you will be composing and not earning a cent. In fact, you will lose money. If you do not love it, then you are going to kill yourself with something no more gratifying than busy work. Working at Starbucks or McDonalds will at least gives you healthcare benefits.
You may find that it is not just the writing that you love. For me, I enjoy writing the music, but I also love recording it, mixing it and putting together the final package. As an added benefit, I am now finding a new joy collaborating with some of my clients. I used to believe that clients were the enemy who did not truly appreciate my genius on their lowly radio spots. Now I understand that their enthusiasm for creating the best possible production resonates with my desire to write the phattest music track I can (more on this later).
Make Your Music Available: So you love writing great music. And it is "great", right? Now you have to back that up. You cannot just tell people that you compose great scores and expect them to hire you. Your words cannot sell you nearly as well as your music can. A hot track underscores a thousand emotions. Therefore, you must make your music as available as possible. That means setting up your own Web site, preferably yourname.com, and posting several examples of your work. A music supervisor who is looking for a composer will not wait for you to FedEx your CD to him. He will want to hear your music now and that means online.
Make your site simple, streamlined, and easy to navigate. You can post just audio tracks without accompanying video. The video will not look that good and is annoying to wait for. Providing multiple formats such as MP3, Real Audio, and Windows Media files is a good idea. There are many articles out there on how to do this simply, clearly, and well. Read them and do it. This is not an option, it's a requirement.
Nevertheless, you also need a tangible demo reel. That means a CD or DVD demo. When a prospective client asks for your reel, she will, in fact, make very little effort to listen to it. Therefore your name and contact info must be clearly marked on the medium itself as well as on the case. The style and/or mood of each track must also be clear and concise. Often your client is looking to see how well you compose in a certain style. She will not listen to your entire demo to find it. If she cannot skip right to it, chances are she will move on to the next composer. You must make listening to your demo as easy and painless as possible for her.
CDs are the standard for audio demos. Do not send cassettes, DATs, CD-ROMs or any other proprietary format. Think of it this way: what format will my potential client have readily available? Answer: a generic CD player. In fact, he will probably slide it into the CD-ROM drive on his computer. That means the culmination of your life's work will be played on crappy laptop speakers. Truly. This goes for online tracks as well. When you choose songs for your reel, you will have to make some important choices. Your most dramatic work might be too complicated to sound good over little speakers. Instead, choose a piece that has the same dramatic impact but is sonically simpler.
A good video demo is also important as it clearly shows your skill at writing for picture. DVDs are quickly becoming the standard. VHS tapes are still prevalent but they are becoming more and more obsolete. Besides, don't you want to show how cool and up to date you are with your own DVD? Yes, you do.
DVD players are fairly ubiquitous and most laptops have DVD drives. Your prospective producer can easily skip to the parts she wants to see and authoring an ergonomic layout shows her how creative you are. This is your one opportunity to show that you are a professional on several levels. Make the most of it. I will touch on the technical side of this later.
Your First Demo Reel: What are you going to put on your reel? Producers will give you a little leeway as to the content of your demo. For instance, I once took a video that had poorly written music and rescored it. I then sent a copy of the video with my music to a prospective client and fully disclosed what I had done. She was so impressed with my initiative and with my composing skills that she hired me. I did not try to trick her; I just did not have any music cues on my reel that were in the style for which she was looking.
When you are first getting started, take the crappy gigs. You will be surprised how many times taking a weird, low-paying job can pay off. For instance, you get experience working with a producer. You might find that he is a great guy and enjoy the process of collaborating with him. Writing music for picture requires working with other people. That is a perk, by the way. There are many types of people in this business. The more experience you have working with different personalities, the better off you will be in the long run. Besides, he could easily have another job down the road that is really cool and pays well.
More to the point, the crappy gig also gives you something to put on your reel. You may find yourself with a student film that does not pay anything. However, if you write a great score, all of the sudden you'll have a terrific tool to show off your skills. Most producers are savvy enough to recognize great music even if the film is weak. I once wrote an opening track introducing a continuing education tape on myocardial infarctions (yep, heart attacks). Years later, I was paid very well to write music for an infotainment piece on spleen disorders. It was very convenient (and somewhat amusing) to be able demonstrate my skill at medical music. Who knew?
Believe In Yourself: The time will come when you are faced with the task of scoring a real production. That will be a scary day. In fact, I often find it an unnerving place to be. However, there are several truths on your side that will support you as you put "pen" to "paper."
There is nothing like music to immediately impart visceral emotion to a viewer. You have the power to lift a scene to an entirely new plane, but you have to believe you are doing exactly that. Just watch one of the lab scenes on CSI with the sound turned off if you have any doubts.
Writing music is as important as editing, script writing, or acting. This means you have to hone your craft to an art. You will not only compose, but you will also be an expert on all facets of film scoring. If not, you may need to find where you are falling short.
You might have to improve your chops on your ax. In that case you had better practice. If you are not able to score comedy scenes well, then rent some Adam Sandler movies and study what Mark Mothersbaugh does. You might waste a lot of time trying to record great sounding acoustic guitar tracks. Learn how to record them better.
The time will also come when you'll have to justify your existence and expense to a client. It is expected and assumed that you can write music well. Remember, that is the bare minimum. If you are a well-rounded artist and an expert, you will have no trouble saying, "I am worth this amount. You're getting excellent value for your money and I am improving your project."
It may be tempting to lowball a client; but you would be doing yourself a disservice. Your client will only think your music is as valuable as you do. You may get the gig, but you will never be paid your full worth after that. Do not forget that how you conduct your business now sets the precedent for the next time.
Stuart Ridgway composes music for film and television. He is currently writing for NBC's Emmy-award winning, "Starting Over." Contact him at http://www.pyramidmusic.com.