4 Things You Should Know About Composing For TV (FAQ)
I often have people getting in touch asking how to get into writing music for TV/film/media, and looking for some advice. So I thought I’d put together a blog about the most common questions and give my thoughts on them, in case it helps anyone. I’ve tried to call on my experience from my work both as a composer/producer and also as a music supervisor when I was on the other side of the table.
*Quick disclaimer* – Of course, there are no “rules.” Everyone’s personal situations and experiences are different, so this advice is meant to be taken very generally.
Q – How do I get work?/Get into composing full-time?
The first thing to say is that there is no linear route into making it a full-time job. Everyone I know who does it for a living came into in different ways. Some people come from a classically-trained background, through conservatoires or music courses at University. Others started off in bands or commercial music projects which became popular with TV/Film directors/producers and editors and then ended up being commissioned directly as composers. And other people got their break from being mates with directors/producers. Becoming an established composer’s assistant is another way in. Whichever way people I know have got into it, there seems to be two common characteristics that link them –
- They have always been working – If you are always working you quickly develop your skills – whether it be composition, production, mixing etc. Work on anything you can find related to music or audio when you’re starting off. Be flexible and open-minded.The now worldwide reach of high-speed internet brings with it thousands of new opportunities to write and compose music across all fields whether it be for videos/games/ other artists etc. Each new job will bring new challenges and enable you to not only learn new processes and techniques but will dramatically speed up your delivery times on future projects whilst making you aware of pitfalls to avoid. Make your mistakes and learn your trade on the earlier, smaller projects and then when the bigger work starts coming you’ll have the experience and setup to produce the expected quality of work quickly and efficiently.
*Judging when the correct point at which you’ve got enough on your showreel and enough experience to start approaching the big name companies for work is up to you, but be reasonably brutal in terms of comparing the level of your work to what’s out there being used on TV/Film already. If the production quality isn’t up to scratch yet, then keep honing your craft until it is. People at major publishers/production music companies/TV production companies receive hundreds of unsolicited approaches from new composers each year, so first impressions are hugely important and it’s unlikely you’ll get a chance to make a second one.
- They’ve got out, met people and established relationships
Although it’s possible, it is hard to break into an industry purely by staying in your room/studio and sending out unsolicited approaches to potential clients. Get out there and meet people. If you’re just starting out, find a local film course/club/school which churns out young directors, eager to make it in TV/Film. Get to know them and establish a friendship and potential working relationship early in their career. Or find a way to start working in TV/film in a non-musical role. Once you’re established in the company, get to know the music team on the production and express an interest in helping out or finding out how they work.
Generally just gradually build up relationships with people across the industry by being friendly, respectful, reliable and knowledgeable. Have an opinion and a creative voice and you’ll soon find others who have the same and you’ll enjoy working together. Don’t constantly contact/harrass different people purely with the sole intention of getting work from them and never use generic/blanket emails. Research what projects people have worked on already and take the time to watch/listen to what they’ve done and show a genuine interest in their work. Honestly assess whether your music is up to the correct standard and in the correct genre to potentially interest them.
Once you have established some good working relationships, make sure that everything you do that has your name on it is of the highest quality, you never know who is going to hear it and work can snowball from unexpected jobs/opportunities.
Q – I want to become professional but I’m struggling to find the time to work on music, I already have a full-time job doing something else and would like to dedicate more time to it. How do I do this?
There is no simple answer to this. Everybody’s personal situations are entirely different. The main point I can make here is that unless you are an exceptionally talented and proficient composer/producer/mixer from a young age then you will not be able to get yourself to a professional level without putting the hours in and making significant sacrifices in terms of personal and social life.
It’s a job which often requires 24/7 availability and if you can’t work at those times when a director/producer gets in touch, someone else will. You also need to keep up with current musical trends and keep your production/composition skills fresh and honed.
When my full-time occupation wasn’t yet composing, I worked during the day to pay the bills and then spent all my weekends and evenings building up my skills, equipment and contacts until I had the necessary expertise to start bringing in enough regular work to take it full-time.
You have to be incredibly perseverant and thick-skinned and the amount of time required by the job and the unpredictability of future work means it can place serious strain on both family and social relationships. It’s best to be aware of this before make it your sole aim. Lots of people find a nice balance of composing part-time whilst working another job as well to maintain a predictable and reliable income. There’s no right or wrong way to do it.
If you really, really want to make it happen and you are lucky enough to have a supportive partner, then you will find a way!
Q – I’ve been approached by a certain company and I’m unsure of what to charge them or what I should expect from the contract?
Pricing for bespoke requests is a personal choice which you have to work out, know your worth and experience and price accordingly at a level which you feel comfortable at and isn’t a ridiculous level for the size/budget of the client.
Spend a week at some point researching and reading up about everything to do with publishing and master rights. You need to understand this side of the business. Even if you don’t know everything about it (it’s a complex system!) having a working practical knowledge of how rights work across TV/film and media will stand you in very good stead in every piece of work you do.
Contracts tend to vary across different sectors of the industry and in order to utilise your skills effectively as a business and accurately plan your upcoming finances you’ll need to completely understand whether your rights to future royalties are being bought out at the beginning of a job or not. If they are then the buy-out fee should reflect that loss of potential future earnings. Make sure you find out when and where the work is going to be broadcast, how long for and whether the company are entitled to use your piece again for a different project under the terms of the contract.
I can’t emphasise enough how even basic research around stuff like this will dramatically increase your chances of taking it full-time. You’ll be able to accurately plan your financial year and how much you can afford to invest in developing the business/your equipment. Also you will quickly identify which potential jobs are worth it and which aren’t, as well as being able to negotiate expertly for bespoke work.
On a related note – This rule applies across the music industry (there was a big problem with this when I was in bands growing up as well) – NEVER PAY FOR “EXPOSURE” or “OPPORTUNITIES”
There are a few companies out there who will charge you to see opportunities to “pitch” on major projects or even just to be hosted on their website. These situations are exploitative and wrong. Any proper agent or publisher will take a percentage of the money from work you get through them once the work has being commissioned and paid for by the client. That’s how they make their money, not through up-front fees with no guarantee of income for you. In all my time as a supervisor I never accepted “pitches” from these sorts of companies and honestly don’t know anyone else in the industry who did either. Notice how none of these companies ever have specific examples of successful placements on their websites. That should be a big red flag. Avoid.
Q – I’ve had some success but get really nervous when new jobs come in and wonder if I’m cut out to be composer?
Research “imposter syndrome.”
It’s a real thing and affects everyone at various points across all levels of the industry. Even if you’re scared, do it anyway. Otherwise, again, someone else will.
Even the most established composers never feel like they’ve “made it” and often worry at the beginning of a job whether they are capable of doing it. It’s part of the human condition, so don’t worry about it. Find some other people in the same industry and ask them about it and have a little joke and then move on. It’s seriously not worth worrying about.
Always be learning and developing your craft, differentiate yourself by having your own sound and creating your own samples and libraries from scratch – you will find your own voice gradually.
Collaborate with other musicians to create something unique and special.
It’s hugely satisfying to hear and see work that you created at home or in your studio being used around the world and it makes all the hours and doubt worth it.
So as a final positive thought, it is entirely possible to make it into your job. Be flexible and open-minded about the route it will take to get there. Take your time and don’t panic! It brings huge joy and satisfaction when it goes well. The harder you work the more breaks you get, good luck!