Category Archives: Business Advice
There’s a great interview with John Williams from all the way back in 1978. He was already insanely successful, having done Fiddler on the Roof, Jaws, and Star Wars, but who knew how many more decades of amazing music he would continue to compose!
The whole interview is long but worth reading, but what stood out to me was his comments about reading scripts before seeing a film.
Will you work from a script initially, or do you prefer some kind of visual stimulus?
My own preference is not to read scripts. It’s like when you read a noveL; you envisage the locales, you cast the players in your mind. That’s the reason, I think, why people are so often disappointed by film versions of novels they have read — they don’t conform to their preconceptions. So I’d rather not read a script, and I tell producer thatl I’d rather go into a projection room and react to the people and places and events — and particularly the rhythm — of the film itself.
I have often struggled with this issue because although it is fun to get involved in a film early, there is very little a script can tell you about the music. So much of the music is based on how the film feels, not just what the story is about. The timing of the performances and editing, the hues of the color scheme, and so many other visual factors have such a demanding effect on scoring that reading the script for me is merely a way to become a part of the conversation when a cut of the film may not yet be available.
And now with the authority of JW I feel like I am justified in not always being so eager to read scripts!
Being asked to write music for free is an unfortunate consequence of several factors: there are more composers than there are projects to score and thus competition is fierce; many projects have no budget, or at least no budget for music; some people simply don’t respect or value the time, talent, and decades of work it has taken you to even be able to write a good piece of music.
When just starting out, I believe scoring for free is a necessary evil. It’s often the only way to build up a portfolio. How can you convince someone you can score their film if you’ve never done it? Theoretically you score some projects for free and as you, and the directors/producers/etc. you work with, climb the ladder the gigs will start paying better and better.
This is generally how it’s worked for me, but I find that there are still situations where I’m either asked to write for free or even considering it. Here are a few thoughts on when I do and do not give it serious consideration:
Are you being treated fairly?
Was the entire project done pro bono, or did they run out of money by the time they got to post production? I find it revolting that people are happy to shell out thousands of dollars for a DP or an editor but then say to the composer “deferred only”. It’s extremely disrespectful and you hopefully learn early enough in your career that deferred payment doesn’t exist. I had a director try to explain to me once that he couldn’t possibly pay me to score his feature film because of all the money he was going to spend on the sound mixer.
On the other hand, if everyone is doing it for free it’s a different story. If it turns out that a lot of talented people really believe in the project and have given their time and talent to it, then I’ll start to pay attention.
To summarize, only do a project for free if it means you are being treated fairly.
Is the project any good? Does it seem like a Sundance home run or a viral sensation just waiting to be released?
Or is the script kind of lame, or the lighting poorly done?
If the film looks as good or worse than what you’ve already done and the performances are uninspiring, then what would you be getting out of this?
Will the project fill a category you’ve never done before (eg. animation, horror, musical theater)?
Much like getting your first scoring gig at all, getting your first “fill in the blank” job may require previous work to break into. Directors tend to think in categories; if your reel has a lot of horror you will be labeled a “horror composer”. If you are demoing for a romantic comedy it helps to be able to show a romantic comedy you’ve successfully scored in the past.
Even after considering all those factors I still might not necessarily do the project. Unless it’s starring Anne Hathaway, the best script I’ve ever read, and guaranteed to take me to new heights, it might not be worth it if I’m already too busy with other paid projects.
But the purpose of discussing the elements above is to suggest that at any level in your career scoring a film for free could be a possibility.
I read an article today from Wired about Google CEO Larry Page and how while most companies focus on improving by 10%, he strives to improve by 10x (or 1000%). If you’re not thinking big, you’re just keeping up.
As always, it got me wondering about how the idea might apply to film scoring. What are some things that a composer could improve 10x over?
- Compose 10x faster
- Produce 10x more music
- Record with 10x more live musicians
- Write pieces that are 10x longer (production music tends to require 1-2 minute pieces, when was the last time you wrote a 10-20 minute composition? And I don’t mean to picture.)
- Get 10x more material out of a single piece of music. This could mean develop your motive further or also using a single piece to inspire 10 more pieces (a slower version, a minor version, etc)
Of course the 10x principle can apply to just about anything, but those are some of my first thoughts on writing film music. What do you think? What aspect of composing music for film could you improve 10 times over?
Also be sure to check out the original article.
Just for kicks for my 29th birthday I decided to make a list of 29 quotes, ideas and nuggets of wisdom that have informed my life up to this point. Some are lessons I’ve embodied, others are ideals I merely aspire to but will never fully achieve, but they are all important in some way or another.
So here they are in no particular order.
- “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
- Just about everything can be improved with simplicity.
- Capture everything or be willing to let it go. Capturing is one of the major principles of GTD but I believe it does not get enough recognition. Every idea, thought, obligation, moment that goes through your head is going to fall back out of it. Either write it down or accept the fact that it may never return (and that that is OK).
- Work hard. It pays off. However there is a clear distinction between working hard and working a lot. Smart, outcome focused work done for a short amount of time is infinitely better than misdirected indecisive work that drags on all day.
- Don’t work too hard. You’ll both burn out and miss out on other important things. I have seen way to many people in the Entertainment industry think they are acheiving success because they work 100 hours a week but that’s just not the way it happens. Work smart, not long.
- “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”
– Leonardo da Vinci
Ideas are a dime a dozen, action is far more valuable. Good intentions are only as good as what you do with them.
- Being quick to make informed decisions is the key principle to getting things done. This is true for small and big decisions. For example your e-mail inbox can be completely empty in a very short amount of time if you just buckle down and make a decision about what needs to happen with each item. Likewise writing music is really just about making decisions.
- Don’t judge. It does nothing but make you look bad. Even trivial things like someone else’s taste in music benefits in no way from condescension. Everyone has a reason for doing the things they do so live and let live.
- Be patient. Both in the long term and the short term. This is easier said than done when you are an ambitious person!
- Make little bets. Ship often and learn from every iteration.
- Major goals are often best achieved indirectly. For example making a lot of money may be a “goal”, but providing a lot of people with high value is an actual way to achieve it.
- “Do not push the river, it will flow by itself.” This concept is huge and probably deserves its own book.
- Writing is easy, sitting down to write is what’s actually hard. This is true for both words and music. If you can get yourself in the chair and eliminate distractions the rest should take care of itself.
- If you want better, do better. Conversely, if you keep doing the same things in the same way you should expect the same results.
- You can turn your phone off once in a while. It turns out the world won’t end. It’s actually pretty nice.
- There are no “right” answers in music or art. If you think what you write sounds good you are correct. Now there may be “wrong” piece for a particular client or purpose, but that is a different story.
- There will always be more music. If the director/producer/client asks for a change, just change it and keep your ego out of the way.
- There will always be more music. Don’t try to tell your life story in every piece. Make every composition focused and purposeful.
- It’s OK to give up on things once in a while. It’s necessary if you intend to keep any form of sanity.
- Change is inevitable. Get used to it.
- “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” – Bob Dylan
- Having a child will change your life. But not in the ways you would necessarily expect. For me it has been the best experience yet.
- Life could be short, so don’t waste it. You might get hit by a bus tomorrow (or an illness in two years) so don’t squander your time with things that don’t matter.
- Life could be long, so prepare for it. Hopefully you’ll be around for many more decades, in which case make smart decisions now that will take care of your future self.
- Don’t hold yourself responsible for other people’s decisions. There is only so much you can do to help a self-destructive person, ultimately they are the only ones in control of themselves.
- Worrying about things outside your sphere of influence is a waste of time and energy. This is why I tend to pay only enough attention to the news to be well-informed but not emotionally invested. I am beginning to learn that it is far better to pay attention to local news and politics than national.
- There’s no point in clouding your head with “shoulds”. If you think you “should” do something, then either do it or get over it.
- Comparing your work to others’ can be demoralizing. Comparing your present work to your own past work can be inspiring.
- What’s important to you now will probably not be what’s important to you in the future. 10 years ago I would have had a very different list. And if my list is exactly the same in 10 years it will mean I didn’t grow or learn anything!
I am often asked by young film composers and students of film music some variation of this question:
“How can I break into the Entertainment industry?”
Just Give Me The Secret Password
It’s kind of a funny idea, and an interesting concept. There seems to be a certain belief in our culture that there is some sort of metaphorical gate surrounding Hollywood, and once you find the right way “in” your film scoring career will be all set.
I think one reason I get asked about this a lot is because I appear to have started to “break in”. People are hoping that I can tell them what secret way I found to get on the inside, and that all they are missing is that one elusive piece of information that will bring them to success.
Well I have good news and bad news. Actually it’s the same news, but you can choose to look at it from a pessimistic or optimistic point of view! Keep reading…
Recently a young college student and aspring film composer asked me a question, and I wanted to share my response with you.
“I’m in my first year of music college at the moment and I’m just wondering did you ever try to get any intern or assistant positions during the Summers in-between or did you wait until you’d finished college?”
“The short answer is no, I would wait. In my case I didn’t get an assistant job until after I finished college and moved to LA, but that was mostly because I had to move to where the industry was first.
If you come upon an amazing opportunity, perhaps with a composer you admire, or someone who works on the kinds of projects you love, then absolutely go for it. But otherwise I would say don’t get ahead of yourself. You’re in school to learn, so take advantage of it. Practice your instrument, read 100 orchestration books, stay up all night analyzing the Rite of Spring. Devote yourself to music and developing your skills. The details of how to work in a studio can mostly be picked up in a matter of weeks, but the foundation of being a truly skilled and versatile composer takes years. Keep reading…
Recently I shared an article from Fast Company about “7 Entrepreneurial Lessons from Shark Tank”, and then followed it up with the first in my series on what a composer can learn from the show. The topic of part two: Be Prepared
One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make on Shark Tank is a lack of preparation. It is also one of the easiest things to get right! But time and again, people stumble over their vision for the business, get confused about their sales figures, and just flat out don’t know how many functions of their business are actually performing.
When you go into a meeting with a director, you had better be prepared. Here are some ideas on what to prepare for a meeting:
- Learn as much about the project as you can. Did they send you a script? Read it and take notes. Does the film have a website? A Facebook page? Read the blog to get an understanding of what production was like, how much sweat and labor has already gone into the production, and what kind of work ethic they expect from their crew.
- Learn as much about the filmmakers as you can. What are their past projects? What type of films do they seem to like working on? Do you have any mutual connections? Read their bio, maybe you both happen to be from the same small town back East which would make for a great ice breaker.
- Know your numbers. Are you planning on pitching a full orchestral score? Do you know how much that will cost, even if just an estimate? How about scheduling? Can you give them a solid estimate of how much time the scoring process will take?
- Know the genre. If you’re going in for a meeting on a romantic comedy, make sure you actually can talk about some romantic comedies. Research the iconic scores in the genre, and brush up on some of the latest releases. When the director says “I want something that sounds like Drive,” you had better know what that means.
Yesterday I tweeted a link to a Fast Company article by Amber Mac called “7 Entrepreneurial Lessons from Shark Tank”. Today I thought I’d take it one step further and look at a few lessons composers can take away from the show as well.
I’ll examine one lesson a composer can take away from the show now, with more coming in future posts. Keep reading…
Being a freelance composer can be challenging at times. In school we’re taught how to conduct a great spotting session, or the smoothest way to modulate from Bb Major to E minor, but we’re taught little to nothing about running a business. And when you’re an independent contractor you’re also a business owner.
I spend a lot of time reading business books, trying to learn how to do a better job. Unfortunately it’s pretty hard to find information that’s relevant. Most of the books out there are about running a business with a tangible product, not something as hard to describe and discuss as music.
Lately though I’ve come across an industry that might actually have a lot in common with composing for film: Consulting.
“The real value comes from our expertise on how to give the filmmaker what they need, not just to write down the notes they think they want.”
Its not a perfect analogy, but in many ways a composer is like a consultant who specializes in using music to bring out the story and emotions of a film. Just like a consultant may advise a corporation on how to be more efficient, a filmmaker brings us on to recommend the best way to make the heroine’s heartache resonate or the action scene thrilling and terrifying.
Although we are also like craftsmen, constructing a score like a carpenter builds a beautiful dresser, the actual writing of notes is only a part of what we do. The real value comes from our expertise on how to give the filmmaker what they need, not just to write down the notes they think they want.
As 2011 winds down, I’m coming towards the end of my sixth year living in Los Angeles and working as a professional composer. Since crossing the five-year mark earlier this year, I notice that people who describe this as a “five-year town” actually have it about right. It took about five years to reach a point where I was able to find that composing work was coming in steadily and consistently. Keep reading…
An aspect of my writing that I’ve always considered a weakness is a heavy reliance on ostinatos and repeating patterns. I think this probably comes from being raised on pop/rock music with a constant and steady beat, and a general tendency towards minimalism. I just happen to be obsessed with hpnotizing repeating figures.
I’ve always thought of this as a weakness because I tend to have a hard time writing without an ostinato; my writing brain just doesn’t seem to work like that. And this makes me concerned that my writing is always turning out the same, that I’m not ever writing anything new because I’m always writing in the same way. But lately I’m beginning to rephrase how I approach this aspect of my writing. Instead of a weakness, perhaps it’s simply an unavoidable characteristic of my style. And even more importantly, knowing how I tend to write my best means that if I want the writing to flow, that’s the way I should be writing. Keep reading…
Composer Deane Ogden has written two remarkable posts that I thought were too good not to share. He asked two groups of studio and independent directors a series of multiple choice questions about their preferences, feelings and thoughts regarding hiring and working with composers. Keep reading…
Very frequently I am asked how I got the job assisting composer Michael Levine and eventually moving with his company into Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions. I write out the response so often that I thought it would be practical to make a blog post out of it.
Like most things, it ultimately comes down to good luck (ie. preparation plus opportunity).
A few weeks ago I went to an SCL event for a panel with Michael Giacchino and his music team. It was a great evening overall, and I took away many insights and ideas to think about. One of the things that really stood out to me, because it aligns with my own philosophy, was when Giacchino said “My work day ends at 5:30pm, and then I go play with my kids.” I wanted to applaud him, because sadly in this industry that is an incredibly rare thing.
Part of the reason it stood out to me was because that very morning my wife and I were discussing the very same concept. Is it possible to get ahead in this business without putting in 100 hours a week? Won’t there always be some other guy out there working one more hour than you? But if an Academy Award, Golden Globe, Grammy (etc. etc.) winning composer is able to work a normal workday, perhaps a balanced life is not just a dream but an attainable reality. Keep reading…
(image by Joseph Eastwood)
The most consistent piece of advice I’ve heard from successful composers, screenwriters, authors and anyone else in a similar craft is to write every day. Keep reading…
Lately I’ve been reading a lot about screenwriting. I’m not currently writing a screenplay (although I’d like to someday); I’m reading from the perspective of a storyteller.
One of the most valuable things a composer can do is aid the development and form of a film’s story arc. But in order to do that effectively, you have to have a thorough understanding of how a story is structured. By learning screenwriting, you can learn how to better identify a character’s motives, needs, and growth. You can also help define the larger pieces of the film’s form to aid the audience in taking it in. Keep reading…
I recently wrote to the head of a music library that I work with and asked him if there were any styles in particular he was looking for at the moment. He wrote a helpful response, and also said something that stood out as quite profound:
“Everybody does the simple stuff.. if we have a shot it’s almost always in doing the complicated big stuff.. it will set us apart, get the doors to swing open a little wider..”
I went to the Tim Burton exhibit at LACMA a few weekends ago and it was fantastic. I strongly encourage anyone who lives in the LA area to check it out. As usual, I was thinking about what I could learn from the experience and I came away with several key lessons.
Many of the key ideas that I’ve been interested in lately were reaffirmed: constantly producing work, strong foundational training, sketches, collaboration, and a variety of mediums. Keep reading…
Without question, Hans Zimmer is one of the most successful film composers of our era, if not the most. There are hundreds of valuable lessons young composers can learn by studying his work and career, and one I’d like to discuss now is how his scores keep getting media and fan attention.
During awards season this year I began to notice something interesting. Hans was being interviewed on the red carpet at the major events. Now if you know anything about film composers, one of the main things you know is that the general public has no idea who they are. They want to see Robert Downey Jr. and Reese Witherspoon, not some film composer. But here Hans was, being interviewed and treated like a rock star. Keep reading…
Music serves a wide range of purposes in a film. Among many benefits, it help’s with the pacing of the story. It adds emotional depth to the characters. And often overlooked, a great score can be a major factor in developing a film’s brand.
Many times I have been sitting in a movie theater watching the previews when the following occurs: A trailer will begin with dark clouds, and perhaps an ominous rumble. There will be some ambiguous text along the lines of “the adventure continues” or “in 2011 the next chapter arrives.” No one in the theater knows what to expect or what this preview is for. Then all of a sudden you hear an instantly recognizable theme and people in the seats around you gasp or exclaim with excitement: it’s the Harry Potter theme and everyone immediately knows it. An entire franchise has been successfully packaged into just seven notes.
For several years I worked as an assistant at one of the most notoriously grueling studios in LA. It was an incredibly rewarding experience and I grew on many levels as a musician and businessman. If you are a young composer looking for a way to develop your chops and learn about the business of film scoring, I cannot recommend becoming an assistant more highly.
I’ve compiled just a handful of advice for anyone out there that is seeking or beginning work as an assistant to a composer.
1. Your job is to make the composer’s life easier
The whole point of having an assistant is so the composer can focus on the important work. For them, this means writing music. Burning CDs, renaming files, installing software, and a thousand other tasks that aren’t writing music are not worth the composer’s time.
A new article I wrote for SCOREcastonline.com is now available: Long Distance Scoring
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