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While we often love to talk about what we do right most of the time, these few posts speak instead to some things that I’ve observed film composers doing wrong lately. Of course, that statement in and of itself is highly subjective, but I think there are some habits that are starting to trend that, while possibly not evident right away, will prove down the line to be detrimental to doing business as a film composer in our continually evolving market. I see this list of choices as “temptations of convenience”, and this series might also be called “The Seduction of the Easy Way Out”. In this economy and composing climate, I see a lot of composers taking these routes and while none of them are necessarily “bad”, I’ll try to make the case as to why I believe most of them should be avoided.
Caveat #2: Fame
I was at my manager’s birthday party a few weeks ago and was asked by someone who read my first installment in this series, “Why did you say, ‘You’ll never become famous being a film composer?’ That’s not true. There are several people who have become famous composing for films.” This person went on to cite several people who we might all agree could be considered famous in our field: John WIlliams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, and more recently—Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.
While I would agree that each of those people—and more—are quite famous within the circles of film music, I would not be too quick to say that they are famous as we would define fame within our society’s immediate cultural definition of the term. For example, ask a person “Who is Michael Jackson?” and nine times out of ten you’ll hear, “He was the King of Pop.” Ask the same ten people “Who is John Williams?” and I’m not sure nine of them—or even five of them—would have any answer at the ready. A few may know, while others may only know if you hum a few bars of the “Star Wars” theme or the “Raiders March”, but the majority would have no clue. This is not to say that Williams isn’t every bit as influential on the modern landscape of American music. He most certainly has been. But with all due respect to “the Maestro”, the truth is that Michael Jackson and John Williams are worlds apart in the “fame” department.
In fact, the more I think about this question posed to me by this gentleman at the party, the more I stand behind my statement. First and foremost, “fame”, as defined by Webster’s, is “the state or quality of being widely honored and acclaimed.” I think we can all agree that by this definition, we as film composers—should we ever attain any great heights of fame and fortune—would be in the minority on this one. Michael Jackson; Michael Jordan; Michael Douglas… hell, Michael LOHAN (ugh!)—I hate to burst any bubbles, but film composers don’t even register as a blip on the radar screen of that kind of fame.
Secondly, I believe that if the impetus behind your drive to score films is fame, you are missing the point entirely. Maybe I should have said, “If you want to be famous, don’t be a composer.” Maybe that would have made the difference for my friend? I don’t know. What I do know is that although John Williams ended up being famous doing what he did, I’d bet money he never intended to write music for the purpose of “getting famous”. And that’s where I hope people are not headed as they choose to embark on their odyssey in film music. Like anything you put your hand to in life, you have to do it for the love of it, or you are doing it in vain. Period.
The Difference Between Fame and Greatness
I’ve made it a priority in my career to mentor a certain number of film music students during each cycle of work here at the Musicave. One recent student kept using the word “famous” every time we would talk about his career goals in our times together. I once asked him at what level a composer would need to be at in order to be free to pick and choose projects as they saw fit. “After you are famous,” he answered, “then you can do whatever you want. Until you get famous, you have to take anything you can get to build your career.” His choice to constantly use that word… “famous”… it grated on me like fingernails on a chalkboard. I finally confronted him about it. Susie and I took him to dinner and I told him, “Dude, we need to talk about something you have been saying that’s been nagging at me for a few days. This ‘getting famous’ thing of yours… first of all, you are dreaming. That’s Number 1. Number 2, it’s just the wrong motivation for wanting to be in film music. No director gives a damn about your desire to ‘be famous’… they want to know if you love the story enough to give it your all… FOR THE FILM. It’s never about YOU. It’s always about the project.”
As we talked, the real problem came out. This poor kid has been told all his life that he’ll “never do anything great“. He’s been put down, stomped on, made to feel inferior, and basically just had every ounce of esteem kicked out of him by the very people who should have been supporting him the most. It became clear to me that this young man equated “fame” with “greatness”. In his mind, the best way to show those unbelieving people in his life that he was worth believing in was to become “famous” doing what they told him he could never and would never do well. Once I helped him identify the real problem, we were then able to have an important conversation about the vast difference between being great and being famous. For him, the delineation of those two ideas was a paradigm shift that he really needed to have if he was to ever stand a chance at this career. Maybe even at life in general.
The sad truth is that many of our graduating film music students are just like this young man once was. They do not understand the difference between being great and being famous. And how could they? Our culture glorifies fame, but places very little value on greatness. They’ve confused the two, thus sending young people on a wild goose chase to find this brass ring of “fame”. Think about this: How many people in your life were extremely popular (famous) but just really not that great of a person? See what I mean? It is a pathetic trend in our society that needs to seriously level off should we hope to extend any nobility to the next generation of film music innovators, or our children in general. There is an entire legion of aspiring composers entering the fold who simply want to be famous or make lots of money. There really are. If you don’t believe me, spend some time on the campus at some of our finer music schools. I have, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes and heard with my own ears. Ambition, to these misguided young minds, is simply a commodity to be bought and sold like stocks or widgets. It is something attainable by having as many Twitter followers as Justin Beiber or by having 30 or 40 comments on your Facebook statuses. These kids have seen too many episodes of “Entourage”—they’ve convinced themselves that the way to the top of the film music heap is by becoming the compositional version of “Vinnie Chase”. All they need is their “Ari” to help them get there.
Fame is not Enough
I wish I could stand in front of every film music student enrolled today and tell them that the desire for fame is not a valid reason for doing ANYTHING. To truly get all you can get out of something—in our case, film music—you must simply be in love with the mere act of doing it. Nothing more. I’m not even talking “results”, yet… I’m just talking about the action of it. It’s the action that must consume you. Writing film music must be critical to your very existence. You should love it so much that you go to sleep thinking about how you really should get up and do more of it, and you should be waking up in the morning already late to get back to doing it. The very process must be your only motivation, your every reason, and your insatiable drive for needing to do it some more. It has to be that one thing that you do, that were you ever not able to do it anymore, you would honestly cease to be complete in some unexplainable way—a vital component to your human contentment would be absent… and that vast expanse would not be a void that could be filled with dollars, fame, notoriety, or accolades. It would be a “music-shaped hole” that only writing music could fill again.
Fame doesn’t do any of that. Fame is a state of being, not a state of process or an action. Fame is not a choice. Fame is something that happens to you, not something you make happen. Fame relies on luck and chance, while greatness relies on consistency of character. Serenity, contentment, balance, and harmony—these are the motivating mechanisms that propel people toward greatness. In this light then, fame, it seems, is simply not enough.