Here is a simple fact: None of us are the same.
I’ll never have to worry about competing with John Williams. I know what you are thinking: “NO shit!”
No, I mean it. John Williams will never sound like I can. He’s not able. You might say, “Um, Deane, excuse me, but John Williams is arguably the single greatest composer living today. He can do anything.” To which I respond, “Yes he is… and no he cannot.”
John Williams can never be Deane Ogden, or James Newton Howard, or Alain Mayrand, or John Debney, or Brian Ralston, or Alexandre Desplat, or Sharon Farber, or Chris Young, or Adrian Ellis, or Hans Zimmer, or Brian Satterwhite, or Richard Bellis, or Tim Montijo, or Alan Silvestri. As long as he has written for the screen, as hard as he might try, as much as he may study, he’ll never get there. Our music flows from a place that John Williams could never understand or even come close to comprehending. He could not possibly get it and he never will.
Conversely, as hard as we try, as hard as we study, and as hard as we practice, we will never sound like John Williams. John Williams never has to worry you nor I. Why? Because none of us could ever fathom what John Williams had to go through to write his most recent note. We will never know what place that John Williams writes from. We don’t get him, and we never ever will.
We are all different people with different lives, different sets of experiences, born of different parents, facing radically different futures. Therefore, competition, at least in the form by which we usually refer to it, doesn’t exist.
People talk about competition all the time. I hear constantly from players how hard it is to compete with the convenience of samples (not the quality of them…. the convenience of them—I feel the letters from the AFM on their way to me already!). Of course, we all have experienced the “competition” within our own ranks—being put up against each other by our own representative agencies for projects, always with that same reassurance from them, “Hey don’t worry… this one’s got YOU written all over it!” Uh huh.
Professional golfers say often that there is no competition amongst their tribe, but rather only that which exists between each golfer and the golf course itself. To a pro golfer, the other golfer on the course is not the competitor, but the curve of a fairway or the placement of a hazard. I’ve always found that concept fascinating and I’ve often pondered how it might apply to our situation as music and film Creatives. There really is no one entity in the film music community that you need ever have to worry about competing with, save for one… your own music. Yes, the most fierce competition out there that you’ll face as a composer is the last score you wrote. Your true nemesis resides right there, in the pit of your own stomach—the drive to better yourself. To set a goal, achieve it, set a loftier goal, achieve that, and so on, and so forth. Creatives have it in their guts to up their own ante. As Creatives, we are our own fiercest competition, our own worst enemies.
Creatives are different than other people. It’s politically correct to say that we aren’t—that we are just like construction workers, attorneys, corporate buyers, or police officers—but when you get honest about it, we most certainly AREN’T like any of those people. We are a different animal. We don’t think, analyze, opine, or expend our energy the way non-creatives do. We also don’t rest, work, vacation, engage, or “unplug” the way that non-creatives do. We rarely ever stop creating, whether we are writing at our workstations or writing in our heads at the dinner table. We often get accused of not being “present” during conversations or engaged in our surroundings (sound familiar?). We daydream a lot. We also have a greater need for solitude and seclusion and often are told that we lean towards being “reclusive”. By all counts, we are simply different. And what drives us is different, also.
Creatives are driven in a way that no other human tribe is. We are driven to create, yet in that process of creating—when we are really down in it— composers in particular tend to lose track of something that is vital to long-term success: Self-Improvement. So many composers—even the A-listers who some view as “leading the pack” in terms of pushing the boundaries of the craft—rely on their same old bag of tricks, their tried-and-true methods of creating… the things that have always worked for them. The crutches. The old standards. The “reliables”.
It gets worse as you move up the ladder. I recently sat with an A-list composer friend of mine and we talked about the differences between the terraces of the film composing career. We talked about the contrasts of handling 1-2 million dollar studio budgets versus 30-90k indie budgets, managing a team of 25 versus an army of One, and working with our agencies as opposed to negotiating our own deals. But when we started talking creativity, I ask him what the major differences were that he saw between his A-list position and when he first started out as an indie film guy. Here’s what he said:
“Deane, when you have done this as long as I’ve been fortunate to, you develop a sound. And that sound is what you then become known for. Once you have your sound, in a strange way, it’s over for you creatively. That’s all they want. That sound. You don’t get to experiment, they don’t want you to try anything new. They just want the sound. Then it is up to you. You have to then figure out a way to manipulate that sound—the sound that is YOU—so that it evolves and changes, yet to them, it is still that sound. But to you, it becomes something else. Something different every time. And it’s always got to be better than the last time, because if it’s not, then what’s the point for you? If you aren’t doing better work each and every time you score a picture, you are cheating yourself and at that point it really is just a service job. It’s heartless, then. No life. I’m not saying that’s easy, Deane. Getting to the point of besting yourself each time out is a hard thing to do, and most composers haven’t figured out how to do it. But it is possible if you work at it. But that’s the rub—it takes a lot of patience and a lot of hard work.”
The Passion to Be You
Finding your own voice—or as my friend put it… “the sound”—can be daunting at best and impossible at worst. What IS your sound? Is it something you can just conjure up, or must it come to you organically, born out of “doing” film music for long periods of time? Who knows. It’s probably different for everybody. But certainly, the commonality exists that you must be conscious of it before you set out to be original. In doing so, however, be careful not to set out to be different from everyone else. If you do, you’ll be looking at others more than you should be. When you focus too much on outside factors, you begin to lose track of what you are trying to accomplish in your own craft.
Exerting effort to be better than the next person will get you nowhere. Well… that’s not entirely true… it will get you somewhere, but somewhere is a place that you won’t like very much. Better to concentrate instead on besting yourself. You’ll never be better than John Williams at what he does. Williams is the best Williams there is. You’ll never do Tom Newman better than Tom Newman does Tom Newman. I’m not talking about not having to “live up” to the temp, or having to create something with the same vibe as what the director has been infatuated with since the beginning of post. In fact, I believe that “temp love” is less about the music and more about the feeling of the scene. (There has never been a situation in my own career when I wasn’t able to talk the director off the steep cliff of “recreating the temp”. It’s easy to do if you can articulate how the music is not really the issue—the scene is.)
What am I suggesting? Am I saying that competition isn’t productive? Of course not. What I’m saying is that competing against yourself—allowing your own brand of greatness to slowly unfold—is better than buzzing harder to keep up with the swarm.
Allow your music to do the talking.