“WHAT? You’re moving to Los Angeles to do WHAT?”
That was the reaction from the majority of my Oregonian friends when I unveiled my plan to come to Hollywood and score films full-time. To this day, I catch shit from my friends up north for “going California”. They don’t understand how I could just voluntarily forfeit the simple life of Oregon to live and work in one of America’s busiest and most expensive cities… not to mention in an industry that serves up entertainment and fictional escapism as its mainstay product. (We won’t mention the fact that they flock to the cinemas in droves on weekends to sample what we are serving up. We’ll just pretend we don’t know about that little tidbit.)
I love this city. I’ve been here for over a decade now. Although my work over the years has forced me to become more of a citizen of the world, it’s always a great feeling when my key hits the lock at my home in Los Angeles. However, that luxury has come with a lot of trial and error. When I moved to Los Angeles to do this gig, I didn’t know a soul. I had no family here, no friends, no acquaintances. For about the first 12 to 18 months, I was shooting in the dark. I didn’t know anything about the studio system and I had no connections to people who did. Even though I had been moderately successful as a player and could come in from that side every once in a great while on something, it was almost always a playing gig—Nice for paying the rent, but not so hot for advancing my career as a film composer. I wasn’t coming in straight out of USC, UCLA, or NYU, so I had no residual school relationships that were of any value to me in my new environment. I was, as Paladin’s calling card read, a knight without armor in a savage land.
However, as I began to find my way around, I met a few people here and there and started to pay attention to the community happenings that were being advertised throughout town. “Film Music Magazine presents a Film Music Panel at the Beverly Garland Hotel – Friday night, 7pm.” “ASCAP Music Expo – $300 bucks for three days of great stuff!” “The SCL presents an Evening with Thomas Newman – free for all members, or $35 for non-members.” This stuff was everywhere and once I figured out how to access all of it, I started attending anything and everything that had the words “film music” in the title. At these various seminars and events, I started to receive all sorts of information and advice from people on how to get a sure footing right out of the gate. The advertising for many of these events read like a magic bullet for my woes: “Get Started Making Money NOW in the Exciting World of Music for Media.” Everyone had a program. There were schools, seminars, events, panels, expos, classes, salons, meetings, mixers, showcases, symposiums, groups, websites, forums… a plethora of “help” for newly transplanted aspiring composers.
The problem was… they didn’t help.
As I banged my head against the wall, I really started to analyze what it was that I had actually done. My inner compass started speaking and I discovered where I had gone wrong:
I’d moved to a place I knew virtually nothing about, amongst people who didn’t know I existed and yet I expected them to all of a sudden stand up and take notice of me.
How ridiculously unrealistic (not to mention self-absorbed) was that? All the time I spent blaming Hollywood for being an “exclusive closed-off” community and here I was approaching a long-established system without a proper understanding of that system’s schematics. The blame, I discovered quickly, was all on me.
I think I speak for many composers out there who are now working successfully after years of “paying dues” when I say that while a lot of the frustration and confusion of trying to “break in” can be be attributed to the fact that it’s just plain tough to do so, the majority of the struggle of a beginning composer can be adequately described as a dangerous cocktail of inexperience, desperation, over-eagerness and naivety. Said another way, I believe that most beginning composers do way more to hamstring themselves than Hollywood could ever do. It is so easy to blame “The System”, but if we’re being honest, it is operator error that is at the root of most beginning composers’ inability to grab a foothold in the community of film music.
There are hundreds of possible missteps on the way to even a modestly successful career in film music, but I want to outline a specific five that I believe will trip you up quickest as a beginning composer fresh off the truck in Los Angeles (or New York, if that’s more your speed). But before we get into this, I want to make you a deal: Agree with me that eradicating any of these things from your life (or any combination of them) is not going to guarantee you anything in terms of success. Success will only come to you like it comes to everybody else embarking on any purposed endeavor in life: through staunch persistence, absolute flexibility, unwavering resilience, self-motivation, careful and strategic planning… and just plain dumb luck. I cannot tell you how to achieve any of those characteristics—I’m not sure anyone really can. You sort of either have them or you don’t. But I will highlight some practical temptations that I think are worth avoiding… and I’d like to know if you’ve had experiences with any of them, positive or negative. Log-in below and leave a comment. I’ll be watching them this week.
Worst Advice #1: MOVE TO LOS ANGELES AS FAST AS YOU CAN.
I know. Everyone is telling you (me included) that to really get serious about this gig, you have to be in Los Angeles. That’s true. There are all sorts of reasons why I say that and I won’t go into them here because of time restraints, but the main reason is one of proximity—the studios just simply need you close to them. It’s really that simple. If you want to play in the major leagues (the studio system) you need to be able to walk into the league offices anytime they need you to. Where are the league offices of the film music world? In Los Angeles, California.
Are there alternatives? Sure. It is entirely possible to score films in outposts such as Austin, Berlin, Atlanta, Tokyo, Seattle, Philly, Brussels, or Boston… but understand that unless you are an established proven entity with released features already under your belt, you are not going to be considered seriously for work in the Hollywood studio system. If you are okay with that, then stay put and work your ass off. There are plenty of composers who carve out a great living doing indies in their own area. But studio feature composers all live and work here. That’s just the way it is. The studios like their people close by, especially people they are entrusting several-hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars to in exchange for an award-winning score. Think about that for a minute and then ask yourself again if you are better off staying in Hoboken. See the difference?
Having said all that, do not jump on a train today to get here tomorrow. In fact, that’s probably the dumbest thing you could do. A move to a new metropolitan area anywhere in the world takes a lot of planning and consideration before the first action step can even be determined. Have you thought through how you plan to survive once you get here? Living in California is expensive, especially southern California. A one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles (that you don’t have to share with someone who won’t put up with your composing hours) is going to run you upwards of $1,300/month. That’s on the frugal end of the spectrum, by the way. Food doesn’t come cheap either, unless you are super-into Top Ramen or Taco Bell’s “99¢ Menu”. What about transportation? You have to have it if you want to take meetings. If you are planning to bring your car into California, it needs to pass a California State Emissions Inspection, otherwise known as a “smog test”. The test itself will only run you about 25 bucks, but if your automobile fails the test, you are looking at a hefty sum to bring the car to standard in order to pass. State law renders the automobile “non-operational” until it passes inspection, so this could be a huge problem if you have an older car or a problematic one. Additionally, the fee to register your vehicle in California is based on the blue-book value of the automobile. If you have an older car, this might not be that big a deal for you. However, if you are driving a newer car, be careful—you could easily pay up to $700 to register your car in California. Figure in gasoline expenses on top of all this—over $4 per gallon at the time of this writing—and operating your own car in LA can put a dent in the pocketbook fast.
Not bringing your own car? Fine, but you’ll still need plenty of cash in order to get around. Unlike New York City, Paris, or Tokyo, taxis in Los Angeles are not a financially viable option for transportation. A ride across town will cost you at least $25 and that’s if you are traveling during low-peak traffic times. This city is flat, spread out and definitely not built with expansion in mind. Getting from a meeting at Sony in Culver City (south/central) to your next meeting at Warner Bros. in Burbank (northeast) can easily be an all-day excursion. Most cab rides from Santa Monica to Burbank run about $32 bucks. Conversely, the Metro system (LA’s answer to underground public rail) will get you there cheaper, but not any faster. Navigating the Metro’s transferring system (which you’ll have to do at least twice if traveling north and south) is frustrating and nerve-wracking when you have an appointment that you cannot be late for.
You need to think about these things BEFORE you get here, not after. Too many people take the gung-ho approach of “I’ll figure it out! If I don’t go NOW, I’ll never go!” While I applaud the tenacity behind that kind of beach-storming approach, it’s not a smart way to go. Take some time, develop a plan and think it through from every angle possible. Line up a day job prior to moving here. Have at least three or four months of income saved up and in reserve upon arrival. It will go fast, trust me. You have no idea. Plan, plan, plan, plan and plan some more. Don’t be stupid. Take care of yourself first. You want to make this move ONE time and one time only. If you have the talent, it will be the most important and strategic move of your life. Don’t blow it by being overanxious. This isn’t American Idol, where “there will always be next year”. There is no next year. You’ve got one shot—do it right and make it count.
Worst Advice #2: PICK YOUR MEDIUM: FILM OR TV, BUT NOT BOTH.
It used to be that it was smarter to pick your focus and run with it. TV or film, but not both. Times have drastically changed, however and virtually every film composer who is still working has had to learn to diversify out of necessity. Most working composers are involved in a combination of film, television, video games, concert works and custom library production. If you ever hear the words, “You shouldn’t do both, you have to pick one,” whether it be from an agent, a producer, or another composer, chances are that person came up in a different generation and may be operating in an area of the business that still honors his/her long-held relationships. In other words, that person has been at it so long that they have a built-in clientele that rarely goes elsewhere for music, hence they are almost always working in the same medium.
In today’s market, a person who does not have their fingers in as many pies as possible is simply not thinking ahead as a businessperson. From June 2010 to June 2011, I scored three films, wrote music for eight television shows, wrote the music for a live international theatrical production and played drums on four records. I also edited SCOREcastOnline.com, started a bi-weekly newsletter for Creatives and closely maintained my social connections in the community. I do a lot. Even still, I am constantly seeking out new opportunities to do more and to keep my two companies barreling down the tracks in full creative splendor.
The myth of selecting one course of focus in the film industry is long gone. Jon Favreau used to act. Now he acts and directs. Steven Spielberg used to direct. Now he directs and produces. Hans Zimmer used to score features. Now he scores features, scores video games and develops software. It is a different world out there than it was even ten years ago. You have to get yourself positioned to handle multiple avenues of creative output if you want to survive in the new creative climate.
Worst Advice #3: GET AN AGENT.
There isn’t enough space here for me to adequately or completely explain how premature it is for you to be at all concerned about representation by an agent or a manager without first building some momentum in your career. If you are a recent transplant to LA, just take my word for it… you aren’t ready for an agent/manager. Since you haven’t done anything yet that scales to an identifiable or potential box-office success, you don’t have the kind of traction that will attract legitimate representation. Contrary to popular belief, the agent/client relationship is a two-way street: You must be valuable to them, too. Not just the other way around. The best agent/client relationships are the ones where each party serves the other.
The very phrase, “Get an agent” is misleading anyhow because that’s not the way it works. If the agent is at all legitimate, he or she will already have clients before you ever come along. In that case, “getting” them isn’t likely unless you are Trent Reznor and coming from a successful run in another part of the industry. You have to bring something to the party. They have to “get” you. A few short films and your college roommate’s senior thesis project isn’t going to cut it. An agent/manager will not care about your cousin’s indie thriller that you scored back home in Wisconsin. Why? Because they need to eat just as badly as you do. They aren’t doing this for free, anymore than you should be (more on that in a minute). If you have nothing happening that the agent/manager can leverage to bolster your career, their hands are tied. Momentum is the name of the game for an agent/manager.
Sure, they need to pull their weight and be actively putting you up for jobs, signing you for as many as they can, but that doesn’t mean you can sit idly back and drink Margarita’s by the pool. A composer gets hired, almost always, based on his or her track record with the principals in charge or because of a relationship with the music team that is already on the project. I’ve been at this awhile and I’ve hustled for each one of my own gigs, save for a small few. I didn’t have an agent until I was well into the second season of my first network television show. Up until then, I was so concerned with keeping my head above water with a weekly writing assignment that I never had time to even think about representation. I had my attorney negotiate my contracts and left it at that. My agent found me, not the other way around. Once I was “gettable” (read: valuable), agents and managers started calling.
Being concerned about getting an agent within the first year or so of landing in LA is like being worried about getting your drivers license before you are legally old enough to drive. It’s just not where you should be concentrating your efforts. Get out there and hustle for yourself. When you get a gig, write the best music of your life. That’s where your focus should be. Make yourself “gettable”. Then, the agents and the managers will find you.
Worst Advice #4: GET ALL THE LATEST GEAR.
Logic would follow that in order to make great things, you have to have the tools to be able to do it and do it in a way that the industry demands. Therefore, building your studio—having it ready to roll at a moment’s notice, with all of the top gear and software titles at your disposal—seems like a best practice in an industry that literally could come calling five minutes from now with a request that could change your life. But here is the dirty little secret: You’re going to be building your studio for the rest of your career. It is going to be something that never ends. You will always be one step behind what the developers and manufacturers are putting out there.
Waiting around to start creating and working until you have your studio in place, in just the way you’ve always wanted it, is a complete waste of time. I have a beautiful studio. I love all of the pieces that have gone into making my creative space totally work for me when I need to sit down and write, produce, record, or sketch something out. But am I completely satisfied with it? Not even close. In fact, there is a piece of software I just purchased this morning that would have been nice to have on my last project, but I was too busy and in way too deep creatively to stop and figure out how to integrate it mid-project. Having it in my arsenal would have saved me time and effort, but integrating it mid-stream would have been tempting fate, so I laid back and waited. And you know what? That isn’t a new phenomenon for me. It happens constantly and you just have to accept it and move ahead with what is in front of you to complete. After you turn in your finished mix stems, then you can tweak, tinker and toy with new goodies until the next thing is due.
My advice? Buy what is absolutely necessary to start writing music and leave it at that until you can afford to intelligently purchase more. That might mean that you buy a computer, an interface and a set of near-field monitors. It might mean that you go spend $20 on a ream of staff paper and a box of No. 2 pencils. By intelligently, I’m talking about the point at which you have enough discretionary income to make an intentional purchase that will not squeeze you financially. Remember what I said in #1: You have to always take care of yourself first. Do not put yourself in a position where you have to take another day job just to fund your studio gear habit. At that point you are a slave to your stuff, which is a horrible position to be in. Your first priority is to write. Get what is absolutely critical, buy the best you can afford at the time and start writing music.
Worst Advice #5: TAKE EVERY GIG.
If you’ve heard this once, you’ve heard it a million times…. and from probably every composer you’ve come in contact with. “Take every gig.” Take every, every, every, every gig!” “Did I mention… take EVERY gig?!”
When the “take every gig” thing was at its peak, it was actually pretty sound advice because, well… there weren’t that many gigs! If you didn’t take the one being offered you, you were essentially passing up what was probably a golden opportunity to move your career forward in a positive direction. Since the gigs that were out there were all bonafide studio pictures, the majority of them paid quite well and often led to other work for the same producers/director. But times have changed. What sometimes passes for a “gig” these days has put a blight on our craft of filmmaking and any dope with a camera and a pirated copy of Final Cut Pro can string together a “film”. That is all complicated by the fact that there are more composers than there are “gigs”, so when a gig does comes along, it may or may not have dollars waiting on the other side of it. If it is an amateur project with no money behind it, you might refuse to work for free, but the 1,002 aspiring composers behind you who are perfectly willing to do that gig just to be “scoring something” will easily fill the void in your absence.
My take? DON’T take every gig, unless it pays you something. I’ve written about this before here, so I won’t rehash it too much, but EVERY gig should pay you SOMETHING. It doesn’t have to be cash money, because God knows unless you happened to become bosom buddies with Neal Moritz over a caramel macchiato at Starbucks yesterday afternoon, you are going to be on smaller projects until you develop into a full-fledged known quantity. So, don’t be as worried about the form of payment as much as you are about being given something of value in return for you handing over your very valuable music. Never work for free, but be creative in how you take payment. I once worked a small logo gig for a company that was launching their first production shingle. The entire conversation started out with them asking me for a favor, hat in hand. “I love you guys, but I don’t work for free,” I told them. “But we don’t have any money to spend on this,” they said. I responded, “Who said anything about money? I just won’t do it for nothing. I’m really into the gig, so let’s get creative and figure something out.”
A deal was struck and I created a nice little ten-second musical logo for their fanfare. They bought me a brand new loaded Mac Pro for my second studio room. While not as nice as cash in hand, it still equated a value of around $8,200 at the time. They put it on a credit card and took it as a tax write-off. I sold the computer and deposited $7,500 into my bank account. Everybody won.
Something happens when you are “on a gig”: You put your head down. You do the gig. If your head is down, you aren’t looking for other gigs. You are doing the gig that is in front of you, as you should be. So why would you give up other work to be on a project that is not paying you anything? That’s stupid. I think you get the point.
In closing, each of these things I’ve talked about are real things you’ll hear, if you haven’t already. It’s not that people are trying to screw you—at least I personally don’t believe that it is. But you have to be smart and you have to think above the standard that you’ve probably grown accustomed to living “outside the beltway”. Your bullshit detector probably needs a little dusting off. My dad is fond of saying, “Trust everyone, but cut the cards.” In other words, do the work of researching people’s promises. Don’t get caught up in the hype of “Make Money Now!”… odds are, you won’t. In fact, try to think outside of the confines of dollars and cents, altogether. You’ll do a lot more in a far shorter amount of time if you can break free of that mentality and instead start thinking strategically and creatively. Go for win-win situations instead of settling for whatever anyone tries to sell you.
Always remember that this is YOUR business… not theirs. If your business crumbled tomorrow, who would it really affect? You, of course. Not them. They don’t have anything at stake, so it is nothing for them to simply steer you into whatever they think might help you the best. Hey… who’s to say it won’t? Maybe it will… but it is up to you to check things out, gather lots of information and make informed decisions that you can stand behind and own.