I frequently get emails from burgeoning composers and new Los Angeles transplants either looking for a composer assistant position or just advice on breaking into the industry. I often agree to meet them (usually over lunch) and invariably get asked if it’s beneficial to assist and/or ghostwrite for a bigger name composer. The advice I give them is almost always the same. It comes from my own years of experience working hard to establish myself in the composer world. A feat that I feel is not only difficult, but one most all of us are ever in the constant pursuit of doing.
10 Lessons on “Breaking In”
I learn something new on every film and further hone my craft and skill with each project. There are some truly fundamental things I have learned in the last few years. Many years ago, fresh out of USC’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television Program, I was given one particular piece of advice, from a highly respected composer that influenced me greatly as I set out on my composing career. I would like to share this advice as well as some of my own lessons with you. Here is my “top ten” list of lessons learned while breaking into the industry as a composer.
1) You have to break into the business of tomorrow, not the business of today.
Basil Poledouris said that. Today’s working directors and producers already have established composer relationships they go back to over and over. You have to find the up and coming directors and producers of “tomorrow” and work with them now before they make it in Hollywood. When they eventually get their first studio gig, they will usually go back to the people they know and trust from when they were struggling themselves. Hopefully you will be one of those people on their team.
2) Everyone’s path is different.
So don’t think if you do what the guy next to you is doing, you will get the same result. Some composers are at the right place (or on the right film) at the right time, and their preparation synergistically meets with their opportunity. Some pound the grind stone for years and years before getting noticed. Careers are like snowflakes. No two career paths are alike.
3) Set a precedent as Department Head.
Music Composer (as on-screen credited on a film or show) is a “department head” job. The only way you will get bigger and better department head jobs (on multi-million dollar films) is to have a proven track record AS A DEPARTMENT HEAD on previous SUCCESSFUL films. Being the composer’s assistant, ghostwriter, orchestrator or musician on studio films do not count as a DEPARTMENT HEAD and will not help a studio see you as less of a risk in the composer job. I have learned this from 4 different studio level producers. This is all I have been hearing for the last 8-9 years. Don’t get me wrong, composer assistants, orchestrators, etc…are positions to be respected and it is valid work. It just usually does not lead to a career as the lead composer. And it certainly will not give you the freedom to develop your own “sound” which is also very important in building your brand as a composer. Remember, your sound is what you will get hired for.
4) Main title, on-screen credits matter most.
If you are not the on-screen credited person, the credit really will not count to a producer hiring you to be their lead composer. This is a subtle difference. Again…working under the wing of another composer is valuable experience and work to be proud of, but you were not the lead composer in charge. Your reputation was not the one on the line. It is that on-screen, single, main title card credit of “music by…” that really matters most on your resumé.
5) Recommendations are key.
A word of mouth recommendation is a more powerful influence to getting a gig than anything else. If you get a strong recommendation from someone a director or producer respects, they will hire you nine times out of ten. One job truly leads to the next in this business. And it is not just about getting “the gig” but also getting their next gig. If the people you are working for hire you over and over again, you are probably doing something right. If not, you may have to do some self evaluation.
6) The entertainment industry is a business of relationships.
Those relationships take years to establish. Trust takes a long time to build and a short time to fall. You better be in this for the long haul. Do not expect to arrive in town and think you are going to quickly find work. It may take a good 5-7 years to start composing on films where people will start to notice you and another 5-7 to build off of that. Ask yourself, are you in this for the long haul?
7) Be a good listener. Be a good communicator.
I could go on and on about this one in an article by itself. But to be successful in your job, you will have to be a master at both of these tasks.
8) Be “production friendly.”
Meaning… don’t be myopic to the music department issues only. Learn about every other step of the process in making a film. Heck…produce your own film sometime to learn about all the other issues one has to deal with in shooting and budgeting for a film. It will not only help you better communicate with a director as the composer, but it WILL make you a better composer in the long run. You will understand where everyone has just come from on a shoot and why things are the way they are in Post (which is usually the only thing composers care about).
9) You must be well rounded in your skills.
A successful composer in Hollywood is not just successful because they are good at composing music. Most all of them are great business people as well. They know how to market themselves. They know how to work a room at a meeting or at a social event. And, they know how to make a director feel like their film is the best film of the year. I know plenty of great composers. The ones who do not make it usually fail due to issues completely unrelated to being a composer. The ones who have made it to various degrees (while competent in their craft) were not always the best composers…but were great at all of the other things. They were pleasant to be around and had a work ethic and professionalism that pushed them above the rest. And thus…they kept getting hired.
10) Refer back to #1.
Holding true to these lessons over the last few years while working and following my own path has led me to conclude that doing my own music, developing my own sound, and networking to get my own composer gigs was the path for me. Maybe it isn’t for you. Perhaps you may want to experience the industry from the perspective of being someone’s assistant for a while; you can obtain real world experience and at least make a living while working in the field of music. Again for me, I would much rather spend all of my time on building my own credit list, reputation and skills as the lead composer.
What are your “lessons learned”? COMMENTS are wide open below, and I’d love to hear your list!