Finding Work as a Composer
Jeremy Borum, author of Guerrilla Film Scoring • June 30, 2016
There are no guarantees in any culture in the world that art is going to be sustainable and provide you a good living. As a composer you might become well-paid eventually, but you will never have a steady or predictable career path. Being highly skilled and highly experienced is not enough in the music industry. Instead of a corporate ladder, musicians have a huge rock face to climb. A resume is unlikely to help you as a composer, although a credits list may. Submitting demo reels is the composer’s equivalent to submitting a resume, but unsolicited demos don’t usually get much attention. Formal interviews are few and far between, but chance conversations at parties could be pivotal. Degrees and certificates don’t make you more hirable, but the knowledge and experience gained certainly does. So how do composers actually find work?
There are few musicians who find work doing one specific thing for their whole careers. Only the most successful are able to be exclusively composers, performers or bandleaders. If you want to stay gainfully employed, you need to be a Swiss army knife of musical skills. That way, when one doesn’t keep you busy the other can. As your career develops, you may be able to specialize more and focus more on specific aspects of music. In the beginning you need to exploit your skills in every way possible.
The composers who find work readily are the ones who are a one-stop shop. Producers and directors usually don’t want to be bothered with any of the details of the scoring process, and especially not with the problems. They want their composer to handle it, get help if necessary, and deliver a great product. If you are able to take a score from concept to completion quickly, cost efficiently, and with high quality, then you will get work. It doesn’t matter to your director if you do it alone or with help. In the beginning of your career you will not be able to hire many people to help you, so in order to get work you almost have to have the ability to do everything by yourself.
Be Prepared for Auditions
One of the keys to finding work is to remember that composers, no matter how established, are always auditioning. Every piece of work is a calling card and an audition piece for the next one. Every performance you give is a representation of your artistry. Every person you work with is an opportunity to leave a good impression. Everybody you know outside of work might know somebody in the industry. Every event in your musical life has the opportunity to be an influential impression that leads toward future work. Make sure that no matter what you work on, you put your absolute best into it. Also, remember that everything with your name on it needs to represent you as fully as possible. You never know when an old track will resurface.
The other thing you should do is to be very open, honest and excited about what you do. Enthusiasm goes a very long way, and yours can impress people long before they listen to your demos or talk to you about a potential project. You shouldn’t be in the music industry if you don’t love it. If you love what you do, then let it show. A genuine, honest expression of passion and expertise will excite and impress the people around you.That enthusiasm can produce results from the most unexpected places.
Maintain Relationships with Directors
The need for trust and mutual creativity leads directors to search for composers in very personal ways, because those things can’t come from credits, education, ability, age or celebrity. Personal relationships trump credits every time. When a director hires a composer they need somebody who they can trust with their art. The two need to have a simpatico relationship, a mutual understanding of what music the project needs, and a working relationship that both parties enjoy. If the interpersonal aspect doesn’t work, the creative relationship will fail. All of the other credentials can be negotiated if they need to be, but a shared artistic vision and constructive working relationship are not negotiable.
Your goal is to make yourself indispensable to directors, and to fill their needs so fully that they never consider going to someone else. When you successfully serve both the specific project’s needs and the director’s needs they will almost certainly return to you with more work in the future. A strong relationship with one director could also lead to work with one of their friends or colleagues. Over time, that relationship could turn into a reputation within a whole community, and when it reaches that tipping point it can open a lot of new doors.
Since relationships are so critical to the career path of composers, it’s important to think about how you want to go about forming and maintaining those relationships. Composer careers grow organically. The growth may be fast or slow, but it is never random. New growth and opportunity springs out of what is already there. If the music stands on its own and speaks well for itself, and if the composer does the same, then opportunities and relationships grow naturally. Over time a career increases in size and substance. At some point a snowball effect begins and it can begin to roll on its own, picking up size and speed without too much effort. The key to the growth and the snowball effect is that the core has to be strong, because it can’t hold together otherwise.
For composers, the core is made of relationships. If you maintain and strengthen them then your career will be strong enough to survive. If the relationships are weak and people consistently fall away then it will be much harder to gain critical mass and achieve a snowball effect. The relationships are not only with clients, they are with colleagues, competitors, friends, acquaintances and admirers too. The solid core of a successful career is a whole community, and it’s for that reason that you need to spend time thinking about and maintaining your connection to your community.
Position Yourself Tactically
On a practical level, there are many ways in which you can position yourself for new relationship opportunities. The most obvious is to surround yourself with people who might want to hire you. If you are selling water, you want to be where people are thirsty. If you are a composer, you want to be where people are making products that need music. The fastest career development happens face to face, person to person. In a perfect world you would be the only composer in a community of potential clients, and over time you would get to know all of them. If you choose a group of creatives and make yourself a part of that group, then over time you will be recognized as the composer of the group. That can eventually turn into work opportunities.
One of the most tried and true ways to develop a career is to find directors or video game designers who are working at your level and grow with them. If you can maintain your working relationships with them while you walk the bumpy road of the industry together, then your successes become mutual. Most collaborations are there only for a season, but there are many stories of collaborations that became lifelong ones and highly successful. It is difficult to work as an equal with people who are much more successful than you are, because they usually don’t feel a need to reach down and pull you up to their level. In the same way you should avoid working with people who you feel are below your own level, because they will diminish the quality of your work. You need to start working with people at your own level, grow with them, and make yourself indispensable to them so that they bring you on to new projects.
The musician community is another important source of work. Although it might seem like other composers are your competitors, that is not really the case unless they write music very much like your own. The reality is that musicians hire each other back and forth all the time. The opportunity for learning is also a very important factor that makes your community of musicians important. Whether it is a professional organization like the Society of Composers and Lyricists, or a group of band buddies that meets at a bar, having a community of other musicians can give you support, knowledge, experience, and sometimes additional work.
ABOUT JEREMY BORUM
Jeremy Borum is a film composer, orchestrator, music engraver and 2016 ASCAP "I Create Music" EXPO panelist. Among the first wave of working composers to see the digital de-monetization of music as a piece of history, not an ongoing process, he built a successful music career in an uncertain industry that is re-inventing itself.
For daily Guerrilla Film Scoring tips follow Jeremy Borum: