Writing on Demand
Jeremy Borum, author of Guerrilla Film Scoring • February 18, 2016
Jeremy Borum is a film composer, orchestrator, and music engraver. 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.
Get Over Yourself
If you are afflicted with the idea that a working composer or songwriter can also be a pure artist, the best thing you can do is get over yourself right away. In the music industry composers can be artists, but they are service providers first and artists second. They are serving a film, TV show, artist, game or advertisement, and many of those products don’t require music that is groundbreaking or thought-provoking. Composers often need to write simple functional music that does a job in a very specific way. Sometimes there is a need for great artistry, but other times the right music for the job is not a work of art that makes the composer proud. There is no room for an artistic ego in the world of commercial composing, because scoring is often more like a craft than like an art. If you want to sustain a career as a professional writer, you can't be precious about your music.
As a practical, craft-oriented composer, there are many things you can do to make your writing process more fluid, more efficient and more cost effective. If you set yourself up correctly and focus on the right things then you can give yourself a head start, help your creativity to start flowing, and allow yourself to enjoy the circumstances that lead to making great art when the context allows it. As Thomas Edison famously said, genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. The pursuit of excellence is the pursuit of focused and determined work. If you approach the work intelligently you will accomplish more and find your moments of inspiration more easily.
Choose Your First Target
The beginning of the writing process is critical because it sets the tone for everything that follows. It's very important to know both where and how to begin, because both can make a big difference in how the project evolves. That is particularly true in situations where you don't have much time or the budget is small. In those situations, you need to get yourself creatively on the right track immediately to make sure you finish on time and stay within budget. Choosing what to write first is not the biggest choice in the compositional process by a long shot, but a well chosen starting point can facilitate your writing and your collaborative process.
It's important to plan your first attack tactically, and not start writing at random. You might choose tasks as widely varied as writing a theme or hook, scoring a scene, penning a lyric, attacking a dramatic climax, or writing some simple underscore that isn't pivotal in the film or game. The important thing is not the task itself but why you choose it. Choosing a starting point because it's an easy one isn't a great way to begin, because easy spots have many possible solutions and they won't inform the rest of the project well. Choosing a difficult starting point isn't much better - since no creative conventions exist yet, you might create a larger creative obstacle than necessary.
When you are choosing where to begin writing, the best choice is one based on what you will learn, not on what you hope to accomplish. Writing, especially in the early phases, is all about exploring. Choose a film scene, game area or song section that will unlock something seminal for you. The areas that are best to begin with are the ones that are the most unique to that project, the most deeply characteristic moments that set it apart from others like it. They are the spots that will most quickly show what works and doesn't work, sometimes in a very unforgiving way that brings great clarity. At this stage, even writing the wrong music can be a good learning opportunity and not at all a waste of time. In the beginning, successful writing is learning what the film, the characters or the director need and want.
The music industry is deadline-driven just like any other industry. If you want to survive as a guerrilla composer or songwriter, you have to develop the skill of writing very quickly without sacrificing the qualities that will get you rehired and keep you artistically satisfied.
The most common thing that slows composers and songwriters down is self-censorship. If you are too self-conscious when writing and too self critical then you’ll be paralyzed. When you are first starting to write, it’s important to get moving, not to write something brilliant. You don't need to nail it perfectly the first time, and in fact you rarely will. Move forward assertively even if you haven't fallen in love with your work yet. If you don't allow yourself to move forward it's going to be difficult to find the brilliant music that lies ahead of you. Don't wallow in your successes or your failures, and instead have confidence in your skills and trust in your process.
You need time management skills to create time for your writing, and you should use the same skills to focus your time while you are actively writing. Multi-tasking has been shown to reduce productivity in purely creative tasks by up to 40%, so you are better off if you don't do it. When you are at your writing station, it is easy to get sucked into changing sounds, processing audio, mixing and other non-writing tasks. It's best to defer that fiddling for a later time because it interrupts the creative flow of your writing. You could do all of those things simultaneously, but the writing in particular will benefit from uninterrupted focus.
Another good way to speed up your writing is to group similar tasks to increase efficiency. When you do one isolated task on many cues or songs at once, the work can sometimes feel repetitive and mundane, but it can also produce tangible and much needed progress. When working on different pieces simultaneously it will appear that you are making slower progress, but in fact it often makes your work much more efficient. You can also find time savings in grouping your music by mood or by theme. Writing your way through a project sequentially can work, but it is not necessarily the best way to go about it. Non-linear workflows based on task or musical content can spark creativity in valuable ways.
Forget About Writer's Block
If you get writer's block, you need to leave it behind right away, because writer's block has no place in the life of a working composer. In the same way that a mechanic goes to work and fixes engines, you need to go to work and write notes. You will not get many gigs if you are unable to write on command, so you cannot allow yourself to indulge in writer's block. Writer's block is learned and it can be unlearned. If you simply don't allow it, or if you put yourself in situations that can't allow it, it will go away.
The key to creative productivity is productivity itself. Although it is widely understood that instrumentalists need to sit and practice their instruments, people don't often think about composers sitting down to practice composition. If you want to become a great composer, you need to do it a lot. Most of the time you spend writing will be uninspired and will require a lot of diligence just like when you're in a practice room. Don't worry if you don't love what you're writing, just write. Productivity breeds more productivity. Don't spend too much time sitting around scratching your head or thinking about the problem over coffee. There is always plenty of work that needs to be done, so stay busy and keep your creative wheels moving.
The truth is that nothing is blocked. The core of writer's block is a lack of confidence. It is an internal insecurity with which people paralyze themselves. It can also come from a misguided belief that inspiration is required to write, or from a desire for a specific combination of mental and emotional states before anything can flow. It is waiting for divine inspiration and perfection before starting, but perfection should be the end goal, not the beginning.
Mostly, writer's block is simply a fear of failure. Once you realize that false starts and failure are important steps on the path to success, your writer’s block will disappear like notes in the wind.
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