How to Succeed in Scoring for Film

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“How do I succeed as a film composer?”

This is the question at the forefront of every composer’s mind. But with musicians who own computers being a dime a dozen, it’s increasingly difficult to compete. Unless you find the Christopher Nolan to your Hans Zimmer, the road a composer must travel is a long and winding one with many intersections, detours, and dead ends.

The fact is, you have very little control over the path of your career as a composer. You won’t know when that first big score will come calling- perhaps this month, this year, or even fifteen years down the road. There are, however, things you can do now to prepare yourself, and help shape your career. These practices, if seriously considered and carried out, are surefire ways to make you stand out in the ever-growing crowd of film composers.  

  • Hone your craft. Remember: quality not quantity, but quantity leads to quality- ah, the great paradox of creativity! You must constantly be constructing a base. If you only maintain, you’re already losing ground. Runners don’t just go out and race a marathon without training. Additionally, they don’t progress if they’re not challenging themselves physically to reach higher levels of ability. Write until you’re sick of writing, then write some more. Listen actively to many genres of music. Watch films and note how certain musical styles or atmospheres interact and support (or do not effectively support) certain scenes. Give yourself a new compositional challenge each day- you could be reharmonizing Bach Chorales, rescoring scenes from a favorite movie, or simply writing a new tune. Finetune your compositional flow. You must create everyday and live the composer life. By immersing yourself in an experiential creative process, you will without a doubt hone your craft.
  • Network. You’ve probably heard about the importance of networking dozens of times. That’s because it’s true. Chances are good that you are going to be landing your next gigs from contacts you’ve made within your industry. The opposite of networking is NOT working. So volunteer. Socialize. Gig. Shake hands. Buy someone a beer. Or two. Offer meaningful compliments. Make references. Draw connections. Do not focus solely on one area of interest or expertise (i.e. video game scores, documentary scores, etc.). You never know how your current project will help with a future one. So go ahead and take on that cheesy short that doesn’t pay well, or the musical number for a local theater production. Cast your net wide, be multifaceted, and get to work!
  • Invest in the present. You must invest in the present, while looking toward the future. Learn the software you have, and master techniques you are not fully comfortable with. Don’t stave off learning new techniques or practices. In an industry that moves a mile a minute, becoming stale will kill your career. Don’t go out and drop $3,000 on plugins thinking they will immediately make your music sound better, especially if you haven’t mastered your current software. News flash: expensive plugins do not, I repeat, DO NOT make you a better composer. Of course they will make your music sound great, but who wants to listen to something that is sonically superior but with poor writing? It sounds silly. Investing in the present deals also with time management. Be intentional about how you spend your time, money, and energy. Ask yourself, “is this contributing to my overall goal?” If honing your craft is described as “going wide” as a composer, investing in the present can be described as “going deep”. Master specific skills that will set you apart from the hacks.
  • Respect other composers. We have reached a point in our industry where one of the biggest questions from new composers is “should I score for free?” Sad.. however, this is our reality. Ultimately, I recommend using your best judgement, and asking yourself these questions: How involved is the score? Is the arrangement complicated or a few select instruments? How much time will you spend writing? Does this request accurately reflect the film’s budget, or are they trying to shave off expenses? It is imperative for all composers to note that, economically speaking, scoring for free drives down the value of our product and our positions as composers- this does not respect what we are trying to do as composers. Remember also to tread lightly on others’ work. Don’t knock a colleague’s score- if you must say something, you might ask if they’re open to constructive feedback. Respect their compositional process and voice. We are all learning each day and evolving as artists, so remember to be kind- we are our colleagues’ fiercest competition, but also their best ally- and they for us.
  • Be more than a composer. Sorry to break it to you, but you will need to be more than just a composer in order to succeed! You must learn to be your own marketing specialist, development team, financial technician, and agent. Dedicate time as you see fit to each of these roles in order to advance your career. Obviously you won’t be performing all these duties all the time. Take for instance the role of financial technician, which really only comes into play with fee negotiations and time management. You won’t need to dedicate time every day to this role. However, your roles as agent, marketing specialist, and development team are constant grinds. Learn basic coding to put together a nice website. Create a YouTube channel. Watch constantly for new projects that interest you. In many ways these roles will become your primary skills as a composer, with actual composition being secondary. View yourself as a businessperson and your music is the product that you are offering to others. As a businessperson you must also learn the importance of flexibility and effective communication. You will often need to deal with many changes to the score, and many of those changes come from miscommunication between two parties. Learn others’ language for music so that you may interpret their thoughts accurately. It is important for composers to realize that the people we work with often do not share the same vocabulary or understanding of our language. You must do all of this on top of being a composer and progressing in your craft. Approach your daily workflow from this angle and I promise you will see changes and feel the traction.

Now let’s revisit our initial question: “how does one succeed as a composer?” As you probably already knew before reading this article, there is unfortunately no formula. But there are approaches and methodologies to live by in order to evolve and progress in the world of scoring. These aforementioned practices are lessons I have learned over the years (many of which, the hard way) and I implore you, take note. Take these catalysts to heart and I guarantee that you will find yourself gaining ground. Or, best of luck finding your Christopher Nolan!

Remember: Hone your craft, network, invest in the present, respect others, and become a businessperson- all on top of evolving as a composer.

Caleb Parker is a Northwest-based composer specializing in scoring for film and media.