Composer for TV & Film

What you do in the job?

Write music to suit the mood and action in a TV, film drama or documentary. Compose, perform, arrange, and then work with producers to rearrange, and rearrange as they change and finalise the film.

You need to reach an agreement on what you are writing, how much you are doing, will you be laying it back to picture at the end or will the editor(s) be using a kit of parts or a selection of tracks in different moods which they edit as they are going along. For the mood, you will talk with the Director and or Series Producer for stylistic references.

Often you will have to submit an initial pitch (free).

During the course of the programme you will need to do lots of demos, some of which may not be followed up. You cannot afford to be precious about tunes, if you cannot write a better one tomorrow then this might not be the right career choice.

If you do not have an agent you will need to negotiate your fee with the Production Manager. There are no guides to how much you should be paid, generally it is down to the budget of each programme, but you can always try asking how much they have in mind. You will probably end up with less but it is better than asking for something unrealistic and ending up never working for that company again. You will almost always have to sign a publishing contract with the production company or broadcaster,typically 50 percent split.
Generally you are required to be a member of the Musicians Union and PRS (Performing Rights Society), both of which are worthwhile, especially as the PRS will account for a major percentage of your income once you become more successful.

Thanks to Composer, Dru Masters

What qualities are required?

You need to be a music fan! You need to be familiar with a vast amount of repertoire and to be on top of what's happened and is happening in the charts and movies. If the director says, you know, a bit like such and such, you want to be able to say yes, ok, rather than who? If you fail to know the music, you will need to know how you can get access to it instantly. Time deadlines are always short.

And if the director says, you know, a bit like such and such, you need to interpret WHAT it is they like about that band or piece of music. Is it the beat, the instrumentation, the emotion, pace, rawness or lushness of it all?

Many directors are uncomfortable commissioning music, as they do not know how to describe what they want, it is part of your job to help them and understand what they are asking for.

You also need to understand the editing of music, i.e. anticipate the end usage of the music, to make editable sections. You will probably have to make the editing points obvious, in 4 bar phrases. Avoid things that overlap and make it uneditable!

You will often produce the theme (although sometimes it will already exist or be a commercial track), and also breakdowns with differing instrumentation, underscores or beds and stings. There may also be one off pieces, for example to go with archive footage, which will need to sound authentic.

Producers want TV music to sound as much as possible like commercially available music i.e. CD's so you must have the equipment and ability to make something that sounds like a record, rather than the background music you used to hear on daytime TV. Try not to underestimate how sophisticated library music is these days.

A classical training can help as it increases your versatility, but you wont always call on it. Sometimes you have to think like a teenager in a rock band or a DJ with a bunch of disks, it depends on how versatile you want to be. Once you are successful you can specialise in certain styles, if you want, and others will be influenced by you, but it is very unlikely you will make a living if you start out that way.

Minimum Equipment.

You need to be able to sync to picture, either by capturing from VHS into your computer (and then laying it back to VHS, if required), or by locking to the VHS machine with timecode. If you do it this way then you will need a second VHS to lay anything back.

Most importantly you need a vast library of sounds which you must update regularly. Invest as much as you can in sounds, they are your get out of jail card for sounding contemporary.

You will often be required to email mp3s and occasionally, QuickTime movies, so a fast internet connection is fairly essential. Setting up a secure website for your clients to listen to tracks in their own time (rather than emailing them) is not beyond most people and is a nice touch.

How you start and where you can go with it?

You need to get your music heard. Look at the credits at the end of programmes you like and see who produced and directed them. Send a CD to them care of the production company that made the programme. Dont expect to hear back, the director or producer may well no longer work for the company once the programme has been on air. Simply try again and persist. There is no easy way in.

Try sending CDs to editors and edit suites. Editors are the people directors turn to for music ideas, especially when building a rough cut, if they do not have a specific composer in mind.

Try making white label dance tracks in your spare time and hope that someone spots how cool you are!

Just keep writing music and never give up unless people are telling you you are no good. If you dont believe them then still dont give up!

Once you get your first few breaks, try to get invited to the wrap parties, having a pleasant personality will help and then network, network, network. It is surprising how few producers and directors actually know any composers, so once you are in, you are in. But never get complacent!

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