Ten Tips for Building a Career as a Music Composer for Film, TV and Theatre

There is no magic bullet to getting a foothold into this industry… not unless you consider hard work, lots of rejection, or a healthy bent toward self-determination a “magic bullet”.

Is there an easy way in? The answer, as with most things in life, is “no”. Most things that are worth doing don’t come easy. However, there are many tried and true methods as well as some proven principles that I can safely say I’ve built a career on.

While there would never been enough room to list them all, here are ten things that I’ve learned about getting that elusive foothold and gaining some real traction as a composer for theatre, film and television.

1. Find a niche

Style? Medium? Geography? Whatever it is, you really need to differentiate yourself. Embrace your unique qualities. What can you offer that no-one else can? Why on earth should they pick you for the gig? Whilst it is a good idea to keep on top of the popular styles that are being asked for (the obvious ones that spring to mind are the Newman, Zimmer, Elfman schools of music) what is it that makes your style unique and special?

Got some crazy mad skills on the thumb piano or theremin? Build up your sound from that to give you an edge.

I’d have to say that one of my defining niches would be my geographical location. I’m not based in any of the conventional media centres (LA, NY, London) but despite the obvious inconveniences, it does have the added bonus of meaning competition for local composition work is minimal.

Because of this, my overheads are also way lower so more of my profits can go into the business and my quality of life, meaning my work gets better.

That’s not to say that had I been based in one of these aforementioned media cities I wouldn’t have made it into the business, but I’m sure I’d be at a very different stage right now. Could have been better, or could have been much worse!

2. Get over yourself

Think about it – put yourself in the mindset of a director. Who would you want to work with to create the music to your latest masterpiece film?

The guy with an ego the size of Alaska, delusions of grandeur, who bangs on and on about themselves and how awesome their music is or how no-one can possibly understand the torment of their genius (come now, we’ve all met him) … or the person that will really listen to what you have to say, feels the same passion as you for your project and has a sense of humour to boot?

Headshots with you in your shades looking deadly serious in moody black-and-white may not be the kind of image you want to project. But hey, you do you.

Whilst I’ve absolutely no doubt you’re an awesome composer (go you!), there’ll always be someone better (but with the same reasoning, there are plenty of people who are worse, chin up). Projecting an image of quietly confident professionalism and approachability will get you much further with media clientele.

Offer to demo for free. Go above and beyond the call of duty. If they just don’t like it though, this is a prime opportunity to develop a thick skin and remain objective… don’t take it personally when you don’t get the gig. Learn your lesson and move on to the next assault. Plenty more gigs to go around.

3. Get Networking

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Going to a networking event? Prep your elevator pitch. You will most definitely be asked what you do, so get it summed up short and sweet. This is tricky and it really is worth rehearsing this in advance. You’ve got thirty seconds tops before the person opposite will get bored and zone out.

Then shut up and listen. Be approachable. Friendly. Smile! Ask questions, see if you can make connections, introduce and match-make, rather than constantly banging on about yourself, your music, your latest piece of gear (unless of course they ask!).

If you make a great contact, follow up after the event with an email or phone call. If you made no obvious contacts, don’t worry, sometimes these things are a slow burn and the chap you gave your business card to at the bar may know someone who needs your services down the line…

And wear something red or brightly coloured. You’ll get remembered.

Need to find networking opportunities? Google your town or city for production meetups/networking events, or if you’re in the UK your local film council office will probably run them or at least have relevant information for you.

Social networking may give you some leads, but beware of the likely low return on investment from these platforms. Certain platforms have unfavourable noise-to-signal ratios. Then again, an online forum may lead you to a newbie director who may become the next big thing.

Think about where your audience hangs out, and go there. Don’t wait for them to find you.

All of which should be leading you to…

4. Cultivate relationships

  • with decision makers – directors, producers, execs…
  • with the troops – editors, animators, post-production supervisors, assistants, runners…
  • with everyone and everyone, you never know who in your family or circle of friends knows someone who knows someone…

Every conversation is an opportunity.

5. Broaden your horizons 

Short films, indie projects, computer games, music libraries, wedding videos… Get creative with options, do some detective work on what’s in production locally or nationally. Once you’ve found your dream job that’s currently in production…

6. Be precise with your marketing 

Tailor your showreel and/or pitch package to the project you’re going after. The horror film director couldn’t care less about the romantic comedy short you just scored, no matter how lush that string recording is. Get specific.

7. Have an online portfolio or presence

Either your own site or hosted on any of the many and varied dedicated sites for this, with music and clips, a list of credits – always drawing attention to the best ones.

You haven’t got any credits? Put up your music samples then work for free on student films to get showreel fodder, and it’s a great learning experience to boot. Attach a blog to your site, have opinions, share your knowledge. You never know who’s reading.

8. Don’t give up your day job just yet…

You gotta pay for the roof over your head, and (more importantly) your studio. Plus how good can your music be if you’re starving ‘cos you can’t afford to eat.

You’ll know when you’re ready to take the plunge, when the income from composing overtakes the rest of your revenue streams. ‘Til that point, stay focussed on your dream but keep your feet planted squarely on the ground. Don’t be an idiot.

9. Don’t give up your dreams

Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and the one thing that differentiates those that compose for a living from the others that will never make the grade is, simply, persistence. Grit.

The singlemost important tip I could possibly give you is to keep the unwavering faith and vision of the goal that drives your passion – to make this crazy business of media music a way of life.

  Be persistent, but not pushy. There’s a fine line.

10. Be Organised

Though Eternal Optimism is truly the greatest weapon in your arsenal (that and the latest string sample set from Spitfire, of course), getting organised, methodically and practically breaking down all the steps you need to go through, putting meetings and phone calls on your calendar, being systematic with follow-ups, scheduling and actually knuckling down to the business around music composition, not just the composition itself, will get you well on the road to success.

Plot out step-by-step where you want to go and how you want to get there. Then focus on just the next one. Then the next one, and then the next. Every now and then, review the direction you’re heading in. Course correct if necessary… then carry on.

Good luck out there. You’ve got this.

This article first appeared on SCORECastOnline.com.

3 Replies to “Ten Tips for Building a Career as a Music Composer for Film, TV and Theatre”

  1. As I just told a group of young chaps in on work experience: “the first bite is with the eye”. If a client walks in to your studio and it’s clean and comfortable then you’ve already got them on your side.

  2. Very interesting reading your 10 (or nine!) tips, Heather. Especially for someone like me who has only recently started out in this crazy business!

    Think I will link to them from my new blog.


  3. Heather, although a life-long pro musician, have decided it was time I started to at least try and create my own music instead of playing others’. Your “Tips” have been the best guideline I found, so a big thanks for the career guidance

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