The Emerging Film Composer


This will be my first of several posts detailing my experience reading some of the most acclaimed books about the industry that I am endeavoring to break into. Although this isn’t nearly as informative or transformative as actual experience, I do feel that books like these contain more than words…they contain perspectives from those who have already made it.

This is precisely what I found with this little gem of a book. It’s a mere 155 pages packed to the brim with advice, stories and details that you’ll be hard pressed to get from a university course. In fact, the very first useful pearl I picked up (after a small splash in the face in the form of a small “it’s a buyer’s market” argument) was the answer to a question that I have been ruminating on for some time: do you really need a college degree to do this professionally? The short answer is of course “no.” The author does not discourage the reader from obtaining a degree, either. He does, however, submit that simply having a degree means little to nothing in the business. What is important is that you actively participate in filling your own educational gaps and continue to grow and broaden your horizons as a musician. University settings often help you do this quite easily, but so can developing your own personal curriculum and following it as rigorously as a college program. And indeed, university education can have the drawback of stifling your creativity if you let it. Either way, this is an essential step, because as he puts it,

I can almost guarantee that the first important job you get will fall right into one of those [educational] gaps.

Another exceedingly handy section was “pricing your work.” Here’s another set of information I would not have attained if I was simply pursuing the craft of composition in a purely academic setting: there are some hard costs associated with music budgets, and you are the one who generally needs to decide how to spend it and weather or not it is enough. Of course, I don’t expect to be working for money for a couple of years yet…nonetheless, this transition will happen at some point, and it is important to spend some time establishing a desired salary and to be able to build a budget. That way you have something to start with when you negotiate that isn’t just “well, this is the national average” or “well, I think I deserve X dollars.” Instead, you can have a very intelligent discussion about what your hard costs are based on what they need, as well as needing fringe benefits such as retaining copyrights to your work in order to offset the hit you’re taking in your salary. It was also a cold, hard look at the living expenses you face when you move to LA, and how if you don’t  have the money to cover it, you need a job so as not to let your desperation damage the industry for everyone else (or your own reputation as a high-quality composer, because perception plays a huge role in a field that many know little about). Being a good businessman is an essential part of this career, just like it was in Beethoven’s time.

The great thing about this book is that it’s about people first and about process second. And that’s fantastic, because that’s certainly something that isn’t in a University Curriculum and it is probably about 90% of the equation to find work and to be successful as an entrepreneur. This is why we are seeing more and more people come forward and claim that you can get things done without a degree…because in a business, what matters most is a) can you get it done well, and b) are you the kind of person other professionals like to be around? Neither of these things necessarily follow after you graduate with a bachelors, masters or PhD, even though it generally offers easy opportunities to improve the former.

That’s not to say the book doesn’t cover process. In fact, there is a whole section devoted to the actual writing process, in which he describes perfectly the phenomenon that I myself have discovered recently:

The three anti-muses are Anxiety, Insecurity and Panic – three states of mind to which all creative people are, at one time or another, subject.

He goes further and explains that basically, the act of courting the muse is really finding ways to ward off those three demons. One of the best ways is finding a composer’s assistant…which, incidentally, is the best way to get your foot in the door in this industry. The job of a composer’s assistant is essentially to take care of as many of the small things as possible so that the composer has more time to think and create. And as someone who has experience composing, I can say that time is more valuable to me than anything else. I think it was Mahler who ended up getting so excited when a prominent figure died, because it meant he had a whole ten days free to simply compose. I certainly understand where that comes from. This is a long and non-linear process, and giving it more time always makes it better.

This small book was most definitely a gem. I doubt I’ll be able to find another that has so much important information and interesting stories that offer insight into the life of a film composer in such a concise and affordable package. But then, you never know. Which leads me to probably my favorite quote in the entire book:

When you realize that everything good comes out of left field, your job is to go to the ballpark every day.

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