Hollywood, CA—“Every gig you get is an opportunity to win that client for life,” according to award-winning TV and film composer Didier Lean Richou. That observation, along with many other comments offered during The Composer’s Ultimate Survival Kit discussion during the ASCAP Expo earlier this year, is a truism applicable to many business endeavors.
Film and television projects tend to be very collaborative, perhaps more so than other segments of the music business. “We’re in a service industry; we’re helping friends and colleagues solve problems,” said Richou, who has nine ASCAP Awards to his credit and a resume that includes Sex and the City and many iterations of Deadliest Catch.
The discussions delved into the trials and tribulations associated with scoring to picture, with panelists offering hard-won advice to the audience. “One real secret weapon for every composer is to be a member of the Society of Composers and Lyricists. It’s the only organization wholly dedicated to the needs and interests of composers, songwriters and lyricists working in audio-visual media,” said panel moderator Joel Douek, who has scored more than 80 documentaries as well as IMAX films and other projects.
Film and TV scoring also tends to be a high-pressure environment. “The pressure is never going to change, so you may as well accept it and learn how to work with it, somehow,” observed Joey Newman, composer for TV’s The Middle and a drummer, conductor and orchestrator who represents the third generation of the musical Hollywood family. “The best thing I can do to never burn out is to remember why I’m doing this. I love it enough that I want to keep going at it.”
“Stress is a choice,” said Jeremy Borum, who, in addition to his scoring work, has contributed to 35 albums with artists including Stewart Copeland and Pete Townsend. “If there’s a huge amount of work and a looming deadline, nothing says that we have to do it all ourselves. This is a city full of so much talent. If two or three people end up making money instead of one, that’s great for everybody. And it reduces the stress.”
With a deadline looming, said Richou, “What are the two things you need to do when you’re looking at your [DAW] screen? You need to ascertain the tempo and a tonal center. Now get to work.”
“The technical obstacles are often the things that get in our way and break our mindset,” said Borum. “Something I highly recommend is that you study your software like it’s your job—because it is. And set up great templates at the beginning of a project that are going to be appropriate for the whole project and that are really efficient and streamlined.”
Newman agreed: “I want all my favorite things ready in front of me. Part of it is doing the groundwork, having some sort of procedure.”
Legal representation is a necessity in Hollywood. Commenting on the temptation for those composers who are just starting out to take jobs for little or no pay in order to get the credits, attorney Brad Shenfeld said, “I caution all my clients and all of you: You don’t want to be that person that always gets those gigs. You have to start to think of this not as a hobby, but as a profession.”
Sometimes the budget simply is not there, requiring composers to get creative with the deal. One possibility, in order to gain experience from working with live musicians, is to have the client just pay their fees. “That’s not something you should be doing all the time, but it’s a way of building a reel,” said Newman.
“I don’t buy into the fact that everyone needs all these sample libraries and when the budget is low, we have to synthesize everything. I do almost everything acoustically. I’ve been working almost exclusively with live ensembles for many years,” said Borum.
He also noted, “This is directly tied to branding. As our brand gains or loses value, we can charge more or less money.”
One approach to a limited budget is to create a main theme plus some additional cues, also providing stems and other mixes, and perhaps also offering access to the composer’s library. “The alternative mixes become very powerful,” said Douek. “They’re all related to the original theme that you wrote. This is very good for television.” “You need your goals to match the production you are capable of achieving. You’ve got to write within your means,” said Borum. “If you’ve got just a few instruments, you can make them sound awesome, and it’s going to sound like it’s supposed to be that thing; it’s not trying to be something that it’s not.”
As for taking notes and the collaborative process, said Newman, “I’m always open to talking about changes. Let’s talk about it, figure it out and move on. The beauty of network television is that we do it and a week later, it’s on the air.”
American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers