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By popular demand...

Q: How can I become a film composer?

We receive an email like the above probably two or three times a month. Unfortunately, there is no good answer. Here are subsets and variations of the question...

Q: How can I submit my music to Hollywood?

A: There is no single place called “Hollywood.” There is, alas, no one place you can send music for it to be considered for a film—it is not like writing a letter to Santa Claus and addressing it to the North Pole, although that might bring you better luck. Movies, TV shows and other media are made by many different companies and people who tend to be spread out in networks of relationships. The business truly functions on relationships which is why most successful film composers have had already “made it” in other forms of the music industry and come to film via one of those connections. I suppose you could get a hold of the addresses of production companies, agencies and music supervisors (the latter are companies and people who oversee the licensing of music for films and other media), but they are unlikely to take it seriously—and may simply return it saying they do not accept unsolicited submissions.

Q: How can I get an agent to become a film composer?

A: Our friend, agent Richard Kraft of Kraft-Engel Managment, answers this question, “The time to have an agent is when an agent wants you.” What he means is that he cannot necessarily help, and is not interested in helping, someone who is not already scoring films because it would be an uphill battle for him to try to “sell” (to moviemakers) someone without credentials. It is the classic catch-22 of the movie business: you cannot do it without credits, and you can’t get credits without having done it already. (For more free advice from Richard Kraft, see an article we published online around ten years ago).

Q: Where should I go to school to become a film composer?

A: The schools we most often hear about are Berklee College of Music in Boston, USC and UCLA in Los Angeles, and to a lesser extent NYU in New York City. There is also the North Carolina School for the Arts. There seem to be more schools offering film scoring courses, at the undergrad, graduate and extension levels. Whether they are any good or not, I don’t know.

The Actual Answer to Becoming a Film Composer

Editorial by Lukas Kendall

The following is simply my opinion and should not be taken as anything else. This is my formulation based on years of observing the film music business. If I actually were interested in becoming a film composer, here is what I would do:

1) I would realistically ask if I had the talent and wherewithal to do this. Film scoring is not merely (anymore) the creation of music to accompany visual images. That is important, even essential, but also essential is the ability to socialize, network and communicate with filmmakers—to act as a music producer more than a composer. Remember, at all but the uppermost levels of the film industry, the composer is responsible not only for writing the music but recording, producing and delivering it. And you will spend as much time or more hunting for the opportunities to write music than actually writing it. Richard Kraft teaches a class on how to be a film composer and one time was asked by a student, “This sounds like you are teaching a telemarketing class.” And he said, BINGO. Because the skills that you use to get work as a film composer are the same skills you use to be a telemarketer—you are on the phone all the time to sell yourself as a composer. So, if I wanted to be a film composer, I would work on my skills as a human being as well as that of a composer. How I would do that, I am not sure, but one of the important things in life is knowing when you are ready for something—be it taking on a job, a career, or a relationship or a family.

2) If I was a student, I would not go to a school for film scoring as an undergrad. If I had the luxury afforded to me (i.e. money and time), I would get an all-around liberal arts education with an emphasis in music, so as to develop myself intellectually and socially. For one thing, you do not know at age 16 what you want to end up doing. Film scoring has a lot of specialized knowledge applicable only in one field—and many composers came to film late and learned technical knowledge “on the job.” It would seem a terrible shame to deprive yourself of the growth you get at college because of a childhood notion that may be impractical. (You can always do a film scoring course after an undergraduate degree.)

3) Artistically, I would work on developing some sort of sound that was the best version of what I thought film music should be—without emulating other film composers. I would look at other, non-film music in the world and try to find interesting things to bring (i.e. steal) from them so as to create a reason, creatively, for me to have something to sell that other people did not already have in the market. Virtually all of the great film composers over the years were established in another musical field first, and they became successful in film because the existing musical they brought to film was so fresh and exciting—this is true of just about everyone from Korngold (opera) to Herrmann (radio) to Mancini (jazz) to Elfman (rock and roll) and beyond. (Certain composers, like Jerry Goldsmith, knew from day one they wanted to write for film, but managed to further the language of film music by writing with their own voice.)

4) If I was sure I wanted to become a film composer, I would move to Los Angeles (possibly a smaller film or media market like New York or Toronto, but it really should be L.A.) and plan on not making money for at least three years. If you cannot scrape together enough savings or family goodwill to do that, the choices are to get some unrelated job (i.e. waiter) to pay the rent, or to get work in a related field of movie music—anything from answering phones at an agency to (preferably) working at the “support staff” level of orchestration, production for an established composer or studio. For this you can try cold-calling the companies (hello, Mr. Google) and human resource departments of the studios. Over this period of time I would try to piece together my own relationships with other up-and-coming people so as to take whatever job I could, and build whatever relationship I could—to gain experience and build a resume and demo reel.

And now we are in the nitty-gritty of the trenches where it is primarily about networking and I, personally, am glad I am not trying to become a film composer. While your music is important, the first thing anybody notices about you is you—are you thoughtful, interesting, considerate, funny without telling dumb jokes? Very few people have the skills to evaluate the quality of music (although they can generally tell when it is so amateurish as to be useless). They will extrapolate your ability to write good film music from your ability to understand a social situation and say the right thing without being false or patronizing. They honestly won’t know the difference if your music is great or just average, but if they like having you around, they will probably like your music. Welcome to Hollywood. If I was trying to become a film composer, I would try to get out of the problems I was having as a composer and into the problems of the people who were making the movies—I would try to anticipate their needs and make them feel assured. Sometimes it is as simple as providing something before it is asked, and making sure someone knew that your feelings would not be hurt by anything that might happen. This has to be done delicately because it can be passive-aggressive to say, “Don’t worry, my feelings aren’t hurt.” The best way to show that your feelings are not hurt is to get yourself to the emotional point where your feelings honestly are not hurt. An attitude that is realistic yet tirelessly positive is the best attitude to have.

I will close with this advice: everything I have ever observed in my life, whether it was trying to publish a film music magazine or have a romantic relationship, the aspirational notions of what the experience would be like were quickly thrown out the window in favor of the realities of what it is like. The sooner you embrace the realities, face them head on and actively strategize for the day-to-day life that is front of you, the sooner you can start to achieve your goals. The romantic notion of what it would be like to be John Williams—to write music for Star Wars and wave your arms in front of the London Symphony Orchestra—I would venture that not even John Williams experiences at the moment he is doing it, so preoccupied as he must be with the work that needs to get done at any given moment and problems ranging from (I am making this up) a scene he needs to score the next day to the fact he doesn’t want to take a long plane ride home. We tend to experience romance as a sense of abstract anticipation, briefly upon the moment it happens, and then in retrospect—by which time we are interested in the next thing. If you want to become a film composer, plan on putting more of an emphasis on networking than you might think, but keep a positive attitude and take the long view of the career you are trying to build.

If you are still interested in film composing and plan on moving to Los Angeles, you are welcome to contact me (email is better than the telephone), although I will not be able to get you a job. If you want me to listen to your music, I can do that, but please, not more than a track or two (send a URL of an MP3 I can visit—please do not clog my inbox with large music files) and remember, when I tell you my opinion, it doesn’t mean anything.

The Adventure Continues

I showed this file to Richard Kraft to make sure it was consistent with what he considered to be good advice. He said it was and added the following:

“I might suggest a proactive step would be to work on films (not as a composer). Any film, student or low budget—that isn’t the point. Composing is a solo sport like skateboarding, while filmmaking is a team sport like basketball. Spending time on a film set would really open a composer’s eyes to what the real needs, energy and environment that exists in actual filmmaking collaboration. When a composer switches from a ‘me vs. them’ mentality to seeing themselves as part of an overall team, he is that much closer to being someone other filmmakers can connect with.”

Richard adds, as well:

“Be interested in films. It is shocking how few of my film composing students at USC have any real love or passion for movies. I guarantee the directors and producers they will be working with live and breathe cinema. Also having a healthy understanding of the politics of show business goes a long way in knowing how to navigate the tricky waters of being a film composer.”

I’ll close with one parting anecdote. I remember around 1994 being contacted by a young man who had recently finished at USC and had an interesting background as both a film editor and a composer, but the latter was his true passion. He had edited and scored an obscure, virtually unreleased film called Public Access and had recently gotten a rather bizarre assignment to re-score the classic John Wayne western McLintock! when a video company needed to replace (legally) the original music by Frank De Vol. I think he had contacted me in case it might be something we would want to cover—it was, by all accounts, an unusual circumstance. I remember his McLintock! score had to be synthesized (for budgetary reasons) and it did not set my world on fire—or his, for that matter. He was thoughtful, passionate, deeply knowledgeable and quite excited about an upcoming project he was doing for the Public Access director called The Usual Suspects. Well, people in the know can see where this is going: He is John Ottman and he has since edited and scored Singer’s films such as X2, Superman Returns and Valkyrie and composed the music for a host of other pictures; his work is critically acclaimed, commercially successful and widely enjoyed by soundtrack collectors. He is represented by Richard Kraft. Of this writing, I saw him last weekend and he is essentially the same nice, smart and considerate fellow who called me in 1994. The moral of the story? People do become successful; it doesn’t hurt to know the next big director in film school; and having a positive, thoughtful personality—and being nice whether you are talking a fanzine-publishing college kid or the head of a studio—will do wonders for your career. And for that matter, your life. 

Want to discuss this article? See the thread at our message board.

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Comments (12):Log in or register to post your own comments
Wow I feel very confident about this blog...the only thing I disagree with is the statement, "16 year olds do not know what they want to do". I happen to be 16 and I am one of the only people I know that aspire to be a composer...It has always been my dream to either hear my compositions in a movie or on the radio. I went to the Orange County School of the Arts (OCHSA) for over 3 years for piano. I literally fell in love with music theory, I find myself to be very good at it and have a natural taste for it. USC used to be my dream school as it also my fathers alma mater, but I have been more interested in Berklee school of music. If you take interest in this comment I would love an e-mail for further guidelines to follow. I've switched schools almost every two years and I make friends with the majority of people so I believe that networking will be an easy task when I get older. I'm also positive that I will eventually build strong relations with people of musical power, and if you could possibly help with my progress please by all means feel free to introduce my name to powerful musical composers. My name is nelson and my e-mail is taztrexx@yahoo.com

Welcome to the FSM board, nelson. I admire your confidence and drive, and wish you the best in your artistic and professional endeavors.

This is a very helpful blog, thanks. I do think, speaking as a musician, that it is probably not reasonable to think that all the great musicians are in music school, nor are all the great potential filmmakers in film school. John Coltrane didn't go to music school and Miles Davis lasted about five minutes at Julliard before he realized that it was too inhibiting for him. The "jazz" that exists as jazz in the jazz schools on college campuses has absolutely zero passion, you might as well put it over with the science requirements. Universities in general have a tendency to want to "standardize" people into boxes. Kids go to college and take classes to pass the time and take classes not because they have any real passion but because they don't know what else to do.

I'm certain that only a very small percentage of the kids in the film departments throughout the country have any real talent, and they have their talent regardless of anything they're learning in school. I'm not saying that a film department has nothing to provide, but academics should be under no illusion that the best students are in their class because of some ridiculous SAT test, or because they were able to afford the tuition. Conversely, talented students that happen to be there studying film should be under no illusion that they are going to be great filmmakers because of some course of study. Colleges are businesses and there will never come a day when all great art is produced within the walls of a university. Innovation by its very nature is not the product of an institution. It's essence is a little more eternal.

So I would say to that 16 year old young man who has always wanted to be a great filmmaker, that you will be a great filmmaker whether you go to film school or not. It's in you and that's a rare commodity and don't let anyone any institution rob you of your passion.

I advise people to stay in school or go to school because I think it's responsible. I think it's far more likely that people would later lose interest in music professionally, or not make it and need something to fall back on, as oppose to turn out to be a genius like Coltrane or Miles who might be stifled by an academic environment. Really: these are people's lives and while I am hesitant to give them any advice at all, it might as well be responsible advice.

Lukas

I think it's hard to make money out of any kind of music these days, let alone make a living. I think Lukas is right, get the best education you can, & do it as a hobby, & see what pans out.




I agree with Lukas, go to school and have something to fall back on in case you change your mind or things don't go the way you had planned or hoped.

There are plenty of established composers who have a hard time getting work for whatever reasons.


Wow I feel very confident about this blog...the only thing I disagree with is the statement, "16 year olds do not know what they want to do". I happen to be 16 and I am one of the only people I know that aspire to be a composer...It has always been my dream to either hear my compositions in a movie or on the radio. I went to the Orange County School of the Arts (OCHSA) for over 3 years for piano. I literally fell in love with music theory, I find myself to be very good at it and have a natural taste for it. USC used to be my dream school as it also my fathers alma mater, but I have been more interested in Berklee school of music. If you take interest in this comment I would love an e-mail for further guidelines to follow. I've switched schools almost every two years and I make friends with the majority of people so I believe that networking will be an easy task when I get older. I'm also positive that I will eventually build strong relations with people of musical power, and if you could possibly help with my progress please by all means feel free to introduce my name to powerful musical composers. My name is nelson and my e-mail is taztrexx@yahoo.com

Good for you! I know exactly how you feel-- I am 15 and I aspire to become a soundtrack composer-- music is so incredible and I think that it really enhances a movie. Good luck!

Go with your dream , young man, don't let anybody tell you otherwise , they don't really know you, only you know you,if you really love something go for it, because if you make it you will spend your life doing something to make a living you love and that is one of the most happiest thing you can do in life, besides finding a great mate or kids etc etc.never listen to people who don't have dreams, they will always try to destroy or keep you away from your dreams, look to people who have dreams, if they are honest they will tell you even though there are tough roads one will go down along with the great ones, it is the very core of your existence, i always loved the lyrics from Ruby tuesday, lose your dreams and you will lose your mind, HOW TRUE.GOOD LUCK, REMEMBER IF YOU FALL, JUMP RIGHT BACK UP, IT IS ALL PART OF LIFE, A DREAM MUST HAVE IT'S REALISTIC ASPECTS, THERE WILL BE MUCH PAIN BUT MUCH PLEASURE AND A POSSIBLE GLORY.

Remember

Charles Ives was also an accountant

Jerry Goldsmith was basically a secretary at one time (or writers assistant)

I thought I heard one time that Benny Herrmann made monocles in his dads eye shop

Rozsa, Raksin and Bernstein were all teachers


anyway you get the picture

Message received; I am 51 and I am only now planning a career change into music scoring, which could be total mandess but at 51 you can be 16 again, I reckon! I think the article was realistic if a tad old-gashioned; social networking is important, so also is a youtube channel; of course, ideally you should not upload your fim score effort over a copyrighted film clip, I know a very good composer who created her own spacey trippy videos to accompany her music, built a large following on youtube by airing her excellent sci-fi soundscapes for free, and she is now working ... you never know who might be watching your channel!
The latest wisdom is to gain a following on iTunes or youtube - the same as getting your first novel on lulu.com - and then building a following online, which can convince publishers of your worth.

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