By popular demand...
UPDATE January 2018: I wrote this article a decade ago and from time to time people have written me asking for advice or to listen to their music. As time has gone on, I simply haven't been able to give people meaningful feedback—my apologies.
However, composers and other music professionals, please visit this outstanding site, https://perspectiveforum.net, with a related Facebook forum that is the single best place to find career advice, discussions, feedback and more. Thanks!
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.