May 30, 2015

Finding Clients as a Game/Film Music Composer

Someone on Reddit asked the following question:

Is there anywhere that puts composers/musicians in touch with student/indie filmmakers who are looking for scores?

I see this and similar questions being asked all the time, either on forums, Reddit, or my inbox. This time around, I wrote a fairly lengthy answer and wanted to reproduce it here for easy access…

This is a great question…that you can’t afford to be asking. It translates to I would like to be shown the yellow-brick road to the hearts of my future clients.”

If there were a magical orchard where filmmakers go to pick their favourite composers, there would be a good deal more working composers than desperate ones, and more to the point: you’d know about it already. Word travels fast.

This is really important and you can’t afford to waste time on bullshit. I’m going to assume that you’re serious about pursuing this - good on you, it’s an incredibly fun and rewarding line of work - so consider this advice from the perspective of someone who does this for a living and was once in the position of aspiring to it, where you are now.

These days, making meaningful connections is about ingenuity. Here’s the thing: finding free/cheap/etc. work is really easy. Takes all of two seconds on your favourite classifieds site to find filmmakers looking for incredibly cheap or free music that you can use to fill out a portfolio and beef up your IMDB with. That’s fine. Do that for a while and be thankful that those guys are still willing to work with a composer at all instead of just licensing stuff from libraries.

Time passes.

Now you have a decent portfolio and you begin to consider that maybe problems like rent and eating could be solved by music instead of a draining day job. Hmmm. You reach out to your past connections—any new projects? Absolutely! You were kind enough to write music for me last time for $50/track so you’ll be thrilled to hear that I now have a budget of $500…except this time I want 60 minutes of music for a shifting edit that requires some live musicians (that you have to pay for yourself) because man, that’s all we can possibly afford for music since we have to pay $5,000 for the special effects - those guys are expensive!

You begin to see the problem here…that’s the wrong kind of client. Important distinction: they’re not bad people, just bad clients - they’re in similar positions to where you were, trying their best to do what they love…just like you. But now you’re in a different place and those are not the clients you’re looking for anymore.

The clients that you can build a career with are the ones that don’t just pay real money, but pay real attention to how music impacts their project. Their priorities are entirely different. They won’t hire you because you’re the cheapest, they’ll hire you because you’re the best. Which means you actually have to be the best—at writing, at scoring to picture (which is very different from just writing good music), at collaborating, at taking criticism, at communicating clearly, at deciphering director-ese (“please make it more warm and yellow”), and so forth. That’s a whole different discussion.

Finding those clients is a huge part of the workload of being a professional media composer. There are exactly zero shortcuts. Everyone knows that it takes networking”, but what does that actually mean? Does it mean cold emails to directors you admire? Lurking around on filmmaker forums? Trawling Mandy and Craigslist for unicorns? Sure, sometimes…maybe.

The unpleasant truth is that you can spend weeks on that and pay thousands to attend every tradeshow in a year and walk out of it with no meaningful client connections. Then one morning you’ll decide that maybe a Starbucks coffee is what’s preventing you from finding a good client, so you shamble down to buy a brew and absentmindedly bump into a guy who looks like he’s having a worse morning than you.

You spill his coffee all over his blazer - “what the hell, dude?!“ he asks.”Ah fuck,” you explain, I’m so sorry, man. I’d offer to have it dry cleaned for you but I can’t really afford it. I’m a composer.” And the guy’s face freezes. He stares at you and you watch his eyebrows raise. You think he’s going to punch you. Instead, he opens the door to the Starbucks and says tell you what, buy me a new coffee and we’ll call it even.”

Turns out he was on his way back from a meeting with his producer where he just found out that his old composer bailed on him because he’d gotten in over his head. You buy him a coffee and chat. You joke about offering him a free cue to make up for the blazer. He’s smiling now. And so are you, because you just landed a good client.

No rhyme or reason, no prep, no tricks…just an opportunity seized. What no one wants to hear is that a tremendous proportion of success in media scoring is attributed to idiotic luck rather than talent. In practical terms this means that what tends to set successful media composers apart from their amateur colleagues is not necessarily skill, but perseverance.

Having your own voice, learning a new technique every day (no joke—we live perpetually behind the times so if you’re not improving every day then something is wrong), and all of that is just as important…but what will bring you success is having the patience and fortitude to be around and smiling when opportunity comes knocking.

Eventually, a few years down the line, you’ll have some cool gear and some projects you’re super proud of. You won’t be famous yet, but your momentum will point you toward inspiring and optimistic views of your future. You’ll be making a living at this.

Your accountant buddies will pull up to your apartment in better cars, wearing nicer clothes, but they stumble up your stairs and collapse onto your couch. They look older than you remember, tired, unfulfilled. You pour them some wine and plan an evening together to take your mind off things. They don’t have the energy to go bar hopping, so you pull out your gaming console and let them pick some titles to unwind with.

Turn it up—music’s really catchy in this level,” one of them says.You dutifully push the stereo up a couple notches, saying nothing. The music in that level? You wrote it. And in that moment, you know that you’re exactly where you want to be.


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