A Few Thoughts on Starting and Maintaining a Career

Summer 2009


Recently, the Society of Composers and Lyricists was fortunate to have our Honorary Lifetime Member and distinguished attorney, Jay Cooper join composer and this year’s ASCAP Henry Mancini Award recipient, Carter Burwell and music contractor, John Miller on a panel at the Black Box Theatre at New York University. As moderator, I asked each to discuss how the changing technology and the economic environment will shape and determine how all of us will do business in the coming years. In the audience were some successful composers and songwriters, as well as college students about to embark on a career path that is at best treacherous and at its worse seemingly impenetrable.

I am frequently asked how I would suggest one maintain a career or get started in a field that is highly competitive and that can be paradoxical; capricious at times in the rapidity one can launch their career and laboriously slow, taking years for others to get a foothold and make their mark. I think that the answer is that there is no answer, really. However, perhaps my biggest word of advice is to stay optimistic and positive, because someone is going to make it, so it might as well be you.

I am taking talent as a given in this scenario. Today there are many more talented composers and songwriters entering the work force than when I began my career. How one separates him or herself from the field is part of the challenge. What we do to prepare ourselves can determine the outcome because as everyone knows, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

Networking and Common Sense. “Does this person make me feel comfortable enough to spend some time with, or will my life be negatively impacted with having to deal with this person on a continuum?” Not that I have any uncanny insight into the future, however I think that I can tell in most cases who will have an easy path or who may have more difficulty in establishing a career. It is amazing how many decisions have been made, based on a trust and comfort factor, because as we know, working on a project can mean a lot of one on one time. What does this entail? First, as important as something may appear to be to you at the time, try to put that in the perspective of the person you may be dealing with. I have come close to compromising a job or two by being obsessive about details that just weren’t that critical to really getting the work done. There are certain individuals that I’ve met that are absolutely self-absorbed and in the end, I would prefer they just mark me off their list. I remember a musician who would systematically call me the same time every month and when I finally took his call, I asked him to send me an example of his playing. Having hardly time to have received his submission, he started interrogating me about listening, finally culminating with his harassing me about returning the CD. You get the idea. It’s called using some common sense. Some are born with it, but others can do what they can to hone their skills at it.

Preparation. There is no excuse, particularly if you live in a larger metropolitan area, not to have a great education. In prior articles, I have written about the exceptional programs that are available, led by accomplished educators, many of whom have had a great deal of experience in the business. When I began, there were far fewer avenues for learning about the technique of film music or songwriting, but today they are literally hundreds of opportunities for better educating yourself and I feel strongly that a good education can be an important key to a successful career. There has been a great deal of literature written about film music that you can access even if you’re not in a large city. The legacy Earle Hagen’s books on scoring are indispensible and Richard Bellis has written about his experiences and observations in a fabulous book entitled, The Emerging Composer. Perhaps harder to find, Film Music, A Neglected art by Roy Prendergast gives a great overview on the history of our profession and the Film Music Notebook, published by the Film Music Society, as well as all of the great writing by Jon Burlingame, to name only a few, are ready references to fulfilling your palette in the intricacies of our profession.

Stay up on what’s going on. The trades are readily available, and are a valuable resource to what may be your first break. There are also other industry books that may help you find that first job. I had some success early on with a few cold calls, and you may unconsciously approach someone at just the right time. Also stay up on the evolving trends in technology. This is a little more seamless if you’re just getting out of school, but also important for those who want to sustain their careers.

Find your own voice. As I conduct question and answer sessions after our SCL screenings, I am astounded at the creativity that exists among our colleagues. There is so much imitation out there, that it really behooves you to strike out on your own and do something that is identifiable as you. Of course, once you’ve established that sound, it may be difficult not to copy yourself next time out, but what I’m talking about here is to reach beyond what everyone else is doing. Maybe there’s an alternative to the obvious textures that we are hearing time and again.

Perhaps most important to our community at large is to use integrity as you move through your career; integrity mandated by your own standards, as well as integrity to our profession as a whole. Keeping focused, driven and involved is good medicine for moving into uncertain times. Being a part of the SCL community, I can promise you, will also serve you well. The challenges to our industry are going to be monumental in the next few years. There are many of your colleagues who will be voicing our shared concerns in Washington. Many will be doing all they can to convince a sometimes disinterested and uninformed populace that what we do is worth being protected, worthy of respect and absolutely indispensable to the greater good of society. In my opinion, composing music and writing songs is the best thing that one could do to assure that it is an enlightened one. So keep up the good work.

Published in THE SCORE quarterly newsletter [Vol. XXIV, Number Two, Summer 2009]