So, you want to be a composer? Congrats! I’ll have to admit that it takes a lot of courage to follow your passion because compared to the other conventional careers, this is still considered uncharted territory shrouded in uncertainty and unpredictability. You can easily find award winning veteran composers giving advice all over the internet and in real life, they are good at raising spirits and giving hope, but are usually not specific and rarely practical, in my opinion.
More often than not, aspiring composers often find themselves not knowing where to start and what their available options are. Even working composers often find themselves hitting dead ends and not able to advance their careers to the heights they deserve to be at.
The following are what I believe are the 6 most important steps to being a successful composer:
Step 1: Understanding yourself
Deciding to be a composer is the easiest part. Given the vast online resources and easily accessible/inexpensive tools, even an 8 year old can be a composer. All it takes is a burning desire, some role models and a little tech savviness. But, as with most things in life, it’s a little simplistic to just generalize without factoring other practical considerations.
There are many types of composers, a “I can write anything” type versatile composer, a film composer, tv composer, video game composer, advertising composer, a traditional manuscript scribbling composer, a digital composer etc etc
I’ve seen many instances where people who think they want to be composers, but ended up figuring out that they are in fact not wanting to be composers. Instead, they end up being an arranger, midi-mockup programmer, sound designer or even audio engineer among others.
There’s nothing wrong in making a couple twist and turns during our long career journey - As a matter of fact, that’s what happened to me! The sooner you find out which path works for you, you’ll have the added advantage of planning and execution way sooner than any of your peers and potential competitors.
That is why, step #1 is to understand yourself and what you envision yourself to become. Take some time for deep thoughts and some soul searching. The sooner you can answer this question, the sooner you can plan out your career path to achieve the successes you so greatly desire and deserve.
Step 2: Understanding the market
This step is what most aspiring composers almost NEVER take into consideration - As a matter of fact, it is the primary cause why many talented composers never make it. Understanding the market you wish to operate in is crucial to your success - I’d say it’s just as important as your compositional craft or possibly more important. I know many “average” composers who do really well because of their understanding of the market and a great many talented composers who never get work because of their lack of understanding about the market.
The problem is that most artist/musicians/composers indulge themselves too deeply into the art and craft and neglect the business aspects altogether - I partly blame institutions for the lack of mandatory market/business related awareness. There’s nothing wrong in being heavily indulged into your craft - It just shows you’re passionate, and that’s good! But what’s really important is the need to strike a balance with the other aspects.
Step 3: Understanding the “composition” of a successful composer.
A successful composer’s career is composed of the following aspects of this pie chart:
Based on personal experience and study of other successful composers, a composer’s career can be measured by 4 primary indicators: Compositional Skills, Versatility, Network and Business Savviness.
Notice how the 2 largest portions have nothing to do with music itself? That’s because just like any commercial transaction, music is a product - Your product, and you’re the salesperson tasked with selling it. You may have the best product in the world, but if you lack the skills to entice people into buying, it doesn’t have much commercial value.
There’re many ways to sell your product….or any product for that matter really.
A successful composer is one that is well aware of the power of salesmanship. If you look at the most successful composers around, chances are that they are amazing salespeople themselves. We don’t have to look far, Hans Zimmer is the best example. I’m sure any of us can easily find composers who are “better” than him, but no one sells music like he does - This we will discuss in a separate topic.
Of course, there are many other ways to becoming a successful composer. For example, if you happen to naturally lack the business/sales acumen, there are always other options such as using the services of agents, online platforms etc. The chart layout is probably not going to change in the near future, so if you know which aspects you’re lacking in particular, you can either fill the void yourself or get someone else to do it for you.
Step 4: Do you need formal education?
Short answer: Not necessarily, but it does help. Think of it as a video game DLC that lets you start at level 40 with +10 Intelligence and +8 Employability.
Formal education i.e higher level education has its merits. Professors have many years of valuable experience under their belt that can be very helpful for students aspiring to follow in their footsteps. They know what works and what doesn’t, and their guiding hand can save us much time from trial and error in our path to achieving our goals. Higher level institutions such as music colleges/universities are also amazing platforms for networking, I know a lot of people who made lifelong professional and personal relationships during their time in these institutions - I know I have. You get to meet other composers, arrangers, orchestrators, engineers, conductors etc to exchange ideas, work with and learn from one another.
However, if I were asked if formal education is a must-have prerequisite to being a professional composer - Absolutely not. As long as you’re able to find the necessary resources to self-learn, meet the right people and sell like a pro - You are just as golden.
Personally, I learnt most of my technical skills purely from trying to mimic my favorite composers, lurking on forums discussing with other composers and spent countless hours experimenting different ideas and techniques. Also, I had been fortunate to be able to attend the world’s greatest music institute and that platform gave me access to a goldmine of valuable network and resources. As for the selling part, I’ve been selling stuff since I was a kid, so this comes rather natural to me, although I do also use agents to source work for me - I call this maximizing opportunities.
Step 5: Realities of the industry
Most aspiring composers have the initial inclination towards becoming one of the following: Film Composer, TV Composer, Video Game Composer
Most aspiring composers have the initial inclination of moving to the following cities: Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco
Sounds a lot like what you aspire? Not surprising, it’s the most badass prospect and it’s only normal for people wanting to be a part of the action! But here’s the thing: A badass prospect means there’s going to be a whole flock of people just like you wanting to get a piece of it. Don’t believe me? Go to the top entertainment hubs in the world today and see if there’s such a thing as shortage of composers? What you’ll probably find out is that instead of a shortage, there’s actually a massive imbalance between supply and demand.
Reality is, the industry just isn’t growing fast enough to accommodate the ever increasing number of newcomers into the market. Many aspiring composers go to college with great ambitions of achieving the same prestige and successes of the composers they admire. Hopeful of a bright future, they set out on an adventure and move to the entertainment Mecca of the world - Hollywood to carve out a legacy of their own. Everything would seem very fun and dandy until the moment they start to realize the realities of the industry….the hard way.
This pie chart is a pretty good guide to the realities of the composer market. It reflects very closely to the 80/20 rule, whereby 20% of composers would be hogging 80% of the jobs, and 80% of composers will have to share between 20% of the remaining jobs. No one will teach you this. Some people will be disheartened when they figure this out, and most people will never be aware about this. The sooner you know, accept reality and plan your strategies accordingly, the sooner you’ll have a higher probability of ending up in the top percentiles.
Of course, it’s not to say everyone has the same level of ambitiousness. If you happen to be one of those who are vying for a piece of the upper tier successes, you’ll need to have a good cocktail mix of various elements discussed in this article to get there. For the rest, don’t be disheartened.
Step 6: Be open to explore opportunities in other markets
Not being able to be the top 20% in your initial chosen market isn’t the end of the world, as the media industries of various emerging markets are growing substantially, composers are able to leverage on opportunities in other markets and achieve great successes.
One of the problems I noticed with most composers is that they have a romanticized view of a few markets without giving much thought about how viable it really is for career growth and opportunities. The result of this is a higher than usual density of composers in that particular locale - Which is great for networking with fellow composers and exchanging ideas, but that also means you’ll have a very steep competition landscape with your peers. If you’re one of those highly competitive, success driven types, chances are you’d probably thrive in that environment while many others will find the environment to be quite hostile and difficult to survive in.
If you have the determination of an olympic athlete, good, I’d say you should give it go against all the odds. If not, it’s not the end of the world as I previously mentioned. Be open to explore other markets! Emerging markets are often a better place for composers to build a career as there is far less competition and a greater need for your services than in well established markets.