Not Boulanger, But Not Bad

Putting aside Craigslist and LinkedIn (and I do), there are no "want ads" for film composers. Nor are there employment agencies, headhunters, or professional talent scouts. Then there's the famous Catch-22 regarding representation: "you can't get an agent until you've scored a feature film, and you can't get a feature without an agent." In lieu of these things, you are told by the wisemen of the entertainment business that, to quote the (ousted) CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, you must "always be hustlin'." Network. Build your brand. Think like an entrepreneur. 


And so, you wind up spending as much or more time working on your website, rehearsing your elevator pitch, and attending conferences attended by other under-employed composers than you do on your craft. I wonder what Nadia Boulanger would have to say about that. 

Like many of you, I check in from time to time on the various media composer forums scattered around the web. I don't do this for the sake of my own professional interests as a composer--I'm now firmly settled into the role of teacher, mentor, writer, and would-be scholar--but for the sake of my students and the many young composers who approach me for advice about how to make a name for themselves and not get swallowed up by the quicksand of this business. The questions I see posed on these forums indicate one thing very clearly: the schools, institutes and online courses that offer training to aspiring film and media composers may be doing a great job teaching them how to line up a cue in Logic or Pro Tools, utilize libraries, master basic mixology and stem-making, and even conduct a live ensemble to streamers, but not so great a job shepherding their trainees into a profession with no clear entry points. With a few notable exceptions, they aren't building a stable bridge to the industry, much less offering "halfway house" services such as internship/ assistantship placement, professional introductions, or post-graduation mentoring. The upshot is that a lot of very talented composers fall through the cracks. Clearly, someone needs to catch them before they fall. 

To make things more difficult, the schools and tutorials (again, with some exceptions) seem to fall short in the two areas of training most critical to the success of a media composer: dramatic vocabulary and musical storytelling. Both of these fall into an area we might call "musico-dramatic." It's the same territory Wagner staked out a century and a half ago, but you couldn't score a film with Wagner's vocabulary today. The pudding would be too rich, or "over-egged," as my Irish colleagues like to say. The trend today is ever more toward a leaner, more stripped-down approach that underlines plot points and gets across essential emotional values with a minimum of showiness. All the more reason why composers need to understand how music can be embedded in story. Composing for the screen really ought to be thought of as a branch of filmmaking, or more broadly, cinema studies. But we can only deal with the situation we have. 

In the vital years that I have left to me on this earth, I want to do my part to make that situation better, using perhaps the only God-given gift I have: the ability to recognize and develop talent. Most of you have probably heard the name Nadia Boulanger, the legendary French composer/ conductor whose claim to fame is having tutored many of the most notable composers of her day (Aaron Copland, Elliot Carter, Virgil Thompson, Quincy Jones, and Philip Glass among them). Boulanger was a true master teacher of the old school, trained in the European conservatory system. Let me say emphatically: that's not me. If you need to get seriously "under the hood" in terms of technique, there are people out there like the great Conrad Pope, or Richard Bellis, who can offer more. What I will do is listen to your music with a producer's ears, separate what is authentically YOU from what isn't, prescribe a regimen to bring out that authenticity more fully, and then help make certain that if you have a voice worth hearing, the right people will hear it. 

As I've written in a recent mail-out, this is not agenting or personal management. I have no desire to charge a commission or to attach myself to the success you attain. The pleasure will come from having lit a fire under your creativity. As there is no fixed "standard" for what this kind of coaching should cost, I'm going to begin with three basic tiers of client service: 

  • An initial consultation/assessment after hearing a sampling of your music; coaching can continue in "one-off" sessions scheduled and paid for an hour at a time
  • A 12-hour private coaching engagement, to include exercises and score analyses, as well as introductions to people in the industry who I believe will respond to your music and can open doors for you. Sessions can be concentrated or spread out as schedule permits. 
  • A more comprehensive program of study, critique, targeted exercises, and strategy-building, culminating with the assembly of a new composer reel, website (if you don't already have one), and a targeted outreach via phone, email, and social media to agents, managers, music supervisors, and executives whose blessing can take you to the next step. My commitment will entail being "on-call" for you over an intensive 6-week development period, and then available to you on a continuing as-needed basis. Think of it as a little like having a lawyer on retainer and being able to call him/her whenever you need good advice. 

I'll price these options at what I believe is a very fair "market rate" on a separate page of this website, and you'll be able to purchase them with credit card or via Paypal. In most cases, our sessions will take place via Skype or FaceTime. As I get a better sense of your needs and the level of response, we can tailor both programs and pricing more individually. 

As with many new ideas, this one is triggered by a crisis. Let me be clear: I believe the noble craft of composing music for the screen is at risk of being devalued by a number of factors: an imbalance of supply and demand, cheap technology, diploma mills, diminishing respect for intellectual property, and all too often, mediocre writing. I have no illusions regarding how serious the situation is. But you know what they say...better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.