BASCA Presents: Composing for Media ‘Question Time’

The sign told me I was in the right place

BASCA hosted a question time style debate in London on Wednesday evening and I was lucky enough to get a ticket to go along. The idea of the evening was to discuss current issues affecting music writers composing for media including film, TV, adverts and gaming, although there wasn’t much said about the gaming side of things at all. It was held at the Seven Dials Club in London. The speakers for the evening were Paul Farrer, Gavin Greenaway, Anne Nikitin, Paul Hartnoll, with Mark Fishlock hosting.

The panel for the evening

It took about 25 minutes to walk from Waterloo station up to the venue and it felt like a Summer’s evening. I arrived early and found a nearby pub to relax in for half an hour. I wandered over to the venue, headed upstairs and picked up my name badge. Obviously, there were a lot of professional composers there, so wearing the name badge made me feel like less of an imposter and more like I was supposed to be there.

Library Music

The panel started off by talking about library music. As someone who’s talking to a music library at the moment, I was obviously very interested to hear what they had to say. There was a bit of discussion around the use of library music in media and everyone felt like it was a positive thing, especially given time constraints on composers. Quite often though they found that a director or producer would really want original music made especially for their production. It’s their little baby and they want what’s best for it. Good news for composers! The main point they made was that library music isn’t a way to create a quick bit of money but it is a good pension maker if you can get the work. It can take years to build up a good collection of music that gets used but it’s nice to see the money coming in years down the line when you’re working on other projects.

Netflix/Amazon Prime

The discussion on media streaming services such as Netflix surprised me quite a bit. All the composers on the panel and many in the audience said that royalties just weren’t a thing to expect when dealing with these companies. You’d get an initial fee for writing the music, but that wasn’t necessarily any higher than what you’d normally get, and that would be it; job done, next gig, please. It’s a worrying trend if it becomes a norm as composers rely on royalties to give them the freedom to choose their next project instead of being forced into one for money reasons.

Starting Out

Starting out is very tricky. I should know, I’m just starting my journey as a composer. You have to be very skilled but it’s also a lot of who you know, especially to get your foot in the door. Gavin was lucky enough to know Hans Zimmer, which is a pretty giant boot in the door! Starting out as a composer is all about trust. The person hiring you needs to know they can trust you. The producer of a show is juggling a hundred things and cannot drop the ball. That’s why they get people they know to do the job or hire people who have been recommended to them by someone they trust. They just want the job done with as little fuss and as high a quality as possible.

Paul Farrer made a good point that there isn’t really a tipping point or a big break in your career. He said it’s more a series of tiny little things that will snowball and eventually get you “there”, where ever there may be. He said something which I’ve heard a lot from all the Gary V content I consume, that you have to want it more than other people. The fact that you’re super passionate about composing means you’ll put in the hours, you’ll go to the events, you’ll write until 2 am and you’ll hustle your butt off. Work is one of the few variables that you can control and can do more than everyone else.

A good suggestion made by the panel is that latching on to another composer who needs help can be a good way to get to know people. Even if it’s making tea in the studio, you’ll still learn a lot more than if you weren’t making that cuppa. As far as your own personal style goes, the panel seemed to think it was a good thing to sound unique because it sets you apart from the rest of the crowd. Write what you’re good at and what you enjoy. You might get typecast but you’ll have confidence in your voice and you’ll get the gigs because the producer will trust you.

Money

Everyone on the panel and in the crowd agreed that it’s good to have someone who will negotiate for you. Most of us aren’t natural salespeople and that person will easily earn their worth. When negotiating fees, Paul Hartnoll said it’s a great idea to give them a starter rate and tell them what they’ll get for that price. Then give them higher price options and show them what they could get for those. This lets the person hiring you know exactly how much money they’re going to spend and see exactly what they’ll get for that money. You want to make their life as easy as possible. If you’re not sure what to charge for your services, have a look at the rest of the people on the production and see if you can find out what they’re being paid for the same amount of time it will take you to complete the music. You’re another part of the production team and should be paid as such.

Getting an agent can also be a good idea but the panel was evenly split about this. Someone in the audience suggested creating a phantom email address for yourself and acting as an agent can get you more money when dealing with clients. They’ll treat the agent better than talking to the composer directly. One last thing on money — NEVER pay to get on someone’s books. Pay to play is a broken model.

After The Event

There was an hour spare at the end of the event to mingle and meet people. There was also a bar which is always very handy for those kinds of situations. I got into a fun discussion at the bar with a man named Paul about guitars and music gear. He was a bit older than me and it was interesting to hear how all his experience with keyboards and synths was with real-world objects while I’ve always grown up with software versions of everything and have never even used a synth in the real life. After talking to a few more people, saying goodbye and handing out some of my new business cards, I jogged back to Waterloo to catch my train, ready to try and get some sleep before the day job the next day.