When David Hahn approached me about writing an essay about my career in music, it took me a minute to narrow down what it is I do exactly. Though I’ve only been in the industry for about four years, I’ve accumulated several job titles: composer, producer, music consultant and assistant music editor. I’ve worked on major motion pictures, independent films, television documentaries, commercials, industrial films, internet slide shows and a custom project for an NBA franchise. So if I had to distill what I do into one easy phrase, I’d say I make music for moving pictures.
In my high school and college years, I thought I wanted to be a movie director. I majored in writing in college, with supporting coursework in cinema studies. I took a few semesters of filmmaking classes. They were fun, but I never really loved doing it and frankly, I wasn’t that good at it. The part of the process that I did love, though, was adding the soundtrack, whether I was recording it myself or using existing recordings. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize then that I could make a viable career out of making music for pictures and I pursued the directing route. I applied to only one grad school for filmmaking and they declined my application. I was left with a pretty impractical bachelor’s degree and no ideas about what to do next.
I spent my twenties in a series of crappy jobs including telemarketing, bussing tables, substitute teaching, census taking, and ACT prep tutoring. I finally settled into a job I could tolerate, driving for a messenger service. What I enjoyed most about my messenger job was that I could listen to music all day. I’d grab about a dozen CDs every morning (this was before iPods) and drive around Chicago flipping through my music collection. I was content but unfulfilled.
On my 30th birthday, I received a $75 gift certificate to Guitar Center from a friend of mine. I had been writing songs and noodling around with a Tascam 4-track, but never really did any serious recording. I used the gift certificate to buy a piece of low-level recording software called Plasma. I fell in love with making music on the computer almost instantly. I started writing more and experimenting with sounds. I didn’t have a clue about how to start a career making music, but I knew that I’d love to give it a shot if I had an opportunity. And then I got one.
My sister-in-law, Meema Spadola, had built a career as a respected documentary filmmaker in New York and she was completing a new piece called Red Hook Justice that was slated to air on PBS. As she was nearing post-production she asked me if I’d like to take a shot at writing the score for it. The film didn’t require that much music (maybe seven minutes in total), and I promised her that I’d do my best but if I couldn’t hack it that I’d harbor no ill feelings if she needed to hire a “real” composer. I learned a great deal working with Meema; it was my first glimpse at the fact that a film score is really a collaboration between the composer and the director. Long story short, she was happy with my work and the film received glowing reviews from the media.
Working on the documentary was a great experience, but the compensation was hardly enough to consider quitting my messenger job. I knew I may have had some talent, but I couldn’t figure out how to move forward in the industry. I had read about a music production and music business “boot camp” school in Chicago called the Music Industry Workshop. They seemed to offer the type of instruction that I would need to take the next step in my music career, but the tab would run upwards of $4,000. Now, this is where having an amazing spouse really made my career possible. My hard-working wife and I were lucky enough to have saved a little money, and she agreed that taking classes was my best chance to pursue a career in music.
Meema referred me to other directors in the documentary community and with the new skills I was acquiring at MIW, I felt confident enough to accept composing gigs from “strangers.” I worked on a few more independent film projects and reached out to more people in the industry to learn about advancing my career in music. I connected with an amazing composer in Chicago named Mark Greenberg who was independently making music for commercials. Nothing happened right away but a couple of years after we met, Mark expanded his business (The Mayfair Workshop) to include more composers and he brought me aboard.
My big break came late in 2005 when I got a call from my friends the Wachowski Brothers. I had known them since high school, long before they created The Matrix and the media tidal wave that followed it. They were aware of my fledgling music career but they hadn’t yet found a good fit for me in their business. Not that I was asking them to employ me; I was just thrilled at their success and happy to keep business and pleasure separate. So the phone rang and Larry Wachowski said that they had been toying with the idea of using a funny little DJ track I made in the closing credits of their new movie, V for Vendetta. I didn’t own any of the parts of the song they wanted and was amused that my little mashup creation would be featured in a major motion picture. But when they told me that they couldn’t get the consent of all the license holders, I volunteered my services, offering to replace the mashup elements with original music. I gave them the same out-clause that I had with Meema a couple years earlier: “I’m new at this and if you need to go another direction I completely understand.” The song, “BKAB,” became a minor internet sensation and I started t receive e-mail from all corners of the globe (mostly) praising my song. In addition to making more money than I ever had before in music, I was gratified to hear that complete strangers were enjoying my music.
Since then I’ve had the chance to work with the Wachowskis on other projects, including Speed Racer and Ninja Assassin. On those films I got to try my hand at music editing, specifically working on the temp scores. The temp score is a very detailed music track that plays with the film during the post-production process. It is used for several purposes: to give the composer an idea of what type of music the directors have in mind for a given scene; it helps the directors and editors gauge the way a scene is paced and how it feels emotionally; and it allows the studio executives and test audiences to experience an unfinished film with a more finished feeling to it. I worked as an assistant to two top-tier Hollywood music editors, Joe E. Rand and Joseph DeBeasi, and I will defer to them to explain the pleasures and pitfalls of a music editing career (I have enlisted Joseph to write an essay like this one for this website). But I will just say that music editing is a viable career choice for any creative musician.
I have also continued composing. I’ve worked on commercials and promotional materials for motion pictures. Each project presents its own challenges and rewards. As a composer for moving pictures, I find I have to be something of a musical chameleon, creating everything from hip-hop to tangos, country to techno. Being versatile is probably an even better attribute than being good! And as I found from the very first project I worked on with Meema, my job as a composer for pictures is to interpret the director’s vision into something audible. If the director is satisfied, I’ve done my job.
Though I’ve only been able to finally work full-time as a musician for a couple of years now, I have gleaned a couple of nuggets of advice for others looking to follow in my path. First, be prepared for the job you accept and be open about any limitations or deficiencies you might have. If a director knows up front what you can offer them, they will likely work with you if they feel you can handle the job. Never hesitate to ask questions. No one will mind if you don’t understand how to do something, but you’ll catch hell if you pretend to know something you don’t. That leads to my second piece of advice: be someone people want to work with. Be flexible and friendly. Be professional but have fun. Most people I know would much rather work with the competent person that they like than with the genius who is an ass.
Don’t get too caught up in gear. Be aware of what’s out there, but don’t feel that you can’t compete without the fastest processors or the sexiest preamps. Compare your sound with the competition and make sure that you’re in the ballpark. If you are lagging far behind, you will have to invest some capital. With perhaps one exception, I’ve found that those investments usually pay for themselves. Just educate yourself on which gear you need most to get the job done right. There are many periodicals out there that can help navigate the gear-maze. Read them.
When you are close to getting a composing job, talk about money before you start working. Even when working with friends, get a written contract. Good contracts make good friends. Be clear on what is expected of you and what the timetable is for you to deliver. Vagueness in these matters doesn’t help you or the process. Once you are working with “strangers” they will expect you as a professional to discuss money matters up front.
My last piece of advice: be lucky. Yeah, I know that’s a tough one. I am lucky enough to have a patient, supportive wife and creative friends (with jobs!) Of course, to make music for pictures, you need to know people making the pictures. Find out who is making the movies and TV shows in your community and figure out a way to get on their radar without becoming a pest. Sites like versusmedia.com are designed to connect indie filmmakers with freelance composers, You might have to work for free for a while, but be ready for that call from a producer with a budget looking for a fresh voice.