The hardest part about “coming up” in your industry is trying to find skill-specific work that is beneficial to both yourself and the people who hire you. Realistically, you are not going to find the ideal career in the daily job-posting e-mails that somehow always seem to get what you actually do wrong. Com-po-ser! Not Compositer!! No... I don’t want to teach English composition! It drives you crazy. Creatives know that in order to get anything done, you have to network like all the other “real” jobs. But for those of us with a basis of formality under our unconventional career choice, there is a sort of confusion that follows things like Linkedin and Resumes, when the reality is: as creative as we can be in our lane, we go about trying to get gigs in the most uninspiring fashion. We waste time trying to play by the rules that other uninspired paths take to gain balance, then we waste more time reading blog articles written by people who think they have all the answers even though they just decided to try to make ad revenue over royalties with listicles of all the things they’ve done wrong thus far (Can I get ad revenue now?). Then, we feel discouraged by the education system that soaked us up like a bright yellow sponge and squeezed us out like an old used moldy mop. All the while, we don’t have time to do what we initially thought was our one thing that we knew we could do better than most. Maybe I’m just regurgitating the wine I’ve made from sour grape after sour grape, or maybe the patterns have become clearer with age. Though, I seldom believe there is a cookie-cut means to get what you want out of life, I now know some of the things I’ve done wrong, and I hope that the people freaking out about the future can benefit from these stories.
Devil's in the Details
I was at a networking meeting a while back, and I met a fairly well-off composer who decided to imbue me with a few nuggets of wisdom. Here is an abridged version of our conversation:
Seasoned Composer: What do you do?
Me: I am a composer.
SC: What kind?
Me: Film Composer.
SC: What kind?
SC: Wrong answer.
Then, he proceeds to sigh and scold me for not knowing exactly who I am in this mix. Like I need another existential crisis... I had the same moment happen to me in an undergrad counterpoint class. I ended up using a lot of 6th chords in a piece and my teacher pretty much told me in the middle of class that I clearly don’t know what to feel since I was being “harmonically aloof.” Take that, ex-girlfriends who used to call me sensitive! Haha! I’m dead inside! Wait... That can’t be good.
They'll Put A Chameleon Anywhere
I had another moment where I met an assistant to a huge film composer. We got drinks and I picked his brain, then he asked me what I can do:
Me: Well I have a Bachelors in contemporary writing and production. A Masters in composition. I taught audio tech for about six years, interned and worked in studios, wrote songs for multiple bands and ensembles, did music journalism...
Assistant Composer: Whoa... there’s your problem. You can do everything, but that doesn’t send the right message to people because they won’t connect you with the thing you want to do, they’ll put a chameleon anywhere. What do you want to be known for?
AC: What kind?
Me: The kind that pays the bills.
(We both laugh as we cry a little on the inside)
He had a point, as well as a job, which I was jealous of. I want to tell you I heeded his warnings, but I didn’t. Because a brother needs to eat. But a brother doesn’t want to compromise the point of his moving all the way to the other side of the country. So, I sought out local film groups, fell back on the kind of work that I could do in passing: Sound editing and operations, and snuck in a nugget of music here and there since. Here’s the thing about that. When you start seeing a little bit of money trickle in, it is very easy to stay in that spot for a long time. It’s what the French call Le Compromise. But even when your wallet is half-thanking you for feeding it crumbs, and your body is castigating and hugging you for having the health insurance needed to function as something more than a half-played JENGA board, you feel empty. You feel this looming shadow of wasted potential. So, what do you do? Where is the compromise? Truthfully, most composers (and general musicians, actually) have a day job. They teach. They do real estate. They dog walk. Then they write when they can while trying to not let life get in the way. But herein lies MY problem: I can easily do that. I can jump back into hotels, be a professor again, whatever the case... but the schedule of a composer is not the same as a schedule for a performer. You can take gigs at night and still have the semblance of a normal life during the day. When the phone rings for a composer, it's always a bad time, and your always needing the paycheck, and it's a scurrying motion to get things done to not only maintain a good relationship but also stay mildly interesting.
A week for me can look like this:
Monday: No Calls
Tuesday: No Calls
Wednesday: crying myself to sleep over unpaid bills. No Calls
Thursday-Friday: "Hey we need you to write the underscore for this, we need it tomorrow. Write all night, fall asleep on table, get coffee and work while drinking coffee, think about what I need to finish on the walk back, mercilessly sync my notes, and then make a broadcast worthy mockup, send it in before the clock strikes twelve. Get told that my work needs tweaking/or it gets accepted and then I get told my hard work can't be paid in full.
Saturday: No Calls
Its hard to have a normal life when you are on-call at any moment. But writing music IS life to me. No doubt, every odd job I've ever had has contributed to the kind of person I am. But I always attribute it to how it has and will make me a better composer.
Finding Music Everywhere
Before Berklee, I was a snot-nosed kid working on two Associate degrees at a local community college. I was forced to take a few history courses, and lamented about how irrelevant topics like: Martin Luther's fight with Catholic Indulgences, or Roman battle strategies, or endless articles on who painters and sculptors were. We barely covered anything on music. I had a teacher who took special interest in me and told me that my problem was that I couldn't find music in everything I was poised to learn about, and if I just opened my mind a bit, it would help in the long run. He then would side-bar me from time to time and ask what song could describe certain historical events and characters we were covering. Then he told me to write music that could best describe how a person reading about said historical things could relate to it. I didn't know it then, but he was pretty much telling me how to be a commercial composer without any music lessons. He was encouraging me to find music in visuals, empathize with those that read and wrote history, and gain a scholarly perspective that could contribute to society for the better. This seems a little out of the subject, but the reason this story is important is because even when I compromise my composition skills in favor of cash as a sound operator/ editor, I am still always whispering my top skills to my peers, who eventually take a chance on me from that angle. When I do dialogue scrubbing, I am always looking at the best way to showcase the human voice with presence and character for the next vocal project I have to write. When I do sound design, I flex my musicality with things that are anything but musical. The foley studio is my orchestral pit. The shot list is my score. My cues are physically manifested into on-axis boom pickup. Then when the job is done, and I have enough cash for rent, I take what I learn, and make something more different than the last thing musically. The only thing about doing that is I can end up scoring a writing gig while balancing sound mixing and sound operations, and I have to push myself extra hard to not let my other jobs take away from the experience of writing the music. I'm not going to lie, it is hit or miss a lot of the time.
Practicing What You Preach
When I first moved to California. I panicked. I thought I had to be traditional and seek out my market through job apps like Indeed and Glassdoor. It should've been easy considering my experience and education spoke for itself, right? Wrong! I spent the better part of every day writing cover letters, and tweaking resumes to no sort of response. It bothered me. But, then I got into a habit of writing a short piece of music every time I got rejected. I stopped holding the schools I went to accountable for my lack of work because I realized that is not what they are meant to do. They are meant to teach you what you need to know so you don't look like an asshole in your career choice. Though they have networking boards, they don't owe you anything except knowledge. They don't even owe you a passing grade. You owe it to yourself. Grant it, tuition could be cheaper as a result, but the prestige of a college coat of arms allows you to get a smirk here and there when in the right place, at the right time. I stopped robotically using the job apps, and opted for any moment that I could meet with people in the flesh. I'll cover my thoughts of music school for another time. But thinking outside the score has allowed me to engage with more people than anticipated. I've spoken my mind on scripts, camera shots, business dealings, and acting performances, and I've always come from an honest and direct place. Most importantly, I've managed to adapt my musical skills to my guttural instincts when approached about things that are out of my scope. If I don't hear music in your log line, then we got a problem. If I don't see a cadence to your performance, perfect authentic or not, we have a problem. This is where I tell you I am super successful because of it. But I'm not. I barely make rent, and I am consistently trying to pull attention in a place that has already been stretched thin. But, I am more self-aware of my skills and motivations than I've ever been before. It's good to know one's value and be able to use it in a unique way. It's also good to know I've been right about myself since I was a kid. I always said I was going to be a professional musician. I always said I would move to California. Now, like a mantra, I keep telling myself that these certainties I've always had will lead me to the kind of balance needed to sustain myself, and hopefully a family one day.
Be The Cable
The job apps don't know your value. You do. While you waste time scratching your head about how to list out your performances and freelance work on a profile made for any other occupation but yours, or wondering why your primary instrument is unable to be selected in a list of skills, you could be putting yourself out there. You've spent this crazy amount of time trying to entertain strangers with your art, and you are good at it. Now, spin it, and make those strangers know your value and skill. I can't promise you will be successful, nor do I know your current state. I can't speak for your experience. You might be living the dream. Then again, you might be living the dream deferred. I can say that if you are lucky enough to know where your skills are best used and have been trying to pursue it but feel a little exhausted, uninspired, or just stagnant, that you aren't alone. If you are stuck in a rut, find the music you want to make in all the things you do (even if music isn't your thing, read between those lines). Remember, that you are a composer of life. You get to balance tension with release. You get to play with harmony and dissonance. Some parts of you sound better as a solo, while others are better Tutti.
The goal is: to be as creative in what you do day to day as you are when you put on the cape and cowl of the musician. This allows you to treat every conversation you have with a stranger about music to be a networking event. This makes a frivolous social media post into a marketing ploy of your brand. It makes every show you've binged on Netflix and every match you played on Smash Brothers research and development. You just need to hear the music.
When I taught Intro to Audio Tech class, I had to train people on how to properly roll cables. The over-under technique is a standard for all techs. Before I would show them the steps, I would always tell them that no matter how knotted the cables seemed, they want to be rolled properly. One end will always want to curl in the way to make it easy to exist. I'd tell them to think of it like their own lives. Nobody ever starts off wanting to be disorganized and tied in endless time-consuming knots. No... you want balance. Be the cable. You make a wrong turn, and the cable will won't pay out right, but its not useless (yet), it just takes time to get back into a state of usefulness.