How to be a composer for new media

February 8, 2009

Tips for breaking into the covert world of composition for new media, such as film soundtracks, TV, adverts, arranging and games.

How get on the path to becoming a film, television, web or games composer

Music technology tips by Philip Sheppard February 2009cimg05732

(These are key points from lectures I’ve given recently, and a recent article for Classroom Music Magazine)

  1. WORK really hard. Work harder than anyone else you’ve ever met.
  2. If you don’t love working really hard you won’t enjoy being a composer (and believe me, it’s a great job)
  3. Ask people to show you how they do what they do. No composer minds being asked how they put a track together
  4. Learn how sound works – if you study the physics of sound, you’ll be more likely to be able to shape it into agreeable forms
  5. Make a portfolio of what you do. A showreel can be virtual – myspace is a start but can look fairly horrible. WordPress is excellent as a shop window
  6. Specialize in something unique. A small business advisor will call this your USP – Unique Selling Point. (I got into the business by doing leftfield things with string instruments)
  7. Always work with people who are better than you. I do, and I hope they can’t tell. this keeps me on my toes, and I learn from every job
  8. Network network network… but in a cool way. If a player writes to you asking for work, it’s less appealing than if they write to invite you to a gig isn’t it? A mailing list/website with news and forthcoming events is a surefire way for people to see how busy you are. Once you’re seen to be terribly busy, this will attract more work. this sounds like a catch 22 – but it isn’t. You are likely to be self-employed, so employ yourself now!
  9. Listen emotionally, analytically and critically to everything. If you love a piece you hear, try to work out why you love it. Dissect it into its elements. Equally if music doesn’t move you or grab you, try to work out exactly why.
  10. Always carry a bit of manuscript paper with you (or a dictaphone if you don’t read music). Moleskine do really nice pocket manuscript books. Your best tunes will always hit you when you’re not looking for them
  11. see point number one…
  12. Coffee is your friend and enemy. Keep it close, but use it wisely.

How I got into it all…

I trained as a cellist at the Royal Academy of Music where I have been a cello Professor since about ’94. I had several composition lessons there as a second study, studying with Melanie Daiken, before second studies were abolished! However, by that point I was heavily ensconced in the Contemporary Music scene.

Luckily the RAM had a policy of drawing in great living composers, so I was able to play under Berio, Tippett, Messaien and many other truly inspiring musicians. At the same time I felt compelled to start improvising, and joined a quintet with Keith Tippett which specialised in ‘spontaneous composition’. At this point I learnt the value of knowing when not to play…

I’m motivated to write music that I’d like to hear – which sounds obvious and a bit selfish, but, it’s a pretty good filter.

My ‘break’ into composition came when I tried to multitrack some pieces on the cello, was encouraged to put them on a CD, that sold well and found its way onto the desk of an ad agency who threw me in at the deep end to devise the ident music for a major broadcaster… which was a learning curve, and a great break.

Pros and Cons:
Pros – I love my job. Every day is different. I can be based at home and still write and record (very different from my former touring existence). I meet really exciting people – last year it was 5 moonwalkers in one day.
I’m my own boss. I can be creative and still be working.
Cons not many.. Very late nights – but, I love working late. Oh yes – developing a studio tan (that’s very very pale) and having a habit of buying a new Mac every year and convincing myself I really need it.

Good luck…

┬ęPhilip Sheppard 2009

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