John Paul Given


***Please note - this page has needed a major update for a while, but I simply haven't had a chance to revise it yet. Much of the content remains essentiually true, in my opinion, but still there are some additional comments that I have, especially regarding the use of technology in music making, that need to be added. As always, if you have any specific questions or comments, I invite you to send them to me at: john@johngiven.com. (2/1/06)

FAQ for Aspiring Film/TV Composers

During the last few years I have received a number of e-mails from composers interested in television and film music, and I have been compiling a list of the most frequently asked questions that I have received as well as my general advice to composers interested in getting into the film and television music business.

Please keep in mind that they reflect only one person's opinion, and I recommend that you find as many different viewpoints as you can.


What do I need to get started as a film composer?

Do I need a home studio?

Speaking of demos, what should I use?

How can I get work with no prior experience?

I have just been asked to score a project. How do I know how much to charge?

Are there any books that you would recommend?

Are there any web resources that you would recommend?

Other Questions



What do I need to get started as a film composer?

As my friend and colleague Ed Kalnins usually tells his USC Film Scoring classes: "Welcome to LA, we don't need you."

While this is certainly a harsh welcome for new prospects, there is definitely an element of truth to it.

Like all of the arts, composing music for film and television can be a tough business to break into and stick with, so the first thing you need to get started is a love of the work. There are a number of excellent resources to help you learn about the technical and creative processes of film music, and I will list a few of them further on, but the most important thing is your own desire to be a composer, and more specifically a film composer. If you can possibly imagine doing anything else for a living, you might consider whether you should be doing this.

The second thing that you need is the ability to stick with it for a while, because the chances that your career will develop quickly is fairly small, unless you are either extremely lucky (or have a hit record). This fact favors younger composers slightly, because chances are they don't have families and mortgages just yet.

The third thing that you should have is a good sense of drama. You may be a great composer and/or orchestrator, but scoring film is about playing drama, so the ability to analyze a scene and understand the drama is vital in order to know what to write (or even if the scene needs music at all).

Finally, it is important to be a good communicator. You need to be able to discuss music and the film with the director and/or producer, often in ways that are totally non-musical.

In my opinion, these are the four elements that are most important.

But I haven't really talked about music thus far. It is important that you be a great composer. You should be comfortable writing any kind of music, for any size orchestra, as quickly as possible, and it should always sound great. You should be able to segue from a 90 piece orchestra to an all-synth hip-hop track that you produced yourself in your well equipped home studio with only one day between the spotting session and the dub. You should always have the perfect demo available, regardless of the type of project that you are pitching for.

This is, of course, impossible.

And unnecessary. You can be quite successful in film music without being the wunderkind that so many of your competitors will appear to be. Of course, it helps if you can be that wunderkind, but it is not a prerequisite for the job.

Presuming that you are already composing music, what you need to get started in film and television is desire, patience, a sense of drama, and an ability to communicate. All of the technical aspects of the job can be learned relatively easily and, if necessary, you can (and many would say should be able to) get by with a piano, a pencil, and a blank score pad.

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Do I need a home studio?

I used to think that one could get by in our business with only the bare minimum of a home project studio. Unfortunately, those days seem to be over, unless you are very well established in the business already. The reality is that in order to effectively communicate with the director or producer, you must be able to provide fairly complete mock-ups even in your cue demo phase. It is also true that when you are submitting music for some projects, you may have to create music that is appropriate for that particular project in order to be considered. This is true especially at the beginning of your career when you have fewer credits than more experienced composers.

I would say that the bare minimum studio would contain at least a stereo VCR, monitor, midi sequencer (whether computer or standalone workstation), and as many sound modules or samplers as you can get a hold of. If you are an instrumentalist some means of adding the live elements that you can create to the midi tracks is extremely helpful in bringing those virtual tracks to life. You also must be able to burn a cd of your demo.

The good news is that the basic tools of music production are much more available than they were even when I first started a decade ago. You can get pretty well equipped for under $10,000 these days, even less if you already have a decent computer. The bottom line is that you need to make as good demos as possible, both to get the job, and also to keep it.

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Speaking of demos, what should I use?

Here is what I used to say on the subject:

"Any pieces that you have on tape, even a poor cassette of a mediocre concert performance from long ago, can be a part of your demo. If you have high-quality material recorded in a pristine studio with impeccable musicians, great, but until then you must use what you have."

Sadly, this is no longer true. The compact disc is now pretty much the gold standard, and I think that many music executives, producers, and directors don't even have cassette players except for their cars. You simply must be able to send your demo on cd, and if you can't, it is a big mark against you. A tape will at best be on the bottom of the pile, and very possibly won't get heard at all unless you are personal friends with the listener.

For general demos I still firmly believe that the thing that wows most people are good recordings of acoustic ensembles, because it appears to show more musical expertise than even a well produced all electronic demo (unless you are producing music that ought to be all electronic - a symphonic rendering of contemporary electronica would also come off as not quite right, I would think). But it is important that you choose the right music for the particulars of the job in question. That dance track that they loved on the last job won't be helpful if they are temping with "Out of Africa."

I still like to keep my demos on the shorter side (usually between ten to fifteen minutes), although since you can more easily skip through cd tracks that is some justification for letting cues play longer or providing more material. I guess I prefer that somone listen to the whole thing straight through, and making it short and sweet is better for accomplishing that. I tend to think that if someone likes what they hear they will ask for more if it isn't long enough. I also put all of the tracks that are most relevant to a project first.

If you have a commercially available cd, you can submit that, but you should include a note about which tracks you think are relevant. It is probably better to simply burn a new cd with just those tracks as a courtesy to the listener.

I don't think it is necessary to have a package with spectacular artwork, but I do think it is appropriate to make professional looking labels and jewel cards. Anything that you can do that gives you a more professional look is a plus. A cd with no label or jewel card but with magic marker scrawled on the cd should never be sent, but believe it or not I have received demos in that condition.

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How can I get work with no prior experience?

The best way to get your first experience is to contact student film makers and offer to score their films. Usually this means that you will provide everything for free, and you may even need to incur moderate expenses if you want to include any low budget extras (like live musicians). Occasionally there will be a small budget, or perhaps studio resources available. In any college or university with a film program, there is an opportunity to score films, and sometimes considerable resources are available (student musicians, school recording studios and midi equipment, etc.).

If you are fortunate enough to be attending one of the growing number of schools that teaches film scoring (like Berklee College of Music, the University of Southern California, and a few others), you may have the opportunity to write cues for scenes as part of your studies.

There is no substitute for scoring experience. If you can't get it any other way, try scoring scenes from your favorite films or television shows by removing the original soundtracks. It may be hard at first to divorce yourself from the original score, so consider using films that you are not as familiar with to avoid simply copying the original.

Also, you can gain a lot of experience simply by writing music, away from any video. Much film music is primarily for establishing mood, so give yourself some writing assignments that force you to explore different emotions. Sad and happy are usually fairly obvious, but how about jealous or spiteful? Write music for instrumentations or styles that you are not comfortable with. You never know when you may need to write a convincing zydeco piece, or some dixieland, or ska, or period music from any number of eras. You may discover some great, fresh music in yourself by working on things that are outside of your experience, and you will probably find that all of your traditional training won't help you come up with a convincing pop hook, if that is not already in your current comfort zone.

On the flip side, don't try to be something you are not. For example, as much as I liked the music in "The Matrix," I could not possibly have written it. If you know that you are really dislike or are not up to a particular genre, don't waste your own or anyone else's time submitting material. You will be happier and ultimately more successful pursuing work that is more meaningful and relevant to your own art. It is a mistake to try and be all things to all people.

Beyond student film work, I think a great earn while you learn opportunity is to be a composers assistant. You may be called on to create music sequences to help preview or produce a score, or to orchestrate, proofread, or any of a number of similar tasks. To see how someone else approaches a scene can be invaluable, and you never know when that late night call will come and you will have the opportunity to write a cue when you are in the orbit of someone who is under a tight deadline. Writing additional music at the last minute is a common way into the business for many composers (as it was for me).

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I have just been asked to score a project. How do I know how much to charge?

This is probably the single most difficult question to answer. Despite anything you may hear, there is no such thing as 'the going rate' for any type of project, although there are certainly parameters that will control what is available. Prime time television is probably the most stable in terms of typical budgets, but even within that realm, there is a range, based on many factors (including - but not limited to - the type of scoring, how many minutes are scored, and how much time is available to compose and produce the score).

You should try to avoid providing music for nothing to anyone, regardless of how much of an opportunity you may think it is for you. You should certainly not lose money on a project in the short term unless you have a substantial chance of recouping your investment and earning a reasonable fee in the end. And you should never assign your writers' share of performance royalties to anyone, under any circumstance. There is a great article in a recent issue of the Society of Composer and Lyricists newsletter, The Score, which addresses this issue.

A good way to come up with a creative fee (and note that I mean fee and not total budget) is to try and estimate how long you expect the job to take you and pro-rate that to the salary that you would like to earn on an annual, monthly, or weekly basis. If it is your goal to make $50,000 per year in composition fees, then the minimum amount you should earn per week is about $960. If you add all of the costs necessary to produce the score in the agreed upon manner (musicians, copying, orchestration, conducting, studio time, supplies, etc.) you will get a simple budget. Since every project is different, there will never be an ironclad budget formula that will work in every situation, but as a rule you should expect that the music budget for a project should be somewhere around 1% to 2.5% of the entire budget. (In television and low-budget films somewhere near 1% is usually fairly accurate, unless there is considerable song licensing). Don't forget to add a small percentage of the total budget for studio and musician overtime, rewrites, and other unforseeable production problems. Try to have an understanding upfront of what the working conditions will be (how much time you will have, how many minutes you are expected to score, what general style of music and orchestration is required, and how many re-writes are expected to completely satisfy the producer or director). And you should consider what would happen if for some reason you were unable to complete the project on your own (due to a family emergency or illness). You need to budget enough for each aspect of the project so that you could hire an orchestrator or additional composer(s) if necessary, without having a financial loss personally.

Film budgets are often held pretty tightly by producers, and so usually you will get an offer to do a project for a specific amount of money, and the first task will be to determine what you can accomplish within a specific budget framework, and still have some money left over for yourself at the end. Try to avoid taking a job without really thinking of what you realistically can accomplish for the offered budget. Very rarely will you be able to make the budget grow from the offered amount - remember that music comes last in the process, and the money is often gone by the time it comes to score.

Richard Bellis, a former president of the SCL, taught in his film scoring class at USC that there are three primary reasons to take a job: to make money, to get a good credit, or to have a great creative experience. I think that is a good way to approach jobs that may come your way, with the caveat that not every credit is a good credit, since this is what many filmmakers may try to convince you to sell you on their project. If it is a project that will not result in enhancing your reputation, or won't give you some music and/or video scenes that you would feel proud to show anyone as an example of your work, then you should probably not consider it a good credit. You should never feel badly about taking a job only for the money, and you should work hard to do jobs that are creatively satisfying, since that is probably the reason that you are interested in doing this work in the first place. Besides, the good creative experiences are much more likely to provide you with future opportunities, since you will produce your best music and have your best relationships on projects that you are the most excited about. I would avoid taking jobs where the producer or director is looking for a cost break on your first project together with the promise of future work at a higher rate. These filmmakers are far more likely to use a different composer on every project with the same promise each time.

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Are there any books that you would recommend?

There are very few books that are specifically about film and television music, but here are a few worth having:

On The Track, by Fred Karlin and Rayburn Wright
This is absolutely the best and most complete book on the subject, and no television or film composer should be without it. It has become a popular text at many colleges and universities, so it is easier to find these days.

Getting The Best Score For Your Film, by David Bell
This book was written for filmmakers, and is really useful to understand the director or producer's perspective. It is designed to help non-composers understand our work process and related issues, and it is an excellent resource. This should be required reading for all producers, directors, and music executives.

This Business of Music, by Sidney Shemel and M. William Krasilovsky
This is the classic reference work for musicians and songwriters of all kinds, although it only has a small amount of information specifically related to music for film and television.

The Musician's Business & Legal Guide, compiled and edited by Mark Halloran
This is a fairly new book, and it is really clear and well written. I would recommend it over This Business of Music if you had to choose, although it is not as comprehensive regarding every part of the business.

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Are there any web resources that you would recommend?

There are a growing number of web sites related to film music. Most of these are either fan-related sites, or composers home pages. Here are a few sites that actually offer some useful information for someone interested in composing music for film and television:

The Society of Composers and Lyricists
This is the SCL's home page. If you are a film composer you should join. If you are a student of film music, you should consider being an associate member.

BMI.com
This is my performance rights organization. These are the nice people that collect royalties for performances of music on broadcast and cable media (and soon over the internet).

ASCAP.com
Equal time - this is the other major performance rights organization. Although I'm not an ASCAP writer, I have many friends who are, and I even participated in their film music workshop, which I would recommend highly.

Cinematrax.com
This is a very useful site, with a number of interesting articles and a good links page. In particular the Guide to Film Music Terms is worth a look.

The Hollywood Reporter Composer Registry
This is a new site at the Hollywood Reporter for composers to showcase their material. It is currently only used by a small number of composers, but it might be a good resource to see what some professionals use as their calling card. There are some major names on the list (like Bruce Broughton and Patrick Doyle), unlike many other web promotional resources. It does use great streaming technology by Liquid Audio, so if you would like a site to stream your demo, this is a good one.

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Other Questions

If you have any general questions that are not addressed here, please feel free to get in touch with me and I will try to add them to the page as quickly as I can. There are some additional comments that I am currently working on, as well as a more comprehensive list of available resources.

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