Music Composition For Dummies
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Making a living as a music composer is hard. And it’s not because the money isn’t out there waiting for you to come along. It’s simply because that for every legitimate composing job out there, there are dozens—or even hundreds—of budding, starry-eyed composers out there waiting in line for their big chance.

Does that mean you should give up? No, it means that what’s going to set you apart from every other composer out there—besides your massive talent—is your ability to persevere against what might seem like tremendous odds. That, and the ability to seek out work on your own and not sit around and wait for want ads in the paper or the music journals to pop up.

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The following careers are just a few of the opportunities open to composers that may not have crossed your—or your competition’s—mind.

School bands and choirs

Every year, high schools and colleges across the country put on musical performances for both parent and community audiences. Sometimes, the music used for these performances comes from well-known sources, such as Oklahoma! or Grease. Sometimes, though, the school in question wants to use completely original music, preferably written by a local composer. It’s an extra bonus if that composer once attended that school.

The best way to get your foot in the door as a composer at your local high school or college is to approach the music department head in person with a selection of your own original music. Call up the school in question, set up an appointment, and then come prepared. You’ll want to bring a portfolio of your original written music to present at the appointment, plus a recording of it for the music director to listen to at his or her leisure.

Granted, most high schools and universities don’t have a huge budget for paying composers for original work, but having this credit under your belt may open doors you can’t currently imagine. Your name will be on the printed program of the performance, and every single person attending the performance will receive a copy of this program. If the performance is a success, there’s a chance that schools outside of your community will want to use your music.

The trick to writing music for either a high school/college choir or musical is that you have to take into consideration that you’re writing for kids. Talented kids, probably, but still kids. Therefore, you want to keep the instrumentation and vocals just easy enough for them to handle, but challenging enough for them to feel like they’ve accomplished something. Think somewhere between Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera and the music from The Muppet Show. Make sure you copyright any work that is accepted for use in a performance.

Some cities have arts organizations that work directly with the public school system and with the local universities. While you’re making appointments to talk to band directors and music departments, stop by and drop off a résumé with them as well. They often have a bulletin board in the lobby or online that announces when jobs for composers pop up.

Incidental television music

Spend any amount of time in front of a television set, and you’ll be amazed at how much incidental filler music is used on any given program. There’s music to accompany car chases, love scenes, deep, funny, confusing, dangerous or poignant moments, and so on. Even your local news programs probably use little musical segments at the beginning and end of the shows.

For major network shows, you’re going to need a good, persistent agent and a whole lot of experience behind you to get your music in those action/love/flashback scenes. Or you can try your luck with music placement services, such as Taximusic. On the other hand, the world of cable TV is a whole lot more approachable to the beginning or mid-level composer. Your locally produced cable or public-access stations are good places to start. Their budgets are likely to be small or nonexistent, so you’re probably going to have to do a lot of free work right off the bat — but people do watch these shows, and this is a credit you can put on your résumé.

Scout out programs that you personally think are interesting or show great promise and then call up the station and find out when those shows are recorded. You can then either show up in person on the day of the recording and try to hand your demo to the hosts or actors of the show in person, or leave a phone message and a copy of your demo in the program’s station mailbox. Make sure you call back to confirm that they received your materials and to see if you can set up an appointment with the people in charge of the program’s music. Don’t be a pest, but be persistent. If you don’t hear anything back within a reasonable frame of time, brush the dust off your jeans and go knock on another door.

Local news programs are another place to try and place your music. Call ahead of time and try to get an appointment with the music director. If an in-person interview isn’t possible, try mailing a copy of your demo and a résumé to the director. Always include your contact info (address, phone number, email address) and follow up with a phone call about a week after sending your materials. The personal approach almost always works best in these situations, and if you don’t have a direct contact at the station who’s already expecting to see your demo, try to make an in-person impression first.

Musical theater

Musical theater is another area where your mastery of music composition can be utilized. Generally, the composer writes the music, and a lyricist writes the words, although it’s not unusual for one person to act as both composer and lyricist. In most cases, composers leave the dances or underscoring to the orchestrator and dance arranger. Only a very few people have succeeded as both composer and lyricist as successfully as Noel Coward, Robert Meredith Willson, or Jonathan Larson. If you can find a good lyricist to partner up with early in the game, you can save yourself a lot of hassle.

Most show tunes are written on an AABA structure, with a verse and a chorus/refrain. The verse (A) sets up the premise of a song and helps move the story of the musical along, and the chorus (B) states the main idea. For example, consider the title song to Oklahoma!, where the verse begins “They couldn’t pick a better time to start in life,” and says how happy the leads will be living in a “brand new state.” The chorus starts with a joyous shout of “Ooooo-klahoma,” and then sings the praises of that territory.

Broken down very simply, there are three basic types of show tunes used in musicals:

  • “I Am” songs
  • “I Want” songs
  • “New” songs
“I Am” songs explain a character, a group of characters, or a situation. “I Want” songs tell us what characters desire — what motivates them. Most love songs fit into this category. “New” songs include any songs that don’t fit the other two categories, such as instrumentals. “New” songs are there because they serve special dramatic needs, such as the dialog-free big fight scene in West Side Story, set to “the rumble” ballet.

The chances that you’re going to have your music performed on Broadway right out of the gate are slim to none. So once again, this is a good time for you to check out the musical theater offerings in your own neck of the woods and see if you can get hired writing music for local productions. Dinner theaters that feature live musical entertainment sometimes hire one or two composers or musical directors to work with all of their productions.

When you do land yourself a gig, any gig, put in your own fair share in getting the word out about the production. Send press releases to newspapers and local critics. If any good reviews of the production go to print, especially if they mention you by name or your music, photocopy them many, many times and include a copy of the positive review with any future résumés you send out.

Concert composition and performances

Any pop musician will tell you that the big money in music is in playing concerts. This is why some bands and artists are always on the road. It applies to classical performers as well. Sure, some people will buy a major label classical recording to listen to in the car, but the real cash comes from ticket sales at concert halls.

Your best bet for booking a performance at a club is to talk to the club’s booking agent. Or hire a tour manager to set up performances for you on a national or international basis. If you’re just planning on playing small, independently run venues on the local level or on tour, you probably don’t need a manager, and a little bit of Internet and phone book research can give you the names of hundreds of clubs that would love to have you stop by and play for free, or for popcorn and beer, or for a percentage of ticket sales. You also usually get a table to sell merchandise before and after the performance. A good tour manager also has the connections necessary to book you at larger venues where money up front, a guaranteed rate, or a substantial percentage of ticket sales are part of the deal.

If you’re not comfortable performing in front of people, but you have lots of music that is performance-ready, you can get that music performed by selling or even lending out your performances on a profit-sharing basis to a local classical ensemble to perform at events. Unless you’re composing for an ensemble as big as the Kronos Quartet, you’re not going to make a whole lot of money this way, but you can get your name out for people to see, and it’s one more credit to put on the ol’ résumé.

Producer/arranger

Just about every rap star and electronic music performer has had a “producer” credit at one time or another. Ask them what they did as “producer” on the record, however, and they may give you a blank look. “Why, I produced! What kind of question is that?”

The truth is, being a producer can range from singing backing vocals on a couple of tracks to really giving a record a complete overhaul with a patient and guiding hand. If you’re very famous, then the first example is probably the extent of your production work. You’re attaching your very famous name to a lesser-known person’s name, and hopefully attracting your fans to this person’s record (and vice versa).

Real producers are people like Genya Raven and Steve Albini (who prefers to call himself a studio engineer instead of producer). They go into the studio with the band and help tweak their sound and make it more marketable, or just better. A good producer can call up other musicians in the trade, like horn, steel pedal, or xylophone players, to fill in what they think are missing parts of the existing music.

As a composer and overall expert in music, you can make a huge difference in the evolution of a band by working in the producer capacity. Start with small, local bands first, and if it seems like this is something you are very good at, the word of mouth and studio association will start bringing the clients in. There are lots more bands out there than there are producers (especially good producers). A good producer is never short on steady employment.

Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom. Many producers need assistants, and this is a good way to gain experience and get your foot in the door if a producing position opens up.

Knowing how to write arrangements is another side of being a good producer—it’s also a good career in itself. An arranger can take a piece of music written for one instrument, or multiple instruments, and make it better suited for another instrument or another set of instruments entirely. A familiarity with instruments’ physical and tonal capabilities and excellent, second-nature transposition abilities are essential to being an arranger.

But if you want to be a successful producer, you are going to have to be able to turn musical ideas into “product.” That is the number one thing that a producer does: create product. That means you will need to understand the marketplace and what listeners want or expect in any particular genre. The producer is the one who knows when “it’s done.” Musicians and singers will always feel they have a better take or another interesting idea to try out. The producer must move the music from the studio into the public.

Industrial music and advertising

Industrial music — not the dance music, but the music of the working world — is any music that is used for a specific, usually commercial, purpose. Advertising music (jingles), convention music, and music written for music libraries all fall under this category.

The best way to break into advertising as a new composer is to actively go out and seek local businesses and find out if they need music for any television or radio campaigns. Local bars are a great place to start, because they almost always use music in their advertising—an extra bonus for them (and you) would be for you or your band to perform at the bar in question. Local clothing and shoe stores are also good places to try, as they also use music in their advertising and are always trying to find a new way to sound “fresh” and “cutting-edge.”

Business conventions

If a big business convention is coming to your town, find out if any local businesses are planning to have a booth at the event. Many times, the most stodgy-seeming company, such as medical suppliers or stationery stores, will hire a musician or a small band to play music at their booth in order to attract attention away from their competitors.

As with any potential job, call ahead to set up an appointment — or at the least, try to find out who is in charge of setting up the convention booth for the company. Mail a copy of your demo disc to that person and follow up after the appropriate length of time (one week is usually good).

Music libraries

Music libraries, or song banks, can range from a single collection with one composer’s interpretation of public domain scores (musical copyright expires 70 years from the composer’s death and becomes “public domain”) to websites that sell thousands of sound effects to full-length compositions from any number of musicians and composers.

Many of the online music libraries, such as Audiosparx, are always open to working with more musicians and will pay you 50 percent of whatever they earn from people downloading your sound effects or music. Plenty of musicians make a small but steady income working with music libraries, which then sell music and sounds to video game companies, independent film companies, and even phone companies (for ringtones).

Film scoring

One of the most lucrative careers that a music composer can pursue is writing scores for films. It’s a very difficult arena to get into, though, and if you’re not able to stomach competition or rejection, it’s probably not for you. If you do get your moment in the sun, however, just remember that your score has to fit the film, it has to be evocative emotionally, and you absolutely have to be able to stick to all deadlines and timetables thrown at you, no matter how impossible they seem.

Video game scoring

Video game scoring is another very lucrative career for composers, and also one of the most challenging. You have to have an intimate knowledge of every game you’re scoring for, including the sounds needed for every possible scenario in the game. Most video games are wall-to-wall sounds, all the way through, and therefore require a composer to write a lot of music. An intimate knowledge of how rhythm and changing tempos affects mood is necessary, as is the ability to compose both highly unpleasant, discordant music and triumphant-sounding music to fit scenes on a very tight deadline.

Songwriting

Another good career for composers is that of a songwriter. Many big-name pop stars depend on songwriters to come up with music and lyrics for them, and if you can get your foot in the door in this highly competitive field, you’ll have no trouble finding money to fund your own pet projects.

A good place to start finding leads is the book Songwriter’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books). Songwriter’s Market lists hundreds of agencies, record labels, publishing companies, and production companies looking for songwriters to work with, as well as pay rates and basic contract information. Make sure you get the most current edition of Songwriter’s Market, as the listings can change drastically from one year to the next.

Teaching

You know that old, oft-quoted adage, “Those who can, do; those who can't, teach?" It’s not true, especially in the music industry. Almost every professional musician and composer has at one time taught, and many of them continue to teach well after their music careers take off because they truly enjoy it.

Today, with so many music institutes now offering online classes for an international roster of students, you have the capability to teach any number of music and recording classes from your home. All you need is a fairly modern computer with a camera and audio capabilities and an internet connection.

If you have a master’s degree or a PhD in music, you probably already know how to get a job in a university setting or have contacts that can help you get in the door. But if you don’t have a degree but have a good track record working as a studio/session musician, an independent performing and touring musician, a credited producer, or any other number of professional credits that detail your experience in and out of the studio, then there are a lot of places where you can take your experience and turn it into online lessons for kids or adults—or both.

Here are just a few places you can start:

  • Outschool.com: Outschool classes are aimed at K-12 learners and offer everything from English lessons to ukulele lessons. Music instructors are in high demand at Outschool, and your students come to you from all over the world. Instructors are paid per enrolled student, and you have complete control over designing your curriculum.
  • Sagemusic.co: Sage Music School offers classes on nearly every type of instrument, including voice, for talented youth and adult students. All of its classes are structured around its patented ARPEGGIO lesson framework, which it trains hired instructors to use. Sage offers a full benefit package to full-time instructors.
  • Udemy.com: Udemy offers hundreds of classes on every subject you can imagine, including music instruction, recording technology, and music theory. Once approved, you prerecord your courses then upload them to the site. Every time someone purchases one of your courses, you get paid, with online deposits sent to you once a month. Courses usually range from a couple of hours up to 30+ hours, depending on the subject, and the amount you can charge per course is usually determined by the length and specialization of the class.
Aside from working with an established institution, you can also strike out on your own by posting a sample class on YouTube with your contact information at the end of the video lesson. Potential students can contact you this way about private or group lessons, which you can teach from your home via Zoom.com.

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