Finding Work: 10 Tips To Turbo Charge a Flagging Career

It happens to everyone eventually. One day you’re busy the next you’re not. Or one day you are earning money and the next you seem to be earning a lot less. There are any number of scenarios, but what it often comes down to is less money, less work or at least less of the kind of work you like.

Now is the time to leap into action and here are 10 things you can do to make a difference.

Tip 1: Review Your Music With Ruthless Honesty

You have probably dropped off the pace a bit, or the world has evolved and you haven’t. You know how that new Ford – the latest model – is really subtly different to the last model that was only 3 years old? You know how the way you can spot it immediately, even though only the smallest details have changed? Now imagine the same thing is happening to your music. You are that 3-year old car that doesn’t quite have that squeaky fresh feel any more. How do you know if this applies to you? You need someone else to tell you really. Preferably find people who are in a position to know and who aren’t going to be nice to you. This rules out close friends and family. It also rules out people you are pitching to. They will never (or hardly ever) give you feedback because, it will just open up a whole dialog they don’t want to get into. They’ll tell you it was a close run thing and you came second or anything else to get rid of you. You need to find someone who knows what the market needs and will be detached enough to tell you where you are succeeding and where you are falling short.

Tip 2: Reinvent Yourself

It’s utterly exhausting but if you look at the small print when you signed up to be a media composer, it said you would have to go through this hell every 3-5 years. It means stripping away all the stuff you normally do and asking whether each and every part of it is fit for purpose. You reinvent, reimagine, recompose yourself. Some of the old stuff will stay, albeit in a subtly different form. Some of your much-loved old favorites will just have to go and you will find some brand new stuff to add to the mix. The commonest mistake here is just to buy some new sounds or software. That might well be a great idea anyway but when you really get underneath the skin of the problem, it’s the whole musical set of clothes you are wearing, your creative personality that needs refreshing not just your template.

Bottom line: Buying an EDM library doesn’t make you hip.

Tip 3: Market Fit

When was the last time you really looked at what music people are commissioning? I mean really looked up close? A lot of film composers never go to the movies. “I’m too busy scoring!” they cry right up to the moment when they’re not. You lose touch with your clients at your peril. You have to know what people are buying otherwise you will never notice the subtle shifts in the market that can leave you out in the cold. The brutal obvious reality of not getting work is that you are probably not writing the kind of music people want to buy.

Tip 4: Get Out More!

You can’t run a career stuck in your studio all day every day. You need to meet people, and not just the same old people, new people, new potential clients. Lovely as it is working for established clients, and we all rely on that, if you don’t find new clients then eventually you’ll turn on the tap one day and nothing will come out. This means going to festivals and conferences, hanging out and meeting people. It’s the best way to find out what’s really going on and keep a career alive.

Tip 5: Things Change

The reason we are having this conversation is that nothing stays the same forever, least of all the media. It evolves incredibly fast. Rates of pay and terms of employment all change and normally not in a good way. This favors new entrants to the market, new young fresh-faced composers who have no reason whatsoever to be bitter and twisted about how life used to be. Because they weren’t there. $3000 for a documentary? Great! You, on the other hand who was used to getting $10,000 try hard not to look horrified at this kind of offer. Why do you think producers like working with the fresh-faced young person? It’s not youth, it’s enthusiasm and lack of cynicism. Following on from that….

Tip 6: Game Over

Over time, some areas of the media music industry become non-viable. There are simply too many people chasing too little money. For example, some people have remarked recently that TV commercials have got close to that. Pitching ratios of 10 or 20 to 1 (i.e. when you get one in every 10 or 20 jobs you try for) are now regarded as pretty good! The reason is, hundreds of people are pitching for the same job and it’s simply not worth it. I knew the game was up a few years ago when my assistant in London was pitching for a big mobile phone campaign. He spoke to friend of mine in LA who turned out to be pitching for exactly the same gig! So if they were both pitching 5000 miles apart, then everyone else in the world was as well.

The sad truth though is that the real losers are eventually the commissioners. Once the good people move on to another arena where they can earn a better living, all that’s left is noise and hundreds of mediocre composers chasing under-paid jobs. It becomes almost impossible to find really good people.

Tip 7: Collaborate

Team up with someone else who could do with your experience, but brings a fresh new sound and a new attitude to the party. Easy to say (like a lot of this stuff) and very hard to do, but look at Madonna and how she kept her boat afloat for years off the back of a wide range of collaborations. It’s also fun and rewarding! Maybe it can work the other way as well. You can move into a different genre completely or even a different area of the business. Film composers have steamed into video games scores as they sensed that was where the money was. I know people who have released albums, written musicals, produced songs – it is actually amazing how transferable your skills can be.

Tip 8: Write Music For Fun

A lot of the time we get so hooked up on writing commissioned work, we’ve forgotten how to enjoy ourselves. We’re so busy earning a living we’ve forgotten why we do this in the first place. So take a step back and write something you really like just because you can. Try something different, out of the glare of the lights and away from the relentless focus of the client. And of course you know already that there is every chance something new and fresh and interesting will come out of all this and that can form the basis of a new musical you.

Tip 9: Stand Out From The Crowd

A hyper-competitive market, like the one we are now in, is not an easy place to get noticed. Many of us started out when being the jack-of-all trades was a great way to make a living. Reality check. Those days are gone. To get noticed you need to be different. Try putting yourself in the position of a director looking for a composer. Browse through composer websites or soundcloud accounts. Within minutes they’re all starting to sound the same. That is your challenge. Don’t get me wrong. It is perfectly possible to make a living sounding the same as everyone else and lots of people do that. It’s just that the chances of doing very well and the chances of being picked out of the crowd at all are significantly reduced.

and finally of course…

Tip 10: Present Yourself Well

This means a great demo reel and a clean modern website that works. The demo reel is a subject we look at in detail in both our premium and master’s courses. It needs to be tailored to the potential client wherever possible. Make it shorter rather than longer and if in any doubt leave stuff out. Beware of including sentimental old favorites or compensating for weakness. Then you need a fresh modern looking website. Look at services like Wix who provide easy to use templates that look great. Make sure links to audio files actually work. Test everything. The number of times people have applied for jobs here and simply haven’t checked the links. Make sure you have a soundcloud account as this is where everyone posts their demo reels these days. .

Appearances aren’t everything, but looking like a serial killer on your own website is a bad start. Make it all look clean and modern with a decent picture of you if relevant and you are off to a reasonable start.

Reinventing and re-evaluating yourself is difficult and painful. It takes a lot of courage to face up to the cold honest truth but that is ultimately the only way to move forward. There comes a point when everyone has to call it a day and that moment comes when you just can’t face going through all this again. But for everyone else, this is a routine part of the job and something you should expect to do regularly.

How can ThinkSpace help? Our courses are all tutored by working professional composers so we can give you the detached and honest feedback you need and deserve. Our courses are a good place to explore new avenues and our master’s courses in particular offer a great opportunity to find and develop your own voice, to find that distinctiveness that is both personally satisfying and a route to a more profitable career.

For more information, check out these courses below:

About the Author
Guy Michelmore

Guy Michelmore

Course Director Guy Michelmore is an award winning film composer. He has scored over 8 animated films for Marvel and over 200 episodes of TV for networks all over the world. He also has a detailed knowledge of sampled orchestration and contemporary techniques in film scoring.

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