Things move fast in our business. Just when you think you have got a handle on how it all works you find out the game has moved somewhere else. You spend years getting good at something and as you arrive at the party you find nobody is interested in that any more, they’ve all moved on to another venue. So here’s a heads up, as they say, of things we’ve noticed recently. Some of these are reasonably obvious if you keep your eyes and ears open and others are less so.
1. Sound design is the new scoring. Crafting new sounds out of random wave forms like taking a chainsaw to a block of ice. Producing new sonic textures that nobody has ever heard before and then processing the hell out of them. Look at the rise of the likes of Junkie XL, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Stephen Price’s Gravity Oscar winning score and plenty more. And have you noticed how Hans Zimmer – a man who is extremely gifted at carving new paths and spotting where things are going – is really producing more sound design than anything else these days? Now when I say sound design it is not always pure waveform-architecture, but more often than not blended with traditional instruments or samples. The tools of choice are batteries of plugins from waves, UAD, Fabfilter, Sound Toys and many others. Ableton Live is an increasingly popular tool of choice with sound designers working in film and games. Watch the likes of the prodigiously talented sound designer and composer Daniel James at work and you’ll see why.
2. Samples are Dead. For those composers who’ve spent the last ten years working out how to make samples sound like a real orchestra this might be one of those…”oh so the party’s gone somewhere else” moments. It’s not entirely true but how many groundbreaking new libraries have come out recently? Sampling as we know it is reaching the end of the road in that there’s nowhere else to go. Every instrument has been sampled and resampled. There are still one or two niches to be filled, a really comprehensive solo strings library being one and we wait with baited breath for 8Dios groundbreaking brass library but really, the age when sampling is king is coming to an end. There’s nothing wrong with samples. I have literally thousands of them and use them every day, but it is increasingly difficult to sound different or distinctive using the same tools as thousands of other musicians.
3. …..and so is Trailer Sound. OK, it’s still pretty ubiquitous but its very generic nature tells you that this is not going to last for ever. There are so many amazing composers writing brilliant and innovative trailer music but the traditional big drums and string ostinato thing can’t go on forever. I always think when people start producing construction kits and specialised sample libraries for an idiom, then it’s had it. We’ve been doing that for a while. That’s not to say that it’s not popular – it’s everywhere. I heard trailer-sound all over a cooking reality show last week. Tell me that’s not the kiss of death? The point is not that people aren’t commissioning trailer-sound, but that if you were looking for a place to get in and get on, this is not it. Why go to a party which is winding down when you can find one that is starting up?
4. Goodbye Royalties. For many years the richest composers have made their fortune from royalties. It represents probably 30-50% of most composers’ incomes. Not for much longer. Royalties are still there. Big films still pay really well, library income is still good but the traditional royalty bread and butter, network television is under great threat. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and all the others pay effectively no royalties at all. Zilch. Hardly enough to buy lunch let alone a restaurant. This isn’t the end of the world. Games composers have shown us how you can still make a lot of money on a rate per minute. That’s in part because there never were royalties in games so the rate was set accordingly. TV will take a long time to catch up, if ever. Royalties will continue to pay well for top library music and film composers, but for average composers it will become a smaller and smaller part of the business.
5. Much Less Writing to Picture. There is a growing trend towards writing the music first. TV, commercials and even top end feature films are moving towards a world where the relationship between the music and the picture is more fluid. A generation of editors and directors who are used to having music to cut to now run the industry and they like the aesthetic that it brings. It’s also a money thing in TV in particular where they like using custom written libraries instead of scored to picture. See our Composer Blueprints Training and Music for the Media courses for more details on how this works.
So the bottom line is if you sit still the world will pass you by. Seldom are these shifts quantum so it changes overnight, but if you don’t read the tea leaves and see where the industry is heading you’ll be struggling to catch up. So if I were starting out now what would I do? Write the best possible music and get real honest feedback on your work. Brutal honesty. 15 years ago, musical and technical competence was enough to get paid work. Nowadays the bar is much higher. Only the best get paid so you have to work much harder at perfecting your craft, challenging your own assumptions. If you merely want to write film music because you love Zimmer, Williams and Elfman but you don’t really love film, you are doomed. I see a lot of aspiring composers who tell me how they “specialize” in “big epic orchestral”. That’s not a specialization that’s a default setting.
So. Learn sound design. Get a demo reel that has plenty of live instruments on and sounds fresh and different. Look much more broadly at the industry and work out where there is fun to be had and a living to be made. Library music is still a good financial option for the best composers. Games are great and still a growing market.
Ultimately, despite all this though there is one golden rule. Work in an area of the industry you are passionate about. If you are obsessed with film, become a film composer. You love games, work in games. You can’t fake passion and potential employers will spot it a mile off so do what you love.
If you enjoyed this, why not check out our Cinematic Orchestration course?