The music industry trade body for composers and songwriters, BASCA, which runs the Ivor Novello awards, has just held a roundtable discussion debating how to survive and thrive in the world of media music composition.
The discussion was with five members of its board of directors, who have each made very successful careers out of writing for many different genres of television as well as commercial music releases.
Making a living, never mind a fortune, in the media music business is no mean feat, as revealed in the following extract from the panel discussion, during which the panel members debate whether it’s still possible to make a good living composing media music.
Thanks to BASCA for pointing me in the direction of the discussion, which will be published in full in the next issue of BASCA’s members magazine ‘The Works’.
Mark Ayres is a television composer best known for providing incidental music on the original series of Doctor Who. He worked on Doctor Who during Sylvester McCoy’s era as the Seventh Doctor and was hired after he sent the producer a demo video with music he’d written to accompany the episode Remembrance of the Daleks.
Richard Jacques predominantly writes music for games, but also composes for commercials and TV programmes. He has composed for a long list of video games created by Sega (where he was previously an in-house composer), including entries in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise.
Simon Darlow has a long history in pop music composition. He co-wrote Grace Jones’s huge hit Slave to the Rhythm and has penned hits for Toyah Wilcox and The Buggles. He arranged Musical Youth’s Pass the Dutchie and has played with many successful acts, including Wham and The Buggles. He’s also written over 70 TV themes.
Paul Farrer has composed music for an enviable range of successful television shows, including The Weakest Link, Dancing on Ice, The Krypton Factor, The Jerry Springer Show, Saturday Night Live, Ant & Dec’s Push the Button and Tumble. He’s also He is also the creator and executive producer of forthcoming ITV game show, 1000 Heartbeats.
David Lowe has written for a plethora of high-profile television series, including the current BBC News theme, The One Show, Panarama, Countryfile and Grand Designs themes. He also composed for the London 2012 Olympics and had a Top 3 hit in the UK in 1998 with the track ‘Would You…?’ under the name Touch and Go.
Is it still possible to make a good living composing media music?
<DL> It’s still possible to make money but you have to be fairly Chameleon-like and accept that things change. Sometimes you’ll make a few quid and other times you’ll be paid a paltry sum. Every now and then you’ll drop lucky with a show and you’ll make money. You may have to give up some of your publishing now, which has changed since maybe 10-15 years ago. But if you get given a show that’s going around the world then you’re being given a guaranteed platform and guaranteed air time and that’s going to get you very good publishing royalties.
<PF> I do a lot of media shows. Something I do well out of – The Weakest Link – was good for me. The franchise was great for me as everywhere it went they said it has to stay the same, including the music. It’s the same with Millionaire and Deal or No Deal whereas other franchises do change the format quite radically and sometimes that goes wrong [for the composer]. I did The Chase and that went over to America and they took all the music off and changed the show completely. You’re in the lap of the Gods really and all you can do is hope.
<DL> You’ve got to try to work out what your back-end is going to be, and depending on what they offer you in the front-end budget, you can judge whether it’s worth doing. If they pay you £500 upfront and you’re only likely to get £250 for it in the back-end and you spent four weeks on it, it’s not worth doing.
<MA> It’s incredibly democratic. You can luck into a successful show and you can make an awful lot of money. If you don’t luck out into an incredibly successful show, you’ll simply earn a living.
<DL> For the majority of jobbing composers, it evens out to a professional rate, which is probably the same as what a film editor might get or a senior person on the production team.
<PF> The good composers have some dramas, some entertainment, some of this, some of that, for as many broadcasters as they can and for a very long time. You just put them out there and hope, that’s really all you’re doing.
<DL> And sometimes you can be sitting there with nothing at all, but all the stuff you’ve done in the past is keeping everything ticking over.
<PF> It’s an odd job because how busy you are versus how busy your music is are two completely different things. You can be slogging your guts out day after day on a big project that just falls apart and never sees the light of day. Meanwhile, you have times when you’re just sitting around and doing nothing and a show you did ages ago comes out in Japan or something.
<RJ> A lot of composers have had to diversify a bit so work across multiple genres of media in a way that they didn’t previously have to. So they might have been just a guy that does comedy shows on TV, but now they do comedy, drama, commercials, library music, games and films. That’s partly because the industry has opened itself up a bit and partly because the more your career goes on, the more the doors open.
<PF> My advice for anyone wanting to become a media composer is to start small. It takes decades and that’s with having some good breaks along the way. We live in a post The X Factor world where we believe it’s a binary thing: You’re nobody. You’ve got your own jet. It doesn’t work like that. You have to want to do it, and to the exclusion of all other things, because of the amount of effort you have to put into demos and the amount of hours you have to spend listening to idiots asking you to tweak high hats.
<SD> You just have to, at some point, ask yourself whether you really think you’ve got it. There’s an awful lot of people who just haven’t got it, in truth. And if you do really feel you have got it and you’re not kidding yourself, you just get to meet the right people over time, you just do.
<RJ> It’s also very important to know the business side and networking is very important too. Some people expect the money to start rolling in quite quickly but it doesn’t, it takes many years.
<MA> You’ve got to love it and want to do the job. You also haven’t got to want to be famous or desperately want to make money out of it.
<DL> You’ve got to know the technology too, so as well as being a business person and a creative, you’ve got to be a sound engineer as well. You’ve got to know how to add EQ and phasing, all this technical stuff like dB levels – clients expect the quality of what you’re doing to be the produced to the same standards as commercial music.
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