It's true that working in the music industry is incredibly competitive, and making a living as a musician can seem impossible for many musicians. The truth is that in today's music industry, for most musicians, it is impossible to make a living doing just one thing, but it's not impossible to make a living if you're able to find income from various sources - this is how many musicians work today, and I'd argue it's the only way to work today. You shouldn't stretch yourself too thin with these income sources - you can master only a small handful of skills and use those to generate lots of options. Let's take a look at 10 ways to make money as a film composer:
The obvious one! Many independent films have very very small budgets, so in order to make some real money scoring movies, you'll need to have your music discovered by either a very successful or business savvy indie filmmaker or work your way into the big leagues. This income source comes in the form of a composer's fee or package deal (composer's fee + expenses), either way it's a flat fee with no royalties (unless it gets on TV).
TV series and TV movies are like scoring regular movies, with some extra perks. TV series don't usually pay as well upfront as block buster movies, but they can generate some serious cash in the form of performance royalties. TV Movies, depending on the network, can pay very little upfront, but if you get enough of them the royalties will be well worth your time and effort.
Licensing Your Music
I get asked about this one quite often, as it can be a great source of income for indie bands who aren't actively working in the film and TV scene. This area of the industry can be really difficult to break into, and it really is about luck and who you know, and making great songs. Although I've heard mixed stories of success and failure when it comes to submitting music to online libraries like Taxi, personally I'd say don't waste your time with those. You want to work with a publisher or library that you can have a close relationship with and who will actively pursue opportunities for you.
When you do get this gig, payment can range pretty drastically. I've seen royalty free music for a $50 fee, and I've seen music for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars upfront, plus royalties. This is why you want to work with people who are looking out for you - ideally, you want the fee plus royalties.
On the other side of licensing is the music supervisor. This job actually has a much broader job description, but it's often summarized as the guy/gal that finds and licenses music for films and TV. If you get this gig, you might also be the middle man between the music team and the director, you might be the one finding the composer, and you'll definitely be negotiating deals. The music supervisor can get paid by percentage of the music fees, or separate fee negotiated with the director.
This is kind of a less popular job these days, mainly because it's a very hard job to get and the people getting the big bucks have been doing it for a long time. That being said, this job can bring in a ridiculous amount of money if you get the big projects (think Folgers, McDonalds, etc). You'll get a fee upfront, plus royalties, and if you write the winning jingle that lasts for generations, you will be a very happy musician.
Sometimes a director needs some extra help with their vision of the music - maybe they want to hire a specific artist or composer who has no idea what they're doing (which seems to be more and more popular these days), and the artist/composer may be able to write music but they'll need someone who knows drama and scoring to come in and give opinions on where the music should be and what kind of music would be appropriate. This gig is paid in a flat fee or by an hourly rate.
Sometimes the situation above (see Consulting) can also lead to orchestration work if the musician doesn't know how to write for other instruments. More often orchestrators are hired by composers who are fully capable of orchestrating themselves, but are just under tight deadlines and need to crank out cues while the orchestrator puts everything together. Sometimes orchestrators are asked to write entire cues based on maybe a 4-8 measure melody. These jobs are paid by flat fee usually by the composer, but sometimes part of the package deal I mentioned earlier.
Score prep is when you take the midi files, either from the orchestrator or the composer, and produce the paper score and parts for the recording session. This sounds easy enough, but this job can actually be very stressful as you are usually working extremely quickly, often just days before the session. I remember writing parts until 3:00am or 5:00am, and finishing the parts at the session when I was in L.A. - and that was only for a handful of musicians. Like the orchestrator, this is paid with a fee.
Movie Mechanical Royalties
As I write this, I'm imagining filmmakers reading this title with the exclamation "EXCUSE ME". Receiving mechanical royalties almost never happens because, normally, the score is a "work made for hire", which means the filmmaker owns the publishing rights of the score. I added this one because it's important to consider this option if you are working for very little money, you know the movie will not be on TV, but you know that the film will be sold. You do not make performance royalties in theaters or festivals in the US (you can internationally), so unless you get some mechanicals from the film, you're income is limited with low budgets.
An alternative to movie mechanicals, and one that I prefer anyway, is to retain publishing rights of the score and sell the soundtrack. Keeping your publishing rights is a huge win for you if you can do it because not only do you get to sell the soundtrack, you get 100% of the performance royalties (50% for the writer and 50% for the publisher) and you can also license the music elsewhere! Now, you want to respect your director, so if they agree to give you the publishing rights but they'd like the music to not be used for anything not related to the film, I would honor that to keep the relationship strong with the director. Of course, it's up to you, but just remember that burning bridges can be a fast track to unemployment in the music industry.
Film | Music
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