Big George Webley has survived as a media composer for over a dozen years. He learned the following lessons the hard way; you get them free!
With the tidal wave of digital broadcasting bringing us millions more TV channels, there are going to be many more opportunities for musicians to provide music for some of the high‑quality programmes that are sure to be made to fill all this airtime. Here are some clues that may help to make your entry into this area as painless as possible.
1. The hardest part of the whole deal is getting the job in the first place. So how do you get it? It all depends what you're after. For example, if you think doing game‑show title music (or, as I think of it, 30 seconds of tosh) is your destiny, look at which production companies make that type of programme and badger the hell out of them. If, alternatively, you want to start your career by writing big‑budget Hollywood movie scores, all you've got to do is put a horse's head in bed with the film producer of your choice. In all seriousness, though, you must target your potential employer.
2. It's important to know what people do on a show.
- The Executive Producer is the head honcho who answers only to the broadcast commissioner (someone you'll never meet). He or she comes in occasionally and demands changes to things (like your music) that have already been discussed at length by all the relevant people on the production. Perhaps the best way of describing the Executive Producer is as the spanner in the works.
- The Producer is the person to whom everyone on the team is accountable, and is the person who will sack you if appropriate.
- The Director is the one who wants to talk about artistic stuff. (By the way, if the Producer is in the room when the Director is talking to you about something, they will always start to politely disagree with each other about whatever it was you were agreeing about. When they do, keep your mouth shut.)
- The Production Manager is probably the only person who knows exactly what's happening on the production at all times — check everything with them.
- The PA is the Director's organiser; they time everything and check everything. In my experience, they also tell the best jokes and know the most salacious gossip.
- The Associate Producers, Researchers and Runners do all the work and are your best mates, as are the Sound Dept, Camera Operators, Floor Managers, and so on. But, like you, they are all at the bottom of the food chain
3. Never disagree with the musical approach being suggested by the Producer — in fact, agree with everything they say. Don't butt in on them when they're talking, and always stop talking yourself if they butt in on you. This technique is known as Kissing Arse, and some people make it into an art form. It's all a matter of how much you can put up with and how much the Producer wants to be pandered to.
4. Although it's essential to kiss the Producer's arse at all times, it's more important to be cool with everyone on the production. Remember, the Runners of today are the Producers, Directors and Chat Show Hosts of tomorrow. Also, the Production Managers, PAs and Researchers aren't the enemy, even if they are a bit short with you on the phone one day. You've got to remember that they have the Producer busybodying with their work on a daily basis, which is enough to make anyone touchy. You want to be a problem that's been solved, rather than a bit of a pain who keeps ringing up with stupid questions and moaning.
Before you go and see anyone about composing for the media, think about how much various sizes of job will cost you. Be ready to come up with different prices for different jobs, off the top of your head.
5. When you're discussing a project with a Producer they may well ask you either to do something impossible (say, arrange a Michael Nyman track to sound interesting), or attempt something you've never done before (like composing a thrash‑metal theme for bagpipes, to be played as a waltz). Don't, whatever you do, say "I don't think I can do that", as what they'll hear you say is "I can't do anything at all, so you must never hire me ever again". The chances are that over the course of the project's development their idea will be dropped, in favour of the brilliant idea you've come up with (and skilfully made to appear to be their idea), or you'll work out a way of doing what they want you to do.
6. Having said that, do what you know! Don't suddenly think that because you've got a big commission you can go out and hire a large string section to replace the bank of MIDI modules you know inside out. Commendable though it is for you to want to employ classically trained musicians, unless you've worked with real string players before you could be giving yourself a lot of grief. These musicians tend to be not the most helpful in the studio when they can see you don't know a crochet from a crescendo.
7. Before you go and see anyone about composing for the media, think about how much various sizes of job will cost you. If you're going to record in a studio using session musicians, or you're certain you'll need to hire a Bösendorfer piano, know what it's all going to cost beforehand. Be ready to come up with different prices for different jobs, off the top of your head. And be careful, as you'll be held to the price you quoted, regardless of how much you under‑budgeted.
8. Be prepared to wait for your money. Media companies are like any other: they want the goods NOW! But the cheque will be in the post, just as soon as it's been authorised by the head of accounts and the managing director, one of whom is on holiday while the other is at a month‑long convention in Dallas. That means you either have to pay your people (musicians, studios, and so on) out of your own pocket, or you will piss them off as much as the production company has pissed you off.
9. Try to keep the copyright to your music. The chances are that you'll be put in a position where you have to sign away all the rights to the work or you don't get the job. The choice is yours. Most reputable TV production companies used to want only the rights for the synchronisation to your music, leaving you to collect the performance royalties. Sadly, there is an ever‑growing trend for production companies to have their own publishing division, which will take half the money earned. PRS made a ruling a few years ago to the effect that TV companies could only take two twelfths of the earnings, unless they exploited the work elsewhere, in which case they were allowed six twelfths. To my knowledge, all companies take six twelfths whether they exploit the work or not, and none of the companies who own any of my copyrights (or those of any other composers I know) have exploited them anywhere. (My way of sorting out this most painful part of being a present‑day composer would be to make a new rule: that TV companies would receive only two twelfths of the money due from a piece for use on the programme they are producing for a broadcaster, and would only be entitled to a six‑twelfths share for any secondary exploitation. This could be implemented immediately by the PRS, if they so desired.)
10. Be prepared to record what could be the finished version a couple of times and then not get the job. You're bound to be on a short list (more like the cheap list). The term "being jerked around for a while" sums up how new composers are treated by programme makers. Still, doing finished but rejected themes and stings is no bad thing, as it teaches you what the game is all about. They also make excellent additions to your showreel.
How many TV themes have you heard that sound obvious, with standard endings? Do you think that's because media composers haven't got any originality in them, or is it because the majority of music commissioners want something safe and familiar?
11. When delivering the music to the producers, do it right on the deadline. If possible, arrange to deliver it on the day it's actually due to be dubbed. The Production Manager will know the date, time and location of this event well in advance. The problem (for you) is that the longer the producer has your music, the more time they'll have to ask for "just a few more little changes..."
12. Apart from 'ballpark' discussions with the Producer as to how they see the music sounding, the Cue Sheet is the single most important piece of information you need. It's the list you tick off as you do the work and it's the way you discuss the job with everybody on the production. Terms like 'V/O bed' (Voice‑Over), which could also be described as 'Loop' (not to be confused with sampled drum beats), 'Crash Ending', 'Bumper', and 'Sting Out' are how the Producer and Director communicate with you.
13. It's a well‑known fact that Producers can't count. They always ask for exactly the wrong duration for the stings they require. They'll ask for a 10‑second sting into the break when they actually mean three or five seconds. I've found it useful (and no problem to do once you're on the right musical track) to produce stings at 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, 15, 30 and 60‑second lengths, as well as having a couple of minutes of the basic groove with at least two separate crash endings. Ninety‑nine times out of 100 you'll get a call the day before delivery asking you if it would be possible to do a 30‑second bed for a V/O (as if you'd say "no, I don't want to earn more PRS for a bit of music being played under the presenter's voice when they give out the competition address every week").
14. Once you've sorted out the timings with the Producer, confirm whether the 32‑second intro they want is 32 seconds to the very end of the cymbal crash and reverb tail out. Or do they want the last 'splat' to hit bang on 32 seconds, letting the natural decay of the instruments swamped in reverb go on for a further two to five seconds?
15. If the job you're doing requires a lot of incidental music, the company in question will probably already have cut sections of the programme to a 'temp track'. Don't be disheartened by seeing the pictures the Producer wants you to breathe life into accompanied by the very best of John Williams, Mozart, Debbie Wiseman, Beethoven, Django Reinhardt, The Orb, and so on. You can also use a temp track as a demo for the production company. Rather than composing something from deep within your soul for a tone‑deaf Producer to pour scorn over, lay music in the style of what you visualise for the scene and let them rubbish someone else's creativity. If they actually like it, on the other hand, you've got yourself a style and tempo to plagiarise.
16. The last eight seconds of the end credit music for any show are the most important. This is when the names of the Executive Producer, Director and Producer come up. It's important for your survival in the world of TV tunes that you make this part of your composition sparkle. You might also want to consider making the middle 12 seconds groove rather than explode, as that's when the friendly continuity announcer will be telling us what's on next. The very last thing your music will accompany is the production company logo: make sure your final musical figure hits this bang‑on.
17. Don't compress your mix! The transmitters that broadcast your work to the listening millions will do an unforgiving job of compressing the f**k out of your tune, and anything you do will only affect the outcome in a detrimental way. These days there's an increasing trend for people to use new‑fangled mastering plug‑ins and boxes to crunch their sound to the digital max. Use these inventions carefully, as anything but the subtlest tweak could make the result sound horrible on TV. When you're giving the producer a demo, by all means normalise it to a flat line, but the final version given to the sound department for dubbing should be as unprocessed as possible.
Don't suddenly think that because you've got a big commission you can go out and hire a large string section to replace the bank of MIDI modules you know inside out.
18. They want the finished version for dubbing on DAT. Not CD, Minidisc, low‑noise cassette tape or WAV file.
19. This is a fickle business, and it's the little things that make the difference between getting a job and not getting it. So when you're writing a melody for an upbeat show, the more notes that go up the scale, the more chance there is that the client will like it. And think cliché. How many TV themes have you heard that sound obvious, with standard endings? Do you think that's because media composers haven't got any originality in them, or is it because the majority of music commissioners want something safe and familiar?
20. Likewise, be wary of minor chords. Why? Let's end with a little story. Once upon a time, there was a big‑shot Hollywood producer called Irving Thalberg. One day he was running an MGM film through a projector and found the music irritating. "What's wrong with this music?" he asked. One of his staff informed him that the reason he didn't like it was probably because it contained a minor chord. The following day a memo was sent to all staff, to the effect that no music in an MGM film was to contain minor chords! While the film industry has changed its policy somewhat since then, it probably still applies to much TV work.