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Making A Living From Music For Picture: Part 4

Making A Living From Music For Picture: Part 4

Success! You've been invited to pitch for a job. Surely, that Hollywood career beckons? Well, no. This is just a pitch — there are others competing for the job. We look at how to maximise your chances of winning the commission...

By the time you've finished reading this part of this series, I hope that you'll have a clearer idea of just how nerve-frazzling life as media composer can be, how you should go about putting together a showreel to attract work, and what sort of issues you should consider when adapting or buying a studio setup so you can work as a media composer. This month, I'll sign off by considering what to do when your showreel finally produces a positive result, and you are offered the opportunity to pitch for a job.

Keeping It Brief

The process of pitching, in my experience, often starts with a phone call, email, or letter. "Got your showreel, we'd like you to try for the job, now show us what you can do, as soon as you can — will tomorrow sometime be OK?" seems to be the essential content of most of these communications. Budget is rarely discussed, and if you should ever broach the subject, you'll usually be met with a reply along these lines: "Ah... yes... that's a bit up in the air at the moment, actually...". Don't expect more than this, because in my experience, that's as firm a commitment as you're likely to get. And... it's not very firm, is it?

Of course, before you can pitch, you need to know something about what the client wants in terms of music, but again, don't expect this to be given to you routinely. Those commissioning music for picture frequently don't know what they want in musical terms, and you may be offered no specific guidance on the music whatsoever. What you should get, though, is what's known as a brief, possibly from the director or even one of the producers (more on who these people are and how they relate to you, and the project, in a moment). The brief is supposed to be a description of what the project is all about and where you fit in — how much music they want, any special concepts or crazy schemes they have come up with on the back of a fag packet, and maybe, just maybe, something vague about the musical styles or genres they're hoping for.

Now comes the complicated bit, as you need to either follow such advice as the brief does contain to the letter, or bin it and do what you think is right. Both of these routes have their own advantages and pitfalls, and the reality is that you'll probably do a bit of each to try and please all the execs at the same time as satisfying your artistic cravings!

The biggest complication here is musical terminology and description — to me, R&B still means Otis Redding or Ray Charles; but to someone else it might be R Kelly, or whatever her name is [shurely some mistake? — Ed]. Furthermore, you must walk a narrow tightrope between what directors say they want, and what they actually want. The trick here is being able to work that out, describe it in terms they understand, and then deliver it. Being able to hum it, play it or describe it in words of less than one syllable is crucial; it's that or they'll laugh you out of town, or give the job to someone else!

Why consider all these complicated factors, and do all of this complex psychological second-guessing, before going through the process of pitching? Well, simply because you need to know what you're pitching for and what is being aksed of you — after all, if you produce the most awesome Aretha Franklin clone when the execs were actually thinking of Beyoncé Knowles, then your pitch is probably doomed!

The Pecking Order

First things first — who will you be talking to? TV programmes and films have producers, directors, script editors, production staff, secretaries, runners — can you tell them all apart? Fortunately, the hierarchy is quite simple. As the man doing the music, you're the lowest of the low in terms of almost everyone's priorities. While this may be depressing, it also lends the situation a certain clarity, and means there's only a few people who you absolutely must be able to recognise and work with.

OK, so this (admittedly fictitious) brief may seem silly — but believe me, it's been heavily inspired by dafter, more self-contradictory ones I've experienced in real life. And if you think no self-respecting media mogul would send you a written communication on tatty notepaper like this, think again — I had an invitation to pitch and a brief once that had been scrawled on the blank bits of a postcard of Brighton. And when I'd finished with it, I had to give it back, as the producer concerned had written another important person's phone number on the other side of the card...OK, so this (admittedly fictitious) brief may seem silly — but believe me, it's been heavily inspired by dafter, more self-contradictory ones I've experienced in real life. And if you think no self-respecting media mogul would send you a written communication on tatty notepaper like this, think again — I had an invitation to pitch and a brief once that had been scrawled on the blank bits of a postcard of Brighton. And when I'd finished with it, I had to give it back, as the producer concerned had written another important person's phone number on the other side of the card... THE EXECUTIVE PRODUCER(S)

These guys are the grand fromages; without their say-so, thou shalt not pass go, nor collect £200 on the way. They answer only to the Shareholders, Broadcast Commissioners or their gods, in that order. An executive producer is the one person in the world you would really like to do without (yes, even more so than your mother-in-law) but, inevitably, is the one that will never, ever go away. Upset them at your peril.


Producers are the demi-fromages; they live and breathe the project from the day it's born until the day of transmission/general release, and then they'll be off elsewhere. Don't ever talk about the next project or the last, as all they can see is the leviathan they're struggling with. The buck stops with them, and everything has to pass through them. If they ask you a question, be ready with an instant answer, and if they speak, listen. Upset them, and you'll be out on your ear before a crotchet rest has elapsed.


Finally, someone friendly! The director is your best buddy; the project will be his baby, and he will want it to have a good, wholesome arty upbringing. This is the person who will buy you a pint (or 17) and talk your ears off about that clever tilt and pan move he did for the Organic Offal Monthly documentary on the Shopping Channel. Directors are also the only people on a music-for-picture project that talk any artistic sense. Upset them, and they'll probably just curl up into a ball and cry, but remember that everything you plan together has to be signed off from above.


This group will differ from project to project, may include a production manager, someone (or everyone's) PA, associate producers (nobodies with vested interests), camera operators (great for cribbing cigarettes), editors, soundies, sparkies... the list goes on.


So why, you ask, are you at the bottom of the pile? Well, you were probably chosen last, you have a creative input when everyone above you wants complete creative control, and you cost a fair bit of money. Know thy place!

The thing to remember is that whilst in most cases the director has the creative say-so over a TV or film project, the likelihood is that the producer (or producers) will be able to override him — so the director can wish for the moon on a stick, but the producer may well tell him he'll have to make do with a lightbulb (and no lolly). The complicated bit can be juggling them both to keep them simultaneously happy.

Understanding The Brief

As with any close-knit trade, music for picture has its own hard-to-understand jargon, and when you're establishing yourself, it can be tricky to understand what directors are asking you for. Here, I've explained three terms which you will hear used endlessly, and which, at first, utterly baffled me.


These are short bursts of music. Sound effects are often also classed as stings (a door slam for example), but in musical terms, a sting can be as much as 10 seconds or so. A classic example is Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and the little ditty that plays when a contestant gets a question right (or wrong). A sting often incorporates a statement of a theme, or simply functions to accentuate the beginning or end of a section of underscore. And if you're wondering what that is...


Sometimes referred to as a bed, the simplest description of underscore is when you use music in a scene but don't want to hear it! Don't be fooled into thinking you can just lower the volume of a busy piece of music, either. It's a balance between giving the impression that something is happening without getting in the way. Thinking back to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire again, the continual music during the actual game play could be classed as underscore; it's ever-present and greatly contributes to the atmosphere, while never getting in the way of the host asking questions or the player answering.


Well, all right, this one is pretty self-explanatory, but it deserves a bit of coverage. Whilst many composers think automatically of melodies when they're asked to produce themes, you shouldn't feel constrained in this way with music for picture. A 'theme' could be rhythmic and not in the slightest bit melodious, or could even be a sequence of chords with no obvious tune to it. Personally, I try to find my themes, in whatever form they may take, whilst pitching — after all, you can restate a theme in so many different ways, be it with differing orchestration, tempo or genre. Once you've come up with something, it's a great building block around which to base the rest of the score if the job comes your way. Sometimes, no theme shows itself, and you're left with a mish-mash of ideas. If that's the case, fret not. If you get the job, you can always go theme-hunting later — as long as you're quick!

Perfect Pitch

So on we come to the pitch itself. The invite will be delivered into your hands in one of two forms, depending on how advanced the production is; remember that music is usually bottom of the pile in terms of decision-making, so more often than not it is the last thing considered. If you're in early, it'll just be a brief. The chances are the brief will be a simple description of the project and, at best, a list of vague adjectives which probably encompass every musical style you have ever heard of, and several that you haven't. As I've outlined already, these may well be contradictory and/or not what the production team really want at all (see above for an example), so it's down to you to interpret them as you see fit. I was involved in one pitch last year which featured the words 'orchestral', 'epic', 'ethnic', 'big' and 'Hollywood-esque' (oh, how they all love that one!). So I did my best brass-belting, cymbal-crashing, timpani-thumping Hollywood score impression (which is pretty damn good, if I say so myself). And the result? Not a multisampled sausage; the job went to another guy. A month or so later, I watched the finished program and nearly died laughing — the principal component of the score was a gently pulsing synthesizer. It was great, but it certainly wasn't what the brief had described!

The other possibility is when there is a completed draft edit of the program. This is likely to have a 'temp track' dubbed on to it. As the title implies, this is temporary music laid over to help to guide the editing process, and also to reveal the plans of the execs or director for the style of music, and roughly where it should start or end. This will probably be attached to the same sort of vague brief as those that arrive with no video. This temp track can be either your saviour or downfall; you ignore it at your peril, but if you follow it too closely, you'll probably find that it wasn't what they wanted at all. Try to take it and leave it — carefully analyse what works well in the temp and what falls down, then extrapolate from the good bits.

Now you have a brief, and, hopefully, a deadline for pitching. I say hopefully, as if it's an open-ended invitation, someone is probably having a laugh at your expense! That deadline is sacrosanct — almost more so than a production one. After all, in the world of normal work, your boss may well haul you over the coals if you're late for a day at work, but if you're late for the interview, you probably won't get the job in the first place.

Fire up the computer and turn off your phone — this is going to be the best music you have written in your entire life (again!). Once you're on the production, you can go easy on yourself (OK, that's a lie, but it helps to think this way), but this time it has to be all or nothing. No duff notes, no glaring production errors, no dodgy General MIDI samples; only the best will do.

Further Education

There are many education courses run by colleges and private companies that claim to be able to ready you for the mad world of media composerdom, but in my experience, sorting the wheat from the chaff is a difficult process in itself. The best courses, in my opinion, are those that concern themselves with practical technique: the actual doing rather than the theory. One such that I can heartily recommend, having had personal experience of it, is Music For The Media (see, the course tutored by Emmy Award winner Guy Michelmore, along with a crowd of other experienced composers. The chosen approach of this course is deeply practical, with a range of modules covering writing techniques for everything from corporate videos to film projects. It's a great place to start, or even to hone your existing skills.

Making A Living From Music For Picture: Part 4 If you'd rather gain useful background by reading in your own time, there are plenty of books which offer a deeper insight or analysis of the art of music for picture. Some are weighty tomes that dissect existing scores and explain how they were constructed in detail, while others offer wildly differing advice on how to make millions in your first month or two. Beware of US books, whose advice is not always applicable to the business as it is here in the UK, and vice versa. There are also some older books that are interesting but dreadfully out of date in terms of actual technique and technology! On the right are a couple that I think are worth mentioning.


This book, by Michael Schelle, is a very easy read, and features interviews with many film composers, including John Barry, James Newton Howard and Howard Shore. It's a captivating book that will both inspire and confuse, as the outspoken interviewees frequently offer conflicting advice on the best way to do things — but that can make it all the more interesting!


This book by Richard Davis is again very easy to work through, and offers some very practical advice. Just don't get too hooked in to the fees, royalties and copyright issues described, as they differ from country to country.


Jeff Rona's book is very accessible, and utterly practical. This is one of my personal favourites, although again, not all the business advice given holds true on the UK market.

Getting It Right

How do you go about producing the pitch? First, let us assume that all you get is a few scribbled notes, and you have to construct the score and a style from scratch with only those notes to base it on. Once you've decided on that style — whether you follow such information as you can derive from the pitch, or throw it out and choose something competely different — you must stick to it. Once this is done, you can think of the pitch as a glorified showreel — about six minutes long and showcasing the very best of what you can do. The fundamental difference this time is that it will all adhere to the one very specific basic style that you've decided to adopt.

Within that five or six minutes, and your chosen basic style, you must somehow illustrate every moment, every emotion called for in the brief. If you know there will be a car chase, you need a chase theme, if you know there will be a funeral, you need to stir the emotions, and if you know there's a love scene, you have to stir... other things. I cannot stress enough that quality is paramount over quantity. Don't go shoving 78 key and tempo changes in alongside 14 styles; make sure that what is on there is exactly what you think they're asking for. You'd be far better served by offering them a theme (stated in a couple of different styles or tempos), a couple of variations and a rousing ending rather than literally ticking off an exhaustive list, if one was provided in the brief. Go for a big opening, then slow it down and show that you can call forth slow and tender sentiments — and then puncture their ear drums with a soaring finale, or whatever variation of that principle the brief calls for.

If you've received a draft edit of the project to work to, you'll probably have a temp track to base your work around. The question is: do you plagiarise it wholesale, pinch the odd idea from it, or ignore it completely? As ever, the answer is a blend of each; with a bit of luck, you may have an idea (or be able to work out) why they chose that music for the temp track in particular. Was it in the nearest CD case along the shelf, or was there some specific idea in mind? If it's standard library fare, then the chances are it was simply what was lying around. If, on the other hand, it consists of individual popular or classical tracks, they may well have been chosen very specifically. If you're careful, you may well start spotting reasons why they've chosen the temp track — the instruments and orchestration may seem wrong initially, and fly in the face of the brief, but sometimes, if you step back and listen again, you may see that the mood or atmosphere is spot on nonetheless. If so, find it, extract the underlying theme or idea, and work with that.

If the material has arrived as a draft edit, then you have one other option — you could pretend you've already got the job and score straight to picture. This is a tricky decision, as you may have very little time in which to deliver, and it's a more complicated way to proceed, but if you can hit the mark and get it to the production team on time, you may just score a double whammy, proving that you can work accurately (and very quickly), and also giving the team something they can drop straight into their edit and listen to it as you intended, locked to picture. The biggest drawback of this approach is the margin for error — or rather the lack of it. Mess it up, miss the hit points, deliver locked music that actually doesn't lock, and you will well and truly have blown your chances.

Now I'm going to raise the ire of the audiophiles (as well as the Editor In Chief of this magazine) by daring to suggest, for the second time in this series, that you master your completed pitch to within an inch of its life before you send it. I know it's not the done thing (and you certainly shouldn't do it when you're delivering your finished score), but in the same way that you wanted your showreel to grab prospective clients by the neck, this time, while you have their attention, you don't want to lose it — so make it loud.

One final thought on the pitch. How much time do you have to spare? There is never any better time to get some extra practice if you can fit it all in. Thus, if you can supply several pitches at once, then so much the better — again, as with the showreel, don't provide an hour or two of music, as it'll never get listened to, but two or three renditions in different interpretations of the brief are no bad thing. Don't go overboard, and whatever you do, never compromise quality for the sake of quantity. You're better off proving your genius with one polished track that misses the mark than with several that come close but are a little ragged.

Finally, I must warn you that it's not uncommon for you to be asked to pitch for a job even though another composer has long since been selected. In fact, the lucky winner may have already started work. This may seem most unfair (and from the composer's perspective, it is), but in the commissioning world, it's seen as sensibly 'keeping options open', and nothing you can do will ever prevent it happening.

Next Time

And on that downbeat note, I'll take my leave. If you think that's miserablist, tough — that's what this job's like sometimes, which, of course, is why I tell so many people not to bother trying their luck at it. I hope that if you've read this far, you have a pretty good idea of the trials and tribulations that await you if you stubbornly pursue this course. If your mind is made up, then stop reading this series and spend the next 30 or so days using your nice shiny new equipment to bash your showreel into something you're proud of. In next month's instalment of this series, established American media composer Bill Lacey will take over the reins, and tackle the complex issues of how to conduct yourself if you actually win your pitch...