Composer Art Vs Client Needs – The Big Divide

Whether you are writing for music libraries, trailers and promos, game scores or anything else commercial, it’s imperative you appreciate, respect and acknowledge that it is exactly that – COMMERCIAL.

There is a huge divide between our art and what we work on for a client.

Now the big reason I bring this one up is I believe its holding a lot of people back. From honing to a brief, actually thinking like a client or customer, or just having a basic understanding of the current climate and the market place you are driving at. You simply cannot look at every “job” as a place to be just your “art” and screw everyone else. It won’t work, you won’t get paid and all you are left with is a FaceBook moan or a smart arse blog just like this one to vent upon.

Part of what motivated me to blog this was the amount of convos I’ve had in which I’ll get a PM notification, open it up and you get a chat that’s something like this (or a variation of……)

“I replied to a brief by company XXX, they want tension music for a show but they said my stuff is too emotional, and the mix/production quality isn’t good enough”

What follows will either be disbelief in any advice you are giving, or better still, the air or vibe of ‘Well if he can do it, and his stuff sounds crap, then why on earth can’t I?’

Now I will state categorically, that is a rare event. To have someone come ask for help and systematically judge you. Like ‘Can I have all your client leads, and why isn’t my music selling, and what’s so great about you anyway??’ It happens, and yes it’s as awkward as it sounds too.

The elephant in the room is the commercial aspect of the industry. For some reason, unknown to me, there is a really poor attitude to those writing for libraries or custom brief work for TV. It’s seen as something throw away, rubbish, like you didn’t care for one second about it, you made it too quickly and on a academic or ego level, where are my awards bitch?? Hahaha!

No, it’s not art. It’s not you trying to convey lots of complex personal emotion. It’s writing under instruction. So yeah, when you score to picture, you get some room to do your job, to think, to feel and follow the story. But you also follow a lot of temp music too, by some other guy.

You follow implicit instruction in your spotting notes, and if you are very lucky, there may be some great union between you and the film maker that allows you to do much more broader brush strokes and dare I say it, invoke your “art”.

Right at the bottom of the page, classed as least important to someone of art and substance, is your pay cheque. You almost don’t want to take it, because how many famous composers and artists do we know who said, “nah keep the money, I really do just live for the art”??
Yup, bullshit. I call bullshit on the mixed principle, the convoluted moral stance or opinion, self worth, social presence and standing. It is a job no matter how you colour it – whether you enjoy it or not is another matter.

You work for someone on a job and it may or may not allow for you to pull all the toys out of the bag and bang away, but we like to eat right?? We like to have a place to live??

So let’s get that in proportion first. No one out there is just simply brilliant. You have to work extremely hard to find a voice for yourself and understand musicality. Not be taught it, but just plain feel it in your bones.

So back on point, it is a blog, we do rant you know……

What does an audience member want?? From say a tv show?

They want a theme tune, they want something that just keeps the flow and feel of the content. Move the story or documentary along with a mood, a vibe and pace. What works in cinema??We need trailers to capture us like hungry kids in a sweet shop, all eyes and ears on a big screen, a big chunk of music, snappy edit.

What your client usually wants as the end result, is something you want too. But the leap from audience member, bum firmly planted in seat, to creative composer, all gets lost in translation somewhat. You forget what makes the thing exciting to listen to. You instead go in search of the art in it all. Well if it’s a pet food commercial, for one, there is little wiggle room for lots of art and accolades lol.

It’s the same when it comes to mixing as it is for you to write those notes in the first place. What we think we ‘prefer’ to do over and above, what is appropriate for us to do, that’s the big bear for a lot of people.

“I hate plinky plonk dramedy, all those marimbas and pizz, its crap”

Well, it’s something haha. Yeah, ok, for the most generic of requests and needs, it can be rudimentary and for the target show and audience, you know what? Sometimes you need to throw out the high ideals and extensive training you have, and just do your job. Do the work and be thankful you’re getting paid. Hey, tell you what – at the weekend, go collab with someone and write your solo album Opus and session in some Peruvian nose flute, that no one gives a crap about. It will sell modestly…..again, you don’t care about money when it’s art, you will love the process. The entire experience will enrich you like an Apple Watch advert – Ukulele win.

Sometimes it’s hard to think that way when it comes to any work. You have to make that little bond, understand exactly where it’s headed, what show, what scene, or what product. I know a majority of composers hate the word product, I get that. The sense that your work or again, the art, is somehow devalued because it’s serving a function. Because you didn’t feel in control or have enough creative spread. Well it’s kinda rare.

But it’s all to serve a need. Even with your private, personal album noodlings, you still want people to listen somehow. If you have a nice paid job fulltime and music is your hobby, you love to give it all away for the fun! That’s great, but a career musician or composer still needs to eat and have somewhere to go home to. A 9-5 and a weekend hobby really isn’t anything like the feeling of being full time, flying by the seat of your pants, hoping you land those cues, that the pitch hits the target.

That’s why even during those times I’m writing a very commercial piece I might not be totally in love with, I say to myself – this is what you do, it’s not all f*cking skittles and rainbows every single day. You need to get your hands dirty. Just like any composer you’ve heard of. As big as they come, they ALL spent time in that trench writing for all kinds of bizarre, weird and crappy gigs. It is a career survival skill and if you don’t learn to adapt, you will niche yourself into artistic obscurity but apparently be magnanimous and enriched because music feeds your soul, or some other idealistic crap along those lines…..

Hobby it, or do it for a paid purpose, but always appreciate the huge divide.

I’ve worked on projects where I have wanted to pull the skin off my face, some times I love it and wish it would never end but in between the love and madness, there is knowing why it’s not working at all.

Now from a writing point of view, I always do a lot of research. If it’s a tv show, I check to see if there are any episodes of this running. Can I listen and hook up with the vibe? If it’s a new project, then yes, you are in the woods a little more, but research the genre, the kind of shows that network makes. The overall feel.

Ask lots of questions as the usually fare means being told little. Execs, EP’s are famous for having “ideas” and by the time the show comes to air, they have gone full circle, with a 100 changes and hardly any of them resembles the first email of “Can we have this”.

Now you COULD drop in a selection of nice world percussion in the middle of a cue that has no need for it at all, you COULD track a live solo in the middle to give it a nice change of feel, but if you were watching this drama unfold on tv, and then had to endure an out of place Dhol drum pattern or an extended solo, at what point would you sit up and think what the hell happened there? It’s a good thing we do have many things in place to stop our deepest urges getting to air!

I tend to listen and research a great deal. If I ask composers, then I respectfully ask about certain things or ask general advice, leaving it open to them to either invite you in for tea and biscuits, or tell you to mind your own business lol. I’ll play list music, watch shows, films, ads, anything that gets you into that commercial zone. Analyse why the simplicity of that cue made the show come to life.

Or how that simple melody or underscore was the thing that was needed, not the intricate heavily melodic piece you want to write, and damn everyone else if it’s not received well and awarded at a later date.

It’s like, when I want to screw around and write cues for just me, I do like a good synth noodle. I like to experiment, and during that time, I’ll learn a few skills for later, do some weird shit and basically have downtime fun. But I wouldn’t then bring my synth weirdness to the table for the next project “just because I thought it deserves a come back” or “the audience doesn’t know shit, they will love this Moog patch as much as I do”.

They won’t.

Have a little respect for what anyone does in their creative career. Do a lot of ground work. Listen, watch, revise, throw away and start again. Think as a customer, as an audience member, as an EP (perish the thought), but understand the nuts and bolts of it all. If you only want art, if you just want pure expression, get a 9-5 and fill your weekends with guitar solos and nose flutes.

Your neighbours will love it too.