Do you want to Compose for Film/TV/Media?
Ah, so you want to become a freelance composer in Film, TV, Games and Media?
1. Hello Benjamin, who are you, and what is your story as a composer?
Hi! I am (primarily) a film composer and educator based in the greater Nashville, Tennessee area. I am a Christian, a husband, and a father of three little boys.
My mom had me take piano lessons at age 8 and I hated it. Not music–the lessons. I enjoyed music and was intrigued by it but avoided our piano because I knew it would remind my mom to find me another piano teacher.
When I was around age 13, I picked up piano again and… it clicked. Music–specifically piano performance–was my thing.
In 2005, When I was 15-16, my dad (who was, among other things, a documentary filmmaker) was commissioned to create a World War 2 documentary and it occurred to him that, since he had 3 children who played instruments (me and my 2 older sisters), we could write the music for it!
We had no idea what we were doing, but were willing to give it a try, so we set up a rudimentary DAW setup with Cubase SX 2 and Garritan Personal Orchestra. I caught the film scoring bug, and at that point had a direction shift from piano performance to composition.
Over the next few years I had opportunities to score a number of different projects for friends and family, gradually increasing in ability with the software and the craft as I hobbled together my sad version of a music education.
I have never had any formal composition training through a teacher or institution (which would have helped with a lot of things!), but have steadily picked up bits and pieces of knowledge by following my own threads of curiosity that led to snippets of books, articles, or videos about composing or music.
Over time I developed more professional relationships and got more projects working on a number of indie features and documentaries, promotional and advertising media, offering virtual orchestration and arrangement services, and have even had the pleasure of doing some sample library demos for companies like Orchestral Tools, Embertone, and Musical Sampling.
A big development earlier this year was when I launched an online educational site to encourage and equip other composers called Forte Composer Academy. I am humbled to say that since I got married in 2010, I have been able to support my family mostly or entirely with music. There have been dry spells where I have needed to supplement our income with part time non-music work, but God has been good in that music projects are paying 100% of our bills at this time.
2. What are the upsides/downsides of being a freelance composer?
Getting to do what you love is obviously a big upside. As is the potential for a career and schedule with greater flexibility. For example, I can take a vacation whenever I want, as long as I have the funds and don’t have a deadline so pressing that I can’t rearrange my work schedule. Being the master of your own schedule can offer terrific freedom… if you have the discipline to manage it well.
And this is where some of the potential downsides to freelancing come in. When you are working as an employee, there is a structure to your schedule that is externally set. This rigidity can be a thing we complain about, but the structure, stability, and predictability it adds to our lives can help us to use our time and energy more effectively.
Many freelance musicians don’t have terrific time or project management skills, and the extra element of constant schedule decision making (what do I need to do this week??) can just be that much more overwhelming to some. Further, it is very common for freelancers to work on their own, which can end up being a fairly lonely situation, and since you represent the entire workforce of your business, if you’re having a bad day of a bad week and don’t get anything done, your business simply stops.
That said, there ARE ways for freelancers to use their time and freedom well. And there are also ways to build teams around them or join teams to capitalize on the strengths of others. I have long been a reclusive worker, but am considering trying to find some sort of communal work space to be a part of so I’m more communally connected to others.
3. Do you have any tips for aspiring composers to open the door to this career?
To build a successful, sustainable composing career you need to build skills, relationships, and a body of work, by applying quality effort over time.
Don’t despise the day of small beginnings. Embrace the fact that you will be starting your career at the beginning… and that means embracing small, uninspiring projects that do not pay well if at all. These projects are where you start to build those skills, those relationships, and that body of work.
So here is a practical tip about networking: look around you to find filmmakers or clients who are roughly at the same stage in their careers as you are in yours, and reach out to those folks. Build friendships with them and see what their musical needs are.
While it doesn’t hurt to optimistically knock on big doors, most of the people with big, shiny projects are going to want to work with composers who have more of a track record, and this makes sense if you stop and think about it.
Embrace those small projects, give them your BEST, and start building your body of work. You need a track record to be noticed and trusted. As an additional bonus to embracing those smaller projects: that kid with a crappy short film today might be tomorrow’s Spielberg or Nolan. How do you know? If he is, you’ll be glad that you built a friendship with him early on.
4. How do you get new gigs, and make sure they pay enough to sustain your business?
I think it’s kind of the same stuff as in the last question. You continue to build your skills, build relationships (new and existing), and your body of work. When your skills increase, your services are more desirable (you can charge more, in theory), and when your body of work is larger, people are more likely to run into your music organically.
On the relationship/networking front, you simply need to go places where people are, either in person (ideal) or online. Try to find local meetups of filmmakers in your area where you can meet people face to face. Facebook groups are also a neat place to make some initial connection and find people who have interests in common with you.
One strategy, which takes time, is try to to develop some longer-term relationships in a couple different markets or circles. For example, I am best connected in the Faith Film industry in the USA. But there are a couple of other circles that I have a foot, or at least a toe in. The more pools of people who know about me (and hopefully like me!), the more project opportunities I will potentially get.
Another strategy, which I have not personally used, is to get a pro account on imdb.com, which allows you to get contact information for filmmakers. You can then search for upcoming projects that you think you might be a good fit for, and reach out to the filmmaker to see if they need help with the music.
Obviously a lead from a cold emailing strategy is not going to be as high quality as an organic one that flows from an existing relationship, but this is one way that the composer can initiate multiple leads without waiting for a director to email him. Just try to be thoughtful of the guy on the other end and actually do some research on his project. No one wants to be thoughtlessly spammed.
5. Why did you start teaching, and what do you offer to aspiring composers?
I’ve struggled a good bit through my unorthodox career path, and have had to wrestle with a number of challenges both internal and external. I would really like to help the composers who are a step or two behind where I am today to overcome some of these challenges so that they can make forward strides into their careers with confidence and, hopefully, fewer headaches than I’ve experienced.
There is a growing body of free instruction on my site (www.fortecomposeracademy.com), but there are also some paid courses which offer much more in-depth and systematic instruction (and which also help support my family financially).
6. Any final tips and words of motivation to the composer community?
There is a lot of skepticism and fear in the music world in this internet age. The rapid changes in technology and how media is created and consumed over the last 20 years or so have rocked many of the old business models for musicians and composers, and so the very prevalent sense of despair in this industry makes sense.
But in the midst of this marketplace turbulence, I am seeing a greater variety of opportunities that exist for media composers than ever before! There ARE people in the messy middle of this business who are making a living and navigating the changing industry with success, which means that you can too.
And this path is a rather long one, so if you are not seeing immediate results, you can’t read too much into that. I recently heard a quote from Michael Hyatt that goes something like: “people have a tendency to overestimate what they can accomplish in one year, but underestimate how much they can accomplish in 5 years.” So prepare to play the long game.
7. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and story Benjamin, where can people find out more about you?
It’s been my pleasure! You can hear my music and hear more about my projects at my personal website: www.benbotkin.com, and my educational resources and courses can be found at www.fortecomposeracademy.com.