Get Paid Projects as a Composer
Getting new paid projects as a composer is hard. Well, what if you could get some great tips that could get you more projects?
Today I have the honor to interview Jonathan Armandary, an experienced composer and educator.
You can also get his Complete Guide on “Landing Film Scoring Projects” for FREE. =)
1. Hello Jonathan, what is your background & story as a composer?
Hi Mike & Professional Composers!
I’ve been musical from a very early age – idolising my big brother who played both classical violin and heavy metal guitar – and learned various instruments as I was growing up (violin, cello, piano, saxophone, and the whole range of rock band instruments).
That lead me to study Jazz Saxophone at Leeds College of Music when I turned 16, before shifting into music production for film & TV for my degree.
Obviously, the majority of my projects at university were all about composing music for film, and the lecturers specified that projects must be submitted with all film audio in place to give context to the music…
…but they didn’t supply us with any example films to score!
So that meant hours and hours of meticulously replacing all the sound design and rerecording dialogue (ADR, basically), which we weren’t even assessed on.
You can probably guess what I was thinking : “f*** that!”
After the first couple of projects doing that I decided there had to be a better way to get film projects with no music – and, of course, that way was to find real world projects.
So that’s what I did.
At the end of my first year of university I started reaching out to anyone and every that I could find in search of projects to work on. I ended up with 15 projects on the go simultaneously – it was horrible, but the experience I gained was invaluable.
A few of those films went on to win awards for the music, and off the back of that I landed my first indie feature film (“Forget Paris”). That film was put together on a shoestring budget, but was so well received that it paved the way for the director to create a second, more ambitious film.
That second film had a bigger budget for music, so we were able to empty the services of the world renowned City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra to record the score.
Exciting! And this was all before I’d even finished my postgrad.
After this experience I reconnected with some of my old tutors at Leeds College of Music as I was interested in taking up some teaching. Well, long story short, after returning to study a postgrad in education, I began teaching part-time with the intention of continuing part-time as a composer.
I enjoyed the teaching so much that it quickly became full time, and I eventually ended up running one of the courses! Of course, that left very little time for composing, so I cut back to only working on passion projects, where I could really explore my creativity.
And now I’ve taken that teaching online with soundtrack.academy, where I’m hoping to inspire the next generation of film composers and really share what I’ve learned about the creative storytelling side of film composition.
I’ll stop writing there before I lose your attention, but if you’d like to hear more about my background I did a “special edition” of my podcast where I go into a lot of detail about how I got started and my approach to film composition: http://soundtrack.academy/jonnyarmandary/
2. How can we build relationships that benefit our composing career?
Well, the key is right there in the question : “build relationships”
I talk to a lot of composers who are trying to find projects, trying to find things to work on, and they say something along the lines of:
“I’ve sent my demo / showreel to so many people now, but no one ever gets back to me!”
That’s the digital equivalent of being in a room full of filmmakers and deciding that the best way to get yourself hired is to walk up to them with some headphones plugged into your phone and saying : “hey, listen to this!”
Except it’s even worse than that, because an email is a lot easier to ignore than a crazy person with some headphones.
So before you even think about showing someone your music, you need to make sure they actually want to hear your music.
And how do you do that?
You start by building a relationship. Talking to them. Find out who they are as a person, and what makes them tick. There’s a quote from Dale Carnegie that I absolutely love. It goes:
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming really interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you…
…which is just another way of saying that the way to make a friend is to be one.”
First and foremost you need to be making friends and you need to be helpful. If you can help a filmmaker out with a problem they have, you’ll be 1000x more likely to pop into their mind when they’re looking for a composer.
In a fantastic interview with Alex Steyermark, Nicholas Britell talks about how he met with a director for lunch, and just chatted about anything and everything, including the director’s upcoming movie.
After the lunch, he was so excited about the project that he threw together playlist of tracks that he thought suited the mood of the movie (and I hasten to add, it wasn’t a playlist of his music; it was a playlist of other composers’ work).
Of course, he ended up getting hired for that movie, but that was only a bonus to Britell – the intention wasn’t to sell himself, only to be friendly and helpful.
3. How can we stand out in the competition, in order to increase our chances to get hired?
If you’re making friends and being helpful, you’re already standing out – that’s the beauty of it!
The approach I think works best – making friends and being helpful – doesn’t really require you to “stand out” as such, it just requires you to be memorable.
Of course, there are examples of composers being picked up after somehow coming into the limelight – Michael Abels was famously discovered on YouTube, as was Tina Guo after she put everything she had into making one spectacular music video – but those are definitely the exceptions that prove the rule.
Really, I think where you absolutely must stand out is while you’re pitching for a project, and while you’re working on a project.
And you do that by going above and beyond.
Embrace every project as though it’s your project – prove to the filmmaker that you are 100% committed, that you love everything about the project, and you’re doing your absolute utmost to make it as good as it can possibly be.
If you do that, you’ll almost certainly win the affection of everyone you work with on the project – and they’ll all go onto other things and (hopefully) take you with them.
And on that note…never assume that you know where the next project will come from. I know composers that have landed projects because they built up a good relationship with the on set costume designer, who happened to recommend them to another director.
That’s why you need to make friends with everyone and anyone working in the area you want to work in.
4. What types of projects can we pursue as composers (Film, TV etc.)?
Anything and everything!
Seriously, try not to limit yourself to being only a “film composer” – you’ll close yourself off to a lot of opportunities.
While it’s always a good idea to focus and pursue one thing relentlessly, it’s also a really good idea to diversify too. Particularly in music.
I jokingly whinged earlier about having to replace all of the sound design and dialogue on those early university projects…but doing that allowed me to comfortably say “YES!” on a project where the sound designer dropped out at the last minute and I was asked to take over.
Learning some essential skills that relate to film / TV scoring is invaluable for your career. Learn about sound design, ADR, music editing, orchestration and notation / engraving, and whatever else comes your way.
With music, so many things are interwoven, you can never really know what projects might lead to other things. Some performers became film composers after being in a band (i.e. Danny Elfman & Carter Burwell), others were session musicians (i.e. John Williams), some were teachers first (Michael Abels), some were music editors (Michael Price), others were film editors (John Ottman)!
So don’t pursue projects, pursue music.
But I guess you don’t want a wishy-washy answer like that, you want something more concrete, right?
Well, okay, here are some composing-related things you can do:
- film projects (short films, animations, student films, feature films, documentaries)
- video games (console, apps, VR)
- jingles and adverts (you’d be surprised how many small jobs you can find by contacting local businesses)
- live events (I’ve written entrance music for MMA fighters, and custom music for weddings before)
- audiobooks (listen to Jordan Killiard on the podcast for more info on that)
Those are only a few examples of custom music – don’t forget about music licensing and
5. Any final top tips you can share about getting more paid projects as a composer?
The easiest and best way to find new projects is through referrals.
That is, being recommended by someone.
The way you get referrals is by being professional, and presenting yourself well.
Basically, you have to nail it.
If someone gives you a deadline, you absolutely must meet that deadline.
If someone gives you negative feedback on a cue, don’t throw a hissy fit – listen carefully to the feedback and figure out what the person actually wants…and then do that instead!
Don’t take on more than you can handle, and be honest. If the director wants a professional orchestral sound but you can’t do that, talk with them and figure out a different approach before you get in too deep. Or if they have the budget for a real orchestra but you’ve no idea how to coordinate that, use some of the budget (or your fee) to hire in someone to help. Whatever you do, you have to perform – don’t let the project fall apart.
When you get onto bigger projects, you’re as much a manager as you are a composer – so you need to step up to that.
All of that said, you do need to be pushing yourself. So don’t take on more than you can handle, but definitely push your limits, or you’ll never learn how to take things up to the next level.
I could go on for hours about all of the facets that makes you a “professional”, but for now just remember that the music is only one part of the overall equation that makes you hireable and referable.
No one would refer anyone they can’t trust.
Think about it : if I referred a plumber to you and they made an absolute mess of your house, not only would you no longer trust my judgement or referrals, but our all-important friendship would also be damaged, right? So no-one is going to risk their relationships by referring you if they don’t trust you implicitly.
6. What is on your agenda now, any cool projects you are working on or planning to do?
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been focusing all of my efforts into building soundtrack.academy recently, so things have been quiet on the composing side. That said, I recently finished work on another short film that will be doing the festival circuit shortly, and is being used to generate funds for a feature film that I’ll be working on – it’s all in the early stages at the moment though.
As for soundtrack.academy, right now putting together a whole heap of free resources that will be available on my website and to my subscribers – I’m hoping to become the “go-to” place to learn about film scoring, but I’ve a lot of work to do to get there!
7. Thank you so much for sharing your insights Jonathan, where can people find you online?
No problem, Mike – it’s been fun!
The soundtrack.academy website is where all of my resources go – so head on over there : https://soundtrack.academy/
And for my definitive guide on finding film scoring projects, you can download my free eBook here : https://soundtrack.academy/find-film-scoring-projects
Of course, I’d be more than happy if anyone wants to reach out to me directly : firstname.lastname@example.org