Getting paid to compose music is every hopeful music
composer/producer's dream. Some make it into a full time job, others land
one or two gigs and sees their dream fade away, yet others never even
get a single paid music composing gig and give it up work in an office
instead. Sad, but true.
In this article, our contributing writer Richie Nieto shares some tips
and advice for the would-be full time video game composer or film/TV composer
on how to behave and interact towards your client.
So you have finally landed your first paid gig as a video game composer.
The first thing you do is call all your friends and try to excitedly explain
that you’re going to work on a real game, but you can’t really
talk about it because of the Non-Disclosure Agreement you just signed.
After the initial rush of joy, you start to realize that you haven’t
really done this before. Not the composing part – you got that down
pat, no problem! It’s the part about working with a live, breathing,
paying client that you start feeling nervous about. A lot is riding on
this; someone has money to lose if you don’t deliver what is asked
from you. You can easily ruin your reputation even before you start building
it. Panic sets in.
Have no fear! Here are some pointers that will help you sail through
the rough seas of composing for money for the first time (or the second
time, if you blew it the first time around). These tips won’t help
you write an award-winning score, but they will help take the stress out
of mostly everything else in the process.
Remember that most clients are just like you. They want to make a living
doing what they enjoy, just as you do, and they also have a lot of concerns
about working with someone for the first time. They want to be certain
that you are responsible, efficient, organized, cool under pressure and
hopefully fun to work with. You ability as a composer is a given by this
point. They have your reel, they’ve listened to what you can do,
and they have agreed to your rates. The focus now is on work dynamics.
First things first. Communication is paramount. Make sure that you put
together a contact sheet with all the phone numbers and e-mail addresses
of all the people involved in the audio for the project. Be sure of who
you report directly to and who gives final approval of your music, but
never dismiss anyone as unimportant for any reason. You can’t possibly
know if the opinionated guy in the background is a relative of the company’s
CEO, so always be professional and polite to everyone.
If you were not involved in the pre-production stage of the project,
you should receive a music asset list, detailing all the cues you need
to write and their lengths, a description for each one, if they are one-offs
or loops, and the final delivery format. Ensure that the list matches
your contract, and if it’s a longer list or it’s bound to
grow later, ask for an addendum to the contract that specifies that you
will be paid for the extra music.
It’s also very important to ask for any visual materials that the
art department can provide, unless you’re composing to linear media
(i.e. cutscenes or cinematics), in which case you will most definitely
receive video to work to. A drawing or a short video clip showing how
a character moves can suddenly trigger a bunch of ideas about the feel
and direction of a music piece.
If the descriptions on the music asset list are too vague or you’re
still unclear about the music direction for any piece, ask for actual
music references that you can listen to. Some inexperienced composers
are afraid that their client will think that they have no ideas of their
own if they ask for a reference, and therefore, are not up to the task.
The truth is that using a reference, or “temp music” in film,
is very common in most projects, even the really high-end ones. It saves
time for everyone, which of course means money, and it makes the communication
process more fluid, especially for clients who are not too familiar with
Along with a reference, ask the producer or director what
they like about that particular reference piece that suits the scene or
level so well. It’s easy to just listen to it by yourself and decide
that, for instance, the tempo and the percussion’s energy is what
you should go for, but it turns out that what the producer really liked
was the melody instead. This seems very basic and rooted in common sense,
but when you’re trying to come up with an idea quickly, it’s
very easy to get on the wrong path if you don’t have enough information.
Asking questions is a sign that you care for the project. If a client
seems impatient about your inquiries, tell them politely that you only
want to do the best for their project and that you want them to be happy
with the results.
Once you’ve finished composing a first pass of a cue, deliver an
good quality MP3 to the appropriate team members through previously agreed-upon
channels (FTP, e-mail, etc.), along with a short explanation of key aspects
that you would like to highlight about it. This can seem trivial, but
don’t send a big honkin’ three-minute 24-bit WAV file for
review – it’s a waste of time for everyone, and again, time
is money. Always follow up after submitting any music or materials. If
you don’t get feedback within a reasonable time period, try again.
An e-mail lost in a Junk folder can mean the difference between a smooth
project and absolute chaos if redundant measures are not taken. A single
quick phone call the next day takes little time and keeps things under
Always expect to have to write more than one pass for a piece of music.
Only composers with a lot of experience who have previously worked with
the same client for a while are able to consistently nail a cue right
off the bat, and even then some tweaking may be required. Love your work,
but do not fall in love with your music – it can get ripped apart
if it’s not what’s needed for the project. Therefore, don’t
take any requests for changes personally; it’s all part of the process
and, after all, they are paying you. Even if you think their idea is ridiculous,
give it a try. You may find that something really cool comes out of it.
Unfortunately, there will be the odd occassion when you run into an unusually
difficult client, who keeps asking for endless or unreasonable changes,
or starts requesting fixes for pieces that have already been approved.
Here is where a previous written agreement becomes invaluable. You can
politely but firmly show to the client that their requests were not part
of your contract and they will need to compensate you for the additional
work. This can get tricky, especially if they have already dug in their
heels, but in most of the cases it becomes a matter of re-negotiating,
and both of you meeting halfway. It’s not ideal, but it certainly
beats contemplating getting into a lengthy and expensive legal battle.
Once all your music has been signed off on and your final mixes delivered,
make a point of personally thanking everyone on the team for their work
and their help. Without brown-nosing anyone, send a short email to the
team highlighting a couple of things you enjoyed about working on the
project. Some people who are starting out just dissapear as soon as the
last cue is approved and delivered, and while that isn’t inherently
frowned upon, they are wasting an opportunity to leave a long-lasting
positive personal mark on the client. Word-of-mouth is a powerful thing,
and your reputation as a great person to work with can be spread around
among a lot of potential clients very quickly.
So, that’s about it. Good luck and have fun!