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The Creative 1%: Film, Television, and Games

There are literally thousands of composers. One need only glance at the massive online communities of noisemakers to see how many of us there actually are. While every composer certainly has different creative goals, the holy grail for many of these professional and aspiring media composers includes film, television, and games.


But how many composers actually make a full-time living composing exclusively for film, tv, and interactive media? While we don’t have any truly solid numbers on this, it’s a safe assumption that the figure is small; maybe in the neighborhood of 1% or less. At first, this realization can feel like the harshest possible reality check. Unless you’re a member of the composing elite–the creative 1%–most media composers will not make their full-time living composing exclusively for these coveted, high-profile projects.


And guess what...that’s okay! 


This does not mean that there will not be a small army of composers that make a full-time living on stimulating projects both within and outside media’s big three (film, tv, games). The question is, how? 


The answer for me, and many composers, is a diversified creative income.


Ways to Make Money Writing Music

When most media composers begin their careers, making money writing music feels like a near impossibility. They score student films gratis, they post some music on royalty-free music sites (often with minimal or zero payoff), and they find themselves working for free at the studios of established composers. The first 5-10 years in this field are often financially brutal.


Over time though, we do find ways to begin carving out supplementary incomes and, eventually, a modest living doing a myriad of musical tasks. Some of these include (but are not limited to): writing trailer/production music, teaching, creating and selling virtual instruments, composing commercial music, and–of course–writing custom scores for media projects.

Below, you’ll see a percentage breakdown of my “musical revenue streams” for 2019. Naturally, every composer’s pie will look different, and the breakdown of income will likely change year to year for most every composer,



Why We Diversify

Most composers are freelancers. While staff composing positions do exist, these have become increasingly rare. When I began my first internship at a music house over six years ago, the company had two full time staff writers, one part time employee that doubled on mixing and composing tasks, a rotating list of composers-in-residence, and two to three rotating interns. Now, less than a decade later, that same company has no staff composers and has discontinued its residency program indefinitely. 


This agency is not unique. Most media and composing houses don’t hire staff composers due to the ever-expanding pool of talented bedroom producers and independent composers. The market has always been driven highly by freelancers, but now even more so. Since most of the market is indeed floated by gig work, we must do what all good independent contractors do: diversify.


1) Feast and famine...

There’s a certain sarandipity to freelance composing...when work rains, it often pours. When there’s a work drought, it’s a verifiable desert. Having contacts in several different fields ensures that when there’s no film work, there’s something to be found in teaching. When agencies don’t call looking for television commercial demos, you can start producing that album of production music you’ve been putting off.


In short, diversifying allows you to fill in the income valleys that occur when one sector of your creative work slows.


2) Variety is the spice of life…

Film and television music require very different creative muscles than commercial and production music. In film, we explore themes, enhance drama, and facilitate narrative over the course of ten to 120 minutes. In commercial music, we are required to be tonally precise and deliver a succinct message in fifteen to sixty seconds.


Anyone who has straddled these worlds will tell you that they’re both creatively and financially gratifying in different ways. You get something positive from every experience, but participating in a variety of composing endeavors will keep you compositionally sharp and creatively versatile.


Changing up your media pursuits isn’t only financially smart; it’s also creatively rewarding.


3) Get the BIG picture…

Composing for several different mediums gives us a more complete and nuanced view of what is happening in media music as a whole. There is an inevitable crossover between mediums and styles as tastes change and as industries progress. Knowledge is power, and having a bird’s eye view of the complete musical picture can only help.


How Do You Want to Spend Your Time?

Some people may respond to the challenge of diversifying with upturned noses. They might say, “I didn’t get into this business so I could score advertisements.” or “I only write trailer music.” or “I don’t want to waste my time chasing down a million different opportunities that might all fall through.” If you inclined to say anything in line with these statements, consider this…how do you want to spend your time?


Before I was able to compose for media full time, I worked at (what used to be) a Barnes in Noble in Santa Monica on the 3rd Street Promenade. I was spending nearly 100% of my billable hours as a bookseller. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with this. My time at the bookstore helped me pay for my apartment, I saw a small host of famous people come through the store’s music department, and the staff were incredibly kind to me...a fresh-faced kid trying to make his way in Los Angeles. However, I knew that this wasn't where I saw myself long-term.


Following my first feature film, I was able to spend 5-10% less time at the bookstore. When I started composing for my first production music library and the checks started coming in quarterly, that meant I was able to claim another 5% of my time back and dedicate it to composing. Just shy of a decade later, I have repeated and diversified this process again and again until I became a full time composer.


If you want to compose for film and television, do it! It’s incredibly rewarding, challenging, and fulfilling. But if the goal is to make money being creative, reclaim more of your time, and create a stable and sustainable career, there will likely need to be an expansion in how you define acceptable ways to make money, at least at the beginning of your career.

Diversify, diversify, and repeat.