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  • Writer's pictureNathaniel Meeks

How to Work with Those Crazy Composers (A Starting Guide for Directors)

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

Hi there! Here is an exhaustive beginner's guide to working with composers on a score. This guide starts with the raw basics, so it's perfect for directors who have never hired a composer before. It starts easy but gets pretty technical later on, so read it slowly and as many times as is necessary.


Throughout the post, I frequently discuss best practices for film scores, but almost everything herein also applies to TV scores and much of it is applicable to video game music.


Let's get to it!


TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

TAKING THE LEAP!

(The Benefits of Working with Composers)


For up-and-coming directors, the idea of hiring a composer can seem daunting. Music plays a crucial role in cinematic storytelling, and musical scores often have the power to make or break a movie. Many new directors might hesitate to hire composers for the following reasons:

  1. Fear of losing artistic control

  2. Embarrassment due to lack of musical vocabulary

  3. Limitations due to deadlines and budget

  4. Availability of royalty-free music and stock music libraries

Of course, there are real risks involved with hiring a composer, but these risks are dwarfed in comparison to the artistic benefits and narrative possibilities that a well-crafted score brings to a film. Here are some reasons that directors choose to work with composers:

Score Enhances Narrative

Increased Cinematic Flexibility

Establishing a Setting

Enhancing an Aesthetic

Thematic Elements

It's Fun


 

PLANNING FOR MUSIC


Many new directors (and/or producers) treat a movie's score as an afterthought, something to be dealt with in post production. During preproduction, much of their attention is devoted to finalizing scripts, hiring crew/talent, booking locations, etc. and score can fall through the cracks because it isn't perceived as an immediate concern. This lack of preparation becomes problematic when it's time to score the film but there's nothing left in the budget for music, there's too little time, or (worst of all) the composer isn't qualified for the job.


On the flip side, directors and producers are far more likely to receive a quality product when they take the time to plan for score during preproduction. Planning ahead allows them to be more selective with the hiring process and it better enables them to imagine the film as a finished product, an advantage which I detail in the previous section.


Here are some important items to take into consideration when planning for score:


Style/Aesthetic

Budget

Timeline

Unique Creative Opportunities


 

SELECTING A COMPOSER


Quick Disclaimer About Money

Before you start reaching out to composers and/or advertising a composer role on job boards, you should determine if you can pay the composer a fair rate or if you're asking them to work as a favor. This will affect which composers will be willing to take the job. Essentially, you should know what you're willing to pay, and if it falls above or below standard rates <(there are some helpful charts about halfway down the page of this article). Be honest if you can't compensate your composer fairly, as there are often composers who are willing to score a film for reasons other than money.

Above all else, DON'T BE AN ASSHOLE. Always try to compensate your composer fairly, and don't lead them on with false promises of experience or exposure. If you are paying your composer with experience, make sure it's worth their time and be extra kind to them. Ideally, they're helping you as much as you're helping them.


WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A COMPOSER

Composers are weird. Make sure it's the good variety of weird because odds are you'll be spending an extended amount of time with them during the scoring process. When searching for a composer, try to look for these qualities:


Relevant Experience/Ability to Deliver

Understanding of Film

Compatible Personality

Interest in the Project

Some Level of Humility

Affordability


WHERE TO LOOK FOR COMPOSERS (the cool way)

Despite the convenience of social networking technology, the most effective way to find composers is through organic, person-to-person interaction. Here are some ideas for finding composers the cool way:

  • Referrals from friends and colleagues. (This is how most directors and composers get connected, especially in Hollywood. It's, BY FAR, the most effective method because there's an element of trust involved. You can ask your friends and colleagues to give you an honest report of the composer's character and abilities).

  • Ask around at your school or place of work. (This method is great if you're a film student and your college has a music department. Seriously, try it).

  • Look for composers at guild events and mixers. (I feel like this one is self-explanatory).

  • Be social in entertainment cities like New York and Los Angeles. (Lot's of partnerships have started in the park or at a bar).


WHERE TO LOOK FOR COMPOSERS (the internets way)

Still, the internets can be nice. Here are a few ways you can put out a request for composers:

If you look for composers using the internets, you might mention the following things in your job post/website inquiry:

  • Name of production

  • Description of production and the type of score you're looking for:

    • e.g. Sense, Sensibility, and Cyborgs is a sci-fi dark comedy in which Jane Austin must travel to the future to save the world from a religious war by convincing world leaders that her writings are purely fictional. We are looking for a score that combines elements of contemporary electronica with the early classical style of Vivaldi.

  • Description of composer's responsibilities

    • Will they also have to record, produce, mix, etc. ?

  • Production website and/or social media pages

  • Paid/unpaid

  • On location/remote

 

CONTRACTS


Don't rush through contracts. Contracts are very important, and there are a lot of sharks in Hollywood who will try to take advantage of you because you don't understand the terms. In this section I go over the main points of interest in a Composer Agreement, the document that sets the terms for the composer, the paying party, and the ownership of the music.


I considered providing a template in this section, but composer agreements can have such a wide range of terms that any template I offer will have biases. Also, I don't trust myself to use proper legalese. Be careful when working with a template, as you might inadvertently screw your composer (or yourself) over by failing to understand the terms.


IMPORTANT ITEMS OF A COMPOSER AGREEMENT

Here are the vital elements of a composer agreement, items that you must negotiate with your composer so that there are no unhappy surprises down the road. In an actual contract, some of these items will be grouped together within sections and there will be differences in ordering.

Defining Special Vocabulary

Composer's Services

Deadlines/Delivery Requirements

Budgetary Requirements

Payment

Credit

***Grant of Rights/Exclusivity***

Royalties

Indemnification

Kill Clause

Soundtrack Album

This is by no means an exhaustive list of terms that appear in composer agreements, but it should be sufficient in helping you understand how to read/edit a composer agreement. I highly recommend you get help from an entertainment or music lawyer when you're drafting, editing, and reviewing the agreement.

 

THE SCORING PROCESS


Yay! The fun part!!! Every director and every composer has a slightly different approach when it comes to score, but there are some standard practices that you...well...you really should just do them. They make sense. Here they are:

Waiting for Picture Lock

***Spotting***

Being Specific

Delivering Video and Audio to Composer

Notes and Rewrites

Recording Sessions

Dubbing Sessions/Working with Stems


 

COMMON PITFALLS


Using General Terms

Over-scoring

Under-scoring

Demand for Themes on Short Form Projects

Overly-Eclectic/Schizophrenic Scores

Temp Love

Misuse of Musical Terminology


 

THINGS THAT MAKE COMPOSERS HAPPY

NORMAL THINGS DON'T MAKE THEM HAPPY (THEY'RE INSANE).


Good Communication

Budget for Live Musicians

Credits Suites

Diegetic Music

Sincere Flattery


 

THINGS I LEFT OUT


Temp Music

Cue Naming Conventions

Cue Sheets

Musical Terminology

Personal Anecdotes

Probably some other stuff.


 

CONCLUSIONS


  1. Composers are crazy

  2. Composers are worth the hassle

  3. Plan for score during preproduction

  4. Wait for picture lock to start scoring

  5. Be Specific

Alright! Now that I've exhausted you with this guide, you should probably go to bed. Comment below if you have any questions or corrections or if you can think of anything important I left out.


Also, get excited!!! I know this guide could be snarky at times, but working with composers can be really fun. Now go make some new friends! Shoo! Shoo!

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