How I became a full time trailer music composer: TMCP 001

By Richard Pryn •  Updated: 01/07/20 •  19 min read

I get asked this all the time: “How do you become a trailer music composer?” Quickly followed by “how do you write trailer music?”

I love these questions. Mostly because I LOVE my job and I love talking about it. Hence me starting this podcast I guess. 

So I thought I would kick the podcast off with my story of how I got into writing trailer music.

It’s one of those ‘I didn’t choose to get into it’ type of stories. BUT, once I was in, I loved it.

Writing trailer music is amazing. You can be incredibly creative. You can earn a very good living, AND you can work when you want, for as long as you want. It’s awesome

It’s a pretty niche job to be writing music specifically for film trailers and I just want to give you guys an insight into my story and how I got to where I am, a full time trailer music composer.

Who is Richard Schrieber?

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a full time trailer music composer; I’ve won multiple awards and while I say full time, I’m not full time I typically do it a few hours a day some days of the week. So I am incredibly blessed.

I got here by working hard, which is the story of most successful people. I find it really interesting telling people my story because some people want to have the magic bullet, you know, they want to hear that I just found this one person and they got me a job and that I landed like £300,000 placement and I was done…

It wasn’t like that at all.

How I became a Trailer Music composer

It all started back when I was two and I started playing with pots and pans (cue geographically and temporally appropriate music, probably Lionel Richie singing, “Hello…)

I had a fascination with sound back then when I was two, probably the same as you. I’m quite happy to see that my kids go inside the pots and pans cupboard too. So maybe they’ve got a fascination with sound too.

I grew up listening to a lot of music; my mum hammering out Lionel Richie, Abba, the Beach Boys and plenty of film scores – specifically last of the Mohicans and Michael Nyman’s score to The Piano.

At the time I didn’t really realize that I was soaking this music up like a sponge. I think I was actually like, “Oh my goodness, would you turn that music off?”…although I don’t think I sounded quite as posh as that.

At some point I started learning the keyboard. Sadly I don’t think I got very far because practicing as an 11 year old really wasn’t on my radar. I would have much rather been playing Nintendo.

I kept it up for a few years because I liked my teacher. He was really nice, really enthusiastic, and I did like the music we played. (At this point my music collection was mostly Janet Jackson and Simply Red so you can make your own judgments there).

The most important part of it is that I just listened to what I liked and I did what I liked and that was really important. And something you should write down right now:

Focus on what you enjoy and what you are curious about

When I was around 12 or 13 my older brother picked up a guitar and was like, “Hey mum, I want to have guitar lessons, can I have some please?” And he started having guitar lessons.

Obviously as the younger brother, I was like, “Hells yeah I’m going to play guitar too.” So when he was out, I’d sneak into his room and take his guitar and try and learn Smashing Pumpkin songs from a little songbook I had bought from a local music shop.

I didn’t really know how to play or even how to practice, so I used a tape recorder I picked up from a car boot sale, which I still have today, and I just started playing music into it and recording it and and that was my process. To be quite honest with you, that still is my process – I try not to think about it too much just hit record and see what happens.

My Mum then bought me a four track recorder as a Christmas present one year which was a bit beyond me admittedly, but I did manage to track out four guitar parts. This was a real realization that actually I can’t really play in time BUT I can write really nice parts.

That passion for the guitar and writing music was fuelled by Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins and by me and my friends being in a band together playing covers of Nirvana, the Foo Fighters, and a small band called the Llama Farmers, and we absolutely loved it.

I decided to enrol in an art course after school so me and my friends could pursue “the band”. I met my wife there which was obviously magical and then that was for me that was the reason to be there.

KNOWING WHAT YOU DON’T WANT IS EXTREMELY POWERFUL

I decided to do a course at a college called the ACM, the Academy of Contemporary Music, which I thought what it would do would teach me how to play amazing guitar and be an amazing musician. Which it did. It was absolutely huge for teaching me good listening skills, playing to a metronome, and all these things. They basically trained you as session musicians, which meant that after that year, I absolutely hated playing the electric guitar. I was so sick of playing my guitar 4 hours a day and wanted to be more creative. That was the gift this course gave me – the knowledge that I wanted to create.

We had a whale of a time as a band but I began to think, “Yeah, actually, I’m not sure whether I want to do this band thing with my life.”

NOTICE what you spend your time doing and how it makes you feel

At this point I started listening to Danny Elfman scores with my new found listening skills and trying to figure them out on the guitar. I quickly realized there was this whole world of writing that I didn’t understand but absolutely lit me up inside.

So I signed up to study music and art at Degree level. I had an amazing tutor called Connall Gleeson which was a bit of a fanboy moment for me as he had done some orchestration on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He had worked in the States as an orchestrator and was an amazing composer and totally inspired me.

The course was wonderfully diverse. It taught you everything from using max MSP and logic to writing music for installations and dance. As it was an art and music course we studied all these composers, artists, and choreographers. It was fantastic. It was the thing that laid the foundations for me of actually composing music.

Writing music doesn’t have to be this really anal three minute pop song where everything has to be done in a certain way. It can be weird and it can be wonderful. My degree course really nurtured a passion for sound and exploring noises.

Get weird, YOU MIGHT LEARN SOMETHING ABOUT YOURSELF!

The composers we listened to and studied, like the music concrete movement where they began recording sounds and playing them out live and highlighting the crazy sounds that we are surrounded by every day. This exposure to experimentation was amazing and as a result I started to focus on writing music whilst I was on this course and I realised actually I want to be a film composer. I wanted to write music for things like Danny Elfman, like John Williams, like John Barry and I just completely immerse myself in film scores.

In the evenings whilst my girlfriend was doing English literature reading, I would sit there with my headphones listening to and reading the scores of Debussy, Mozart and Beethoven. I taught myself a great deal about writing by studying scores and I had this little workbook where I had sections on orchestration, notation, composition, theory and harmony.

STUDY ORCHESTRATION

I was lucky enough that my Mum offered to pay for orchestration lessons with a local composer called a Rohan Kriwaczek. Rohan was an amazing musician, and the stuff he wrote and played was amazing.

I would walk into his studio, which was this dark cave-room with all these wonderful exotic instruments that I’d never heard before hanging from the ceiling .

I would say, “Hey look Rohan I’ve written this” and he’d pull down this bizarre clarinet from some deep, deep dark area of the world and say, “Well, how about this?” He would then play the line I had written on this instrument and the magic I felt when I heard him play blew my mind. I can’t really tell you how magical that feeling was.

I completely immersed myself in all this stuff. All the while thinking, “I’m going to be a film composer!” So I started approaching short film directors, networking sites and all sorts of people just being like, “Hey, I like, I’m a composer do you need any music?” And this is how I built my experience and catalogue.

“Talk to people about what it is you are doing and hope to achieve as the universe will respond to this message in kind”

Learn to use a DAW

Back then, I didn’t have the first clue about producing music on a computer. I had dabbled in Logic at Uni but I knew I needed to have a recording system at home. So I grabbed a pirate copy of Reason and Cakewalk Pro. That was when I started to recording my own sounds and exploring production.

Back then, I didn’t have a MIDI keyboard, I used to write in all my MIDI parts with a mouse which at the time it seemed like magic because I’d gone from writing with a pen and paper.

Before, I would have to wait weeks for someone to be able to play it back to me live. Now, however I could click a mouse and I’d hear the sound immediately. It was just magic. So I loved using Reason and Cakewalk.

Start sampling as soon as you can – it will help with your signature sounds

I had my first experience in sampling with cakewalk pro. I invited my friend Hannah to play some violin notes for me. The resulting samples I used to create my own harmonies and beds in my music. It was just wonderful. I loved that ability to capture live recordings all from the comfort of my own home.

At the time of my life it was all play. I had this passion in my mind that I was going to be a film composer. I started playing around with idea of growing my skillset and exploring as much as I could.

When I left university, my wife and I went travelling which still is one of the best things I have ever done. BUT when we got back it was a massive shock to the system. I had gone from this place where you could spend all of your time just exploring your every curiosity and passion without any real pressure from the “real world”.

You have to earn money first to provide stability to pursue your passion

When I got back we bought a teeny little two-up-two-down. I said, “I’m going to make a go of this composition thing.” After about two months of not hearing anything back from anybody and not getting any work or anything, I realised I was going to have to some money coming in.

I got a job teaching music and this was my breadwinner for about seven years teaching African drums, Guitar, Ukulele, Music Production – basically anything they would offer me. All the knowledge I had accumulated up to this point, I then taught to children in schools and I absolutely loved the job.

When I wasn’t teaching, it was only a part time teaching job, I was writing and approaching companies about short films and all sorts. This “side hustle” is really important. I was blessed that I managed to get some work writing music for corporate films.

I was getting paid to write music and that was a massive boost to my confidence and I just kept plugging away, plugging away, plugging away.

Getting my foot in the door

In the meantime, one of my friends was doing a show for a record label and they wanted some music like Sean Callery’s music to the TV show ’24’ to walk on stage to. It turned out that the lead singer’s girlfriend was working for a publisher called ‘Boosey and Hawkes’. After the show she approached me and said, “Hey, send me in your demo reel.”

I then sent in a CD of, you know, 50 of my greatest works and she emailed me back saying, “Hey look, this one is fantastic, let’s get you in to chat.”

So I then signed up as a composer with them which was just epic. I was going to be a proper composer, this is going to be huge.

Little did I realise that in the advertising sync world, you don’t get paid unless you win the job. So I was doing tons and tons of free work and that continued for years and years pitching endlessly with extremely tight turn arounds, sometimes even as small as an hour.

The great thing was that I was learning my craft, pitching, getting feedback, pitching, getting feedback, all the while increasing the amount of sample libraries I had, increasing the speed of my working. I even got a MIDI keyboard. It was very exciting.

THE “BIG BREAK”

Whilst I was working there, I was also producing my own music just for fun called Mr. Monocle’s Quirky Delights. This was me playing the ukulele, whistling, and playing recorder.

At that time, there was a young man working at Boosey & Hawkes Vikram Gudi. We got to talking. He said how much he loved my quirky, weird, ukulele tracks and we hit it off from there. And those of you who know me, you’ll know that me and Vik have a very successful working relationship now.

Vik went on to set up the company Elephant Music, which I signed to, my actual big break. Whilst I was teaching part time, I was sending tracks to Vik and Vik was starting to get me work that was paid. Huge!

At one point Vik said to me, “you know what Rich, I just want some piano music. People were asking for piano music, can you run out of music?” Which I did. I wrote 5 albums of piano music which became Elephant Music’s first 5 albums.

Vik started pitching them all the while I was still teaching, but he started pitching to win movie trailers, not TV ads.

Feel the fear and do it anyway

At this point I was saying to my wife, “I don’t really want to do a teaching anymore. I want to be a full time composer. That’s why I feel like I’m supposed to be doing. I’m scared to leave cause I don’t have any money. I don’t know what to do.”

Our daughter Imogen was just born and I realized that I wanted to be around when my daughter was little, so I decided to hand in my notice at the school I was working in. And this is the wonderful thing about the universe it gave me something.

Out of the blue, I got an email from Boosey and Hawkes who I still worked with occasionally saying, “Hey, this Japanese film is being produced and they like your stuff and want you to score a feature film.”

I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be a film composer, this is the dream – this is amazing. Scoring that film was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had in my musical career. It was fantastic. The easiest scoring job I’ve done; they sent me a spreadsheet of the tracks they wanted, the mood they wanted, the length of it and any other keywords do with instruments or speed.

I just wrote tracks based on that. I wrote about 20 cues, like 60 minutes of music. They only gave me one change to make.

The universe provides if you ask

As well as that, Vik phones me and says, “Rich, we just landed two IBM adverts!” They paid really well, I think in total I got £15,000. That was my year’s mortgage sorted. I’ve got a safety net for a year. Everything just fell into place.

Mine and Vik’s working relationship just got better and better and he just started getting more and more work.

Pareto’s Principle

For a few years I was working with several companies, writing library music, corporate music, trailer music and ad music. Through a book by Tim Ferriss I was introduced to the 80/20 principle; what 20% of your work gives you 80% of your money. For me the answer was obvious Elephant Music was giving me about 90% of my income and it was only 20% of my working time.

So I left everybody else and just started working with Vik and because I wasn’t working as much and I was earning well me and my wife decided we were going to share the childcare, so we’d split the days between us. That’s pretty much how it has been since my daughter was one years old.

Since that decision was made my career has absolutely rocketed. I’ve won awards, I get regular placements and my income has reached a trajectory that has given me so much freedom.

My career is absolutely amazing and I am so very blessed.

All of a sudden people kept asking me, “Rich, how do you do what you do?”

I would reply, “Erm, hard work!”

This isn’t what people wanted to hear so I would then try to show them. I went around to a friend’s house and I showed him what I do. I laid out a trailer queue and he was like, “Whoa, that’s blowing my mind.”

The Birth of The Trailer Music School

So I thought, “well maybe there’s something in this!?”

I decided to send an email to a few of my friends and composer friends to see if they would be interested in learning how to write trailer music?

They all said “yes” and I asked them to prepay to give me the incentive to actually create the course. So they all chipped in a nominal fee and I began work on the course that became, The Trailer Music Course.

The course taught people all the ins and outs of trailer musi. From Bwaaaams to Rises, Structure and build, to mixing and mastering. For this last part I was very, very lucky to have Toby Mason agree to do a mixing and mastering masterclass at the end of that course.

And here I am today. I have the Trailer Music School. All the courses I have produced in writing trailer music.

Life as a trailer music composer

I get placements regularly, and it’s not just one style of music either. That’s a wonderful thing about trailer music composing; it’s so varied. I’m not just doing Epic music; I’m writing stomp swagger, drums intros, sound design, family adventure, delicate piano – I have the chance to create pretty much all the weird and wonderful sounds I want to.

It’s a wonderful world to be working in. You can be as creative as you like, as weird as you like because somewhere there’s going to be a film that’s going to use that weird music. If you watch all the recent trailers on YouTube, whichever one you watch, you will notice that actually trailer music isn’t just Epic music. Trailer music includes all of the genres, all of the styles, and you can be very successful if you understand the structures and the formulas and how to create modd and impact.

Here I am today, sat in my study recording this first session of the podcast, which my students at the trailer music school have been asking for. Saying, “Rich, we’d like a podcast for training musicians in Trailer Music!” – Done.

I have a YouTube channel that shows people how I do what I do; how to write trailer music, how to be a trailer music composer.

I also want to be as transparent as possible, showing you all the “tricks” and “cheats” I do to create the music I make. I want my audience to grow as composers and be able to experience the awesome joy of writing the music they want to write and being paid well to do so.

Why the Trailer Music Composer’s podcast?

This podcast for me is going to be a place to express the thoughts that I can’t express on video. Well, I could express them on video, but you know, a talking head isn’t very exciting. And I LOVE podcasts; Going for a walk in the woods with my three month old listening to podcasts or driving the car with a podcast on.

It’d be nice for me to deliver content to you guys who are on your commute, who are going for your runs. Those of you who want to keep studying and learning about trailer music even when you are on the move. So I will be delivering content about Trailer Music through this podcast.

If you can learn anything from my story, it’s to focus on the things you enjoy and are curious about. Don’t spend too much time doing the things you don’t enjoy because what you’re trying to do is to play to your strengths. The moment I played to my strengths was the moment I started to become more successful. And that’s what you need to do.

Follow your enjoyment.

Richard Pryn

Hey there. I am an award winning composer for movie trailers, including Bladerunner 2049, Diablo II, WandaVision, and loads more. I am the founder of The Trailer Music School where my aim is to teach everything I know about music composition, production, and generally being a functional human being. I podcast, blog, vlog and jog (sometimes). I also love coffee, nachos and self-improvement. I live with my wife, three kids and numerous pets. I am also known by my pseudonym, Richard Schrieber (it’s a long story).