TMCP 018: What Makes a Successful Trailer Music Composer?

TMCP 018: What Makes a Successful Trailer Music Composer?

In this episode of the Trailer Music Composers’ Podcast, Rich talks about “success”:

What is success in the trailer music world?

How do you get there?
Rich discusses a number of topics that are key to being successful, including:
Quality work,
Opening the “gates into the industry”
Being a nice person, open to opportunities
Gratitude and perseverance
Finding the right publisher(s)
Service

Transcript

Hey guys welcome to session number 18 of the trailer music composer’s podcast.

Music.

One with one microphone, whose favourite childhood movie is Honey I Shrunk the Kids.  Welcome to the trailer music composer’s podcast.

Hey guys welcome to another session of the trailer music composer’s podcast.  In this session I wanted to talk about something which I’m pretty sure all aspiring trailer composers are interested in, and to an extent all professional ones too.  And other composers alike.  It’s trying to figure out what makes a successful trailer composer.  

And obviously we’re going to start with the first point of this, which is success is completely subjective, that you know what you deem as a successful career and a successful life is completely up to you.  Some people would see success as earning loads of money, some people would see success as earning loads of placements, and believe me they’re not always linked those two.  Some people would see success as people listening to their music, some people see success as spending time with their family, living in their dream home.  There’s all these elements and usually most people’s ideas of success are pretty much all of the above.  Having more money, more time and more recognition for their skills.  

So let’s say that we’re going to define success here on this episode as enough money to be able to live the life that you want.  So that’s obviously a changeable according to what type of lifestyle you want to live, enough placements to be recognised among your peers for your skills, and enough time to not be writing all the time, to have space for your family, have space for your other interests.  Because let’s face it as much as well all love trailer music we all want to do other stuff too.  Well at least I do anyway. So let’s say that’s our ideal of success.  

And that’s my ideal which quite honestly I think I have achieved.  So in my eyes I am a successful trailer composer because I have enough money to live the life I want which gives me enough time to be with my family and to focus on projects I want to do, and yet have enough placements to get recognition from my peers, which if I had money and time I would still look for the recognition because you know we all like a little bit of fanfare.

So the first aspect here is quality.  Because this is the first thing we all do when we learn something, we learn so that we can get good at it.  So the first element of success is making sure that you produce enough quality work or even that we must produce good music and as you will notice stylistically that changes according to your genre, because some people might hear my horror tracks and go well that’s horrible, that’s not good music, but it’s according to the style.  Or some people might hear classic epic orchestral and be like that’s pretty boring, where are the beats, you know.  So it’s really important here to gauge quality again subjectively.  It’s not an objective thing quality, it’s a subjective thing.

The best way to do that is to use your own nose, you need to establish again what it is that makes the music you want to do good quality.  And how do you do that?  Well I guess the first thing and I hear a lot of other composers suggesting this as well.  If you want to match up your tracks in quality, you need to match them up to other people in the same arena as you.  So do your tracks sound kind of the same?  And I don’t mean that in a kind of sound alike way, I mean it in a do they hold up, you know, in the same way as sort of weighing boxers, not putting batam weight in the same league as a heavy weight, because they’re good at what they do, but they’re not the same league.  So it’s the same as when you’re comparing your tracks, you need to listen to them according to what area you’re going into.

So let’s say for instance my area is a thriller, which is pretty much is you know, my music gets mostly placed in thrillers and horrors.  And stylistically my music holds up in quality, but the way I judge it, aside from comparison, honestly I don’t often do that, I judge it by how excited the stuff gets me. When I’m writing it does it get me excited, when I’m mixing it does it get me excited, when I’m editing it does it get me excited?  And if the answer is yes then great, we are on to a winner with regard to quality.

There are some exceptions to the rule, because obviously when you look back at your catalogue with hindsight, you listen back to your first few tracks, and go, blimey they really weren’t good quality, they were awful, but they were a representation of your highest quality at the time.  I mean one of my first placements which was for a national cheese advert, you know I look back at it, I can hear that it had character in it, it had what it needed to do the job then.  But I look back on it and I go oh, those samples weren’t great or it sounded a bit naff.  But at the time I was loving it, I was thinking this is possibly the best piece of music I have ever written and that’s kind of what you want to do.  You want to get some music that just gets you pumped because again, I’m going to talk about energy here, the energy you produce as a writer when you’re writing your music is integral, because the energy you produce goes into the sounds. Whether you’re a fan of metaphysical stuff or not we are all beings of energy and vibration and we vibrate according to our feelings.  And if the music we’re producing is making us feel happy and excited then that will vibrate into whatever we produce and that’s my belief, that when you write music that gets you pumped it gets other people pumped too.

And I heard an interview with Richard Ashcroft who is the lead singer from The Verve, this was back in the 90s, just saying, he was asked the question how does he choose which songs go on the album and he listens to them and he’s like if it lights me up then it gets in the album, which I completely agree with.  And that’s your marker of quality.  And it does get dangerous when you begin to compare yourself with other people who are further down the line than you are, because they might have other tools, they might have other things that enable them to achieve certain results that you can’t.

For instance I always used to get into the trap of comparing myself, my tracks with tracks that were professionally mixed and mastered.  You know most of us trailer composers are lucky enough to have incredibly talented people, like Toby Mason for example, who mix and master our tracks so that they sound as huge and fat and wide and brutal as possible.  And when I used to compare my tracks to those tracks, I’d be like wow how am I supposed to do this, you know.  My ripped copy of this doesn’t do the job because I didn’t know what I was doing.  So be careful on the comparison note.  And you will notice that I often advocate not to compare and that’s why fall back on this does this excite me, if it does great, there is our success in quality.  The way you define your quality of success is if you enjoy it and if it gets you excited.  And I think this transcends into any form of creative work.  Whether you’re a writer of trailer music or an installation piece of artwork, or doing a firework display.  If it excites you, you’re onto a winner.

So the next thing obviously we’ve got our tracks that excite us.  How do we then start making money from it?  And the next step is to find the sales person.  So this is the element of success that a lot of people struggle with.  This is the opening the gates into the industry.  You know I was lucky enough to be paired with Vic from Elephant Music, very, very early on in our careers.  To be honest we both started out at exactly the same time, we met when we were just starting out.  So we kind of rocketed up together, which I’m incredibly grateful for.  Which enables me to see the importance of the relationships you’ve built.

So a lot of people see publishers, music supervisors, editors, these gatekeepers as just gatekeepers, they don’t see them as people with jobs.  And you get this with emails don’t you, hello, this is my music, when can you get it placed?  You know an incredibly blunt email. So the next thing you want to think about is ok well how can I deem this next part of my career a success. And this is the secret path, I say secret path, it’s the path to placement.  And that is building relationships.  

So take my trailer music school for example the students who are super nice and super keen and treat me like a person rather than like a gatekeeper to something else are the ones that I tend to want to go back to and approach about working with.  So I say hey how about trying this, they don’t necessarily have to be the best composers because at the end of the day we’re forming relationships and I’m not going to work with a super talented composer whose not an particularly nice person to deal with.  And that’s the same with every publisher and anyone dealing with composers.  Make sure you’re nice to people.  And this is I think a successful tip in life, to be nice you know.  

And the niceties and these developing relationships you will notice tend to develop into professional relationships because they have a nice solid grounding.  All of my work has come from building relationships.  I have never really got work from relationships that didn’t particularly work, where we didn’t connect.  The work that I have got has come through relationships where we’ve connected as people rather than email addresses.  Whether that’s a shared interest in the band Tool, or the fact that we both started our careers at the same time.  You name it.  

So how can you deem this next level of success?  It’s building relationships.  Now I see this day to day on facebook.  I see composers asking the same questions, how do I get in the door, how do I get in the door.  And I am completely aware of other composers who whenever a trailer music library has posted a success or a sync replacement or whatever, they have been the first to comment and been like congrats guys, love your work.  And it’s been really personable and really nice.  And you will never guess what they often end up working with those publishers because you know what, I have the same thing.  If someone keeps posting on my Facebook posts or instagram posts, I’m like hey this guy seems nice.  I say guy it could be a girl.  This person is nice.  And there is the start of the relationship.  

Same with my trailer music school, some of my students started contacting me more regularly asking questions about things.  And I’m perfectly happy to answer the questions and then you go here’s a picture of a can of beer that I’m drinking and then it’s like hey I like beer too.  It’s like hey beer.  Admittedly you know lots of us drink beer, we like beer.  So that’s quite an easy commonality.  But my point here is you need to successfully build natural relationships and do it in a nice way.  Because then also you will get a lot of job satisfaction because you will have some banter,  most of us are tucked away on our little caves, having seen a lot of the photos on the trailer music composers support group of peoples studios I can safely say most of us are working in the dark and it’s nice to have human contact and that’s what you get with these relationships.  And then the bonus is obviously that they also help you out in your career. 

So here we go.  So we’ve got our quality work, we’ve started establishing good relationships and then you will start to notice that the work flows to you.  Or at least the opportunity for work comes to you. And that opportunity could come in many guises.  So this is the next level of success in my opinion which is gratitude.  Yes I’m going there guys, I’m going into gratitude because I think this is an incredibly important mindset shift.  It was a huge one for me as well as being grateful for what you have.  So when someone sends you an album request, i.e they say hey Rich we’re doing this funky sifi guitar pentatonic drum and bass album, we love your stuff and think actually you would be a really nice addition to the team, you want to have a go.  And I would be like thank you so much, this is awesome.  Yes I’m in.  And the gratitude there comes through in your relationship.  So you’re still bui8lding your relationship, but what you’re also doing is your being grateful for the opportunities that arise.  Because a lot of people I know and have known have not seen the opportunities when they arise.  Because they’re so focused on certain things, you know something in the distance.

So for instance, this is like a hypothetical example, I really want to get an Avengers full feature trailer with audio machine, but whilst you’re focusing on that another trailer company have approached you saying we’re doing some comedy drum intro albums, would you like no, I’m busy.  Or you know at least you brush it off or don’t put your best foot forward with that.  That is your opportunity.  So when you’re focusing on your goals and stuff like that it’s really important to think about stuff in that manner, to think about how the universe offers me these opportunities to get to where I want to go.  And if you’re grateful for these opportunities when they arise you will notice oh look more opportunities arise thank you.  You have to receive these opportunities to get where you want to go.  A good example being the first opportunity I had which had I not seen it as an opportunity I wouldn’t be where I am today.

My friend was doing a label launch with EMI and asked for some 24 type music and rather than being like no actually I want to do a film score I was like yeah, I love 24 lets do this.  And then that got me into a publisher and this and that and the other.  The opportunities often come in different forms and if you have a grateful and open mindset to these, you know some might call it the yes man attitude, then you will start to be able to look back in your career and pinpoint those moments, like when Vic asked me to do some solo piano stuff I was like yes, so I did some solo piano stuff. And then that became the first five piano works album for Elephant Music.  At the time I was focusing more on rocky guitar trailer stuff, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be like the Cliff Lynn type sound that was my focus, but I was like yeah ok I love the music so let’s have a go with this piano stuff.  And I of course downloaded spitfire which was then felt piano but is now soft piano for £3 and hey ho there you go five albums.

I think it’s really important for you guys to be successful to look for the opportunities that arise.  Sometimes the opportunities you’re not going to sit back and they’re going to come to you. Sometimes you have to work for them. Like I said, build those relationships but sometimes when you build those relationships an opportunity will rear its head like hey you want to collaborate with me.  Or hey could you give me some feedback on this track, you ever know what it is.  And this is the thing you know being open minded and grateful really enables you to be opened up to your career, you know we;re all focused on a career in trailer music, por if you’e not lsitenign to this with a trailer music had on we’re all focused on a career fill in the blank, film score, ad music, library music, although trailer music is library music.  We’re all focused on something, but we also need to realise that we get those opportunities regularly, to get to where we want.  We just don’t necessarily see them because they come in hidden forms sometimes. 

I’m going to completely ruin this but there’s that wonderful story about the man looking for riches, I’m not even sure I should say this because I’m just completely ruining it I know, but he was looking for riches, he was sat on this box, he was looking for riches and nothing was coming to him, you know he was getting down in the dumps, and he is like one day maybe I will just look in this box, and he was like oh look the riches are in the box I’ve been sat on this whole time because he was expecting riches to come in a certain form.  I know some of you are going to comment on this and be like er you got it well wrong Rich, and yes I probably did, but if I made a completely analogy then bonus.  So what I would like you to take from this is you can be successful in your approaches.  So be successful by being kind, by being grateful and taking the opportunities that are given to you.  Even if you don’t necessarily succeed on the way you wanted to, i.e I know I’ve definitely produced some terrible, terrible custom work, but it’s taught me something on the way you know.  I.e you don’t enjoy custom, that’s my first one.  Obviously.  But it taught me something, it gave me a gift, whether that gift was the thing I wanted or whether that gift was a lesson either way, great news.

So let’s say this, we’ve worked on our quality, we’re building relationships, we’re getting opportunities in the form of working of working with publishers, maybe doing some custom work, now this is the real thing.  How do you ensure a successful trailer music career now that you are starting to get placements?  And this is a mindset thing.  It’s not a thing we can put in spreadsheets or graphs because I know there are more composers who get more placements than me, there are more composers who get less placements than me, I know there are composers that earn more, I know there are composers that earn less, but it’s about your mindset.  Because the moment you start to worry, am I doing well, that’s when it all starts to go wrong, because what you need to do, is focus on, and I have to say guys, I’m speaking to myself here, I have to say that podcasts are very therapeutic for me, it’s like the nice kick up the bum to remind myself the gratitude comes out here. If you get a placement, yes win it, this is amazing, you have done an incredible job, because you think about the odds of your track out of the hundreds and thousands of tracks being placed in this trailer which was being worked on by multiple trailer houses, with multiple cuts being chosen for this film.  I mean the odds are tiny.  So those of you who have got a placement, no matter how big, no matter how small, you are legendary.  So congratulate yourself, that is a success.  Whether that becomes a career, that is a different story.

So, I remember just a few years ago how incredibly excited I would get when I would get one placement, and the reason I would get so incredibly excited is obviously because it was awesome, because I had a lot of scarcity things going on.  I worried that there weren’t enough placements for me, and that I was in a desert and I found the oasis with this single placement and I thought oh I didn’t think it was possible to get more than one or two payments a year.  Because they can pay well.  And this will quickly answer a few questions.  You can earn hundreds of thousands from a trailer placement with the right company.  Or you can earn tens of thousands otr you know a thousand or five hundred.  You can earn anything up to that six figures, but if you just get one placement you’re still thinking about the next one.  And I find myself doing this.  

I mean take now for example, I’d had some time off for paternity leave because I had just had, well I say I had, my wife had given birth to our third child.  So I took some time off.  In total I took five months off writing that is.  I waa still doing some work in the evenings and when I could but I wasn’t strictly composing for trailers.  And you know I was like I’ve taken this time off. I was thinking it’s a while since I got a placement, has my luck run out.  And then I started focusing on exciting things.  Things that executed me and that up to my vibration, upped my mood ad boom, I landed five trailers this week.  Which is huge.  That’s huge.  And that’s not a common occurrence for me, but there’s nothing to say it can be a common occurrence for me.

So now what we need to do is break down the commonality of the composers who do get regular placements who have made a successful career. That is like I said, producing quality music that gives you enough time, enough money to do and live the life you want.  And that could be more money or less money or more time or less time, however you want to do it.

And the things I notice are perseverance.  I’m going to sound like one of those teachers, you know, the common things here are perseverance and hard work.  That is true, it’s so true.  Don’t give up, do not give up, keep producing work that you love.  Keep producing work that excites you, even if it is crazy weird.  Just do the stuff that excites you, because like I said you’ll be giving off this cool happy vibe because you’re doing work that’s happy and fun and nice.  

And I say that, yes, most music I produce is dark and scary, but it makes me excited and happy when I’m producing it.  And I think that’s a big deal here is the energy that I’m putting out.  So the perseverance, do not give up.  Keep writing and keep having goals in your head of what you want to achieve, i.e the type of films you want, how many placements.  And those goals will give you that drive to keep moving forward.  And if you do things that you enjoy moving forward is so much more easy.  The times when I have slowed my output or slowed my success in my career is when I spent too much time doing the stuff I didn’t enjoy or I was working with a company whose work ethic wasn’t the same as mine.  And that comes back down to relationships.  

So my relationship with Vic, we work very well together, we understand the way each other works.  He understands that when I send him a complete barebones sketch he understands where I’m going to take it and that I will take it there when needs be.  And that’s really important because I’ve worked with some publishers where I send them my sketches and they’re like can’t feedback on this and I’m like oh yeah of course they don’t know how I work, so I fill out the sketch and then they start to get really pernicity about the snares and things.  Which is really important, but for me it’s not.  So I was like ok the writing is more important for me rather than the mixing so I won’t be doing the mixing anyway.  So sideswipe.

So these people who have done well, made a success and have a good relationship with the people they work with.  And that usually manifests itself as they feature on a lot of their output.  So I understandably feature on a lot of Elephant Music’s output.  Because I have a good relationship with my publisher which leads me to the next thing.

The company you work with.  Now we can’t all pick and choose the companies we work with, well actually you can, but it’s hard to see what company is going to work best for you until you actually work with them.  So you remember to keep yourself open to opportunities and do with your gut.  Because some companies will sell you stuff in read only successfully.  And I’ve seen this. I’ve seen my track be pitched for mid five figures, so $50,000, $60,000 for an act one.  And I’ve seen that same track be pitched for $500.  Your agent, your publisher, your sales person is vital.  So it’s really important I think that you keep those relationships going with the people that you are on the same wavelength with.  If you are with a publisher who sees your music as fodder rather than sees you as an artist whose music they like, then I’m not sure that’s going to be the best choice for you.  But if that’s the only choice you have, keep working at it, you never know what opportunity is going to come.  And that’s why you see successful trailer music companies.  Because they have a healthy attitude I think of their composers and I think that’s really important.

So what have we done?  We’ve done perseverance, we’ve done focusing on enjoyment, we’ve done your relationships, now let’s say we’re at the stage where I am, which is you feel successful.  What’s the next level of success when you’ve got there.  Because you guys I’m kind of doing it.  And that next level of success is service I think.  So you see the guys who run the trailer music composers support group, Cody and Mark and I forget the other peoples’ names, sorry apologies guys if you’re listening.  They don a great job of supporting and serving the composers.  That group is superb, because you get to place a question and have these people who are doing this for a living, these real pros who have been doing it for ages giving you some advice.  I would have absolutely loved that when I started out.  I knew no other composers and whenever I did try and contact other composers they never replied.  So I think a certain level of success is down to the service you give back.

And that’s what I’m trying to do here with this podcast.  I’m essentially talking to myself, 10 year so Rich keep going due I know it hurts when you don’t win the trailer and I know it’s bad when you don’t get to work with the company you want to but there is something around the corner. And I’m talking to myself now.  There is something around the corner always, you just have to have faith it’s going to happen.  So when you get to that point of your earning the money, you’ve got the time, I think it’s good to do some service.  And it doesn’t have to necessarily be going to a homeless shelter and cooking some food, it doesn’t have to be tithing, although both of those things are good. I’m a firm believer in tithing.  But I think service helps other people.  

You know I do get a lot of emails from a lot of composers, a lot of DMs from a lot of composers who are one to sixty steps back from me.  They are basically iterations of myself in time backwards, who are saying I’d like to have some feedback on this track or hey what’s your thoughts on this.  You know when I have the time, I am very happy to help because you know what it feels nice and it’s nice to know that perhaps maybe when I need to reach out to somebody that they will return the favour.  You know, hey I know you are amazing. Do you want to be on this podcast please, pretty please, it’s nice to know that maybe they will say love to, serving each other.  

I was brought up with this idea that the music industry was an incredibly selfish, dangerous world where you’re going to be swindled and taken down, and no youre not, no it’s not.  It is not like that at all.  Yes there are aspects of that, but that’s like describing one single city as incredibly dangerous and that’s all that city is.  A City is a manifestation of moods, of economy, of all these things and there is such a variety of things in a city there is in the music industry.  Yes there are people being swindled, yes there are people making millions, yes, but we’re also in a nice community where we can help each other out.  And I think it’s been a successful day, obviously if I get a placement, and if I had time with my family and if I get to help somebody.  So I really hope I’m helping you with this podcast, because that’s right Rich 10 years ago, you’ll get there, persevere, if you are there why not reply to one of those messages, be like hey, my studio is set up as this, or don’t bother spending your money on a sample library, just get better at writing. Or don’t bother getting a better midi keyboard, they’re all basically the same.  You know they aren’t strictly my opinion, but, although I do align with them in some way.  But they are just examples of ways you4 can help.

And that’s the thing, shift your mindset, because sometimes you don’t even realise you are helping or serving somebody, by producing good work you’re serving somebody. You know I’m incredibly grateful for two steps from hell, those two chaps, Thomas and, I’m terrible with names, sorry guys, their music output was fantastic, and it got me excited.  You know obviously I’m incredibly grateful for all the rock bands, the 90s and the 00s, and classical composers, thank you guys.  That is service, doing good music is service. And that comes back down, we;re going full circle here guys to doing stuff that you enjoy and that you are curious about.  

You know I love it when I hear a trailer and I’m like oh how did they do that?  Isn’t that cool, we’re doing each other a favour.  So I think that is pretty important when it comes to how do we measure, how do we become a successful trial composer.  I’m not going to be like first email this company, second here’s my template to email them, third copy this trailer because that would be nonsense.  It’s all mindset guys  it’s all mindset and I think you’re noticing a trendset in my podcast here, it’s almost all mindset.  You know although I think I might be throwing a couple of episodes out there, more like this is how you do a good transition, but actually I think I’m helping myself by doing this podcast, it’s very therapeutic for me and I think I’m helping other people too, because like I said I think I’m at a level of success where I can sort of stand back with that thousand mile view looking over the land of the past and be like ok I see the commonalities, I see the real thread that ties my career together.

And these things.  Perseverance was a huge thing, doing stuff I enjoy and being nice, being nice to work with, I like working with nice people, and I’m sure you do too.  And yeah, rather than me ramble on more about those points you need to decide how to measure your success. You can’t measure your success on other people.  Because that’s when you start to enter the sad and unhappy world of comparison.  You need to sit down, I suggest with a pen and a massive piece of paper, or post it notes whatever and write down what a successful life looks like to you.  What a successful day looks like to you.  And then if you carry on persevering with trailer music and you keep those ideas of success in your mind then you will find that life starts to manifest maybe slowly, maybe incredibly quickly. It depends.  

I mean I did that, and again I’m going back into this area that some might call woo woo but I call it life, vision boards.  You know I kid you not, I did a vision board where I cut up pictures of what I wanted my life to look like, and do you know what, we just bought a house recently, ok recently last year, where the sitting room sort of kitchen dining room was exactly the same as a picture I cut out, I think it was eight years ago something like that.   Exactly the same.  You know if I’d said to myself as I was cutting that picture out eight years ago, hey dude you’re going to get that, I’d be like no way.  Admittedly I’m still waiting for that beauty and the beast style library, but you know it’s probably just around the corner.

So on that note guys go grab a piece of pen and paper, define what your success is, whether that’s tons of placements, whether that’s one massive placement a year, whether it is being able to watch your children grow up by spending the time with them,,. Or whether it’s travelling the world with a laptop and sample library.  Define your success, this is your path, you need to write so try not to compare, try and define what you deem as success.  If I’d told myself eight years ago that my most successful tracks were the ones where I played violin and cello on (badly) I would have been like no, no, no.  Yeah because it was fun.  Go and have some fun guys.  And I so very much appreciate you taking the time to listen to this podcast you are freaking awesome.

See you.

Music.

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