Scope of work, Deadlines, The project itself
So, you’re talking with a composer about your project, and trying to let them know what you need from them. You don't belong to an established studio, and don't have any set contracts. Maybe you’ve got some really specific ideas. Maybe you don’t, and you’re just kind of spitballing. Both of these scenarios are okay, actually. As a composer, it’s part of our job to figure out exactly what a project needs. But, there are some things that you can communicate about your project that will be helpful in almost every instance, and you can do it even if you have no idea what the finished music should be.
The scope of work
What is the scope of work the composer is doing? It’s actually not a very simple question, sometimes. For a film, you might say the length of the film. For a podcast or television series you might say the average length of an episode. For a video game, you might have an asset list (My personal favorite thing right after the design document.)
Those are pretty good starting points. But, the scope of work can still have further variables. For example, is your movie a standalone film? Or do you plant to do further films in that universe? If that big bad in your horror film is going to pop up again in your later work, you want to let your composer know. Because, they will be composing something that may be referenced in later soundtracks. It may be referenced even by different composers, if you hire somebody else, depending on the terms of your contract.
For an episodic work, such as a television series or podcast, your composer will need to know the level of interconnectedness between episodes. Is it a procedural, where every episode pretty much stands on its own? Or are there common elements that will be tied together? Do you need an opening theme, closing theme, and are there specific story elements you’d like to tie in?
For a video game, it can be tricky. Because there’s so much you could ask for. Maybe you’re making a simple shooter, and you’re thinking that you just want four loops of music for the four zones you plan to have the player play through. Okay. Do you need stingers? Are there power-ups? Do you need a music cue for dying or running out of lives? Is there menu music?
Are you making an RPG? Well, you’re going to want to share a lot about the different characters, and how characters relate to each other. Maybe somebody the player thinks is a friend is actually (*Gasp*) an enemy. That’s very important information for your composer to know - There are ways to make this moment even more poignant with music. With story driven games, not only is there music for levels/places, but often characters and ideas will often need their own motifs.
Asking yourself these questions about your project and having some answers to communicate to your composer will always be helpful. Even if you’re not sure about a solid answer, this information can be invaluable to a composer, who can help hash things out with you with more confidence.
Deadlines are extraordinarily important. Many people I work with have had very structured timelines for their projects, and I am grateful for that. But, some of you may be thinking “How do I know when this will finish? I hardly know when post-production will start at all.” Not to fret! You can really ballpark this.
For scoring something cinematic, you can say something like this: “We anticipate finishing in the early fall, which is when we’d get the final cut to you. I’ll communicate more as we get closer, to keep you in the loop once I have some more specific dates. We’ll have a rough cut to you within a week of our finishing shooting. We’re hoping that you can complete the composing in four weeks from the time you receive the final cut.”
What you’re doing in that message is conveying a general deadline, as well as a conditional deadline that works whenever you get the film to your composer - “Four weeks.” This isn’t perfect - As a composer, I do occasionally have busy periods or commitments to plan around. But, as you’ve promised to communicate more as you set more specific dates, that helps set me at ease. I may respond back asking for six weeks, or saying that the month of October is bad for me, so I can make better commitments if I know for sure I’ll get it in September. But, we have somewhere to start!
It’s also helpful to include time for revisions in your timelines. I may give you a finished cut in four weeks, but what about the changes? When after receiving the cut do you think you’ll have notes ready? How long do you want to give the composer to make the required changes? And then, well, you have to listen/watch/play it all over again after.
For video games, you may have a more structured timeline. You may expect that certain levels/themes are completed in tandem with your programming team. You may have a design document to upkeep, and you may use project management software. Communicating your preferred PM software and general workflow is always helpful. Don’t shy away from it - Specifics are great! It helps a composer anticipate how to integrate their process into your team’s, and come up with questions/concerns that you may not have thought of yet.
The Project (Not just words about it)
This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t think of this. If you’ve hired your composer, you want to give them as much info about your project as needed. And what’s usually sorely needed is the project itself. Or what you have of it, at least. You haven’t started filming? Send a script. Haven’t coded the game? Send that vertical slice you worked up for PAX east. Send your design document, level design, artwork. If this is proprietary, send whatever NDA you need to.
What’s important is that this gives a composer time to evaluate the work and start composing, even before you get a final cut, or a beta version to them. This time is invaluable, and only strengthens your final product. Of course sometimes this isn’t possible - Maybe you’ve hired a composer very early into your process. But, never underestimate the info about a project that can be conveyed with the project itself. Or, even what can be conveyed through other projects.
Do you have a previous project that you’ve made and you liked what your composer did for it? Share that. Send reference tracks, allusions to other films/podcasts/games, anything that will help your composer get a feel for what you want. What you want to get away from are “words about” your project. Words are great things. But nothing can replace the experience of actually watching/listening/playing something. Those references are priceless.
I hope this was helpful to you, as you figure out how to explain the great thing that’s in your head to a composer.
And, if you think I’d be a good fit, feel free to reach out to me for a quote. You can put all of this into practice right away!
If you had your choice of rights to music, you’d want to own it. Not just license it. You want to put it in your project, and be able to use it for sequels. Make a trailer? You can use the music. Make a toy or novelty product, you can use the music. Create a website? Use the music. Release the soundtrack, make money off of it. The music is yours to use as you see fit, because you own it. Does a youtuber want to do a remix of your music? You can charge them mechanical royalties, or force them to come to a sync license agreement. The music is yours.
This is really the holy grail of custom music - If you had your choice, you’d choose custom music that you can own and use however you see fit, I promise.
There’s just one problem:
That’s also pretty expensive. Like, $50-$250 per minute expensive. And that’s a lowball range.
An established composer can charge up to $3,000 per minute of finished music.
Have you given up yet?
Well, don’t give up so soon. There are alternative agreements that can give you all the benefits of custom music (As opposed to pre-composed), but with substantially cheaper costs.
Check out these ways to pay less for custom music, and not feel bad about it. This isn’t a trick - It’s just a list of some aspects of composing that are negotiable. You can negotiate the terms of your custom music every time you hire a composer for a project - None of this is set in stone.
License the music instead of owning it.
Do you want to own the music? I’d say so.
Do you have to? Maybe not, actually.
Maybe you can get away with just licensing the music.
But, Caleb! I can hear you protesting. Isn’t the whole point of custom music that it’s not like the pre-composed tracks from a stock library?
That’s fair. But, unlike stock-music sites that make you choose between five license agreements to find the one that’s right for you (And good luck with that. I’ve waited for an answer to my question from one of those sites for ten days, and when it arrived, it just supplied me with a link to the license agreement I had asked the question about), when working with a composer, you have other options.
You can ask that the music be sync/media exclusive.
That means, even though you’re only licensing the music and you do not own it, the composer cannot sell that music to another movie/tv series/podcast/video game. The composer also couldn’t sell it on a pre-composed-music site. The composer would retain the rights to produce a soundtrack and make money from that. (Podcast composers in particular do this often, in my experience.)
You can ask that the music be sync/media exclusive for x amount of years, after which the music license reverts back to the composer and they can sell it again. I don’t find this option super valuable, as I don’t know any projects that would want music I’ve sold to someone else before. But, for composers that compose music for those stock-music sites, that can be an appealing arrangement that convinces them to charge less, since they’ll soon be able to “sell” it more times from the sites.
One of the concessions you make, as well, by licensing the music for a specific project, is agreeing not to use the music in a trailer or on a website or for advertising or anything without negotiating an additional license. And that really is a concession. If you make a sequel to your video game, you’d have to negotiate a separate license for it, and maybe the composer you chose is much busier now and charges higher rates. Then you’re kind of over a barrel if you want to use the music/themes from the first installment.
So maybe you put an option to purchase clause in the contract for the first project, which stipulates the right to purchase an additional license within the next x years. Maybe it stipulates the right to purchase unlimited additional licenses for the next x years. That option to purchase can cover the licenses even if you use a different composer for the second project - What you’re purchasing are the musical themes/ideas from the first project, to use in a second.
I’m not trying to give you an exhaustive list here - I just want to give you a sense of the options you have at your disposal when negotiating for custom music. If you know that this is a one-off project, you really don’t care about an option to purchase. If you’re using this music for your twitch stream, maybe you really don’t care about the music in three years, because you’ll likely have changed a lot about your brand/online presence by that point and will have a different playlist or channel theme.
What’s important is to have a sense of what you need the music for, and what you can do without. Knowing this in advance can make negotiations run more smoothly with your composer. And that good communication can be a signal to them that you’re good to deal with - Which, in itself, can be a reason a composer may charge less.
Place the music yourself:
Some composers will let you do this. I don’t, and I explain why HERE.
But this is a big time saver for composers, especially composers who sell pre-composed music already. They’ll be on board. There are drawbacks to this, but many composers will do it.
So, what agreement is right for me?
That’s ultimately a decision you’ll have to come to for yourself. You don’t have to have it perfectly worked out in your head. But, having some sense of what you can ask for and how it’s valued can let you operate with more confidence when discussing pricing when you hire a composer.
This isn’t an exhaustive list - Composers you pay for custom music may charge differing rates and offer different options. But hopefully this gives you a sense of the kinds of things you can ask for to make custom music work for your budget.
And, if you want to practice trying your hand at negotiating the price of custom music, and like some of the work I’ve done, feel free to reach out for a quote.
You get what you pay for, and you sound like everyone else.
But if you’re going to, just get Kevin McLeod’s music. It’s free and there’s tons of it.
Chances are, my site is not the first music site you’ve visited.
You may have seen other sites that license music out really inexpensively. Perhaps, if you’re a game dev, you may have been browsing the unity asset store. These websites/stores sell music tracks from about 1-5 minutes long. They allow you to search for tracks in the genres you want, in the tempos you want, and can offer some other filtering choices.
It can be easy to find the good pieces too - Filters will often allow you to put the most purchased or highest rated pieces at the top of your search. Those pieces tend to be fairly high quality.
When working on a budget, these pre-composed pieces of music may be a good fit for you. They won’t strain the project’s budget too much, and they’ll get the job done, at least for the most part.
So, why shell out a ton of money for custom-composed music?
Believe it or not, I’ve got a couple reasons.
Firstly, with custom music, you’re talking about music that is unique to your project. It won’t have been heard anywhere else before.
One hazard of using pre-composed music is that your audience could have heard it somewhere else before, and that can really take them out of the experience you’ve made for them. And often, the filters that allow you to see the best work (Most bought, highest starred) are filters that are giving you the work most likely to have been heard by your audience before. Some of these tracks will have an exclusive option - But they are more rare, and more expensive. By paying for custom-composed music, you are ensuring an exclusive musical experience. (Depending upon the terms you and your composer agree to.)
A second problem with pre-composed music is that you are limited in what you can do with the tracks, and how you can legally use them.
Imagine this. Let’s say you’re making a podcast. You’ve found the perfect pre-composed tracks for your project and place them perfectly over the characters, places, and ideas that need consistent music. You make your podcast, and the first season becomes fairly popular. Your patreon is successful, you’re getting good reviews and some press attention, and going into season 2, you have an actual budget.
So, now, you think, you’re going to hire a composer!
That composer cannot use any of the thematic material from your first season.
A piece of pre-composed music you bought that you played whenever a villain was in a scene? You can pay to license the exact track again. The composer you hired can place it. But whatever composer you have for season two cannot play with the theme, elongate it, re-harmonize it, contextualize it in other themes for other characters or places unless you pay to license that piece again. And that’s true of any track of pre-composed music you purchase.
You’ve bought a track. You can play the track in the project you licensed it for. But, the musical ideas in the track are not yours. You didn’t pay for those. Depending on what license you purchase, you may be able to transform the tracks as you see fit (Though that’s not a guarantee), but you’ll need to own that license for every episode you use that music in.
So now season two starts, and your composer is coming up with all new material. It’s really good, but none of the characters or places have the same music. The tonal shift perplexes your audience.
Depending on the terms of your contract with a composer who is doing custom music for your game, you will most often have the rights to those themes. If you make a sequel and John Williams calls you up and wants to do the score? Well, he can use all of that music you already have associated with your story/franchise. He can Williams it up and add in his own style, mix and match with new themes for the new season, and reflect character growth in the ways he uses the motifs. And that’s something he can do because you paid for custom music.
Real Time Adjustment
Would you believe it if I told you that about half of my scoring work is spent on just a fraction of the length of the work?
Sometimes all I’ll do in a day is work on several spots, just five seconds long each - Finding the perfect place to loop, smoothing out a transition, making a stab time perfectly. With precomposed music, it’s like putting on a chainmail suit on a skeleton. You may get the overall shape right. But it will never conform or gel completely with what’s inside. Custom music turns the music into muscle and sinew to your project’s skeleton. It melds until it becomes part of the project, and isn’t separate at all.
And this isn’t just in those transitions either. Maybe a perfect theme that works over one actor’s voice conflicts with another actor’s voice because the synth is stepping on where the second actor’s voice lies. With custom composing, it’s easy for a composer to switch out the synth for another instrument. The composer can keep the intent and mood, and also make the small changes to make it gel with all the small details in your work. Pre-composed music, no matter how high quality, cannot do that.
You get to give feedback and make changes!
Like the overall feel of some music, but want it over a different scene? A composer you hired can do that. Like the melody, but want it in electric guitar instead of flute? A composer can do that. Want the chords made minor in one section, but major in another? A composer can do that.
Any idea, any feedback at all, you can give it to a composer you’ve hired. With pre-composed music, you’re most often stuck using the best fit. What music can give you 80% of what you want? 90%? Well, a composer can give you 100%, and often can give you things you never even knew you wanted. Maybe that electric guitar you wanted is used later, in a neat way, to reflect a change in another character. Maybe the chords you wanted to change are changed to a slightly less minor mode that works better than what you envisioned at first.
A composer that you’ve hired can make changes that you want, depending on your agreed revisions. And a composer can actually take ideas you express and translate them with more understanding than a search term in a pre-composed music bank can.
So, you ask, should I use pre-composed music in my projects or not?
There are pros and cons to pre-composed music, for sure. But, I’d say no, you shouldn’t use pre-composed music. But if you do, use Kevin MacLeod. He writes the best stuff, it’s all free, and it’s licensed under Creative Commons Attribution, which will make things super easy for you.
But as for paying for pre-composed music? If you have a small budget for music, I’d suggest just finding a new or student composer who’s willing to work cheaply. You’ll get better results, and both you and the composer could get valuable experience. I don’t know of stock-music you pay for that’s going to be better than anything Kevin MacLeod does.
But, if the only problem is that you think you’ve got a small budget, why don’t you reach out anyway? The worst that can happen is a composer might say the project isn’t a great fit, or they’re busy. There’s no harm. And there are some things you can do to negotiate a lower price.
Spoiler alert: It's me. I put the music in.
I’m going to be blunt - If it's incidental music, I put the music in.
A hardline stance, I know. I’ve turned down work over it, too. I feel pretty strongly about this.
For non-incidental music, like, say, an opening and closing theme for a podcast? That's fine! I don't have any qualms about a creator placing them.
Do you need me to export my stems to the dub stage for a final mix? Sure! No problem.
But for the initial music placement on cinematic scorings?
Music that follows scenes, characters, or ideas?
It'll have to be me.
This is not a typical stance to take, and you shouldn’t have much trouble finding composers who are willing to create custom music libraries for your film/podcast/game that will let you do all the placements. I’m just not one of them. I have a few reasons why.
A composer is the right person for the job
Something magical happens when a singer accompanies themselves on an instrument. Even if they hit a wrong note or two; even if their vowels go to a dipthong a little too soon; even if they breath too often and don’t go for a high note. Even with any number of cons, there’s a giant pro:
A person accompanying themselves will always be playing at the right time.
When there’s a second person accompanying, the singer must work hard and subtly change their interpretation sometimes, to communicate tempo changes to an accompanist. The accompanist, even if splendid, will not ever perfectly match a rubato to a singer like a singer could do for themselves if they’re playing simultaneously.
There’s a musical synergy when you have one person responsible for multiple aspects of their performance.
I believe the same is true in composing custom music.
A composer will always be best positioned to place their music.
A composer will be best positioned to come up with transitional phrases, or shortened measures, to ensure things time out perfectly. A composer will know when to change the ending of a loop to make it connect better to the beginning, without a reverb trail. A composer will be the best fit for any number of problems, because while somebody else might think of one solution, a composer can think of a hundred.
There was a scene I was scoring that involved a climax on the final line a character said in the episode. And the notes I got back were “Make it louder. It’s not loud enough.”
But then I made it loud, and you know what?
You couldn’t hear the line.
When placing music, you may think you can control volume and make things work. Sure. But what would you do in this situation?
Because I had composed the music, I was able to change the meter for three bars, reference an earlier theme, and make it so the strong beats of the music came in between the character's lines.
This is the strength of a composer.
There’s always another solution, and sometimes, the solution someone thinks of first will be more limited than the options a composer can come up with.
I am specifically the best fit for this work
I have played and accompanied many singers and instrumentalists, timing things to their breath. I have timed out vamps in musical theatre to variable dialogue perfectly. I have extensive experience in making programmatic music line up and transition well in podcasts and film.
I also have experience in middleware, and know how to incorporate music into a game intuitively, and add interactivity. This could be with vertical layering or horizontal resequencing, both of which can sound seamless…
If I do it.
It is possible that you’d have a splendid producer, or gamedev, who could do incredibly well with just a custom library of music.
But every tool in their toolbox would be an engineer’s tool. It would not necessarily be a composer’s tool.
Your audio engineer or mastering tech can fade something in or out. But can they cut the perfect three beats from the music so that it lines up and still sounds musically sensible? Your level design lead can increase the tempo of the music and pitch it up when something intense happens; but can they add in a layer of drums and a pulsing synth?
I promise, that’s not easy.
And it does make a difference.
Having years of experience in relevant fields means that this isn’t just a job that a composer is uniquely qualified to do; this is a job that I am uniquely qualified to do.
You could make me look bad
This is a short reason, and isn’t terribly polite.
But, there isn’t a single experience I’ve had where the incidental music left my hands and I didn’t place any of it that I thought “Wow, what a good job they did.”
In projects where others placed the incidental music, it…
Let’s just say they didn’t make the demo reel.
Because the work I do for projects is one of the biggest ways I can demonstrate my abilities to future clients, I can lose work if I’m credited as a composer on projects with poorly placed music and crummy transitions. It’s just not worth the risk for me, personally.
This is what scoring is.
There is a reason I do not write for stock libraries.
There is a reason I do not make custom libraries and have people place the music themselves
The reason is this:
I don’t like writing “McMusic.”
Generalized music that can be used by any production for any genre doesn’t appeal to me. I want to write music that is rooted in your story, and that furthers the goals of a specific scene or level or episode or franchise. I don’t want to write music that’s just general enough to be used ad nauseum. I don’t want to write a four chord track for a corporate start-up to use on their sales pitches as easily as a non-profit could use it to raise money for stray cats.
I don’t want to give you a McSuspense track and a McHorror track. I want to give whatever specific creepy big bad you have in your podcast an aural identity. I want people to do a quick turn around the room if they ever hear something that sounds similar to the big bad sound because it’s so specific they can’t imagine it being something else. I want to write music that is as unique as the stories it's undergirding. I want to write music that positions your creative projects and your production company's brand intentionally and specifically.
And, for me? That means placing it in the initial draft.
I always take notes afterwards. People I work with are able to tell me to move a synth’s entrance earlier, or to fade out later, or to revamp a whole portion, or to move a musical passage somewhere else. And I can do it, and am happy to. I never refuse input from a creator.
And, for a game soundtrack, if my usage of WWise or FMOD isn’t up to your standards? I’m completely open to your making changes to make the music better integrate with the gameplay experience you’re shooting for.
If after the spotting session you need me to outsource MIDI to a separate orchestrator? That's fine.
But the initial placement? The first draft? That has to be me, I’m afraid.
This is what scoring is.
At the very least? It’s what scoring is to me.
And it’s the only kind of scoring I’m looking to do.
Yes! It can actually be easier, too!
If you haven’t worked with a freelancer before, you may have questions about how it can work. Can a remote contractor really communicate well? Will they send their contributions to the project in a timely manner? Will they understand your vision for your project? It may surprise you to find out that when working remotely, communication and productivity often increase in quality.
If COVID has taught employers anything, it’s been that working remotely is not only possible, but in some cases, may be desirable. Numerous studies have come out in the last year that show that workers are actually increasing their output when working from home. But, in addition to studies that demonstrate higher productivity among remote workers, I want to visit a couple experiences I’ve had, myself.
I remember one experience, when I was scoring a short film. I was watching the film, in person, with the director, lead cinematographer, and producer. We spent hours hashing out what worked and what didn’t. This was the fourth time we had watched the film together, and the last time I worked a job without specifying the number of revisions in my contract.
I remember taking notes, but that the notes contradicted themselves as none of the three other parties could agree on what they wanted out of the score. The director and producer had disagreements about the ending. They wanted to re-cut it. I tried explaining that a recut would entail work on the score, and that was construed as my taking the director’s side. The cinematographer was given notes about the light, which he had to explain would need to be edited in post, and that wasn’t his job, as he had turned over the raw video files to the director.
I remember another experience, this time programming keyboards for a musical. A stage manager and director paused live runs during the dress rehearsal so they could discuss if a character’s hat looked weird in the light. After the music director stepped out briefly, the director decided to start the run again, leaving the stage manager to conduct. He tried gamely, but had never conducted, and essentially waved nonsensically at the band and hoped it would work. (It did not) Meanwhile, a local elementary school that had been enlisted to act in one specific scene had brought a class of excited youngsters over, where they were waiting, in costume, for over an hour. Their block of rehearsal time had been conveyed to the elementary school teachers, but, sadly, not to the stage manager, or any of the production team that was running the rehearsal.
Now. Of course, in-person communication and productivity can work well. These two examples from personal experience cannot indict all in-person interaction. And I enjoy connecting in person with clients very much. But, I think it’s important to acknowledge that communication, particularly around deadlines and workflow, doesn’t need to be in-person to be effective. Watching a film in person, or playing/programming keyboards for a musical in person, are no guarantee that participants will enhance productivity.
Conversely, I’ve had many remote interactions where we established effective communication early, and made the process of working together smooth. For one client, I had a quick phone call with the creators, where they explained the conceit of their podcast, their intended audience and tone, and we discussed what similar music they had liked. We discussed potential reference tracks, and by the end of our thirty minute call, I was able to run my specific ideas about the orchestration and instrumental palette by them. We set a deadline, and I communicated with them about where I was in the process.
After finishing the first draft, they accepted quickly. And that was it.
The entire job was conducted remotely, and was productive and efficient.
Updating design documents for a game, or clarifying revision notes, or confirming the receipt of files, are all vital to constructive communication. And even in teams that work in person, these important tasks are often carried out remotely.
If you’re unaccustomed to remote workers, It can feel weird, at first, inviting somebody onto a project with only electronic communications to gauge their work ethic. But, I hope you’re willing to take the plunge. It really can work very well. Be sure to check out three tips for communicating your project to a composer.
And if you’re considering a composer for your project, let me know - I happen to know a guy.
Covid sucks and I've prioritized commissions over my personal work, so that they always get done. But I've not touched my album in over a year. I've given myself permission for this because the pandemic has really taken the wind out of my sails. I'm happy to keep working on the gigs I didn't lose, after losing so many due to the pandemic. And thankfully, I feel very inspired by the work I get to do.
Part of me has been waiting to get back to work on some personal projects. And that part has been a little bit more insistent every day for the past few months, as this lockdown has dragged on.
This week I got my first vaccine, and it's beginning to feel like there's a light at the end of the tunnel. I'm listening to old tracks again and making notes (So many notes, why am I trash?) I commissioned art for another single to be released soon, which gives me a powerful tool of motivation - A deadline.
I've got three weeks until the next shot, and two weeks after that before I can meet friends again. Nothing has changed for me, yet. I know that after I can see people again I'm still going to have to figure out what it's like to be a social human, and what it's like to go back home and create my own work. But I'm excited.
I'm not an optimistic person, by and large. But today? It feels like maybe we're going to be okay in the end.
This blog post was supposed to be a placeholder while I was designing my site, but I'm lazy and this is *just* close enough to being relatable that I'm leaving it here. The wonders of freewriting.