7 signs you have what it takes to be a media music composer

A couple of years ago I was interviewed by Joel Willans as part of a creatives series for the Nokia Connects and Conversations blogs. This is the interview..

Most of us know how to hum a tune, but have you ever wondered what it takes to turn a tune into a song, symphony, a film score or a jingle? Well, you’re not alone. That’s why we asked Douglas Black Heaton, a professional media music composer who has written for TV, commercials, films, web, theatre and mobile to give us a peek into his world. You may not have heard of Doug, but you’ve probably heard some of his music. His soundtrack for the Nokia Booklet became so popular an edit of it was also made available as a ringtone, Sunlit Dreams in the Nokia store.

So how does a media music composer differ from other composers? Simply put, Doug writes music for any media that needs it. He doesn’t just write music on his own, he provides a soundtrack to support visuals. So how can you tell if you have what it takes to make music media magic? Here are Doug’s seven signs.

Before we get on to the signs let me first say that you have to be a good composer already. You need to be able to write and record top quality music quickly, or none of the following will matter. Can you do that? Ok. Now what other attributes and abilities does a composer for media need?

1. You’re not precious
Your job is to support the artistic vision of the creative team, not to be a prima donna composer. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written a masterpiece, if it doesn’t work for the visuals then it’s back to the drawing board. Don’t get whiny. Directors hate that. You can always present alternatives but never lose sight of the fact that it’s not always your decision.

2. You can communicate
Everyone has an opinion about music but most find it difficult to articulate. Directors like to talk in terms of emotions but that’s often a minefield. If you’re told something needs to be epic, make sure you know what epic means to that person. Is it the opening of the Star Wars theme? The anthemic chorus in a rock track? That moment in a trance tune when the dancers are whipped up into a frenzy? What does classic mean? Wherever possible I like to use shared references. The client can say “I like the strings in this, the beats from that” etc. If they don’t provide you with references, you’d better find some and present them.

3. You have a voice..
The world doesn’t need someone else trying to be Hans Zimmer or Coldplay. Try and find your own niche. Do something with instrumentation, or harmony, or melody that marks you out from the others. You’ll probably need to do this to get noticed and get that big break, and then ultimately you’ll find that it’s much more satisfying than being a second rate clone of someone famous.

4. .. but you’re a chameleon when you need to be
Most media composers need to be able to write in any style at the drop of a hat so of course you might be called on to be Coldplay or Hans Zimmer at some point, but you can always find ways of getting your own voice in there. The trick is to make it sound like you even when it’s big band or dubstep.

5. You can motivate yourself
When you’re a pro you can’t afford to sit around waiting for a flash of divine inspiration. It happens sometimes but most of the time you need to just get stuck in and trust that somewhere between starting and finishing the unique spark that is you will have kicked in and helped you come up with something original and interesting. Starting is the hardest part, so just get on with it.

6. You’re a “can do” guy
When you get a call you just before the deadline saying 2 seconds of visuals have been added just before that key musical flourish at the end of the advert, don’t panic and say “no, it’s impossible!” (and, of course, don’t be precious (see sign 1)). Just take a deep breath and start playing with your options, there’s normally a way to work things out. Actually, I find unexpected moments like this are useful in coming up with something different to expectation – and they often lead to a better overall result no matter how much swearing there is when the call comes.

7. You’re not afraid
Finally, as a tip for all budding composers, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Get your music heard, you never know who’s listening.

What do you think? Have what it takes to make music for media? If so we’d love to hear more about your aspirations and inspirations below or at Nokia_Connects.