Score composers: a bittersweet melody

Composers are among the most passionate people in the industry, but they also have bills to pay. Miguel Gonzalez spoke with five established composers about the issues that are making noise in their sector.

Screen practitioners spare no efforts to ensure their project looks the best it possibly can, but according to sound post-production houses, the aural component of their work seems to be an afterthought, with diminishing resources allocated to this aspect. This problem is also reflected in the music domain.

The most recent recipient of the International Achievement Award at the Screen Music Awards, Guy Gross, believes many practitioners see it as a visual medium, forgetting the power that sound and music have on the finished product.

“If producers understand there’s still so much creativity at the tail end of production, they may budget and schedule for it and then reap the benefits.”

According to Gross, only very experienced producers can identify what size or style a film is going to require until the director comes on board. It is then that they must find an appropriate composer, one who has a track record of that kind of style.

For example, if the score requires an orchestra, a composer will know how much music can be created within a standard orchestral call. Burkhard Dallwitz says it is then reasonably easy to do the maths once you have a rough idea of the instrumentation and the size of the orchestra, to determine how much money is required.

Former Australian Screen Composers Guild (ASCG) president Art Phillips adds that it is then that together they should figure out as many details as possible, such as the number of minutes of music, the complexity of it (orchestra, ensemble, a couple of musicians, created electronically, etc.) and the kind of contractual arrangement they’re looking for.

So the composer should help figure out the music budget, but that is rarely the case. In reality, the producer puts a figure for music in their budget and hopes that it will work.

“When they get to production, they say to the composer ‘here’s the fee and, by the way, it’s got 80 minutes of music and we’re thinking it’s pretty orchestral most of the time’,” said Gross. “That’s never going to work if the fee hasn’t been considered from the front!”

Polish-born, Melbourne-based Cezary Skubiszewski agrees: “In Australia, you don’t ask producers for a budget. You get the call and they say ‘this is the amount we’ve got for the music, take it or leave it’. It’s industrial bargaining, John Howard style.”

Phillips admits that the negotiation is a conversation, to a certain extent, because sometimes it is ultimately a matter of deciding whether the composer wants to accept what’s being offered or not: “Usually, it’s workable. Sometimes it’s difficult, but it’s workable. You have to cut out your outgoing costs as much as you can to do it.”

Dallwitz adds that the negotiation often involves a package deal, and the composer becomes responsible for delivering what is required within that budget. “Often it’s done very early on, when the film has just started shooting and nobody really has a definitive idea of what exactly is required,” he explained.

That is why Gross recommends producers to sit down with composers, music supervisors and heads of recording studios, to get advice on how to budget for the music component, defining the expectations and style, and valuing what music will bring to the project, keeping in mind that a good score costs money, time, and resources, and they should expect to pay for the intrinsic value of a high quality score.

But the financial reality means that producers, like everybody else, will want the most they can get for the lowest price, and composers say they are reaching a breaking point that compromises their sector’s survival within the industry. They point out that it’s not a matter of greed, but about finding the right balance between their creative input and the quality and production costs of a musical score, and the remuneration they receive for it.

“We’re saying that if you’re producing a film and you want quality music, you have to be prepared to pay the composer more than you pay the local plumber to come around and fix your pipes,” said ASCG president Clive Harrison. “I know what I pay my plumber, and I’d love to get that hourly rate! That’s the reality of the situation.”

Gross challenges producers to look at what they were paying composers 20 years ago and what they are paying today. “They ought to be very embarrassed”, he argued, because the fees have not increased with inflation or, in some cases, they have even decreased.

“Composers have themselves to blame in many ways, because we haven’t stood up, or taken ourselves seriously, with the respect we deserve, and insisted on better fees and conditions,” said Gross. “We’re encouraging ASCG members to have a degree of professionalism and get out of their garages, take their craft seriously, present themselves professionally and charge appropriately.”

The message to producers is that a composer who has the time, resources and budget to do his work, will offer better results. And a well-paid composer will also be able to focus on one project exclusively, instead of having to accept another job, unable to focus emotionally on the work and ultimately resulting in lesser quality.


Just how do you put a price to music? There are tangible production costs – studio, musicians, etc. – but what about the intangible ones? With so many factors, it’s difficult for composers to measure their own work and for producers to know how to give it the correct price.

Gross believes music creation has been considered such a secretive, “almost divine” process that it’s no surprise producers don’t know how to value it.

“How do I measure music? Is it how long it is, or how complicated? Is it the time it takes me to do it, and then, how long or how intensive? Or is it how high profile the project is? All those factors obviously can affect a budget.

“If a producer wants a score with one harmonica, should the fee be less than one that requires a complicated orchestral score? One harmonica is cheaper than an orchestra, but how should the composer’s feebe determined? Should it be less because it’s a simple score? Do you charge for the quality of the music? Is a beautiful melody worth more than a less beautiful melody? It’s just so difficult, so that’s why composers struggle to understand how to charge for their work.”

Another factor that further complicates the process is that A-list composers charge high figures that they don’t want their peers to know, while others are charging low figures that they also want to keep a secret. It can’t be denied that experience and prestige are also part of the equation, and negotiating is not an easy task.

“I encourage young composers to stand up and not accept poor conditions,” said Gross. “There are more composers than there is work, and that is a reality that can be exploited. If you can’t do it for $2.50, they’ll find someone who can, and they may even get a good one.


Complex as the formula may be, the budget is ultimately the combination of the composer’s experience, the amount and complexity of the music, production costs, time required for the project, the rights required and the ownership of the publishing rights.

The latter are increasingly becoming an area of conflict for composers when negotiating their contracts.

Traditionally, US studios have retained such rights, but have compensated for it by offering upfront fees that are considerably higher than what their Australian counterparts are paid. But locals are now sometimes being asked to give up their publishing rights, a situation which composers feel is not fair, given their conditions.

“When you’re dealing with upfront fees that are not very substantial, then it’s very important to at least retain performance and publishing rights. If somebody asked

me in Australia to give away the publisher’s share, I would simply turn around and say ‘then you have to increase the upfront fee considerably before we can have that discussion’,” says Dallwitz.

“It feels like someone is giving you work, but they want a cut for giving you that work, that’s what it amounts to,” adds Skubiszewski .

According to Dallwitz, even when the composer retains these rights, there is no guarantee there will be money coming through any time soon because, for example, a TV series might get one broadcast only and then disappear. The financial benefits are only evident when it becomes successful and gets a second and further series, and when it’s sold overseas. And composers can forget about royalties on DVDs and Bluray, because it is a very rare occasion that a contract will allow them to get residuals from these formats.

“Rights might seem overwhelming, but once you get an overview of what rights there are, it’s fairly simple. I always advise people to spend a little bit of money and approach a specialised lawyer,” suggested Dallwitz. “A lot of composers feel unable to deal with producers or stand up for themselves, or they fear they might get bullied, and when you can refer them back to a lawyer, it takes the whole emotion out of it, and it becomes a regular business negotiation.”


One of Harrison’s main strategies as president of the ASCG is to talk to as many composers as possible, to get a broader view on what it’s like trying to make a living in Australia, and communicating with the ASCG’s international counterparts to compare their issues and share possible solutions – they’ve already formed the International Media Composers Alliance, in conjunction with the British and Canadian guilds.

With so many variables that require careful analysis, the ASCG is working on a series of guidelines, establishing the terms and conditions composers should expect for different kinds of projects, and the variables and constants involved in the creation of a score across many genres.

“We want to provide accurate guidelines as to what a particular job might be worth, factoring in – and this is something that each composer has to do for themselves – where they feel they sit in the food chain of composers,” says Harrison.

Gross, who is currently the ASCG vice-president, adds that the current administration is trying to remind composers that their work brings value to the final product, and it should be paid for.

Composers’ problems haven’t been high on the priority list because they haven’t made any noise about it, says Harrison. Isn’t it ironic that it is these musicians who haven’t been able to make themselves heard?

“It is,” admitted Harrison. “The ones that go out and about and network and keep a brand presence in the marketplace are the ones who do very well.

“Many good composers find that difficult because they’ve had a lifetime of sitting in a room in isolation, studying their instruments, so the idea of selling themselves is very difficult for them.”

That is why the ASCG is also holding seminars to help its members develop their skills, from the craft of composing to relationships with producers and negotiating, an area that many are not very strong at.

They are also in discussions with other industry bodies such as the SPAA and the Australian Directors Guild, to ensure that their guidelines will contribute to making more local production viable and assist first-time producers and directors to build a strong relationship with their composer, so that the former achieve the result they’re looking for and the latter receive a fair compensation for their efforts.


While film is a collaborative art form, perhaps the ultimate multi-disciplinary field of creation, score composers sometimes forget their work is part of a much larger project and, in more practical terms, a service that must be delivered on time and on budget.

They might not like to hear it, but it is important for composers who want to practice in the screen industry to accept they can’t be just artists, but professionals making a product called music that must be tailor-made to the

client’s specifications.

“The material we use is notes and recording studios, and we have to make sure that what we deliver is exactly what the client wants, perfect for their bigger product,” explained Gross. “When composers forget this, they find criticism very difficult to take. I’ve seen them beat themselves up about it, full of angst and with unsatisfied creative urges. The film industry is not where you go to be entirely satisfied creatively; sometimes it’s just a job.”

In television, the primary relationship even at a creative level is with the producer, because there might be multiple directors and one of them might have already moved on, or they might be shooting, etc. And with film and telemovies, the budget/fee/rights negotiation will be part of the relationship with the producer, but the ultimate creative connection will be with the director.

Every composer has his own method. While Guy Gross finds it helpful to see rushes and rough edits to get a feel for the project and do melodic explorations, his real work can only start once the final cut is locked off.

Dallwitz believes that the earlier, the better, because it keeps the composer in the loop and, if things change, they can plan accordingly. Phillips agrees, adding that

early participation allows for experimentation and creation of a ‘formula’, as well as development of original temp tracks for the editing process.

At any stage of the process, understanding what the director wants is a challenge that requires an efficient and honest communication process. Directors should trust composers, giving them the space to do their work, and then comment on what’s working – or not.

Sometimes there is a language barrier separating directors from those in charge of creating the music. The road to hell is paved with good intentions; after all, how can a non-musical person put into words what they want to eventually emerge as musical notes?

“The most absurd request is ‘Let’s go up instead of down there’; it’s so random that it makes no impact. Here you are, years of training on how to use music to tell a story, and such a basic request is not doing anything. It’s the only thing that person was able to say.

“They should express themselves in emotional terms; their emotional intent for the scene, the sequence, or the whole movie even, so the composer can summarise those emotional directions in music,” advised Gross.

The problem then is accepting that the emotions that someone gets from a piece of music are totally subjective, and the communication process becomes a matter of refining the emotional shades that the director believes express the required tone. They can not expect a composer to get it right the first time.

“It won’t happen,” said Phillips. “There’s some conversation back and forth and if they’re not negative when they hear something that maybe they don’t like, the composer will definitely deliver. The deadlines may be massively insane, but the projects you’re proud of are all about a conversation.”

One thing that should always be clear is that technology has its limits. Skubiszewski says that sometimes directors and producers come to the studio

and just because the music is recorded in a hard drive, they expect changes to be made automatically.

“Can you replace this instrument, press two buttons and do it?” joked Skubiszewski with the sad tone of a real memory. “They forget you have to get a violinist into the studio, get an engineer, etc. These things don’t happen by pushing two buttons.”

Dallwitz believes that it is the composer’s job to find out how the director feels comfortable communicating ideas and read between the lines. Sometimes even temp music used during editing can help identify the right direction, but once it is clear what they want from the music, things quickly start falling into place.


Cross-platform projects and video games also require music, and the latter in particular is devoting a healthy budget to scores, many of them orchestral.

“There’s an underbelly of composers out there scoring games and using orchestras very effectively,” said Gross. “It is a different world I suspect the two worlds should definitely meet pretty soon, or come together like film and TV have come together. It will be another form of score composing.”

Another key of survival is diversification. While people like Christopher Gordon have chosen the risky path of specialisation (orchestral scores in his case), the reality for most composers is that the more styles of projects and music they can produce, the more work they’ll have.

Gross believes that those who have studied music should have no problems working in any style. It is also that preparation that helps prevent writer’s block and allows an educated musician to create a good score even when inspiration is not at its highest.

What would definitely inspire composers is if their plights were heard by those who could perhaps help improve their conditions. In the end, money can’t buy you happiness or love, but can it buy you inspiration?

Phillips had an enthusiastic response: “It can buy you a much more acoustically vibrant statement.”


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