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The Composer Expo July 25, 2007 Skirball Center, Los Angeles



This event, sponsored by Film Music Magazine and Turner Classic Movies, marks the second annual gathering of composers wanting to learn more about the creative and business aspects of composing. The Skirball Center in Los Angeles was a good venue for the event, especially for the panels that took place in Magnin Auditorium where the highly effective air conditioning provided refuge from the summer heat.

The topics for the expo including the following:
- The Art and Craft of Composing for Indie Films
- Downloads, Direct Licensing & Other Composer Business Issues
- Breaking Into the Business and Creating Effective Demo Packages
- Music for Video Games: How Top Composers Find Work and Create Great Video Game Scores
- Music Supervisor Roundtable
- New Technology Roundup: The Latest in Film & TV Music Technology
- The Composer/Editor/Director Relationship
- The Industry Leaders - Keynote Panel
- Cocktail Reception and Young Film Composers Dinner/Awards Presentation

Mark Northam provided the introduction to the day's events and stressed that this is the only expo devoted specifically to instrumental music for films, TV, and games. He also pointed out the main thing music provides on these platforms is the emotional content. Others later on in the day repeated this message, and said that the music can strengthen whatever message the director is trying to get across, and in some cases, can even create a message that wasn't there in the first place.

The first panel of the day, "The Art and Craft of Composing for Indie Films," included composers Michael A. Levine, Mark Adler, Sharon Farber, Penka Kouneva, and moderator Adam Gorgoni. Asked if there were a difference between the creativity involved in doing indie versus major films, Mike Levine responded that it's the same in one way and different in another. Everything begins with a story...what are they trying to say here? Whether the project is expensive or not, this element is the same...there has to be a story. He went on to say that what's different are the resources that are available to you, but also that when there is more money involved, there are more voices involved as well (producers, directors, studio executives, editors, etc.) that often can tear you in different directions.

Sharon Farber said that she treats every project the same regardless of budget. You never know what will happen to the film or the people involved in making it. She said you should be proud of everything you do and never have to apologize. And, like Michael Levine, she stated that the bigger the budget, the more people you have to answer to. You have to be both a psychologist and a baby-sitter (let alone, composer). Filmmakers know everything about the filmmaking process except for the music. They don't get this information in film schools. Also, you have to understand where directors are coming from -- this is their "baby." Lastly, you have to pick your battles when dealing with the many issues that arise during the composing process.

The subject matter of the panel seemed to emphasize the politics of working in the indie film medium, much of which applies to major features as well. Mark Adler put it this way: Scoring is 80% politics and 20% composing, therefore your musical chops better be together (because most of your time will be spend on the politics).

The moderator, Adam Gorgoni, asked how a lower budget film would affect one's creative choices. Levine, who just finished scoring "Adrift in Manhattan," used three players. Many of the panelists talked about using a few live players and combining that with sample libraries. But the tendency to use live players whenever possible, whether combined with sequenced material or not, was a clear theme. Sharon pointed out that when using samples, you have to be meticulous about tweaking them to make them more real sounding. Michael Levine brought up the point that not everything has to be a traditional orchestral score (Levine himself uses very interesting textures and colors in his work), but noted that when you are trying to emulate musicians, you have to do all the work that these players do when they create music. Translation: lots and lots of tweaking.

Panelists in this session also talked about speaking to directors without using musical terminology and sticking to discussions about feelings instead. This concept was repeated throughout the day in other panels.

Penka pointed out a surprising statistic: only 33% of films that make the festival circuit make it into distribution. She said to invest your energy into films that have real potential, not ones that are long shots. An opposite viewpoint in other sessions was one in which you should invest in anything at all in order to build up your experience. Sharon felt you have to be paid something -- that you are entitled to get paid, perhaps working a deal in which there is more revenue on the back end. Your viewpoint probably depends greatly on where you are on the ladder.

This was one of the better panels of the day.

"Downloads, Direct Licensing & Other Composer Business Issues" was moderated by Mark Northam and included panelists Steve Winogradsky, Christine Russl, Yoav Goran, and Geoff Levin.

When asked to name the top business issues facing composers today, the answers varied but included the following: composer fees going down; filmmakers not understanding performance royalties and/or publishing; the lack of decent budgets; tracking digital music for payments; and lack of adequate time for scoring.

The discussion shifted to music libraries when Geoff evin brought up the point that creating your own music library can be another revenue stream. Northam asked which of the two library models was better: the buyout, or the "re-name the cue" type? There were differing opinions on this, though most feel that renaming the cue and holding on to publishing, if possible, is the best route. Partnering with an existing library that has good contacts (i.e., gets your music placed) was a good recommendation for leveraging your own collection of cues.

The subject of downloading and how royalties should be paid is always controversial, although Steve's Winogradsky's opinion that streaming is like radio (and deserves a performance royalty) and downloading is like a mechanical (and is not a public performance) seems to make a lot of sense. Mark asked whether composers should ban together regarding composers' rights. Yoav made a point that was repeated by others throughout the day, namely that composers would do anything to score a project (including working for free). As long as this is true, coupled with the fact that there is a huge surplus of composers (and would-be composers), it's doubtful that anything approaching a "union" model would ever work. Steve pointed out that there was a Composers Guild that tried unsuccessfully to unionize, as well as the Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) that failed to bring composers together for increasing rights. (The SCL is a viable and worthwhile organization for many other reasons, but perhaps not as a political force). He went on to say that today's political climate is different, and suffers still from the Reagan administration's crackdown on unions in general.

"Breaking Into the Business and Creating Effective Demo Packages" was moderated by journalist Dan Kimpel and included panelists Jeff Kaufman, Michael Rosen, Joe Carroll, and Shawn Clement. The opening discussion centered on what an agent does and does not do. The myth that agents go out and get you work was sufficiently denounced and the emphasis was on the fact that you must already be somewhat successful to be appealing to an agent. Michael Rosen notes that when you are getting lots of calls, you've got some good projects under your belt, and people are beginning to know who you are -- that's the time an agent can step in and help you manage the business aspects of your career.

Jeff Kaufman pointed out what also became a recurring theme at this expo: it's not just about talent. Talent is just one part of the equation. You have to socialize, to network, to meet people. You have to do the sales and marketing for your composing career, not just sit in a chair and compose. Or, put another way, since an agent gets 10 to 15%, you have to do 85 to 90% of the work.

Shawn Clement attested to this fact and said it's all relationship-based. He himself has a start in the movie business as a scenic artist and even worked in the mailroom at Sony Pictures. But while he was there, he was constantly handing out demos and "putting himself out there," as he stated.

Finally, moderator Dan Kimpel asked a question that was more relevant to the panel's theme: What does the package consist of that a composer must have? However, instead of talking about demos or anything else that might go into a package, the conversation remained on general themes such as attitude and adding value and so on. In all honesty, I don't know if the subject matter of the panel was every discussed, for at this point I had to go to the demo room for an appointment. But I would venture a guess that this panel might have had a tendency to continue drifting from the main topic at hand.

The "Music Supervisor Roundtable" was moderated by Steve Milander with panelists PJ Bloom, Peymon Maskan, Marcus Barone, and Chris Viiolette. Marcus noted that there are basically three types of pictures: director-led, studio-led, and actor-led -- and it's up to you to determine which is which when you're tiring to land a project. A question was posed that served as central point of many comments: How do you service multiple masters? Chris Violette said he struggles with this problem every day. Everyone wants to weigh in musically, but this is not true of other functions, such as film editing and so on. Everyone has an opinion about the music. PJ Bloom said that their job (as music supervisors) is to block you from all of the political B.S. He said this is not art -- it's big business...we help you understand the political landscape.

The moderator posed a good question: Why is it that the songs (rather than score) in Gray's Anatomy are always fighting with the dialog? PJ said it was a marketing ploy by the studio -- to have a soundtrack show that appeals to the 18-30 year-old demographic. While this may or may not be true, there is a simple answer that no one considered. When you have music under dialog and that music has vocals, it has to be mixed much lower than you would an instrumental track. You essentially have vocals fighting with vocals. So, from an engineering standpoint, you have to take this into consideration (which, apparently, they don't do on Gray's Anatomy.

PJ dropped a little bombshell that surprised many in the audience when he said that the biggest trend these days is to hire a first composer who will likely get canned, only to be replaced by a second composer who actually does the film or TV show. Some composers actually aspire to be the first composer so that they can "take the money and run," while others want to be the second composer on the gig.

Finally, Marcus made a point that composers may not have realized when he said that it's a good idea to get to know the editors on these projects. They use music for rough cuts and if it's yours, this could be another way to get your foot in the door.

"The Composer/Editor/Director Relationship" was moderated by composer Hummie Mann and had Aaron Zigman, Alan Heim, and Nick Cassavetes as panelists. This composer, editor, and director team was the highlight of the day. There is not too much that can be written about it -- it comes under the saying, "You had to be there." These guys have incredible chemistry. Even though they are not all from the same generation, it's a unique marriage, a team that respects one another and produces great films such as The Notebook, John Q., and Alpha Dog. This session was both enlightening and entertaining.

"The Industry Leaders -- Keynote Panel" was the last panel of the night, moderated by Gary Hollis and featuring panelists Mark Mothersbaugh, Bear McCreary, Teddy Castellucci, and Mychael Danna. They are all great composers and they touched on themes that were familiar throughout the day: whether or not to use traditional or electronic scores, "temp-love," speaking in non-musical terminology to directors, music as the emotional component in a film, and so on. Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica) and Mychael Danna seemed to have the most to contribute, while Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo fame) had the ability to create the most laughs. All in all, this was an enjoyable panel, if not for the information, then for the interesting mix of personalities.

The Composer Expo including a Technology Room, which had displays and was manned by several different equipment or software manufacturers that cater to the film composer. The Expo also had a Demo Room, and if you arrived early enough in the morning, you were able to sign up for a one-on-one session with an industry pro who would listen with you and evaluate your presentation.

The Composer Expo is a good choice for emerging film or television composers. Those further along in their careers may get a tidbit here or there, but might not benefit as much as the newcomers. Still, the content is well thought out and the guest panelist are, for the most part, good choices. One thing I'd like to see in a future event is a demo evaluation that is not hidden from everyone else -- sort of a demo derby in which some number of demos are played (possibly the first fifteen seconds or so of a few cuts from each composer) and are discussed openly so that everone can benefit from it. The industry professionals that review the demos could enlighten a lot of composers at one time as to how to put together an effective demo package -- which, coincidentally, was one of the topics of the Composer Expo.

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Comment by Leon Portelance on July 31, 2007 at 8:25pm
I wish I lived closer to LA too. It is a 5 1/2 hour drive each way for me. I would love to go to more screenings, seminars, etc. But I think my next mission is to go to as many film festivals as I can and mingle. Or rather make a pest out of myself :) I am getting way too old to be shy.
Comment by Leon Portelance on July 30, 2007 at 11:13pm
I was there too and Bob did a great recap. They also had mentoring sessions with established composers and industry types but at ten minutes each they were a little too short to be of much value although I did get some good ideas about how to edit my reel.

Most notable moment was at the dinner when I almost got knocked over going into the restroom. This guy in a big hurry almost ran me over. It was Hans Zimmer rushing back to do his live interview just before the Young Composers awards ceremony.
If I could have caught him a minute earlier, I could have held him hostage at the urinal and made him listen to my demo. LOL. So, the next morning, feeling emboldened (or maybe it was delusional from the hangover), I went to Santa Monica and banged on the door of Remote Control Studios. Well, actually I rang the buzzer while the security cameras checked me out. I didn't make it inside for a tour, but someone did come out and asked me if I was looking for a job. Of course, I said, "Yes." So I did get a card with the phone & fax and instructions on how to properly apply for a job with them. I guess that was worth the effort :)
Comment by Chris Merritt on July 27, 2007 at 3:47pm
Bob, I really appreciate this article! This obviously took your time and effort to create, and it is great that you chose to help others with that effort! Well written, concise, and I especially like how it's worded form the view of a composer.

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