Commercial Music Composer – Career & Salary Overview

Overview:

Commercial music composition is a broad and important field that essentially has to do with writing music for commercial purposes, like television shows, quick melodies and jingles for advertisements, video games, and movies. Some composition styles like musical theatre and songwriting/popular music writing can count as commercial composition as well, however, some artists in these genres would disagree with that label for the type of music they write.

This article covers the requirements for film music, video game music, television music, and styles related to commercial media composition, as opposed to songwriting styles.

The field of commercial music composition is extremely broad and possibly the most competitive in all of music after orchestral music performance employment. However, the number of opportunities for a commercial music composer are much greater and often times more creatively flexible than for musicians in other professions.


Requirements for a Film Music, Video Game Music, and/or Television Music Composer:

Until the 1980s, a film composer was defined more or less as a classically trained composer who utilized orchestral acoustic instruments in order to produce music for media. In today’s world, very few composers are given the resource of a live orchestra to perform on a film or television score. Many of you may point to John Williams’ Star Wars scores or Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores in order to tell me I’m wrong, but trust me, those are legitimately the two most notable exceptions in all of television and film composition.


Software:

In today’s world, the commercial music composer must be able to simultaneously write and produce the end product. Most soundtracks on television you hear were not only composed by one composer, but were also sequenced and recorded using digital instruments. In 2001, digital MIDI instruments that attempted to sound like real instruments came across as cheesy and fake to even most laymen’s ears. In 2014, with incredible advances in products from companies like the Vienna Instruments collection, composers can mimic the sounds of real instruments in stunning fashion. Although pricy, Vienna’s collection is excellent for the serious film and television music composer.

Other options for synthesized instruments exist, including Garritan’s Personal Orchestra collection as well as EastWest’s Quantum Leap collection. Both suffice for basic commercial composition, however, the Vienna collection is unlike anything else I have ever heard or used.

Additionally, a commercial music composer may need a music notation program. If your commercial music style is based out of training in classical composition, then I’d recommend you use Finale 2014 as your music notation program. You can even setup the MIDI channels to be directed from sounds in aforementioned software collections, as well as other programs like Logic Pro X and Reason synthesizer software. Having Finale is not a requirement for commercial music composition, but it is essential if you are the type who notates your music in a traditional manner.

However, a commercial music composer most certainly needs a digital audio workstation, perhaps even several, to produce a quality product. Whether your style is using synthesized acoustic instruments or utilizing electronic instruments, a DAW is key. My recommendations for digital audio workstations are as follows.

1. Recording and Editing:

One name only: Pro Tools. Nothing even comes close to ProTools when it comes to recording and editing music, especially if you do end up using some recorded instruments or vocals in your tracks. Admittedly, ProTools has a very steep learning curve, however, nearly every major recording studio and commercial music composer uses ProTools. Few things come close.

Also, if you have good knowledge of ProTools, your employability in a major recording studio increases significantly.

Other Good Recording / Editing Programs: Really, nothing comes close to ProTools in terms of music editing. But these ones are good:

  • Logic Pro X (a good editor, especially for electronic and MIDI music editing. Not as industry-standard as ProTools. Probably has the best sequencer on the market for mixing, see “Mixing” below)
  • Ableton Live 9 (a good editor, but among the very best for actual music production. Ditto for Propellorhead’s Reason)
  • Audacity and Garageband (in case you are just starting out, Audacity and Garageband are actually not bad for editing. Audacity is much more actual sound editing, while Garageband has a pretty advanced editor for a program that comes free with the Macbook).
2. Mixing:

Logic Pro X. It has the best built-in editing plugins of all of the major digital audio workstations, has the most intuitive workflow, and although is hugely powerful, has an easier learning curve than other programs. If you choose to get into Logic Pro X, I highly recommend reading a step-by-step easy to read guide available on Amazon, like this step-by-step and easy to read one, rather than trying to read through the Logic Pro X user manual, which is nearly 1,000 pages long. Being able to mix with Logic Pro X gives you a huge edge when seeking commercial  gigs.

3. Music Creation:

Logic Pro X does have some very good synthesizers and sounds in it, and as a sequencer, is able to handle plugins of nearly any instrument you download off the web. Still, there are other very good music production programs to look into that provide extremely high-quality synthesized instruments and sounds, including Propellorhead’s Reason and Ableton Live 9. Reason is probably the most versatile digital synthesizer on the market, while Ableton is a great music production program that has a sequencer comparable to Logic Pro.

4. Mastering:

Although you can send your product off-site to a mastering engineer, having software that will master your commercial music productions can give you a powerful edge over the competition, since you are eliminating one extra step in the process. Advanced engineers tend to use a number of hardware and software products, however, if you are looking for a quick one-program solution, then I most certainly recommend iZotope’s Ozone Program. iZotope’s Ozone may or may not be able to handle all of your mastering needs. I have used it on some projects and can say that its a pretty damn powerful program.


So, in conclusion, as a professional commercial music composer, you will likely need at minimum:

  • Recording & Editing Software: Avid Pro Tools 11 (if you are a student you can get a sizable discount)
Pro Tools Screen (Via Amazon.com)
  • Mixing Software: Logic Pro X (available in Apple’s App Store, available for Mac desktops/laptops only).
Via Amazon.com
Via Amazon.com (You can get a significant discount if you are a student)
  • Synthesized Instruments: Vienna Instruments Collection, EastWest Quantum Leap, Garritan Personal Orchestra

That is most certainly alot of programs, and if you are just starting out, you could probably get away with just Logic Pro X, since it can indeed do nearly everything at the basic level. It is a very powerful program, and is much, much less expensive than it was ten years ago.

Keep in mind that it is important for you to try out a number of programs at your own pace so you can really figure out what works best for you. You need to be very comfortable with your studio in order to be a successful commercial music composer.


Salary:

Television: 30-minute episode: $2,000 – $5,000+ (Average)

Television: 60-minute episode: $4,000 – $10,000+ (Average)

Made-for-Television Movie: $15k – $60k.

Independent Film: $4,000 – $110,000 (Depends widely based on budget)

Major Studio film: $50,000 – $1.5 million+

Like with many music professions, the salary here will vary widely based on studio budget and composer reputation. John Williams can command the multi-million dollar film scores, but that’s because the studio producers know that he will not only give them that orchestral sound they absolutely want, but that his soundtracks will sell unbelievably well and maybe even makeup for the cost of hiring him.


Best Colleges for Commercial Music Writing

It is not required to go to college to become a commercial music composer. However, it is becoming a widely encouraged practice, as many excellent commercial film-scoring and multimedia programs have emerged over the last few years that have launched students to professional lucrative careers in film-scoring.

I will be making an official list of these schools soon, but these are the top three that I personally recommend:

  • New York University Steinhardt School’s Scoring for Film & Multimedia Program
  • University of Southern California Thornton School of Music Scoring for Motion Pictures & Television
  • Berklee College of Music’s Film Scoring Program.

If you have any other questions about becoming a commercial film music composer, feel free to shoot me an email.


Featured Image by fr4dd Via Flickr Creative Commons

2 Comments

  1. Diccon Garrett February 28, 2015
  2. Don October 22, 2018

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