Michael Redman’s Book: Interview

I was interviewed for Michael Redman’s new book, The Best Jobs in the Music Industry. The entire interview is posted below, with Michael’s permission. The book is available at amazon.com.



EARLIER, I TALKED WITH DAVID NEWMAN, who has a name that most film composers recognize and is at the top of his career. The path to this place of recognition, where you receive unsolicited phone calls offering composing gigs, can be long. For some, it’s an adventure and an enjoyable ride, learning to multitask and juggle different types of work while you rise to the top.

I’d like to say there are thousands of great film composers, but the fact is that there are only hundreds that make it, so to speak. It’s a competitive field, but if you are talented, you can move into a full-time career as a film composer like Ted Masur. Ted is an up-and-coming film composer who understands firsthand what it takes to climb the many rungs of the film-composer ladder. Hardworking and multitalented is how I would describe Ted. Not to mention he is quite a gardener!


Ted Masur

Q: Ted would you tell me a little bit about what you do as a film composer?

A: Well that varies depending on the moment. But the basic idea is to support the project on an emotional level – dramatically, comedically, or whatever – with music, in alignment with the director and/or producer’s vision. So to me it’s really about collaboration – being part of a team and doing whatever I can to make the project as strong as it can possibly be.

It ends up being a wide variety of projects – features, additional music for television shows, the occasional short film or arranging gig.  I supplement that work by writing music for a custom library that provides music for several network TV shows.

That’s interesting! So you’re filling space with other revenue opportunities between film composing gigs?

A: Exactly. I have friends who have been doing the library work for several years and they’re making a decent living from that royalty stream.  This particular situation is very flexible, so when a project comes up I can take it and know that the library gig will still be there after the project is done. Between projects, it keeps my chops sharp and forces me to write in a variety of styles at a high level.


Q: You said something I’d like you to elaborate on. You said in the beginning that you write additional music for films and TV shows. What does that mean…additional music?

A: Composers have to balance many tasks in addition to the artistic job of composing. Sometimes they have too much work to do all of it themselves. They might say, “I have 2 or 3 shows here and there’s no way I can write all of this music, I need someone to write some cues for me”. They call this ‘Additional music’. Some composers keep a book of themes for a project, and I compose the extra cues based upon their established themes and direction. They will typically give me detailed spotting notes and tell me exactly what they are trying to achieve.


Q: And the ghost writing is where someone calls you and says “Hey Ted would you write some music for me and I’ll pay you X”

A: Yes. I’ve had friends who have ghosted for composers and actually been in the room when the music is being presented to the producer, who is giving praise to the composer while the person who wrote the music watches and can’t take any credit.  With an “additional music” credit, your role is known – it’s out in the open.  Also, there usually is some kind of cue-sheet (royalty) split for the writer’s share, which cannot happen in a ghosting situation.


Q: You mentioned your equipment. What’s your current rig?

A: Well I’ve simplified my set-up in the last 6 months. I used to offload my orchestral samples to a couple of dedicated PCs slaved to a Mac Pro.   These days, I use a pretty powerful 8 core Mac with 24gigs of ram, and for most situations, I can do what I need to do on that machine.  When I am doing larger orchestral scores, I use the dedicated PCs to do some of the heavy lifting.  I have a wide variety of orchestral and cinematic sample libraries, including LA Scoring Strings, Symphobia, Albion Orchestra, SAM Brass, CineBrass, Westgate Studio Modular Winds, and various percussion libraries.  I’m a big fan of Spectrasonics products – especially Stylus RMX and Omnisphere.  Then add in lots of textural softsynths, effects plug-ins.  It’s an ongoing investment process, always having to be mindful of the difference between “want” and “need”.


Q: How do you marry all that technology together between ProTools and this and that….

A: I do all of my composing work in Digital Performer (“DP”).  Sometimes I’ll host samples in Vienna Ensemble Pro, sometimes I’ll use the Kontakt Memory Server.  If the end result is all samples, I’ll mix in DP and deliver according to the editor’s specs.  If there are live players involved, I will record stems and export them for my scoring mixer to use in ProTools (“PT”).  He’ll record and mix the session in PT and make the final delivery.  So it really depends on the size and scope of a project.


Q: Could you tell me a little bit about your training and how your formal education played into what you’re doing today?

A: I think formal education is helpful but not mandatory. In my case I began studying music when I was very young – starting with music and movement classes as a child, then piano and flute lessons, and I went to a high school of the arts. This gave me a great theory background and a solid foundation. I started studying jazz piano towards the end of high school and that, along with singing, was central to my music experience in college. After teaching for a while, I went to grad school for conducting and composition, and taught musicianship classes to undergrads.

All this training definitely gave me helpful tools for analyzing existing music and my own creative process. However, these tools can be acquired in a variety of settings.  I think the most important thing is to find mentors along the way and continue learning.


Q: Could you talk about the members of a composer’s team and what are they responsible for?

A: There are certain things that always need to be done – budgeting and general planning, spotting notes, music editing, composing, orchestrating, mixing, and delivery.  The number of people doing those tasks depends on the size and scope of the project; if the budget allows for live players, there’s also MIDI translation, generation of written score and parts, contracting of musicians, conducting, and recording.  On The Best & The Brightest, I had an assistant who covered MIDI translation, score prep, and music copying.  Ideally, a music editor would prepare the spotting notes, but in this case, I did that and he came along late in the game, helping only with final preparations and the recording session. A contractor hired the musicians, and my scoring mixer recorded, mixed and delivered the music. I composed, orchestrated, conducted the recording sessions, and oversaw the entire process – including budgeting and general planning. Bigger teams come into play with bigger budgets, tighter deadlines, and simultaneous projects.  In those situations, it’s about choosing parts of the process that make sense to farm out. Hans Zimmer has the manpower to turn around a project in a couple of weeks.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is a one-man team.  Most composers are somewhere in between those two extremes


Q: So do you have any stories that come to mind where it was like “Oh my god it’s all falling apart, my life is over”?

A: Yes. I had the good fortune of interning one summer for Steve Bartek, who is Danny Elfman’s orchestrator and a prince of a guy. At the time was still he was working with pencil and paper.  Each day, cues came in from Elfman, I would set up Steve’s score paper and he would orchestrate. Steve had his own project, I think it was ‘Another Goofy Movie.’ He was using some hot young band with a brass section and I had to prepare parts for the recording session. I was so hyper-vigilant about getting every detail that instead of doing a regular drum chart I was transcribing exactly what he had played on the MIDI track – which is an insane thing to do. The night before the session, Steve called me every hour to see how it was going and finally at 2am he said “Ok, you need to come over.” So I did.  He was very nice even though he wasn’t happy. He got it done very quickly as I sat there hanging my head.  That was not fun!


Q: You’ve been able to put together a pretty good living for yourself could you talk about how the finances work for music in a Film or TV show.

A: First and foremost, the music is being contracted within the context of a project.  So that’s always the reference point. The bigger the overall budget, the more money you can realistically expect to be allocated towards music. Somewhere in the planning process, decisions have to be made about what kind of music will be needed – will it involve live players, is it an orchestra, is it a smaller ensemble, is it all synth, etc.  Sometimes this is clear from the start – they’re looking for a particular sound and that clarifies certain parameters, or there’s very little money, so some of those choices are already made.  Sometimes you can lobby the producer – with the director’s blessing – for money to cover the ensemble you think is right for the needs of the film.  That’s the big thing to remember: the score is there to support the film, and any financial proposals must be rooted in that understanding.

These days, you often have a “package deal” – the production company allocates a lump sum that you as the manager of the scoring process distribute to members of your team to get the job done.  Ideally, I like to separate those two things – a creative fee for my work as composer, and a production budget for all other costs.  A good resource on this subject is Richard Bellis’ The Emerging Film Composer, which is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring a career in film music.

In terms of how you get paid, there are two basic categories: upfront fees – what you’re paid to do the creative work – and the backend, meaning the royalty stream, which is money collected by your performing rights organization.  If you’re lucky enough to have a network TV show, you’re getting a decent upfront payment for doing the work, and a healthy royalty stream on the backend.

If you’re working on a low budget independent film, one thing that you really have to do is find additional ways to value your music beyond what they can afford in payment. You should be able to retain the publisher’s share of the royalty stream, keeping the ownership of the masters and having the ability to license the music for some other usage.

I had one situation where I wrote music for a great little independent film that didn’t go anywhere.  A producer heard this music on my website and began to temp his film with my tracks.  They didn’t have the money to hire me outright, so I licensed these tracks to them for use in the film for a few thousand dollars. The only reason I could do this was because I had retained all the rights.

Compensation in the music business is really changing.  Upfront fees are shrinking, and the royalty situation is also unclear as content delivery shifts more to the internet. Nobody knows exactly where that’s going at this point.


Q: What advice would you give somebody that’s a talented aspiring film composer?

A: Write a lot of music.  Keep writing even when you don’t have a project.  Deeply learn your gear, to the point where you can create and deliver quickly.  Listen to lots of music and refine your networking skills.  Develop relationships with directors who are at similar stages in their career – hopefully they’ll take you with them as they move forward. Talk with a lot of people and get opinions that challenge you. Generate opportunities to continue learning, and find a good mentor or two. Relationships are huge. The biggest projects I’ve worked on have come from my long-term relationships.

Beyond that, it’s important to cultivate a larger view. The path is long and it’s unpredictable. Any one moment is probably not as good or bad as it seems at the time. Learn from every opportunity that comes your way and then re-calibrate.  Move forward, find new opportunities, and continue to grow.