The ugly truth about how film music is made

make music in As one composer of an Emmy-winning cable series put it, 21st-century Hollywood “feels like an underground, real pimp situation.” He talked about long hours, low pay and working under a “lead composer” from Martinet – his boss – who delegated the actual work of writing and recording. “One time he had a breakdown because the director came to hear what he had come up with and he had nothing to play it,” the composer continued, “because my Computer had all the music on it and it was on the Fritz! ” He laughed – c’est la guerre. But the irritation and dismay were palpable. Another Hollywood composer summed up the widespread sentiment among the men and women who bend melodies, harmonies, and rhythms every day to harmonize images on a movie or television screen: “There is no contract, there is no union. You have an absolute obligation to work with anyone who may or may not be completely unethical. ”

“The ultimate advantage in the life of a composer,” said Henry Mancini, “is to make a living doing what you really love: making music.” Mancini, who scored such films as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther, and Victor / Victoria, Won four Oscars on the side, he is part of an eternal pantheon of film composers that includes Bernard Herrmann, John Williams and more recently Hans Zimmer. We don’t talk much about film composers, but their work is essential to the cinematic experience. Try to imagine Psycho without Herrmann’s piercing violins or beginning without Zimmer’s stomach growling BRAAAM. As director James Cameron once said, “The score is the heart and soul of a film.”

Recently, in the streaming era, composers themselves are talking more and more about making a living. As an increasing proportion of their work moves to streaming, film composers are seeing their royalties shrink to “pennies on the dollar,” more than three dozen of them put it in an open letter to ASCAP, BMI and other performance advocates last August. Royalty organizations or PROs that collect and distribute revenue to songwriters. “This raises serious concerns about the future financial prospects for all composers,” the letter reads.

Worse, some streamers, now Netflix in particular, are forgoing working agreements that completely exclude royalties. Such arrangements are called buyouts — work-for-hire deals that offer a lump sum payment and no backend — and they strip the composer of any share in the continued success of a hit series or film. In 2019, a group of award-winning composers – including Carter Burwell (who wrote the score for almost every Coen brothers film), Joel Beckerman (CBS this morning), John Powell (the Jason Bourne franchise), and Pinar Toprak (Captain Marvel) – Launched “Your Music, Your Future”, an initiative aimed at raising awareness of buyouts. Almost 19,000 people have signed up so far.

As this new financial pressure mounts, they are exposing cracks in the film composition system itself. There is a growing disenchantment with a system where paying dues is a humiliation, where aspiring composers work cheaply with no benefits, security or the clout of a composers’ union – if there is only one. (Once upon a time. The Composers and Lyricists Guild of America, founded in the 1950s, dissolved after a 1971 strike.)

Much of the resentment stems from film composition’s biggest open secret: Many of its brightest stars don’t actually write the music for which they’re celebrated and paid for. That work, or a good deal of it, is delegated to others. Sometimes these others are referred to as “additional composers,” but often they are effectively gig workers, receiving modest pay and no recognition. Such shaders are known as “ghost composers,” and the debate over how renowned music directors are paid is haunted by their existence.

Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney opened last summer Black widow in theaters and on its streaming platform simultaneously — a decision she claimed cost millions in box office revenue — revealed widespread concerns about compensation in rapidly digitizing Hollywood. (The lawsuit was settled last September; terms were not disclosed.) Likewise, composers have been nervous to see time-honoured ways of doing things changing; The new economy of streaming threatens what is essentially a quasi-feudal system. Composers may not be happy with this system, but they fear something worse will replace it.

“Everything has a certain secrecy,” one composer told me, which is a condition of anonymity. “There’s the world where everyone’s in – and then you look under the hood.”

Many of The people contacted for this story — composers, lawyers, music supervisors — asked not to be identified because they feared they could jeopardize career opportunities if they spoke openly about how their business works. The vibe is “The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.” That’s perhaps why a series of tweets from veteran composer Joe Kraemer (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) posted last year rebounded throughout the composer community. “I can count on one hand the number of mainstream Hollywood composers that I KNOW write all of their music themselves, with John Williams being the most famous example,” Kraemer wrote. “All the others are team leaders, figureheads of a team of composers.”

Williams has described his methodology, which is not too different from Brahms: “While composing, I scrawl with a pen and throw pages all over the room.” He makes music with the now traditional tools: a Steinway and sheet music. His orchestrations are, he said, “articulated to the last harp”. Williams is the image of the composer as a loner that we hold in our minds today. He is a role model in the industry. It’s even said that directors sometimes work around his music rather than the other way around.

The Williams approach, Kraemer noted, is extremely rare today. As the Hollywood composer I spoke to put it, “The name brands have been letting people write their music for more than 20 years.” A veteran Hollywood music supervisor described how it works. “The composers have six or seven projects going on at any one time,” they said, referring to leading composers working in television. “The leader sets the ‘tone palette’ to make it work. And then the minions do the actual writing.” Let’s say you’re one of those minions—an on-call composer or studio assistant who gets to write—and you’re working with a major film music studio on the score of a tentpole film. You are assigned a series of “cues”: parts of the score that you compose to accompany specific scenes. The lead composer – whose name will appear on the final product – worked out the overall direction. Zimmer calls it “the sketch.” As Devo founder to film composer Mark Mothersbaugh (Rugrats, The Lego Movie, and four Wes Anderson films) once described it this way: “You give them subjects, you do a rough mock-up, and then these people adjust everything.” In a way, it’s a system that the assembly-line studios of contemporary artists like Mark Kostabi and Jeff Koons is similar.

As the fine tuner, you write the actual music for your assigned cues and send demos to the main composer’s studio. Then comes a feedback and approval process, followed by the actual recording – which could mean an orchestra. To put the score in culinary terms, the cues you write feed into a soup (the score) created by many other sous-chefs (additional composers) working under a chef (the main composer). Part of the idiosyncratic beauty of a Hollywood score is, as the Hollywood composer I spoke to put it, its “cool collaborative aspect, a legacy feel”. When the team clicks, there’s a shared sense of energy and enterprise. For many young composers, they are more drawn to Hollywood than Carnegie Hall.

If their contributions are credited at the end (usually as an “additional composer”) and the payment is reasonable, the participants can rejoice. They can pay the rent. They may one day rise to the level of a leading composer, like John Powell, Henry Gregson-Williams and Lorne Balfe, brilliant film musicians, all hailing from Zimmer’s gigantic remote control studio in Santa Monica. (The minions there are sometimes referred to as “Zimlings.”)

And then there are the ghost composers. Virtually unknown to the cinema public, ghost composing has a long tradition as an introductory ritual. One of the gods of film music, Ennio Morricone was a ghost composer before finding his first feature film fame in 1961. “I was a ghost myself (in really big movies),” Zimmer noted. The issue of ghost composing occasionally surfaced in the media, as in 2014 it was discovered that deaf Japanese composer Mamoru Samuragochi, a so-called “Beethoven of the digital age,” had employed a ghost composer for 18 years. It was viewed as a scandal.


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