How 5 screen composers got their start and sustain their careers


Illustration: Franco Égalité

Composing for screen sounds like such a glamorous career.

We wanted to explore its viability for modern musicians – if one can sustain as a cinematic composer in today’s landscape.

After buying the 1973 Inner Space soundtrack (an Australian documentary series on the deep sea), I dove deep into the work of composer Sven Libaek. When reading a 2013 interview featuring him, I was captivated by the trajectory of his career. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, he was able to land long-term, royalty-bearing work composing for cartoons like The Flinstones, The Jetsons, and Scooby-Doo, among others. Those set him up for life and opened doors to more experimental opportunities to scratch his creative itch. Those led to additional success.

He scored critically-acclaimed arthouse films and documentaries with a cult-like following. He came off as humble and content in the interview. He did the things he wanted to do, lived a nice life, kept a low profile, and found sustainable success.

Reading this interview made me wonder if such a trajectory is possible today. So, I reached out to a handful of composers to see how they got into the field, how they’ve sustained their careers as composers, and what they think the future will look like.

From sound designer to composer

Award-winning composer Nainita Desai received a degree in mathematics and a postgraduate diploma in music information technology, studying acoustics and psychoacoustics as well as music and emotion. Then, she attended the National Film and Television School (NFTS) to study sound for film, which led her to working as a sound designer on feature films.

Peter Gabriel had visited her university and was interested in some of her work when she was in school. After working as a sound designer for a couple of years, she realized that composing was her true passion and wrote him a letter. She became his assistant music engineer at the world-renowned Real World Studios in Bath, England, working with esteemed artists like Daniel Lanois and Dave Bottrill.

Meanwhile, she was building a home studio and working on her own music. She met a music supervisor by chance who gave her a break and offered her a composition gig for an episode for a new TV show – an experience she described as “baptism by fire.” She got through it and in the end, the film company offered her another job on a travel adventure show.

Soon enough, she had enough work to create a showreel, which she burned onto CDs (this is before MP3s) and sent to hundreds of companies. Of those, two got back to her – a video game company and a corporate video company. She scrambled as a freelancer for a bit, leveraging her experience as a sound designer and taking all sorts of jobs – documentaries, short films, corporate videos, TV commercials, a bit of radio, “and just everything, really.”

She says her career has been a series of breaks. “It’s funny – as much as you try to carve your career path out and say, ‘I want to write music for big Hollywood movies,’ things just don’t end up that way. Your career kind of finds you. I naturally gravitated towards music for documentaries, high-end TV series for the BBC, and wildlife films,” she reflected.

She also wrote a groundbreaking musical for the BBC, which earned her the title of a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit and put her on the map in the film industry. She credited that award for changing her career. Today, Nainita is working on a superhero action drama series, high-profile documentaries, and big video games.

Working your way up a different type of ladder

Composer Alex Weston moved to NYC after graduating from Carnegie Mellon. There, he picked up “random accompanying and teaching gigs while trying to go to concerts and meet alumni or anyone in an effort to find a place in the music scene.” At one of those events, he met Philip Glass’ assistant who was particularly busy at the time. This encounter led to an internship for Alex. He shared, “After a little while, the old assistant left because his career was taking off so I took over the job. I just got lucky that I happened to get in right when he was about to leave.”

He continued, “That job got me into some rooms I feel I generally had no business being in. The first month on the job, I got to fly to Austria to assist in recording a film score with a full orchestra. I later got to music direct two Broadway shows Glass had scored. I got to see how these things were working on a more macro scale, as I was doing similar projects, just on a much much smaller budget. I was recording five people for my projects instead of 60 for his. I want to work in concert works and film works and really any medium if the project is interesting, which is similar to how Glass approaches things.”

While the assistant job was part-time, Alex used his remaining time to write pieces for instrumentalist friends at little to no cost to start. His first paying freelance gigs were short films. “Super micro-budget things, usually with no live players and everything in-the-box,” he recalls. “I worked a lot for people I went to school with and got connected with some grad programs at NYU and SVA and such, so I did a ton of grad thesis films. It was a great experience and it’s how I learned how to score films, as I didn’t actually ever officially study it.”

Once there was not enough time to work on Glass’ projects along with his own, it was time to focus on his own work full-time. Today, in addition to films like The Farewell, which he was short-listed for a 2020 Oscar for, he has also worked on Wander Darkly, The Affair (Showtime), Jane Fonda in Five Acts (HBO), and the Ken Burns-produced documentary The Emperor of All Maladies (PBS), among other projects.

Sticking to a vision and growing together with early collaborators

When we spoke to Cornel Wilczek about using samples in score compositions, he shared that if he jumped straight into cinematic scoring as he wanted to, he would’ve had to work on projects he didn’t stand behind. Instead, he focused on creating the art he wanted to see in the world via exhibits in galleries.

He shared, “At the time, I felt I was better off working as an artist without that weight on me, because I would fail and crumble and never want to do it again. So, I worked as an artist and made music. Directors started approaching me after I put sound installations and albums out there, usually for short films. I started doing a lot of those – particularly animations.”

He continued, “When approached specifically because you’re an experimental artist, you’re less likely to get pulled into the wrong direction. Slowly, over time both I and those early clients got better at our jobs. Some of those people started making funded commercial projects and I got pulled into them. Suddenly, I had work that people would actually hear, and was in the same ballpark as commercial composers. We’re all in the same ballpark now.”

Composer Theron Kay got his feet wet in the media scoring world through a lucky connection while he was still in high school. He shared, “The father of my girlfriend at the time ran a yearly ESPN documentary called Elite 11. When he learned I wanted to pursue film scoring, he graciously listened to some of my existing works and placed a few of my tracks in the show. This opened a bunch of doors for me including working with the director of the show, Rory Karpf, on his next two projects – the shows Snoop & Son and The Evolution of Punk. Working with him ultimately led me to move to LA to pursue composing full-time. We still collaborate to this day and have some exciting things in the works.”

Getting lucky with online job marketplaces

When producer and composer Brian Freeland was a child, he was determined to be a jazz saxophonist, a rockstar guitarist, and then a hip hop or EDM producer, until he found his true passion in cinematic / orchestral music. This dream felt far too out of reach until he saw a behind-the-scenes featurette from the 2004 film King Kong.

He shared, “I saw James Newton Howard, the composer, having a video conference with director Peter Jackson, very casually chatting and playing out his ideas on a piano. Those simple ideas and chords would go to become this huge, bombastic, dramatic orchestral score, but it all starts with simple ideas. That opened my eyes to it all, and I suddenly saw myself in his shoes — just one person coming up with ideas in his own studio. It suddenly made the job of a film composer seem more accessible and realistic to me.”

He began finding work on online marketplaces like Fiverr and Upwork. He shared, “Within six months of making a profile, posting some of my music, and setting a price (which was much too low in hindsight), an indie game developer reached out asking if I could write a full score to a game he was working on. I will always remember the excitement I felt. It was a small indie game, but it had been showcased on some pretty huge gaming channels during early access.”

After finishing that project, Brian began getting more work through those platforms, ranging from ten-second intros for a YouTube channel with 50 subscribers to short films or animation scores for students, to writing full scores for mobile apps that would be downloaded by millions of users. He reflected, “You really would never know what to expect.” He was doing this work while also working in food service, customer service, portrait photography, and occasionally driving for Uber and Doordash until he had enough work to compose full-time.

Brian said that although these job marketplaces get a lot of negative attention, if you advocate for yourself and work hard, they can have the potential to get your career off the ground. He added, “There are a lot of people who don’t value your time or work, so you really have to know your worth, know exactly what it is you have to offer, and it certainly helps to carve out a niche for yourself. Focusing only on orchestral and cinematic music helped me grow immensely, both as a business entity and as an artist. We only get better with experience and application.”

Education, technology, and the never-ending learning curve

In terms of education and training, the composers we spoke to come from a variety of backgrounds. Some had classical training, some went to school for sound design, some specifically for scoring for the screen, and some had no formal training at all.

Brian shared, “I haven’t read music since I was 13. I’ve noticed in certain communities online, especially ones focused on writing orchestral music, that there is some discrimination toward people who don’t read music, write their scores by hand, or know the titles of certain pieces of classical music, etc. I have learned to simply ignore all of the negative energy. I try to stay laser-focused on what I do and what I want to achieve.”

He continued, “You don’t have to be a genius of musical theory to write good music that sells. I’m a firm believer that technical know-how, like knowing your way around a DAW and how to use your sample libraries and plugins is just as important these days, if not more so. While basic knowledge of structure, melody, harmonies, etc. is a must, having top-notch orchestral samples and knowing how to use them is crucial in getting paid gigs as a cinematic composer.”

Theron Kay shared that enrolling in the undergraduate degree in media composition at Cal State University Northridge (CSUN) was the best decision he could have made, because he was able to learn a lot of what’s typically reserved for graduate programs while being in LA and getting work experience.

He reflected, “There’s something amazing about an entire program constructed for something so specific, not just one or two classes. It gives you a chance to experiment with your scoring voice early on at much lower stakes. I made so many connections through that program (both filmmakers and musicians), and it’s ultimately where I felt I grew the most as a composer. I do think it gave me a leg up when it came to preparing for live sessions, as we had entire courses dedicated to score prep, conducting studio sessions, and writing for full orchestra.”

He added, “That being said, it’s perfectly fine going the more traditional route and studying performance or classical composition. Some of the best composers I know that are my age come out of that background, so there’s no one way to do it. It’s just what ended up being best for me!”

When Nainita got started, technology wasn’t as advanced or accessible, and it was expensive. She said that today, formal schooling isn’t necessary to make it in the field. “Having technology democratized has opened up the entire landscape for musical creativity to come from many different corners, not just from people with a formal degree in classical music. If it weren’t for technology, I wouldn’t be a film composer today.”

She continued, “Writing music for the screen is a lifelong learning experience. Every project is a new experience; it’s a never-ending learning curve. Having a degree can be an advantage, but there are so many successful composers out there who don’t.”

Nainita learned how to produce hip hop beats and operatic sequences on the job, not in school. Speaking about a project she’s currently working on, she shared, “It fills me with fear because I’ve never done anything in this style of music before, but actually it’s a good thing. I learned to embrace my inadequacies and build on those so they become my strengths.” She continued, “I don’t want to be put into a box so I always force myself to work on different types of projects. When you think you have nothing else to learn, that’s when your career becomes stagnant.”

How to balance several varying projects day-to-day

Deadlines and budgets seem to be the major driver for how these composers schedule their days, and much like any freelance career, each one can look different.

Brian schedules his day based on which projects have the most pressing deadlines and how long each will take to complete. If he needs to write 20 minutes of music for a video game in two weeks, he’ll only focus on that. If he’s working on smaller projects, he might work on up to five at a time. Whenever he doesn’t have pressing work, he works on music to send to publishers for potential licensing on TV shows, ads, or trailers. He said that work has no guaranteed upfront payment, but it can become income that trickles in if placed.

He shared, “Currently, video game music is contributing the bulk of my income, as these are almost always large, fairly ambitious projects and require the most time and effort to finish. They usually take multiple months, some even years, but the pay is always much greater than writing a two-minute track for an advertisement.”

Theron shared that while balancing a wide variety of projects has been a learning experience, he ultimately finds it refreshing and constantly stimulating. He said, “If I get completely stuck on a cue for a film (which happens more than I’d like to admit), I can shift over to something away from the picture to free myself up, which helps with kickstarting my creativity.”

Having clients across multiple mediums (TV, trailers, films, video games, etc.) seems to be the most reliable way to make a living in this field. Theron said, “Every one of my mentors has always preached about diversifying income, and I think having a ‘hand in all the pots’ helps maintain a steady income. If one area is lacking, you always have the other as a backup (and preferably another backup!).”

Nainita is working on a mix of projects from high-end docs to theatrical films to others for HBO and Netflix, a superhero action series, and two major video games. She said, “I tend to work on multiple projects at the same time. They’re all different challenges. Being able to tell stories through music, working with great teams, working on interesting projects that push me creatively in different directions – that’s what keeps me excited. Every project I take on is an exciting challenge. I’m doing more and more stuff for Netflix, which typically has better budgets so I have more time to bring in musicians.”

Alex added, “You do commercial things so that you can do more artsy things. But commercial doesn’t necessarily mean unsatisfying! It’s all about finding the balance.”

Finding work today

Nainita said that the hustling and networking doesn’t stop after the awards and big projects. She just moved from mailing physical CDs to sending emails. She says film festivals are also important (mostly when not in a pandemic, but even the digital ones help).

“No matter whether it was 20 – 25 years ago or now, it’s never been more important to network with people in the film industry. You never ever know where your next job will come from, whether it’s the next-door neighbor who has an uncle in the film industry or a costume designer or makeup artist who can put you in touch with someone,” she reflected.

She went on, “I’m still subscribed to some industry magazines like Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Screen International, and Broadcast Magazine here in the UK. It’s useful to know what’s going on in the industry – who’s doing what beyond music, and immersing yourself in the film industry and TV industry. Knowing who the execs are and knowing all about the companies, the kind of shows that they make – that’s really important.” Of course, the internet also makes all of this information widely available to anyone. Nainita suggests carving out time for research.

Alex added, “Go to the show. Meet artists in other mediums. Support other musicians. Support the people you think are doing genuinely good work. If you don’t care about other people’s art, there’s no reason anyone should care about yours. Your ‘network’ will follow.”

Streaming has changed the landscape entirely. Nainita shared, “The internet has made the world a much smaller place. Standards are high and artists push each other to be better. Your production skills have to be really good, you have to have a skill set that sets you apart, and you have to be great at communicating. It’s important to have a website — an online presence — so that when you do meet people and you’re networking with them, whether in-person or online, you can showcase your work in an easily and accessible way. With social media, it’s so much more competitive and there’s so much noise out there. It’s a very saturated market for composers, but there are also more opportunities now than ever before.”

Then there’s the “rejection.” Nainita doesn’t dwell on the projects she doesn’t get. She shared, “I’m quite philosophical about it. It wasn’t meant to be if I didn’t get it. Sometimes I’ll pitch something I worked hard on for two months that I really wanted, and I don’t get it. I get upset for 24 hours, and then the next day, I may get offered an exciting job! You have to have thick skin and perseverance. You can’t take criticism personally when people don’t like your music. To them, the piece of music is just a piece of music that may not be working for their vision. A composer is a part of a collaboration, a team. You learn to put your ego aside.”

Looking into the future

It’s been a rough year for the music and entertainment industries. Theron said, “The film industry went down pretty hard in 2020. However, video games, animated films, and trailers for the most part continued full steam ahead. Not having all my eggs in one basket helped me and a bunch of other composers I know get through the pandemic financially.”

He added, “It’s hard to predict where things are going in the future with tech evolving so fast. There’s a lot of work to be done by composers in order to make our place in the industry as it stands today more secure. Things like unionizing and changing how we deal with streaming services and royalties in general. Ultimately, everyone has a wildly different experience. Starting out, it’s an unforgiving and brutal career, but diversifying categories has helped make it more sustainable during the pandemic. It’s also encouraging to remember that John Williams didn’t write Star Wars until he was 45!”

Alex has also maintained throughout the pandemic. He reflected, “There’s a bigger conversation to be had about streaming royalties and such, but with all these platforms, there’s so much more content being made and work to be had. Personally, I’ve been lucky to consistently work throughout the pandemic; fingers crossed I can keep moving as things get back to normal.”

The pandemic has also highlighted the ease at which artists can collaborate remotely, no matter where they are. During the pandemic, Nainita created The Remote Recording Database, of which over 700 people have signed up. In the database, you can find engineers, instrumentalists, and session players who are available for work.

Music has no gender

As the writer of this article — and a woman — I’m acutely aware that there is only one female represented here. Nainita and I talked about the discrimination she’s faced throughout her career. With the help of leaders in the space and women supporting one another at increasing rates, the playing field is more even than it once was.

There were times when project leads thought that Nainita couldn’t compose action music because she was female. She said, “Of course, I can write action music. You know? But they think that women can only write pretty tunes, flowery period music, and to rom-coms. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Music has no gender. When I was growing up, I was looking at myself from the inside out, not from the outside in. I’m aware that some people look at me and have an unconscious bias towards the kind of profession they think I’ll have. People will think that because I’m an Indian woman, I can only write Indian music or certain styles of music, or that I can’t be a composer. I never let that stop me.”

She continued, “Music for the screen is what I’ve always wanted to do. It may have taken me a bit longer to get here because some opportunities were not presented to me, or I’d get passed over for them because people like to employ people who look like themselves. But I have my dream job now, and I am incredibly happy. I’ve always wanted to do this and I’m not letting anyone stop me from doing what I want to do.”

She finished, “The more we have women in positions of power — exec producers or showrunners or female directors — the more they’re going to support female craftspeople and composers. I don’t expect women to just employ women. But I think if no one else is going to do it, then, we have to do it. I’ve noticed, in the last four years or so, the progress that has been made in terms of diversity and equality. We need to keep at it and support the young generation of female composers coming up, because there are so many, and there’s such unique creativity out there. It’s just heartening to see.”

A few organizations supporting women, minorities, and marginalized communities in the music industry to check out: Alliance of Women Film Composers, Free the Work, She Said So, Music Production for Women, and Saffron.

Spark inspiration for your music with expertly-curated loops, one-shots, MIDI, presets, and more:

February 17, 2021

Shannon Byrne Shannon Lee Byrne is a freelance writer focused on the music industry, creativity, entrepreneurship, culture, and mental health. She's also a copywriter, marketing strategist, and podcaster.