I have just listened to around 1,000 tracks for a film music project around new composers.
I have included one of my favourite submissions here, to help illustrate some of my points, but mainly because I think it’s just a stunning piece of work – it’s called Corpus 6 (Part 5) by Kiriakos Spirou and is set to autoplay.
I hasten to add, I am no musician or composer, but I do listen to huge amounts of movie soundtracks. Does this make me an expert? Certainly not. But I am an expert in my own aesthetics, and I do think I spot something good when I hear it.
And this blog is all about the music and submission process, let’s assume you have a great website and social media engagement footprint. So here goes, top eleven musician submission tips.
1. Submit what was requested
We were pretty clear, we needed MP3 files with the name in a specific but simple naming format. What we got sent to us was links to playlists, WAV files, MIDI files and all manner of other weird stuff. Emails saying ‘hey brother, check out the tunes on my soundcloud…’ Really? Do I really have time to go do that? The bottom line is this, when submitting your work, make sure you actually submit what is asked for. Failure to do so means you simply won’t be considered. It’s brutal, but it’s true. We had way more submissions than we needed so why would we work hard to accommodate people who could not even follow the most basic instructions? It blows my mind people can go to great lengths to create amazing work but fail at the last and simplest of hurdles. It reminded me of a quote from Jon Reiss when we ran his distribution masterclass and he said ‘50% of submissions fail at the first hurdle because people cannot read and follow the instructions’. True.
2. Don’t try and sound like a 140 piece orchestra
We had a number of tracks that were attempting to sound like the London Philharmonic. But they weren’t. Sadly, these tracks often sounded just like synths trying very hard to sound like live musicians. Even the ones with better samples and sound mixing just felt like they were trying too hard. I understand why some people would feel the need to go there, but I would recommend against it.
3. Too much going on
Many tracks were too busy, which ended up highlighting the lack of a professional mixer. Like fonts on a webpage, don’t use too many different ones, it ends up being messy. The same is true with music. Keep it simple. Too many different instrument voices just end up with a kind of acoustic mush.
4. Love the synths
If you are going electronic, and there is no reason why not to, really go electronic. The good synth tracks we received (like chunks of the score for ‘Tron’ by Daft Punk) didn’t try to sound like anything but synthesisers. The tracks that embraced the synth sound were mostly successful because they tended to know exactly what they were. Of course, synths are not to everyone’s taste.
5. Love the piano
Often I felt that music (composition) was being let down by the performance and recording. Don’t be afraid if stripping back your work to just a (real) piano and perhaps a few other musical voices. Again, the track on this page is a good example of this.
6. Build to a moment
Many tracks kind of started at a certain pitch (not musical pitch but energy pitch) and just stayed there. Up, down or somewhere inbetween – but always at the same pitch. I wanted to be taken on a journey, not down the M6 at the same speed! Let the music have a moment. Something that we really want to click on and play again and say ‘wow, that bit was awesome…’ Below is a great example that was sent in by Michele Chiavarini called ‘Beholder’. Love it! (needs to be played very loud to do it justice)
7. Less is more
Send only your best tracks and as few as possible. Impress with a single track, create a relationship, and THEN get a request for more music. Better to do this than to bombard with a sea of your mediocre work with a single killer track lost in the middle.
8. Tag your MP3 files
I was amazed at how few people tagged their files with track details, artwork and contact details. That’s like sending a script out without your name on the cover.
9. Get the mix right
A few tracks were clearly performed by live instruments but were so poorly mixed and so hard to listen to. Now I appreciate that we don’t all have access to an expert sound mixer, but often it felt like everything was just pushed up to ten and recorded in a room with no natural reverb – every note felt very hard on the ear. At the least, pull it back, let it ebb and flow, and add a small amount of reverb.
10. Talent shines… but…
It’s true, it literally leaps out at you when listening. So what if you aren’t in that top 1%? Well to my ear, there was also a really good 30% of damn fine stuff – I would have definitely wanted to know more about those composers. I would say that the people in that top 30% were more confident in their work and not trying so hard to impress with bells and whistles.
11. Don’t show your range, spotlight where you excel
Some composers sent lots of tracks in all manner of different styles and genres. I got no sense of the artist in these cases, more the feeling of a musical factory that could churn out great stuff that might, just might, lack a little authorship and soul. I understand why people do this, I myself am a creative with many different faces. But when it really comes down to it, I suspect I have two or three genuine strengths – and I should build there. As a composer, you will have a few key strengths too. Play to them and shine. Even if your supplied music is not appropriate, it WILL get noticed and filed for future possibilities. We don’t want a musical Jacks of all trades, we are looking for a genuine voice.
Remember, I am no composer or musician, but I am the kind of person your music may end up being heard and judged by.
Good luck, keep composing and sending your stuff out. You can only grow as an artist.
Mark Lo kindly added to the list, and we should listen to Mark, here’s who he is… Mark was a composer agent for the Air-Edel group from 1999 to 2012. Last year he became an Exec Music Producer for The Cutting Edge Group, where he manages a film music investment fund and advises on score solutions for feature films and TV.
Mark says… FIND YOUR VOICE
That’s what we look for every time. From all the submissions for representation I get, my “Ones to Watch” folder has only 4 composers in it and they’re in there because they are talented INDIVIDUALS. Having your own voice is absolutely vital to being successful as a composer. While it’s important to have the skills to be able to adapt and meet the brief of the project your working on, it’s YOU that the production should be is hiring and there should only be ONE of you in the market place.
Mark says… THEME’S AND MOTIFS
Something we find again and again is that people write very elaborate soundscapes both orchestral and electronic and fail to write anything close to a theme. While there are exceptions to every rule (Cliff Martinez’s brilliant electronic score to Drive) the composers that are in demand around the world are the ones who know how to write themes. Writing themes is where a composer can develop a score and bring the viewer closer to the emotional core of the characters and the story. It’s why the scores of John Williams, Alexandre Desplat, Lalo Schifrin, Dario Marianelli, Bernard Hermann, Patrick Doyle or Vangelis (to name but a few) have survived the test of time and continue to enthrall and move listeners outside of the film itself.
Thanks Mark, great stuff!
Onwards and upwards!