I’ve been composing music for television for over 15 years, writing thousands of tracks for shows like “Pawn Stars” and “Sex in the City,” among others. Before that, I was in a band called The Hatters, touring and making records on Atlantic Records. I quickly learned that making records and composing for television are two completely different beasts. Making a record takes heart and soul; making music for television is all about working fast and smart. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way that I’m convinced will help you in your compositional pursuits:
1. Give Them What They Need, Not Just What They Want
Most television producers aren’t sure what they want. Often times, they will tell you they want the music to sound like “this song” or “that artist,” and then you’re on your own. Don’t overproduce at this stage. Make simple, solid demos with lots of options and get ready for re-writes. Try to hone in on an overall vibe or sound.
2. Work Fast, Work Smart
Deadlines in the composing for television world are often brutal, and the quantity of material for just one cycle of episodes can fill five or six records. Once you know the sound of the show, crank it out. You’re not making Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper's! You’re a gun for hire, not an artist with limitless time and money at your disposal.
3. Don’t Overproduce
Listen to music on television. Most of the tracks are beds placed under scenes. They’re unobtrusive, and often really low volume-wise in the mix. Keep tracks simple. Less ismore. Create a mood and don’t overdo the melody, as a strong melody can take away from a scene. Finally, make sure the music has a button at the end of the track. It has to end!
4. Libraries Equal Money
With the explosion of programming and networks, budgets for television music are miniscule. Many shows, especially on cable, have come to rely on production music libraries. In these cases, composers can make money on royalties paid out by PRO’s (ASCAP, BMI, etc). One track can end up on ten shows or more. The royalties are small, but over time, they can add up to significant income.
5. Free Is Not a Dirty Word
Some production music libraries have begun giving their music away to television shows at no cost. That’s how competitive the marketplace has become. But as long as there are royalties to be paid, composers can still make good money. (For the sake of disclosure, this is how my production music library Strike Audio operates). Free may sound like a dirty word, but it’s exactly how companies like Google and Facebook came to dominate the marketplace.