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Music & Pictures (Part 5)

Getting Started

This month film music composer Robin Lumley discloses his own route to fame and fortune in an effort to get you started on yours...

This month film music composer Robin Lumley discloses his own route to fame and fortune in an effort to get you started on yours...

This sort of article is always, unfortunately, somewhat depressing, by virtue of the inescapable facts that in the music and film industry, let alone other art-based areas, you can't get started without some kind of track record, and you can't get that track record without having already got in and got started! The archetypal Catch 22 situation, which I'm sure you've already heard of with gloomy thoughts. Now, I'm not going to suddenly come up with an easy formula that beats the system, and explain how to obtain a big movie commission overnight, because there isn't one, and never will be.

However, there are some pointers to be passed on. After all, those people busy writing and working today had to start somewhere, so they must have beaten the system somehow, albeit in many different ways. So we'll start with some generalities, and then examine very briefly the careers of some of my peers, and indeed my own route to finally becoming a telephone number worth calling.


Working musicians, be they members of bands or solo performers, perhaps with a modicum of home recording equipment, usually have the opportunities to run into the folks that dish out the work. Obviously, if you have a deal with either a management, publishing, or record company, then life will be very much easier, because of the increasing cross-over factor between these aforementioned entities, and the video and film production companies. Much of this is done by word of mouth, or on a social basis, between friends from both camps. If you're not in this lucky situation, then things become very much harder.

Of course, if you have the time and the money, you can record some demos, have dozens of copies made, buy yourself a Kemps Yearbook, and call or write in to any of the myriad film and video companies you'll find listed in its pages. Occasionally this works, and is the standard method if you know no-one personally, but the inevitable disappointment rate is very high. Your tape and letter arrives on a desk, is opened by a secretary, and if not simply left to one side for a long time, may just be ignored altogether.

Or you may, in the fullness of time, simply receive a refusal note.

The main problem, seen from a film director or producer's point of view is, of course, MONEY; pure and simple! They'll not ask any writer to work for them unless they are sure that the person is experienced and talented enough to crack the job quickly, cheaply, and well. Which implies foreknowledge of that person's abilities. After all, would you employ an unknown and take a risk if there was a phone book full of tried and tested people?

So, not a very encouraging and promising route that one. But still worth trying nevertheless if, as I say, you've got the time and money for a big mail-shot.


Another method is to try for Library Music. A Library Music company is very often used by film directors to find a piece of music suitable for a commercial, or often even an entire feature production, in order to avoid the larger costs of having music specially composed and recorded. For example, if you've ever seen Monty Python And The Holy Grail (and I've a funny feeling that anyone reading this magazine, and knowing how musos love Python, this means all of you have seen it at least 20 times), you may be surprised to find out that all the music, apart from Neil Innes' songs, was library stock bought 'off the shelf' so to speak. But being very carefully chosen, and appropriately matched to picture, it seems as if it were especially composed.

So, if you contact a Tape/Music Library, and suggest recording a whole selection of stuff for them, having heard some sort of demo, and if agreeable, they may suggest that you record a library album. For this, you are unlikely to be paid, although they may agree to foot the recording costs, but your material is then available for directors and producers to browse through whilst looking for the music they are after. If they choose something of yours it's buyout time, and a commission slice to the library.

Many of the Library Music companies circulate limited edition pressings of albums of various work on a regular basis to many film companies, touting for business as it were, and very often a 30-second piece for a commercial is picked up and used. And, of course, if it happens to be your work and you are a member of the Performing Rights Society, each time that piece is broadcast or transmitted anywhere in the world, you'll end up with a usage fee. This doesn't amount to very much (eg. 25p for one transmission in Hong Kong) but taken across the board, can become quite substantial. If there are ten ITV stations all transmitting your commercial five times a day at 1Op each, for an advertising campaign lasting three months, you don't need my pocket calculator to see that it's £5.00 a day for 90 days... not bad, especially if you've got several on the go at once. Well, that's an ideal situation, and obviously I'm not promising anything, you've plenty of hurdles to clear yet, but you can see that it's a route worth pursuing.


Well, that's the library route, and some may not even want you in the first place (more depressing stuff) but for goodness sake TRY! If you are talented, able, and persistent, I've got a funny old feeling you'll get there anyway, regardless of my advice or articles like this one. But I stress again, it takes a state of mind that is dedicated to never giving up, and never taking NO for an answer. As a matter of fact, when approached by aspiring hopefuls, I always try to put them off altogether, on the basis that those who are put off would never have made it anyway, and those who say to themselves "Rubbish... I'll do it regardless" are the winners in this cut-throat game.

Let's make no bones about it... the music business, be it getting a band off the ground, or trying to write and perform film music, is an industry with a minute success rate statistically. It's around 95-99% failure rate. And that is not through lack of talent. I've heard bands and individual composers who are extremely talented and able, and yet get nowhere. Similarly, I'm sure you've all seen bands and artists on TV of whom you've thought "What a load of rubbish... how did they ever get a deal?". But 'tis the way of the world my friend, and it is a system that you cannot avoid.


But let's look at some success stories ... those who have tried to buck the system, and succeeded. I'll start on home ground with myself.

As you may or may not be aware, I started life playing keyboards in David Bowie's band, and then moved on to a partnership with Jack Lancaster, producing the world-wide hit album Peter And The Wolf. From there to Brand X, and its world-wide success.

So, I had the necessary track record - no problem. Mixing in such circles brought me in contact with not only the best management company in the world - Hit And Run Music who, under the auspices of Tony Smith and a dedicated team of supportive personnel, manage Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, and others (including little old budget me) - but also interested parties from film companies who know a good buy when they see one. Consequently, the cross-over to film and TV commercial music writing was relatively easy. I was also very lucky to have got in, as it were, at the ground floor, long before all the modern technology that we've discussed in previous articles came into being. So I met, as it were, the 'right people' quite early on, and thus am in the position today that is generative of work.

Enough of blasting my own trumpet! On to John Williams (the orchestral composer, not the renowned guitarist) who evolved from an entirely different school to compose Jaws and all the Star Wars theme tunes, plus many other blockbuster movie scores. He became 'flavour of the month' in that his presence on a movie soundtrack was almost obligatory for its box office success. Now, Mr. Williams is an outrageously talented orchestral composer, and a man who can write just the tune or arrangement for the right filmic occasion. And so, rightly, he has had resounding and complete success for many years world-wide.

And again, Jerry Goldsmith (seen Alien?) is another. But, you may be thinking, how is Lumley helping we aspiring musos to these heights by prattling on about the greats? The answer is simple... and rather coldblooded. It means sheer bloody hard work, having doors slammed in your face for years perhaps, but above all, NEVER giving up in your own belief that you are worthy and have talent and ability.

Moving on to another approach route, take my dear friend Rod Argent. As you're probably well aware, he was the leading light in the sixties' band The Zombies, and went on in the seventies to form Argent, his own band, with its string of hits - notably 'Fold Your Bed Up' (or 'Hold Your Head Up' to the uninitiated). Having got some pennies together, he then became involved with Andrew Lloyd Webber on many of his projects, and soon saved enough money to build his own home studio. Meetings with Bob Howes, for example, who runs the English Chorale, a vocal group used on many film and TV productions, led to his involvement with BBC contacts, resulting in the current Pebble Mill At One theme and, of course, the recent successful Soldiers series which you may have read about in these pages a month or two ago. This also spurred Bob Howes on to construct a studio (West Heath) specifically for postproduction sound. I'm taking a similar route with Andrew Sheehan of the Prince's Trust and Gateway Studios in Wandsworth to do the same sort of thing.

But, lest you think that this may be all above your head and you are saying to yourselves: "Well, they're all successful players in their own right, with track records extending back into the mists of time" - don't be put off. With state of the art home recording technology, and its relative cheapness, there is no reason why you can't start your own operation. A visit to a friendly bank manager (and you'd be surprised how on-the-ball they are these days about lucrative new businesses) may set you off with enough pennies to get going. Follow this with a few adverts in the right magazines (this one?!!) and you could start pulling in basic film work, thus meeting the right people - directors, producers and screenplay writers - who may very well turn round next week and say "I've got this series to do and I need some music...".

You may find that scenario all too daunting, but if that is the case, then you are better off reading about it than doing it. This may sound cruel, but it is the bitter truth. Nevertheless, this article is not intended to discourage, rather to fire you up into doing something about it. If you really want to get into film composing and playing then go for it, and don't be put off by me.


So, a somewhat depressing epistle this month, but if you read between the lines and also along them, you should find some encouragement. I hate to reiterate, but it is a nasty, closed-shop business, and be under no illusions on how to get in.

As a final offer of help, if you'd like to write to me personally care of this magazine, I'll do my best to answer any specific points arising, and be willing to help in any way possible. In other words, you've actually got a contact on the inside! Which is more than most starters ever get, and who knows, depending on what you've got to say, I may be able to assist you. This is not a carte blanche to deluge the Sound On Sound offices with piles of demos... please write first, and I'll see what I can do. It may take a while, but I promise to reply personally. "

The 400-page Kemps Yearbook costs £15 (inc. postage) and is available direct from (Contact Details)

Performing Rights Society, (Contact Details)


Read the next part in this series:
Music & Pictures (Part 6)

Previous Article in this issue

Increased Prophets

Next article in this issue

The Professional's Choice

Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Apr 1986

Donated & scanned by: Bill Blackledge


Composing for Business

Video / Film / Picture


Music & Pictures

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 (Viewing) | Part 6

Feature by Robin Lumley

Previous article in this issue:

> Increased Prophets

Next article in this issue:

> The Professional's Choice

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