The job: Screen composer
The role: The role of a screen composer is to compose, perform and produce music for visual media, including commercials, television shows, movies and video games. While there are a few in-house screen composers working in ad agencies and video game production studios, 80 per cent operate as freelancers, according to a study by the Screen Composers Guild of Canada.
"You're really running a business. You're a project manager; you wear many different hats," said Darren Fung, the second vice-president of SCGC and a freelance screen composer. "You're a recording engineer, you're an orchestrator, you're a conductor; sometimes you're a performer and you're a bookkeeper."
Like most freelancers, screen composers work irregular and inconsistent hours.
"It depends on the project, but I'd say it's anywhere from four to six weeks for a one-off project – say you're doing a feature film or a one-hour documentary," Mr. Fung says. "An episodic television series is three to six months. If you're doing a studio film, they like to keep you busy because they're paying you lots of money, so you're often booked for a year to do that."
Education: While there are no formal educational standards, and self-taught musicians can find work in the industry, there are a number of training programs for screen composers in Canada offered by organizations such as the Canadian Film Centre and the University of Montreal.
There are also a number of informal avenues for gaining exposure to the industry. For example, those who want to launch a career as a screen composer can start by volunteering on low-budget and student film projects, or find an apprenticeship with an established composer through the SCGC's apprenticeship program.
Salary: The salary of screen composers can vary drastically from year to year, depending on the amount and type of work they secure.
"Starting out at an assistant level, you're probably making $10 to $15 an hour," Mr. Fung said. "Mid-career-wise, you're looking at anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 [a year], and if you're doing big studio films and that kind of stuff, you're making anywhere from six to seven digits."
Employers often provide screen composers with a budget for each project. The screen composer is then responsible for using that budget to cover overhead such as equipment, production costs and performer fees. Their salary is what remains.
According to the SCGC's 2013 study, the average gross revenue of Canadian screen composers was $109,297. However, those surveyed also spent an average of $50,749 on business expenses, which leaves average compensation of about $58,500 a year.
Furthermore, as with most careers in show business, screen composers earn royalties or "back-end" fees whenever their work is rebroadcast or reused.
"The back end for us helps weather the storm for when you're not working," Mr. Fung said. "We're very luck as freelancers to have that extra layer of diversity to help stabilize our income a little bit."
Job prospects: While advances in technology have made it possible for screen composers to operate remotely, the industry does rely heavily on in-person collaboration. As such, job prospects are more plentiful in major urban centres that are home to active film industries, like Toronto and Vancouver.
While work is readily available in those markets, Mr. Fung explains that fees are shrinking, assignments are becoming less frequent and competition is becoming more fierce.
"What we've found is that music budgets are declining constantly, so there's less money for less work," he said. "We're also finding less commissioned projects, because of the amount of reality and lifestyle shows out there. A lot of them are using library music, they're not hiring composers to do it, they're using stock music."
Mr. Fung adds that the industry has suffered along with the rise of on-demand video streaming services like Netflix, which are not required to pay composers performance royalties.
Challenges: Both the film industry and the freelance work structure typically operate with inconsistent working hours and salary, and the combination of the two can prove challenging.
"It's hard when you have a project, because you have a hard deadline, especially if you have a family and you're trying to balance everything," Mr. Fung said. "It's work, work, work, almost 20 hours a day for months, and then that's it. You're done."
Mr. Fung adds that the lull between projects can also be discouraging, and stretch for months at a time.
Why they do it: While the salary is unpredictable, being a screen composer is perhaps among the most stable positions within the music industry, which makes it an appealing career for those who love to play.
"I get to write music for a living. It's not working," Mr. Fung said. "I love working with other musicians, going into a studio and getting to play music together. The feeling is overwhelming."
Misconceptions: Mr. Fung says that DVD special features and behind-the-scenes documentaries often depict composers working with orchestras in immaculate studio settings, but such working environments exist only on high-budget film productions.
"That's not the reality for 95 per cent of screen composers," he said. "A lot of it is solitary, working with a couple of computers on tight deadlines."
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