How do established music creators navigate transitioning to working in a new medium or form?
There are any number of reasons why music creators who have established themselves in one medium or form might wish to explore working in another. They may be seeking to expand their skill sets, experience fresh creative challenges, explore new ways to earn revenue, or simply make a change. Regardless of their motivation, however, creators should be aware of the personal and professional implications of a mid-career transition within the music-creation industry so they can properly prepare themselves to pivot.
A Head Start
The good news is that, even though these creators are choosing to navigate (what is for them) uncharted professional terrain, they’re already equipped with much of what they need to thrive:
- Since they’ve been self-employed for years, they’ve come to understand what owning and running a small business requires—and the fundamentals don’t change much from niche to niche.
- They may have a catalogue of musical works earning them royalties in the background, thereby providing them with some or all of the financial stability needed to support their new endeavour.
- They’ve likely had many opportunities to learn how to collaborate with other industry players. And even though they may deal with entirely new entities in the next phase of their career, the interpersonal skills they’ve developed (including how to negotiate) will still hold them in good stead.
- The considerable amount of time they’ve spent honing their craft likely means that their creative talents are sharper than ever—and ready to be put to new and exciting use.
Going Back to Basics
In many ways, though, a career pivot for a music creator means somewhat of a re-start. There are enough differences in what’s required to succeed that they’ll likely need to approach most things from the perspective of a newcomer, shedding many of their preconceptions and processes, and immersing themselves in their new area.
Transitioning between media and forms often requires a paradigm shift when it comes to one’s creative approach. For example, if a songwriter or “art music” composer, who may be accustomed to writing music primarily as a form of self-expression, wishes to begin composing works for screen-based media like TV shows, films, or video games, they’ll need to start regarding themselves as service providers and problem-solvers as much as artists. They’ll be expected to be able to develop an understanding of the creative lead’s overall vision for a project; determine what the music needs to accomplish; and then effectively meet those needs through their work.
That being said, attempting to replicate a sound or style that’s often associated with a particular niche is not advisable. Each successful creator possesses an artistic uniqueness they should seek to express within the parameters of every project. After all, they established themselves on that sound, so they’re likely to find collaborators who appreciate it and want to harness it.
Knowledge & Skill
How one area of the music-creation industry functions can differ greatly from how other areas operate. And though many skills are transferable, some are specific to a particular niche—which is why creators usually need to acquire additional knowledge and develop new skills when they decide to pivot. This may entail completing tutorials, shadowing other creators, or even going back to school.
In the video game industry, as an example, creators are expected to have experience writing music for interactive media and to possess a deep understanding of game play. Unlike traditional media, video games can last for hours on end, and the narrative changes with each play. For this reason, linear music—with a clear beginning and end—doesn’t work. Instead, the music needs to be dynamic, reacting to events in real time, and the composer needs to employ certain strategies to disguise the fact that the music may be looped (e.g., by avoiding aural focal points, shuffling the order of the cues, muting and unmuting different tracks in the same cue, etc.). Most of this isn’t intuitive and needs to be learned.
There’s some variation in the revenue streams available to music creators who work in different areas as well. By familiarizing themselves with standard contracts and recommended fee ranges, creators can prepare for how their income may change when they transition.
Most songwriters don’t usually receive upfront payments on a regular basis but rather rely on the royalties generated by the use of their songs to earn an income (unless they’re also producers, in which case, they may receive upfront master-use licence fees as well). Composers for screen and stage almost always receive a fee for writing original music in addition to royalty revenue. And while video game composers receive front-end compensation as well, most collective societies don’t currently collect or distribute royalties for video game play, which means that upfront fees are typically high and composers have to try to negotiate other ways to receive residual income (usually via a percentage of soundtrack sales revenue).
But even though a music creator may be re-establishing themselves in a new area, they should be careful not to sell themselves short when it comes to pay. Their years of experience in the larger industry are an unquestionable asset, and they should factor that in when negotiating compensation. Many clients and licensees are willing to pay what it costs to work with seasoned creators.
Investment of Time
Patience is a prerequisite for pivoting as well. While an established music creator likely has a well-cultivated network of contacts and team of partners who can help them in their original area of work, these connections may not have any influence in the new area the creator has chosen to explore (although it’s certainly worth asking). As a result, a new network often needs to be built from the ground up—and this can take a great deal of time.
Similarly, securing the first job in a new medium or form can be a lengthy process. Sometimes, the best approach is for the creator to first reach out to collaborators who need music for a particular project but have little to no budget—like students in media-production programs. While the compensation will be meagre or non-existent, the connections formed and experience gained may prove valuable in the future.
It should be noted as well that the act of music creation itself requires differing time commitments depending on the medium, and regardless of whether or not the creator is established. For example, while scoring a film typically takes three to five weeks, a creator may work on the music for a video game on and off for two or three years, which is why they often tackle multiple jobs simultaneously.
Keeping Options Open
With time and effort, music creators who decide to begin working in new forms can absolutely realize the same success they previously did. But unless a creator truly wants a clean break from their “past life,” there is no reason for them to abandon it altogether. In fact, working in multiple media at the same time can result in more of a balance between risk and security. And the variety of projects may well contribute to the creator’s sense of artistic fulfillment. Further, many aspects of the music-creation industry flow into one another (e.g., writing, producing, and performing), so it’s often useful for creators to cast a wide net and be versatile.