6 Key Skills for Becoming a Professional Composer or Music Producer

Below are what I believe to be the 6 key areas that are critical to becoming a professional composer or music producer.

I run an internship programme and as such meet a lot of enthusiastic young composers and music producers who have designs on doing it professionally.

The one question which keeps cropping up is “How do I make it?” As though becoming a professional composer can be distilled down into one simple action.Becoming a Professional Music Composer - Jim Hustwit - Larp Music

I think this expectation extends beyond music to anyone who wants to become a professional creative. You are essentially treading the line between art and commerce and it can be difficult to find.

I do not profess to have all the answers. I can only speak from my own experience.

In 2011 I quit my handsomely paid marketing consultancy job to become a professional composer. Luckily, years later I am still writing music professionally. I say luckily, but there has been an incredible amount of hard work on my part too.

From my experience it seems that “making it” (in any walk of life) is a combination of the following things:

Time

If you plant a seed, you don’t come back the following day and expect to see a tree. It takes years of nurturing and growth in the right conditions. The same can be said of becoming a professional composer or indeed any other profession.

In an age of “life-hacking” there is often the expectancy for things to happen overnight. Invariably they don’t. There is no one single lightning strike.

Success is the culmination of years of hard work and dedication. So make sure you that you enjoy the journey.

“Making It” Doesn’t Exist

The tendency is to become focused on “making it”. This will never actually happen because as someone who is passionate and driven, every time you reach your goal, you’ve already set a new one.

It’s very important to have a vision and goals and these should constantly evolve but if you don’t enjoy the process of achieving them, what’s the point?

I don’t think of myself as having made it. I’m constantly looking to learn, grow and get better and as such I will never reach some miraculous end point whereby I can sit back and say “I’ve made it”

Sure I am earning a living but I never actually know where the next bit of work will come from and that is something I don’t think will ever change.

Critical Listening

This is an important part of becoming a professional composer because it enables you to dissect a piece of music, understand what is happening harmonically, rhythmically, instrumentally, melodically etc.

But more importantly it is the ability to listen to your own work and critically evaluate it. From a composing, production and mix perspective, A/B your music with a commercially released tracks and try and understand why yours doesn’t sound the same. My orchestral scores don’t sound like John Williams’. I am aware of that and will take steps to understand what he is doing. Not with a view to copying but with a view to expanding my musical arsenal.Critical listening - Becoming a Composer - Jim hustwit Larp Music

After mixing a track I can go back days later and hear problems in the mix. I’m not sure I’ll ever truly be happy with piece of work. I’m learning everyday, which means there’s always something I could go back and change. But knowing when to leave your art alone is also important. See my post on “Close as Necessary to Perfection”

Excellence, not Perfection

As a creative, the pressure to create can be immense. And pressure is a great way to stifle creativity. The good news is that this is self-imposed and you can get past it. But know that “perfect” doesn’t exist.

I am a reformed perfectionist, because trying to achieve the impossible is a thankless task.

So I switched my mindset to pursuit of excellence. Excellence does exist and is attainable. But knowing when to leave a piece of work is difficult. I often get to a point where I am constantly making tweaks that the average person will not notice. That’s when I need to leave it alone and know that it is excellent.

Don’t Look for External Validation

I used to look for external validation from others before I could believe that my work was good enough. This stems from my childhood where I rushed home to tell my Dad that I got a B in a test and he asked why I didn’t get an A. That question gave me the desire to perform but for the wrong reasons… for his approval.

Don't look for external validationThis is dangerous territory in creativity because everyone will have a different opinion. Not only that but one person’s art is another person’s abomination. Having the confidence to believe in what you do no matter what anyone thinks is very important.

It’s worth mentioning that I always play my music for people. It’s a strangely revealing process sitting next to someone whilst playing them your music. If during the playback you find yourself making excuses for parts, then those parts need some attention. But an objective perspective from an impartial third party who’s opinion you respect, can be invaluable.

However, in the same way that you might take some of their feedback on board, you should also have the strength to reject feedback you do not agree with. Have the confidence of your convictions.

Be Proactive

As a freelance composer or music producer you are running a business. And like any business you need to go and find customers. When you find that customer, you need to service their needs and maybe even exceed their expectations so that next time they need music, they come straight to you.

I can’t overstate the importance of being proactive. Write music even when you don’t have a brief. Be prolific because you’ll get better with every piece you write. Think about what you can do that’s different from everyone else. Go to networking events. Cold call advertising agencies… but do something.

Sitting around waiting for the phone to ring is a very disempowering way to live and will lead to no work and maybe even depression. It’s also a waste of time.

So there you go. “Making It” doesn’t exist. But as long as you set goals, critically evaluate yourself, strive for excellence, have the confidence of your convictions and are being proactive you should be able to forge a career in music. But it will take time and hard work so above all you need to make sure you enjoy doing it. As Steve Jobs (probably paraphrasing someone else) said:

“The journey is the reward”

If this has been helpful then please share it. My Musical Musings are all about helping people navigate the complicated world of being a music professional, so the more people that this benefits, the better.

Jim Hustwit is a London based Music Producer and Composer.

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