Nathan Fleet loves movies and music, and he can play the Star Wars Cantina Band song on the guitar. So it’s not surprising that he makes his living as a film and television composer. When he’s not scoring movies, he’s making them.
Last year, he wrote, directed and starred in an award-winning short called “AirKnob”, about two neighbors in a quiet suburb who end up in an all-out air guitar battle.
Today, Nathan has agreed to put his pick down for a few minutes to talk with us about the pros and cons of working as a film composer.
How did you get started in the business?
Nathan: I actually wanted to score movies after I graduated from college but I had no demos so I started shooting my own movies to score. From that point on, it has been networking. People tend to hire within their circles, so getting into those circles of producers, directors and editors is as equally important as building your studio.
But you’re still making movies, too. . .
Nathan: It is hard for me to separate my love for filmmaking and composing, but I joke with people saying, “I use the money I make from music to make movies that don’t make money.” I can’t really say that anymore since my last film, Air Knob, that I directed and composed, was successful on TV and with film festivals.
What are the pros and cons of the job?
Nathan: Working in the area of film and TV composition, there are some major pros and cons. It is getting increasingly difficult to compete with music libraries who offer tracks for $29.99, when you’re trying to make a living writing original music that is tailor-made for a scene.
Here is where you need to stand your ground and have them realize that the addition of music is as equally important as a cinematographer’s work on the look of the film. They need to understand that it is a skill and you should be fairly compensated.
On the upside?
Nathan: Once you land a gig, and the production team likes your work, [there’s a good chance they’ll hire you again.] Many of them tell me how difficult it is to search hundreds of songs looking for the right match when a composer can deliver that the first time.
Today’s composers often work from their own home studios. Is that hard to set up when you’re starting out?
Nathan: All the gear I use fits on my large desk. I am a guitar player, so I have my guitars on the wall within arm’s reach and an upright piano behind me so I can just spin around to bash on the keys if I need. It isn’t as impressive as walking into a big recording studio, but people listening to your music in a movie theatre or on TV don’t know, or care, where or how it was done.
With each job, you learn the weaknesses of your studio, so I have upgraded as I go, buying all my own equipment. Having said all that, it is a good idea to learn where your local studios are and start a relationship with them. They can be a part of your workflow if you need to book a larger space for a gig. Bartering is fine here. I could offer guitar tracks and they might have some great microphones so the trade is worth it. You don’t have to own everything.
What training did you have or would suggest for an aspiring composer?
Nathan: I studied music through high school and graduated from the jazz program at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario. There are some famous composers that had no formal training and others that had plenty. From that you can take away that you need dedication and creative talent. It is up to the individual to decide if studying theory is for them, but you will eventually end up arriving at the same answer. The C major scale sounds the same whether you know theory or not. With study, you learn the answers. Without, you discover them.
Learn more about Nathan at his website NathanFleet.com.
Advice from PayScale:
If you’re interested in a career as a film composer, start building your demo reel by offering to score students films and other low budget productions. Check the crew ads on Craigslist, the film department of your local university or Mandy’s production job board.
What Do You Think?
Do you think a formal education is a must for working musicians or is it all about the talent? Let us know in the comments.
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Photo credit: Nathan Fleet