Producers and Composers: 4 Steps to Communicating The Brief


Composers communicate their craft through music and producers do it visually. But what happens when the two work together?

How can the composer get to understand the producer’s needs, and vice versa? What should – and shouldn’t – be in the brief? I set out below some ideas drawn from our own experience.

1. The Prelims It’s sometimes lost in translation, but the obvious starting point is to state the set of deliverables. Is it a theme, a score, a “kit of parts” (ie a library of music) or a combination of all these things which are required? A composer could for example create a theme or kit of parts in advance of the edit in place of so called ‘temp’ music (if brought in early enough in the process) and then score to picture once it’s near picture lock.

2. The Offer It’s also useful to know from the very beginning the music budget. Decisions can be made on how much time can go into the project or pitch as well as the extras like using live musicians if the composer has a ball-park commissioning fee in mind.

Does the project envisage a publishing assignment, sometimes referred to as a ‘buyout’? If so, the commissioning budget should be for just that – to write the music. To buy out the composer’s intellectual property (i.e. the copyright in the music), a separate fee additional to the commissioning fee should be offered.

3. Dig deep Is there a synopsis of the production, a script, perhaps some early rushes or an animatic to illustrate the style? If so, that can be a great head start for a composer. Depending on the commission, reference cues might be useful to get the musical ball rolling. For instance, one of our composers was asked to deliver a theme for series which had ‘loosely speaking the tempo, tone and optimism of ‘Chicago’ by Surfjan Stevens’. Perfect. If you have more than one reference cue then a folder of tracks in the general vein of what’s needed, along with a description of specifically what it is about each track that hits (and/or misses) the mark is very useful.

4. The day-to-day Composers pick up general requirements quickly. And  as we’re living in a world where technology has enabled every part of the music process to be delivered, these two individuals don’t even have to meet.

Some producers communicate their music requirements via email and the relationship is purely via that medium. Others prefer a face-to-face meeting to explain their music vision and maybe later meetings to ‘spot’ the music as the process develops. There’s no right way or wrong way for the day-to-day communication in our experience. But the best tip I can give is have one person communicate notes, revisions or general feedback to the composer.

Whilst none of this advice is intended to sound formulaic, it hopefully serves as a pointer to producers and composers embarking on new working relationships.

Steve Berman is Managing Director of The Composerworks.