When we think about audiences experiencing and connecting with music, we tend to picture it happening in spaces like concert halls and clubs. However, the truth is that our society is filled to the brim with music, and not always in the places you'd expect; businesses, nonprofits, event organizers, and more all use original music to inspire their employees, sell their products, create immersive spaces, and cultivate a consistent sonic brand. The bulk of this music is written by freelance composers, who employ a flexible tool kit—including both music composition and production skills—to succeed in a challenging market.
Most freelance composers work out of home studios, where they write, record, mix, and edit custom-composed music for their clients.
Freelance composers write music for an exceptionally wide variety of clients and purposes. Some companies commission corporate theme music for use in rallies and advertisement, while others that host or participate in conventions, trade shows, and other live events commission background and theme music. Businesses like interactive-hardware manufacturers use custom-composed music in a completely different way, integrating it directly into products like children's toys, arcade games, theme park attractions, and gambling machines. Similarly, software developers use short snippets of custom-composed music as startup jingles. Finally, there are clients in nonprofits and the arts, like museums, art galleries, and directors of theatrical performances.
However, the most lucrative source of business for a freelance composer is something else entirely: synchronization (or "sync") placements, where a composer's music is synchronized to a film, TV show, video game, or advertisement. These deals are most frequently brokered by music libraries, intermediary companies that were formed for exactly this purpose. Music libraries are a huge source of work for freelance composers; in addition to passing on commissions to their go-to contributors, they also purchase partial ownership of, or lease compositions directly from, freelance composers to fill their own catalogs. For freelance composers, the benefit of getting music in a library is twofold: an initial payment for the rights along with the possibility of later income from placements. Although the days of "staff writing" are for the most part over—arrangements wherein libraries would contract and pay an advance to particularly good composers in exchange for exclusivity—music libraries are still a vitally important part of the freelance music ecosystem.
At a Glance
Although there are no specific educational requirements for working as a freelance composer, most are highly trained with a focus on contemporary composition and production. The first few years as a freelance composer can be challenging, as one is unlikely to have the contacts, reputation, and industry-specific knowledge to find consistent work. However, this is the kind of career that snowballs, and a mid-career freelance composer is likely to have a well-established network of clients and an industry reputation that makes finding work manageable, if not easy.
Throughout their careers, freelance composers might flit in and out of more long-term positions, such as at an advertising agency or music production house. Successful freelance composers might switch over entirely to permanent in-house positions at music-centric companies, shift into writing music for television and movies, or move into marketing-centric roles that focus on the power of sonic branding. Or they might keep working as freelance composers as long as they can.
Breaking into the profession initially is one of the hardest parts of working as a freelance composer. In order to create a steady flow of work, aspiring freelance composers should try to:
- Send portfolios to intermediary organizations like music libraries and publishers
- Advertise and self-promote through a professional website with a partial musical portfolio
- Network and share knowledge with established freelance composers
- Reach out to local businesses and nonprofits
When making a new deal with a music library or publisher, freelance composers should consider consulting with a music attorney in order to fully understand how the arrangement will affect ownership of their music.
- Knowledge of and proficiency in many musical styles
- Writing music to a directive
- Music theory and harmony
- MIDI, audio editing, and production
- Knowledge of sample libraries
- Basic knowledge of copyright and licensing law
- Written and verbal communication
- Networking and self-promotion
The one thing all freelance composers have in spades is "hustle," the entrepreneurial, forward-looking spirit that enables them to find new opportunities and relish, rather than regret, the uncertainty of their career. Musical flexibility is another must for freelance composers, who might go from making a corporate pump-up track with French horns one minute to collaborating with a songwriter on a track with a cinematic feel the next.
Great communication skills only help, as freelance composers must suss out exactly what kind of music clients need, even when clients may not understand or be able to communicate this themselves. For composers who are more interested in writing for music libraries than specific clients, paying close attention to musical trends and popular genres is vital; it's about predicting the kind of sound people want. Finally, self-motivation and a good work routine are key: freelance composers don't have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike.
Most freelance composers work out of home studios, where they write, record, mix, and edit custom-composed music for their clients. They set their own hours, and may combine this career with another, such as teaching composition at a school or conservatory.