I would really like to break into the music business, perhaps writing music for television and film, or theater. How can I do that?"
First of all, let me make something clear: there are 1,000 eager people for every music job, especially something as exciting as writing music for film. Basically, it's never gonna happen for you. Sorry about that. Best of luck in the future.
... still reading? Well, ok, so you're not daunted by impossible odds. Good. That's an important first step: knowing you'll likely never reach your goal. Gotta weed out the weak of heart, you understand.
Great! So you're still on board. Perfecto. Here's the deal: I can guarantee if you work impossibly hard for the next decade ("10,000 hours" 'til you reach excellence, according to Malcolm Gladwell), you will eventually land a piece of yours in a movie. However, looking at how the business is working nowadays, I do have some bad news: you'll likely never get paid. Young filmmakers will be drawn to you and your work, which you produce for free for ten years as you gain competence and get to know the business, but alas movies will increasingly be distributed online for free (aka stolen), so the amount of money will be reduced to a trickle and you'll likely not be paid more than expenses. So very sorry, but congrats on your success nonetheless!
... still interested? Well then, you might have the stomach for the current music industry. You are willing to work tirelessly for a decade, and even once you've arrived, you'll likely not make much, if any, money. Well, then, welcome to the music industry! Pull up a chair, sit down, let's get to work.
Now, I can hear some of you grumbling "that's unrealistic, John Williams and Randy Newman make money, bla bla bla..." Yup, they do. And they're still alive, so I think Spielberg and Pixar will be calling them before they call you. Moreover, look at the scenario above: working tirelessly for no money seems like something almost no one would do, right? But you can imagine someone that would, can't you? Someone incredibly driven, regardless of level of success. Someone who stays up all night obsessing over the ways in which the Alex North soundtrack to 2001 would have been superior, someone who turns off the sound to Midnight Cowboy and rewrites the score for the entire movie. Sounds crazy, right?
But someone like that does exist. And that's your competition.
My money's on them.
Here's the point I'm trying to make in this blog: making music as a career sounds wonderful, fun, better than working in a bank, you can walk around in your pajamas all day, fame, fortune, love, happiness. As a result, it's a huge magnet. Just about everyone is interested in doing it, and many people who don't really know what they want to do think it sounds much better than anything else so they study music and tell their families they want to be musicians.
That's really nice, but they're about to be crushed by the giant steamroller of reality, because they don't really want to be musicians. They just want all of the things musicians have (see list above).
Lots of people want to be musicians, but here's the fact: you don't choose to be a musician. It chooses you.
That's right: you wake up with music in your head. You think about music all the time. You are distracted in public places by the quiet background music. You get angry when someone uses a b6 (flat 6) chord when it really should have been a iv (minor 4).
And the grim reality: you'll make music no matter what, even if you don't get paid, even if no one listens, because you have to. You've always had to.
Which is why I know when I get a note from someone "wanting to break into the music business" I know they'll fail. Because they think it's a career option.
Do you want to know what kind of letter I get from someone I know will be successful? The kind that starts with a flurry of excited statements drilling down to a focused question about how to create a variable pitch snare without using so much lip pressure, or why more people don't listen to the Todd Rundgren "Acapella" album because it's great for the following 17 reasons, and so on. These people aren't asking how to get started because they've already started, and they don't really care if I think they can make it in the business because they're going to do it anyway. Their excitement is palpable, which will fuel them into the future, damn the torpedoes, let's go tilt at another windmill.
My money's on them.
The best music advice I can give was offered to me, unsolicited, as a high schooler in the Tanglewood Young Artist Vocal Program: "If you can see yourself doing anything other than music as a career, do that. You can always have music in your life, and you won't have to worry about anyone telling you when or how to make music. Fact is, there will always be someone who will stay up later, get up earlier, do the job for less money than you. However, if nothing I say will dissuade you, well, then, welcome to the club."
That's basically how it works. There are flukes: the preternaturally talented, the lucky savant... but I'm guessing if you're writing me as a college grad, those trains have left the station. What is it they say about Berkelee graduates? The successful ones are those who never graduate because they're already signed or off on tour? It's kinda like that. Or, if you do graduate, you've got a shovel in hand, already furiously digging and laying your own foundation.
So, in the future, please don't ask me how to break into the music business. I wish you the best, and hate the be the bearer of bad news. To paraphrase Louis Armstrong when asked the definition of jazz: "If you have to ask, you'll never know."
Deke Sharon founded CASA (and other stuff), makes TV shows ("The Sing-Off"), movies ("Pitch Perfect"), sings (The House Jacks), produces albums (Straight No Chaser, Street Corner Symphony, Committed, Nota, Bubs), wrote a book (A Cappella Arranging), publishes sheet music (Hal Leonard), and custom arranges music (over 2,000 songs). You can find him at www.dekesharon.com