Posts tagged ‘composing’

August 6, 2014

FROM HARDWARE TO SOFTWARE

A former band-mate recently asked if I still had my huge modular Moog and stack of keyboards that I owned when we were playing in a band together decades ago. While the simple answer is no, there are logical reasons why not.

DuaneDeckerLiveShotLive performance setup – 1980

Back then, I was a live musician who would occasionally go into the studio to record songs. My main focus was playing live and giving audiences the most entertaining show possible. The fact that I carried over 1/2 ton of equipment to every gig was a part of the show. And believe me, despite all the work involved, it was a whole lot of fun.

Each keyboard had a unique sound. While it was possible to manipulate the sounds of each keyboard while on stage, there was not enough time between songs to make dramatic changes – especially with the Moog. There was no “save” button, everything was done manually. The main purpose of all this equipment was to perform live and entertain audiences wherever we went.

 

2014DDMStudio3Duane Decker Music Studio – 2014

Fast forward to today. I no longer play live. I am a full-time Music Composer and Sound Designer. Yes, people really do this for a living and I’m one of the fortunate ones who do. All of my work is done inside my recording studios. My requirements have changed dramatically and so have the technology and instruments that I use.

In order to compose, record and produce music and sound, I now use very powerful professional computer software. I have well over a terabyte of musical instruments and sound effects that allow me to create music and audio in any style. Everything is still performed and recorded in real-time. The main difference is that each part is performed using a keyboard controller and a percussion controller that trigger sampled instruments.

When budgets allow, I can bring in live musicians to record. I have even recorded a full orchestra at a commercial recording studio, then brought those recordings back to my studio to integrate them with my recordings in order to complete the finished product.

Current technology gives me complete control over every aspect of creation, production, delivery and archiving. If I need to call up an old recording session, it can be opened in a matter of seconds. Most new music you hear is produced this way.

I still love going to concerts and admire all of the talented musicians who play live. But my job as a composer and sound designer requires a very different set of tools.

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February 17, 2014

HOW A COMPOSER MAKES MONEY

ASCAP (the performing rights organization, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) celebrated its 100th birthday on Thursday and it brought up an interesting question from many people. How do composers make money? And why would they join an organization such as ASCAP?

Like anyone else, professional composers need enough income to put a roof over their heads and food on their table. ASCAP helps to protect their rights and make sure that they are paid for the work they do.

In my brief summary here, I’m referring to composing instrumental music (not songs with lyrics).

Live Performance: Exposure to a composer’s work sometimes comes in the form of live performances of his or her work. Unless the composer is also performing in the live ensemble, there is usually no extra money owed to the composer. If the work was commissioned for a performance, that fee would be negotiated and paid up-front. The composer is also entitled to receive performance royalties through a performing rights organization like ASCAP. This amount is usually very small.

Work For Hire: Composers for media (television, film, video games, commercials, etc.) can be hired to compose music which will play during a visual presentation. The company which hired the composer will own the copyright to the music and the company controls how and when that music will be used. This can be lucrative for successful composers, who can charge a lot for their services. International copyright law also states that the composer is always credited as the composer, which allows “back end” revenue. This means that if the music is heard in a context that can be surveyed by a performing rights organization (i.e. TV or radio), then the composer can collect those royalties. Having no control over where and when the music will be placed, however, means that the composer may never see any additional revenue from their work for hire.

Production Music: This music is composed with the hope that a TV, film or game company will select it to be included in their project. This is common in television, especially for low-budget or reality shows. The composer makes an agreement with a production music library. The library then markets the music in return for a portion of the licensing and royalties that are paid. Unless the composer’s work is placed on highly successful shows, the royalties are very low.

Full-Time Composer: This is the most competitive field for a composer to enter. A staff position with a company that needs constant musical content is rare. So when a composer has an opportunity to make a good living doing what he or she has studied and practiced to do all of their lives, almost every composer will apply for the gig. But this is a job where “corporate” meets “creative” and this concept is sometimes very foreign to composers. (In other words, a composer in this type of job must be willing to work within the styles that the employer dictates.) As with any job, the pay is dependent on how successful the company is and how much the company values the composer’s contribution to that success. Unlike any of the other revenue streams mentioned above, a full-time staff composer is also likely to receive benefits such as insurance, 401Ks, stock options, etc. And the fact that they are receiving a steady paycheck allows them to focus on their craft, instead of always looking for their next job.

Pros and Cons:
As you can probably tell from reading this post, 99.9% of people who aspire to be professional composers will not make a living from that alone. Most of the talented composers I know also do other types of jobs, both inside and outside of the music/entertainment industry. But thankfully, there is something so rewarding about creating music and entertaining the world that keeps us excited and stubbornly pressing on in this highly competitive line of work.

Please support the arts and the people who dedicate themselves to making all of our lives a little brighter through music.

July 27, 2013

MUSTS FOR SUCCESSFUL MULTITASKING AS A COMPOSER/MUSICIAN

Throughout my career I’ve spent a lot of time looking for opportunities to compose music for a living and learned a whole lot on that journey.

I’m really thankful now to be constantly busy, doing work that I love — composing and playing music for a living. In my full-time job at IGT, I work on up to seven different casino games at a time. Although the deadlines are staggered, they all need my attention. And in my spare time, I work on freelance projects in other (non-competing) branches of the game industry, TV and film.

It’s great to have so many opportunities to create music and to exercise my creativity in a wide variety of musical styles. But it’s also quite a juggling act. From one day to the next, I’m pulled in different directions and need to focus on whatever task or deadline is critical at that juncture.

Over the years, I’ve established some work habits to keep myself on track, while also avoiding burnout.

• BE LIKE SANTA: “HE’S MAKING A LIST AND CHECKING IT TWICE …”
Put together a checklist or spreadsheet that clearly shows the milestones and deadlines for each of your works in progress. Then tackle the responsibilities in order of chronological urgency. This isn’t to say that you can never take a slight detour from one project to the next. Sometimes inspiration will strike at random and you’ll push the record button on some ideas for a project that isn’t due immediately. That’s fine, as long as you don’t ignore the deadline that looms largest. Missing deadlines is a sure way to convince your employer or client that you can’t be trusted to do your job.

• OR YOU COULD THINK OF IT AS “TRIAGE.”
When you seek treatment at a hospital’s Emergency Room, a triage nurse will assess your condition. If your illness or injury is relatively minor, you can wait a little longer than someone with a life-threatening trauma. You can apply this way of thinking to ranking your own priorities. Which of your job duties should demand most of your attention right now? Which job duties can wait until a bit later?

• ASK FOR FEEDBACK, EARLY IN THE CREATIVE PROCESS.
I mentioned having “milestones” for projects. For example, if you’re composing music for a game, you may be asked to deliver a first attempt at an opening theme by a certain date. The game producer will review that material and let you know if you’re proceeding in the right direction or are way off-base. The sooner you get this feedback or criticism, the sooner you know if you should continue with the style or vibe that you’ve created — or whether you should tweak it, or come up with something entirely new. Why waste other people’s time and energy, as well as your own, if you’re not clear about what works for the project?

• TAKE BREAKS.
You know the saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Working non-stop and never resting is counterproductive. Work hard, of course, but be sure to set reasonable limits. Eating, sleeping, getting some physical exercise and also taking mental breaks are essential to your creativity and to preventing stupid mistakes. You’ll come back refreshed and renewed. And you’ll usually find that you have a clearer picture of what you need to do and are able to get it done faster.

• LEARN SOMETHING NEW.
With each project, there is a different twist or another skill that needs to be learned to pull it off. You might be surprised at how these new pieces of knowledge will help you with future projects. Push through that learning curve. As my mom always told me, “Never stop learning.”

• EACH PROJECT IS UNIQUE.
When you are working on multiple projects, one will inevitably bleed into another. Just like getting a song stuck in your head, you tend to gravitate toward that song in your work. But the project you are working on right this minute is unique. Listen to all the feedback you get and use it to create a fresh approach. Go outside of your comfort zone, explore genres that you were passionate about a long time ago or simply think through imaginative new ways of doing things. Anything is possible as long as it serves the needs of the project.

• DON’T BECOME A PARODY OF YOURSELF.
When you labor over one very specific skill set and/or style for a long time, you get really good at it. Watch seasoned, successful recording artists. Every time they come out on stage, they deliver a stellar show. But watching them the second night seems like a repeat of the first (which is why they make the big bucks). While this is perfect for live performances, it doesn’t work for composing. Embrace everything new, different or challenging. It will make you much more valuable to producers.

It’s pretty surprising to me that I am able to juggle so many projects at one time, but I think that diversity is the key. It keeps things fresh and always interesting. If you aspire to innovate, great things can happen to you as a composer. Just keep tabs on all those balls you are juggling to make sure they stay in the air.

July 13, 2012

VARIETY IS KEY TO COMPOSING

If you’ve ever said, “I wouldn’t be caught dead composing [insert your least favorite musical style here]”, then you’re probably not going to make a living as a full-time composer. That’s not to say that you can’t excel in your chosen style and become wealthy and famous. It simply means that the majority of composers are usually challenged with creating music in genres that are either new to them or that they actually dislike for one reason or another.

In the case of being faced with something that I’ve never done before, I had never created an eight-minute overture in sonata allegro form for a live symphony orchestra. Yet my good friend Gabriel Sakakeeny asked me to do just that for the American Philharmonic – Sonoma County. It was a big challenge to learn how to arrange music that I had written for video games and put it into a format that is centuries old.

Then there is the inevitable project that uses a musical genre that you don’t care for. When I was playing live in the ’70s and ’80s, there were tons of club and concert venues across the U.S. and Canada that hired live bands to perform every night. Then came the disco era and these venues could draw big crowds by simply hiring a DJ to spin dance records. Naturally, it became harder for a live music act to play enough shows to make a living. I always thought the musicianship on some of these records was outstanding, but they were taking work away from me. So I viewed disco music with a fair amount of contempt.

But fast forward to today. In my job at IGT, I get to create and arrange tracks in a very wide variety of styles. I am currently working on two games that have licensed disco tracks. When I was told about it, I smiled and said, “Yes, I can do that” when the producers asked. The game designer knew how much I disliked disco and now teases me by calling me “Disco Duane” (with a smile on his face, of course).

But after copying, arranging, performing and producing every last note of these songs, I have a newfound appreciation for the genre. Both “Fire” by Ohio Players and “Disco Inferno” by The Trammps are extremely well- written, performed and produced records that were chart-toppers in their day. I learned a lot about funk rhythm and style that I will certainly use in other projects in the future. The down side, however, is that now I can’t stop humming “disco inferno, burn that motha down …”

So if you’re planning on being a composer for a living, continue to learn about and explore other styles of music. Even if you don’t care for the style, it will give you a larger composing palette that will come in handy and increase your value in the future. Next big challenge for me – opera!

If you’d like to see how many different musical styles I’ve taken on, the credits page on my Web site will give you a pretty good idea.

http://www.duanedecker.com/credits.html

Here’s a picture from my high-tech solo act.

June 6, 2012

FROM GAMES TO GAMING

People who know my video game music have sometimes asked why I transitioned from making those types of games to working in the gaming industry. As any composer for games, TV or film will tell you (although they may not admit it out loud), being an independent composer can be a wild roller coaster ride. To be more blunt, it is a “feast or famine” career environment. Although I’ve had abundant success in the video game industry and continue to pursue freelance projects, I felt it was time for a bit more stability.

I now work full-time for IGT (International Game Technology), which is based in Reno, Nevada and is the largest manufacturer of slot machines in the world. Whether you’re in Vegas, Paris or Hong Kong, you’re going to find IGT games on the casino floor. While it may seem like an odd transition, games and gaming aren’t that different. Both thrive on technology, art and of course, music and audio.

The level of talented people I get to work with every day is incredible. There are always new projects coming up. In fact, I’ll be scoring and doing audio design for 10 games in the next 12 months. Although there is less content needed for a single slot machine than the typical AAA video game, I get to compose, arrange and produce a lot of music in styles ranging from pop/rock and jazz to zydeco and mariachi. I’m even up for a patent for a unique way to implement music in the games.

I feel very lucky to be part of a small group of composers who specialize in slots. I would guess that there are only about 50 to 75 of us who are doing this full-time, world-wide. Since it is a very specialized field and the projects are constant, there is much more job security with great pay and benefits. I have not found this in any other part of the entertainment industry. My co-workers tell me that I smile a lot — and they look pretty happy, too.

Here’s a short video that describes a “Day In The Life” at IGT, a place where creativity is truly valued and rewarded: