EMMYS: Trends In TV Scoring – Self-Financing Composers

Hitting the right notes on a TV pilot can often require composers to pay for their perfectionist ways. After landing the scoring gig for the CW’s DC Comics pilot Arrow, Blake Neely was faced with the daunting task of following in the footsteps of other big-screen superhero themes. However, at the time, The CW was unsure if Arrow was a go on the fall 2012 schedule. And Neely’s using an orchestral score wasn’t even a possibility.

“The best way to prove to them that they needed (an orchestral score) for the series was for them to hear it,” says Neely. So he hired a 30-piece orchestra comprising strings and brass to create a suspenseful, dark-toned sound, recorded in his Sherman Oaks studio. CW suits were wowed, and Neely’s score lived – but only for the first episode. The bulk of the music budget for Arrow was sacrificed for other production elements, which is typical considering most shows get by with synthesizers.

Related: EMMYS: Drama Series Overview

Nonetheless, it’s quite common for composers to spend their own dough to get a pilot’s score just right. The amount can range from $12,000-$23,000 for a 30- to 50-person orchestra and studio engineers. Even if a series creator thinks a cue is great, the composer will often keep his musicians overtime and gladly pay for it if he’s not happy with the session. Such is the case on indie features as well. Director Sacha Gervasi was gobsmacked when composer Danny Elfman picked up the overtime during the scoring session for Hitchcock.

And after the music budget shrank on ABC’s 1800s drama pilot Gilded Lilys last year, three-time Emmy-winning composer Jeff Beal (Monk), who is nominated this year for House Of Cards, put his fee toward a 17-piece string section.

“The rationale behind spending the money was not just to make the best presentation possible, but to produce future samples of my work,” says Beal, who fortunately bypassed the entire pilot process on House Of Cards (on which he plays horn and piano), given Netflix’s two-season pickup.

Related: EMMYS: Comedy Series Overview

“Composers are in a unique position in that our livelihood is pitted against the quality of our work. We’re production companies, expected to deliver a final product at the end of the day,” explains Bear McCreary, who recently shelled out for a few extra musicians on a major network pilot and is nominated for his renaissance string themes on the Starz series Da Vinci’s Demons.

In scrambling for projects, the number of which have increased thanks to ABC’s embrace of Revenge, Neely says that many composers will hire their own orchestra to record demos just to land the job. But it’s not something he hopes anyone expects during the process.

“A costume designer doesn’t pay for the material, and the cinematographer isn’t forced to pay for their film,” Neely says. “It’s a bit of a double-edged sword that we don’t want the industry to get comfortable with.”

Related: EMMYS: Movie/Miniseries Overview

  1. This is probably the best article on Deadline in a month. Had no idea this was even a thing, let alone common practice. Sucks to see such a vital influencer of a show’s tone and feel being taken advantage of. It doesn’t surprise me, though, that good composers will pay out of their own pocket to get it just right. Wish we’d see that kind of dedication to perfection in other areas of production.

  2. For what it’s worth, I thought the score for Enlightened was rather magnificent. It was just so dreamy and beautiful, with hints of anger and menace, reflecting Amy’s inner turmoil. For such a knockout of a show, it still stood out.

  3. Scores in television are so underrated, Adam Fields did a fantastic job on Dawson’s Creek and made it all the more memorable .

    1. Especially the great television scores from the 1970’s. Those composers were seriously schooled musicians who snuck quite a bit of modernism into their TV scores. Leonard Rosenman comes immediately to mind.

  4. The value of music scores is criminally underrated, esp. in TV. Whedon/Marvel were incredibly smart to hire McCreary for SHIELD. He’s obviously a brilliant talent as a composer, but also a superbly, fiercely efficient music producer, who adds tremendous value to every project. He’s got a huge career ahead of him (see Giacchino).

  5. While I’m glad someone is finally bringing up this issue, the article is written in a very dangerous way. The guys highlighted here are stalwart TV composers with big bank accounts. They can afford to take a hit when needed. Most can’t. Music is becoming the most abused and de-valued part of the production process and that’s mainly the fault of the composers themselves not drawing lines about what they will and won’t do within a certain budget. Even hinting that composers might take one for the team at any given time just makes those doing the punching that much more willing to try. The real point is that composers should NOT be expected to pay for their recordings and associated fees if the budget doesn’t reflect that extra cost. There are plenty of people working out there who have to choose between recording and paying their mortgage or rent. Which would you choose? It’s a LOT worse out there than this article even begins to hint at.

  6. Enlightened’s score was probably some of the most gorgeous music ever. Wish it, like the show, were getting proper attention.

  7. A good, informative read, this.
    There’s some truly beautiful music being composed for the so-called small screen these days — Trevor Morris in The Borgias, Frans Bak in The Killing, too many others to name.
    It’s a funny thing — sometimes the best music is that which one doesn’t notice until afterwards. Then you play it back in isolation, and you have one of those holy s— moments.
    Bear McCreary has consistently hit top-end notes, if he’s a bit prolific at times for his own good. Some of his music for Caprica and Battlestar Galactica is both disarmingly simple and insanely sophisticated, and yet, as serious composition, it’s all too easy to take for granted. Good article.

  8. How long till the studios let Kickstarter pay for their film scores?

    There is plenty of money if they’d just trim the fat… and by fat, I’m talking about anyone at the studio level who gives notes.

    You could save at least $600K by shedding the wannabes.

  9. It’s not uncommon for a composer to earn nothing for the score, or even go into the hole, hoping to make it up in residuals. And recording in LA is almost impossible, to the point that most of the remaining recording stages are close to closing permanently.

  10. I see not a lot has changed over the decades since my colleagues bankrupted themselves scoring films “for free” for Cannon Films and other independents. This reminds me of the epidemic of actors and models spending thousands of dollars on plastic surgery to remain “competitive”. The recent demise of several visual effects companies seems to also be a foreshadowing of what’s to come for tv/film composers. When will artists stop “giving away the milk for free”? This self-financing of scores by composers is turning our situation into the proverbial casting couch.

  11. Well, at least “The Simpsons” is among some of the television shows to have a musical score played by a full orchestra, along with “Family Guy” and “American Dad.”

  12. Just for the record, Izler composes and conducts the music for ABC’s “Revenge”. They mention that show but not the composer for some reason.

  13. Screenwriters, and a couple of other groups, have long held themselves to be the most abused segment of the creative process in film/tv but I would submit that composers win that title by a country mile.

    If those other segments of the process (screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, costumers, casting & location people) had to put up with the same things composers do (declining budgets, unlimited revisions, paying production costs out of pocket, impossible deadlines, etc) then there would be strikes and riots.

    Unfortunately the blame for the composers situation lay with the composers themselves. Stop saying yes to these crazy expectations and hopefully things will change for the better. But we all know that won’t happen because people gotta eat.

  14. This article sounds dangerously celebratory. In truth this is a miserable area of the industry. Of COURSE Danny can pay for sessions – he’s a multimillionaire. Don’t anyone think that he would bat an eyelid paying tens of thousands in a day for this – to please his director. Please understand that many, many composers are treated appallingly by productions, and forced in some cases under duress to spend their own private money on aspects of production, that are in truth only the production’s responsibility. As Beal says, it just turns into a demoreel opp – ludicrous when the aim should be to serve the drama. The only way this will stop is if a firm rule is established in the industry, protecting composers. That is not up to composers – it is up to unions and lawyers.

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