BOOK REVIEW: Guerrilla Film Scoring, by Jeremy Borum

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Long gone are the days where the main tasks of a film composer were the seeking out of scoring projects and the writing process itself. Over the past few decades, the film scoring profession has undergone tremendous changes that have completely transformed the roles a film composer must fulfill. And these changes have come at an increasingly rapid pace, rendering the profession quite different than it was twenty, ten, and even five years ago. Thus, the many books that already exist on the film music business have in many ways become obsolete and there is a great need for a book that explains the profession as it is today.

This is the goal of Guerrilla Film Scoring, a new book by film composer Jeremy Borum that discusses what one needs to be successful in the film scoring world of today, bolstered not only by the author’s personal experience in the business but those of many other active and professional Hollywood film composers as well. Borum’s book, however, does not merely describe the film composer’s roles, it also discusses how one’s time must be divided at the various stages of the film’s production and, crucially, the kinds of stresses and strains this work can have on the composer. Indeed, Borum’s book is neatly divided into three parts that detail the composer’s roles in the film’s pre-production, production, and post-production. Overall, one obtains a very clear picture of exactly what it means to be a film composer today. Borum’s book is now available through Amazon.com and Amazon.ca, and for previews of the Guerrilla Film Scoring documentary and more Guerrilla Tips visit www.GuerrillaFilmScoring.com/videos/.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Jeremy, asking him several questions below that grew out of the discussions in his book.

What was your motivation to write this book?

The main purpose of Guerrilla Film Scoring is to fill the gap between the study of music and a career in music, between the talented hobbyist and the successful professional.

I studied music at four different universities and I have always disliked how disconnected the academic world is from the professional world. Most other areas of study have career guidance, job placements, and expected yearly salary numbers built into the programs. That is uncommon in music programs, and there are a great number of music professors and private music teachers who are unprepared to give their students that kind of practical mentoring. People who learn music outside a formal system have even fewer resources available to them.

However, there is an enormous amount of opportunity. My motivation in writing the book was to mentor others, describe the current industry from the inside, and give composers a survival guide for it.

What would you say are its biggest differences from the several other film-composition books on the market?

There are three things that set Guerrilla Film Scoring apart from the other film scoring literature. First, and perhaps most importantly, it’s simply newer. The digital revolution is forcing the industry to evolve very quickly, and books that are 5-10 years old already seem quaint in some ways.

Second, the book is not a single person’s perspective. There are 20 celebrity composers, all carefully chosen to represent a wide variety of niches in the industry. It contains the voice of all of Hollywood, and there is a breadth and depth in Guerrilla Film Scoring that no single composer could accomplish on their own.

Third, it is purely practical and craft-oriented. The majority of the existing literature and university programs are lacking solid practical guidance which is easily implemented. Guerrilla Film Scoring offers exactly that and nothing else.

You mention in the book’s introduction that the available learning resources for budding film composers “talk about an industry model that is increasingly obsolete.” What are the most important ways in which the industry has changed in recent years?

The industry model that is increasingly obsolete is one that assumes a reasonably well funded division of labor. It’s interesting and important to know how it works at the top where we still have orchestrators, copyists, contractors, players, music editors, music supervisors, mixers, recording engineers, mastering engineers, etc. That knowledge is important and it’s fun to be on a big project with a big team, but that way of doing business has largely died out. Compared to the number of composers those opportunities are very rare, and they only exist at the top end of visibility and budget.

2008 was a huge year for media technology. Pandora, Hulu, Netflix streaming, Apple TV streaming, and Spotify all began almost simultaneously. YouTube and Vimeo are only 3 years older. The iTunes store is only 2 years older than that. In a very short period of time the distribution of music and visual media has been completely turned on its head. It’s suddenly free (or almost free) to content creators, and that is influencing all of the business models in film and music worlds.

Scoring for film, TV, and video games is now an overwhelmingly independent process. Budgets are shrinking, schedules are shrinking, and although the expectations of production values remain extremely high, composers are increasingly armies of one.

What are the main ways that these changes have affected the roles a film composer must adopt?

In the old business, composers could simply find a gig and get hired. (Although I say “simply”, that was always hard to do consistently.) Today’s composers need to think about entrepreneurship and new business models as much as they think about finding those gigs. We are now not only responsible for landing the gig and making great music, but also for the business models that will allow us to get well paid. Without long-term business plans and strategies, musicians won’t go far any more.

How will your book help new film composers adapt to these widely varying roles?

Guerrilla Film Scoring assumes the reader is already a skilled musician who is trained and ready to work. What it offers are pragmatic concepts that will help composers to take calculated steps towards building a career. It focuses on ideas, not on specific step-by-step instructions, so that every composer can adapt real-world wisdom to their own path.

You discuss the importance of team-building in your book. Why has this become an even more important element in a film composer’s success today?

Team building is important because it’s no longer built into the process or cost structure. The inertia of the industry carries composers towards working alone in order to save costs and squeeze out as much profit as possible. That approach is good for costs, but bad for the art.

The end product is substantially better when dedicated craftspeople work in their area of expertise, because no single composer can ever master all the steps between composition and final delivery. Building a team in today’s industry climate is a bit like swimming upstream, but it’s better for the music and it can free the composer from some of the busywork. Although it’s often necessary, the do-it-yourself approach to scoring is less professional and produces poorer results.

In the chapter on writing the music, you state that “writer’s block is learned and can be unlearned.” What have you found to be one of the most helpful tips in overcoming writer’s block?

I had a math professor once who had a severe, almost debilitating stutter. It was extremely difficult for her to speak, and the majority of her teaching was through projected notes and handouts. (She was a brilliant teacher despite.) A year later by coincidence she joined a choir I was in. She was able to sing without problem because music always moves forward in time and the habit of stuttering never had an opportunity to develop.

Writer’s block is no different from stuttering. It comes from a place of insecurity, self-doubt, self-criticism, lack of confidence, etc. Writer’s block is self-censorship, and when that stops the writing can flow.

In some way, writer’s block is a luxury that only amateurs can afford. None of the professionals I know struggle with it because none of them have time for it. The way to move past it is to care less, trust yourself, and simply write. Get the bad music out, and then write more bad music, and keep the notes flowing until something good appears. Deadlines are the ideal antidote for writer’s block. If you don’t have external deadlines, create your own and stick to them. Just write.

You discuss the importance of high-quality demos as essential to the film composer. What are one or two ways one can compete in this regard in today’s film composition market?

It’s extremely difficult. The way to stay competitive is through education and fundamentals, just like with any other skill in life. We can’t master every step of the process, but it’s possible to master the fundamentals of composition, orchestration, engineering, producing, mixing, and mastering. Pursue your weaknesses, educate yourself, and practice, practice, practice.

On a more practical level, every element must be well recorded, every mix must be well produced, and ideally every recording that leaves the studio should be mastered. There’s also no room for dated sample libraries and synths, nor for common loop libraries. The sound sources, if not acoustic, must be current and fresh and new-sounding.

You strongly emphasize the preparation of the recording studio for one’s film music. What are some points that your book addresses here that other books do not?

There are many wonderful resources for studio design that go into great depth and get extremely precise and technical. What Guerrilla Film Scoring does is distill the complex science of studio design into a single non-technical chapter which contains quick, easy, cost-effective solutions for composers. Most composers don’t need perfect recording studios, they just need a working space that is good enough. Guerrilla Film Scoring helps a composer to avoid studying acoustics, make their space perfectly serviceable, avoid over-thinking it, and move on to other more important things.

You mention that the composer must often be their own music editor. What are the most pertinent skills a composer must develop to inhabit this role?

Music editing can be a very technical and time consuming task. At the higher levels of production it is very valuable to have a dedicated music editor because it frees the composer to work on more creative things. For composers who are doing their own music editing, the most important things are session preparation, synchronization, and delivery. When sessions are prepared well, recording sessions are set up and run smoothly. There are many ways in which synchronization can be incorrect or drift over time, and that must be tightly controlled. Proper delivery protocols are important, and in smaller productions there can be a fairly wide variety of delivery requirements. Those are the three core aspects of music editing as it relates to composers.

The final chapters discuss many aspects of the film composer’s career and the personal traits required to succeed in it. What would you consider to be the most important traits one must have or develop in order to do so?

​Without question tenacity is the most important trait. Talent and personality will fall short, and self-motivated determination is critical. The first and most natural source for that determination is a passion for music and for the industry. Other great sources of motivation can be more negative, like a dislike of office jobs, a rent payment, an album that flopped, etc. Those who succeed in building a music career use difficulties as fuel, they don’t give up, and they never take their eye off the goal.

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