The question is this, “When and how should I hire a film composer, and when should I resort to royalty free music?”. It depends on the project. So let’s create a few scenarios and go from there.


1. Independent Feature Film


Let’s shoot the biggie first. Feature films. If you’re making an Independent feature film, for goodness sakes, hire a film composer! Why wouldn’t you? Why would you spend all that time and money and not have an original score? Oh yeah, the cost. Well, there is that. But nothing should stop you from pitching your film to a composer, along with what you can offer. I’ll tell you a little secret. Many starting composers will gladly score your film in exchange for an IMDB credit and new material for their portfolio. The reason is, many of the good paying jobs will require up to 10 IMDB composer credits before even considering a composer for the job. Now, I’m not saying to not offer them any money or hold out until you can get a “pro bono”. I’m simply saying that you have leverage. That is the facts. Here’s some more.

Scoring a feature film is quite time consuming. Not only does the composer have to write the music, but he also has to edit it, record it down to audio, screw up the mix a few times over, and then eventually master it… a few times. And that process is applied to each music track. In the end, the composer may spend an equal amount of time on the score as you would on the entire film.

A professional composer can write somewhere around 2 minutes of music per day, depending on how many instruments are being commanded. Now add a day for editing, a day for mixing, and a day for mastering, and we are looking at about 4 days work for every two minutes of original music. I’ll let you do the math on how much you SHOULD be paying them and also encourage you to consider what the turn-around time might be for a part-time composer. Schedule accordingly. Don’t forget about the equipment and instruments he is going to buy just for your score. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars for those goods. A composer is not only a very valuable asset to a film, but an investor.

Now, can it be done faster? Yes. That’s why many working composers use templates and write with the same orchestra every damn time. Because producers are cheap. Don’t take offense. I’m one of them. It comes with the territory. The trick is knowing where to spend the little money we have. Templates will speed up the process immensely, but the uniqueness of the score will suffer. It will. Don’t let the composer argue with that. It will have a boxed sound whether he is willing to admit that or not. You have to decide whether the orchestra in a box is worth it or not. Consult your composer. Contact me if you need another opinion. I might even care to respond. But generally, an independent film is not going to be an epic and will not need a massive boxed orchestra. In most cases I recommend building, from scratch, a smaller orchestra that can be unique and more intimate.

Be prepared to set aside a small budget for music and also to discuss up a contract with a share of profits for the composer. After all, he is investing into your film. It’s respectful and creates a team member out of the composer rather than just a “hirement”. That’s not a word but you heard it here first. Call it 10%. Remember to agree on 10% profit though, not gross income. That would be not smart.


Besides a composer, you may want to have actual songs in your film. I don’t recommend purchasing Royalty Free Stock music for a feature film. Ever. Never do that. The reason is that you don’t get anything other than the music. You pay $50 for a song that isn’t worth a dollar on iTunes. That’s it. Bleh.

Instead, if you were to contact 10 of those hardworking, popular Independent artists with 10,000+ fans each in their social media networks, you might not hurt the popularity of your film. That’s 100,000 possible consumers of your product with huge potential for word of mouth. Providing you work out a decent marketing plan involving the artists, you can’t lose from that arrangement. Plus, now you have the opportunity to sell a soundtrack, cross promote, and share profit with your new business partners. You can place their music where needed without stepping on the composers toe-toes too. I got that word from my mom. You don’t need to play the whole track, just pop in 10 seconds of the track to fill in the occasional void. The composer will have less work and will still receive full credit for scoring the movie on IMDB. However, IMDB will NOT allow multiple composer credits on the same film. So, don’t try it. Also, choose the most relatively themed songs and allow the artist to have the rights to create an Official Music Video for your movie, including footage from the film. Here’s your chance to network and work with new cinematographers from other cities. That’s good. Makes great bonus DVD  materials too.




The ever popular short films, which really don’t do much more than earn some XP for your biological character, are a great avenue for a beginning composer to test the waters. Whether the composer is like me, and has written thousands of musical pieces, or a complete “noob”, writing music for visual media is quite the restricting difference from freely writing whatever seems to come flying out of the hole of inspiration at a given time. All composers will, at some point, be made aware of this. You most definitely want a composer that is aware. Score the audience, not the visuals.

Interview the composer through Skype. Find out if they know something or nothing. Let them do some talking. But generally, if the composers music is impressive, they won’t butcher your film. It just takes time and the right communication to get the right piece. It will still be better than stupid stock music because it will have a consistent flavor to it that is a product of that composer and his relationship with the film. And try not to judge a man by his lack of communication skills. Composers aren’t usually the social Horse of the Chinese Zodiac. We’re more usually like the sheep. Baa!  But don’t be the director who treats a composer like an actor, having all 200 of them who respond to your ad write a 30 second piece of music to “try out”. Whoever came up with that idea is less than brilliant. It’s total hit or miss and not necessary. You’re only going to get boxed orchestra and it’s not doing you any good. These composers have music libraries. Listen to what they have. Narrow it down to 2 or 3 with the style that you like. Then decide based on who you would enjoy working with. If they are a good composer, which they likely are at this point, they’re going to get the job done and you should happy.

When choosing a composer, don’t be fooled by the wicked awesome dubstep and electronic music tracks, which is often just random copy paste of downloaded audio files. Songwriting is even much different. Crafting a song is much different than scoring a film. Do choose a composer who is experienced in the genre of music you are leaning towards. Obviously a metal head isn’t likely going to give you the jazz sound you are looking for. But also, don’t just choose a musician and ask him to score the film. You need a film composer, not a musician. They are respectively different.

Be open to what the composer might suggest but stay in control. Communicate with him. Share your goals, ideas, come together on a game plan, execute and smile your stupid head off when he starts sending you music tracks. If you don’t like something for a scene, it’s okay to discuss that with him. In fact it is needed. Do it respectfully. Most of the time it’s simply a lack of communication. You have to define what the audience needs to experience, and also get the style you want. Do that together and allow him to rewrite it. It takes a few cracks sometimes. Just don’t catch yourself being hooked on your “temporary music” that you used during the editing process. Let that go. Stop listening and comparing to it. It’s clouding your weak mind.


Again, stay away from stock music here. But having 1 single popular artist will most definitely create some hype around your short, while give you some new materials for your portfolio. You can create an Official Music Video for the short as well. And that’s just darn good fun for everyone. Don’t pass it up.




You have 48 hours. Go! Don’t even bother with a composer. He’s just another dummy to manage and all he is going to do is hold up the project and cause the sound and video editors to rush even more than they already are. If anything, use him as a music supervisor.


Here’s where you need a music library for quick placement. Research those. Be ready. Search and place them during the editing process. $100 should cover all of the important places. Use the free ones for the less important. Mission accomplished.




The project will definitely benefit from placing music from popular artists again. We’re networking here, people. It’s a good thing. You can feature an artist for each episode, thus expanding your audience, as well as the artists’ audience.


Beyond that, it would be important to carry a theme throughout the series. This flavors your product and is rather important if you want to hook your audience. I would hire a composer to create some themes that could be used in the opening credits, the end credits, and a few more for repeating themes. Keep the composer locked in but update the theme seasonally, keeping it fresh. Then, have the composer score just the parts that he would really be needed for. For instance; the final scene of the season finale, or an important turning point in the series.


Here’s a no bullcrap conclusion for the time pressed producer.

FEATURE FILM (conclusion)
Composer + 10 Popular Independent Music Artists = Win!

SHORT FILM (conclusion)
Composer + 1 Popular Independent Music Artist = Win!

48 HR FILM PROJECTS (conclusion)
Royalty free music placement = Job well done!

WEB SERIES (conclusion)
Composer + 1 or more Popular Independent Music Artist per episode = Total Win!


That’s a wrap!

I sincerely hope this brings some clarity and ideas to my fellow producers and directors by seeing through the eyes of someone who is both a film composer, and a producer. Expect to find more of my senseless bloggings at

Be good to each other. Happy filmmaking to all, and to everyone else, enjoy your real jobs.



Adam Spade is an independent producer, composer, and also a Web and Technology Specialist. He grew up in the 1980’s, giving him a special appreciation for the pop and progressive rock culture, the Nintendo Entertainment System, Transformers, and of course, an empty glass of Tang. Contact him at