Life as a Mixing Board: The Diversification of Roles as a Composer
I have come to think of my life as a mixing board. There are a number of different channels. Mine are labeled composing, score producing, entrepreneur, teaching, community work. But the levels on those different channels are constantly changing as I move through my life.
I have come to think of my life as a mixing board. There are a number of different channels. Mine are labeled composing, score producing, entrepreneur, teaching, community work. But the levels on those different channels are constantly changing as I move through my life. Composing is currently at 11 but now, especially after completing my term as president of the Alliance for Women Film Composers, I have brought the community work down to around 2 for a season. Teaching is at 4, I enjoy my role as Adjunct Faculty at NYU but I keep it to a limited scope. For a long while I wasn’t teaching at all, my Masters degree in Music Education seemingly a waste of time and money. But the opportunity to teach film scoring at NYU came into my life at the perfect time and now it brings me a lot of joy.
This mixing board approach gives me room for flexibility and movement as I continue to explore who I am as a creative entity. The work and knowledge I glean from one line feeds into the other avenues I pursue. It allows me room to accept the ebb and flow, and continue to grow and change as I hope I will, throughout my life. But this approach didn’t come naturally. Like so many others, for a long time I was pursuing “the thing” – the one job that would define me. That search often led me astray.
It took me a long time to figure out I wanted to become a composer. I spent decades in different aspects of the music world, and the working world in general. I remember finally finding my place in the arena of film composing and feeling an overwhelming sense of relief. I was home. That feeling continues to sustain me, especially on those tough long days.
Once I decided to pursue the career of a film composer I looked into copying and orchestration. I had been a musician my whole life but I was new to the world of film composition and I wanted to get paid to learn. I wanted to be in the room where it happened; to observe and learn the language and the movements of every aspect of how a score was created. Every step of it.
As I took on these “support work” gigs I heard a fascinating and concerning mantra. “Be careful doing orchestration work,” I was told. “If you do that you may be pigeon-holed as an orchestrator and then you’ll never get composing gigs.” It struck me as a weird caution and I have always struggled to take on advice that is based on fear. Also, many of the people recommending that I stay away from orchestrating had orchestration credits in their very own IMDBs. Some had big ones! I became keenly aware of this pressure to become a composer – JUST a composer. If you were simply a composer, you were legit. If you were a composer plus something else? Less legit. Not the real deal.
This seemed problematic to me on a number of fronts.
1 Financial – what pays the bills?
Let’s get the money talk out of the way – the least fun but perhaps the most critical issue. The one reliable piece of information I have heard from a whole range of composers is that it takes about 5-10 years to begin to make a living from being a composer. To begin to make a living. That was certainly the case for me. If that is the reality, then how is one supposed to pay the bills in the meantime? And why is it so bad to spend that 5-10 years, not only composing, but being paid to learn all the different aspects of the craft, and in so doing hopefully becoming a better composer? Yes, you will receive credits that aren’t composer credits, but honestly, you don’t have to tell people about them if you don’t want to! You can remove those credits from your IMDB. You can decide not to put them on social media. And then, while making money in the very industry you want to be working, you can also hopefully learn a lot and become a better composer. Win, Win!
I think everyone has heard of the term “diversification of income streams.” It’s a simple concept: make money from many different areas, then if one dries up you still have other avenues delivering income. This is something that has definitely benefited me in general, especially during the pandemic, and even now, during the strike. But it hasn’t just benefited me financially.
2 Personal – what feeds the soul?
What if you like doing more than one thing? The concept of being solely a composer is perfectly acceptable and I know a number of people who truly thrive from that singular focus. But I also know a number of people like me. We thrive from wearing different hats. It fulfills us. We are excited to compose and then excited to switch gears to do something else: put out an artist album, play gigs, orchestrate, music edit, run a business, teach, manage a non-profit, write articles. Not everyone is the same. If you are someone who benefits from a diverse working environment then it is important to allow those different aspects of yourself to be fed.
But it isn’t just about the financial and soulful benefits.
3. Time – how you spend it
When you are a person like myself, you can find that wearing multiple hats every day can help you utilize your time more efficiently. When you do one thing for too long you can experience fatigue, quickly followed by diminishing returns.
To make this point, I am going to quote from three fantastic authors who regularly tackle the ins and outs of the creative existence in their writing: Steven Pressfield, Orna Ross and Cal Newport. I encourage you to deep-dive into their work but let me just dip in briefly to bring my point home.
Steven Pressfield, in The War Of Art, talks about how he only writes for four hours a day. In a recent interview he said, “I used to be able to put in four hours, but these days two and a half is my outer limit.” I have certainly experienced this. While four hours is not my limit, I do find that after very focused composing for a string of hours, I experience diminishing returns. It is best for the project if I stop and pick up again after some rest.
But this doesn’t mean I am necessarily out of steam for the day. I have experienced how moving from composing to teaching, or writing an article like this, or producing a recording session, is perfectly doable. The change of focus and pace feels good, re-energizes me. I do a lot in one day, and because I am not in just one gear but cycling through many, pulling on different skill sets, I don’t feel overwhelmingly fatigued. Instead of doing one thing and having to call it a day once I am fully fatigued, I can financially benefit from more hours of my day by doing different things.
Orna Ross writes about the business of creativity in an excellent examination of the challenge of diversification in her blog post The Indie Author’s Three Hats: Maker, Manager and Marketeer. This post explores these different “jobs” of an author. Even if your goal is just doing one thing – writing books in the case of Ross – you still either need to take on these multiple roles (or pay someone to do it for you) in order to be successful, especially as you are initially building your reputation in your industry. Those roles include creating, marketing and business management. My sister R.J. Amos is a fantastic author, and one way she has diversified her income is not only writing books but also editing the work of others. We have a similar approach: utilizing the skills we developed in creating our own work by helping others achieve their creative goals.
I believe this is not only a smart business model but also a generous way to approach your work. By giving to others, you receive so much. “Supporting” other composers as their score producer or orchestrator has incredibly enriched my life through both the building of relationships and the experience of shared creative endeavors.
Cal Newport is an astoundingly prolific human. He is a tenured professor of computer science at Georgetown University, and a prolific author in both the commercial (New York Times Best-seller) and the research spaces. And yet he finishes work at 6 pm every day, puts the computer away and spends the rest of the day with his family. He says, “A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.” He explores how to do this in his book Deep Work. A great read, I highly recommend.
You can make the most out of the day when you are doing more than one thing. You can pull on different aspects of your skill set that may lie dormant when you are focused on one thing but become fully utilized when your focus changes.
While we are talking authors I also want to highlight the work of Gretchen Rubin. I have been reading her books and blog posts for years. She has a very interesting concept – The Four Tendencies. It is an examination of what makes you who you are and how that impacts the way you approach your work. One reason the diversification approach has been so successful for me is that it fits me as a person. To understand how best to build our working life, we have to understand who we are and how we work best.
4. Network – what brings in the work?
As a freelance creative, there is a network you develop throughout your career that brings work your way. When you are working in one area, like just composing for film, then you are building connections in that area. When you work in a number of different areas, your network is being built in all different directions. I visualize it as a web that broadens as I meet more people. More people in your network, means more real relationships, means more work. That is how it has happened for me.
I made a deliberate choice to take on multiple roles because it occurred to me that these different things I wanted to do had different audiences. I could promote myself as a composer to the film community, while promoting myself as a score producer / orchestrator / copyist to the composer community. To the education community I was a teacher with a masters degree in music education. I was very careful with my branding. Being known as a composer was most important to me, so my website reflected that work and only that work, except for perhaps a line or two in my bio. My orchestration work, which led to me founding Joy Music House (JMH), had no website for the longest time. I simply used word of mouth within that particular network. When we decided to brand as JMH, the choice of business name used part of my own name but also allowed the brand of “Catherine Joy” to continue to be composer focused.
We have so many different avenues to advertise and brand ourselves these days, with easy access to website creation and social media accounts. It gives us a lot of flexibility as to how we choose to represent ourselves to different audiences. When you use these tools mindfully, you can precisely take control of how you are branding all the different aspects of who you are and what you do.
While I have found diversification being discouraged in the composer community, in the film community at large it seems to be widely accepted. They even have a term for it: “multi-hyphenates.” I have been to so many film events where people introduce themselves as a multi-hyphenate: a writer-director, director-editor, writer-actor, dp(director of photography)-editor. This seems to be completely accepted. The challenges of the financial aspect appear to be fully acknowledged and there also seems a real awareness that wearing multiple hats can be beneficial to the production. There is often an overlap in skill sets, but even when that’s not the case the different point of view from a different role is also welcomed as a valuable change in perspective.
As I was writing this article, I decided it was probably wise to do some research. What does science say about doing multiple jobs? This has really worked out for me, but am I an outlier?
There were a lot of articles on the benefits of the gig economy (although some of them felt a little suspicious, making you wonder if it was capitalist propaganda) and an older memoir called The Elephant and the Flea from 2001 where the author predicted that working from home would become much more prolific. Then I came across this article in The Atlantic: “Your Career Is Just One-Eighth of Your Life.” Thompson talks about the research of Economist Dashun Wang, “In a deep analysis of the careers of scientists and artists, he found that their ‘hot streaks’ tended to be periods of focused and narrow work following a spell of broader experimentation. This is sometimes called the ‘explore-exploit’ sequence. The idea is that many successful people are like good oil scouts: They spend a lot of time searching for their space, and then they drill deep when they find the right niche.” I love this idea of oscillating between trying different things and then zeroing in once you find something that truly resonates with you. This is a fascinating article covering a lot of different aspects of the working existence; I encourage you to check it out.
I don’t have a lot of time left to delve into the intricacies of Thompson’s article but it did also talk about how younger people these days are much more willing to quit and move on. This idea of doing the one thing, forever, is going out of style, often to the benefit of the individual.
When we are young, many of us are often very sure of what we want to do with our lives. But that can change as we get older. We can feel like somehow we are betraying ourselves when we acknowledge that what once set us on fire now leaves us feeling stale. We feel like all that time, all that work, will be for nothing if we walk away. But that is not the case. As we move through our creative career lives, everything we have learnt feeds into the latest opportunity. In my experience, no skill I have developed has gone to waste and often it is utilized in a way I could have never imagined. But staying in a working environment that bleeds you dry is no way to exist.
I want to leave you with one final idea: rest. Rest is so important. Giving yourself time to think, or not think at all, to let your mind wander, to even get bored. We have been talking a lot about work, and all the different kinds of work we can do, but a life that is only work is not a life well lived. As many reels and memes have been constantly reminding us: you cannot pour from an empty cup. Cheesy and oversold but still completely true.
I do have a full life in which I wear many hats, but I try to leave time for long walks, for TV, for cooking (usually while also watching TV or listening to funk music), for drinks with friends, time with family, and time to travel and see new things. I am not sure a balanced life is possible, and I cannot say I have one. But recently I saw an Instagram reel (I love watching these reels) that encouraged us to pursue contrast instead of pursuing balance. This made a lot of sense to me, and it has been what I have been talking about this whole article: switching gears. Make sure you aren’t just shifting between different channels of work, but also between work and rest: changing from extreme focus to no focus; mind wandering, body relaxed. From in depth meetings – maybe an intense spotting session with your filmmaker – to you, on a long walk in nature, speaking to no one. From a four-hour composing sprint to zoning out in front of your favorite show while eating delicious food. From an intense recording session to an active workout session.
Find the path that fits you, who you are right now. It is important to listen to the advice of our peers, and to read about the journeys of those who have come before, but what is often so remarkable about the journeys that make headlines is that they were new, different and shocking. They were predicted to fail and a surprise in success. What often makes us successful is the very thing that makes us unique. I hope you will surprise yourself, explore beyond what you thought was possible, and live a life full of creative endeavors which bring you joy.