“If you want to become a composer, you can go to a conservatory — which could be wonderful for developing composing skills — but that doesn’t help you establish a career.”
Photo of Pete Anthony, provided by Pete Anthony
Pete Anthony is one of the most respected orchestrators and conductors in the Los Angeles film music industry. With over 30 years of experience, he has worked with Hollywood’s renowned composers, including John Powell, Danny Elfman, Marco Beltrami, and James Newton Howard, and has been involved in over 500 feature films (The Sixth Sense, The Hunger Games, Dolittle, Spider-Man I-III, Terminator 3, South Park, Predators, The Devil Wears Prada, Wonder Boys, and Men in Black III, among others).
Receiving a Bachelor’s degree in music composition from Williams College and attending the University of Southern California’s Scoring for Motion Pictures & Television Program, Pete now works as a part-time faculty member at USC, guiding the next generation of successful composers.
1. “As a composer, your life is 10 percent about music, and 90 percent about everything else”
As a composer, you need to have a wide range of skills — having broad-based knowledge about a lot of things makes you more interesting. “It is better to be a well-rounded person if you want to work in Hollywood”, Pete says. “You need to know about more than just music.” The people in film didn’t study music, but they are people who will hire you, and they are hiring you as a collaborator. You have to be able to engage people on their level, not on a musical level. “As a composer, your life is 10% about music, and 90% about everything else”, the orchestrator explains. “It is about making the sale, chasing money, dealing with politics, understanding the job market, and you must be able to talk to people about the things that interest them.”
2. “If you really want to focus on composing, I would go to the best college you can — not the best music school — and study music there”
People go to music schools to study music, graduate, and then can’t get a job. Why? “Because no one cares about your music degree, not the people that make the hiring decisions”, Pete answers. “Musicians care because they understand your training and skills, but the director doesn’t know about those things.” The composers he works with have various degrees across many disciplines — while some went to college to study literature and then got a Master’s in composition from the Yale School of Music, others never even finished college. “I find successful film composers are more broad-based in their education: they know about history, art, political science, literature, and a little bit about everything and that makes them more interesting people”, Pete explains. While instrumentalists are judged by their ability to play their instrument, and their primary focus is about their musical skills, composers are judged for things that have nothing to do with music. You still need outstanding musical skills, but your career success is not about those skills primarily.
3. “Keep producing and write something everyday”
The most important thing to do, if you want to have a career as a composer, is to be prolific. In other words, you need to write a lot of pieces. “Every time you do something, even though you know you’re slaving away by yourself, when you hear it realized on synths or interpreted by other people … you’re hopefully getting things out of a piece that you don’t realize were there”, Pete tells me. “You’re learning things from hearing it back and comparing it to what other people do.” Imitation is a great thing to do at an early stage, as you will eventually discover your own voice, but you have to work through a lot of material as a composer in order to get to a more mature level and find that voice.
“Keep producing, and write something everyday”, the professor continues. “Perhaps you can’t finish everything in a day, but you must finish … and don’t let perfection get in the way of you covering a lot of ground.” Not everything you write is going to be perfect, and not everything you write is going to be up to your standards, but that shouldn’t stop you — get it finished and learn from it. “That’s a huge part of how you become a composer”, he believes.
4. “You’re going to have to work a little harder, wait a little longer, and make a little less”
Discussing the current situation in the music industry and whether there will be more demand for composers as the content keeps growing, the orchestrator talks about the devaluation of music. “There is a real demand for music in story-telling content, at the same time there is a real downward pressure on wages, and a decline in the value of everything that music makers do because of the excessive supply of them”, Pete elucidates. “The value of music has gone down as it has … become available for free.” Considering the expansive music available in streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music offering access to all of this music for a minimal monthly fee, the value of work has gone down.
Mentioning the growth industry, Pete says that the opportunities are not expanding at all — they are getting smaller. According to him, the reality has only gotten harder. “[However], the point is that even with that it is still business”, he states. “It’s just that you’re going to have to work a little harder, wait a little longer, and make a little less.” However, if it is what you’re passionate about, if it is what you have to do to be happy, the professor is sure that you will still be okay. “There are many ways to be rich, and they don’t all involve money”, he explains. “Being happy in the work, engaged and learning from what you’re doing, and having an enriching career, a collaborative career with other people is all part of a rewarding life.”
5. Make your weakness your strength
So what do you have to do to prepare for your future career? Make your weakness your strength, both in terms of music and your knowledge base. “If you don’t know something about a particular topic, whether it be video games, film history, [or] the history of film music, learn about those things and make them your strength”, Pete advises. It can be overwhelming, but don’t try to climb the whole mountain in one day. Instead, focus on the things that seem like they are weaknesses or the things you haven’t been exposed to and learn something about them right now.
6. You have to be a “one-man band”
On top of that, the more you can be a “one-man band” — be able to compose, mix, master, and orchestrate your music — the better. “If you can make good mockups with your samples, if you can make complete pieces by yourself, mix it, and make it sound good, that is a good skill to have”, Pete smiles. It really helps to be a computer savvy, as those technical abilities allow you to show directors what your intentions are more quickly, and that means you make have more job opportunities right away. “You have to be able to operate Pro Tools, be a whiz on your DAW, need to have good sounding sample libraries, and it’s huge advantage to know how to work with live musicians”, the professor recounts. If you can sweeten your samples with the real thing, you start to have a different sound than the throngs of composers you need to differentiate yourself from. This is something that many top composers do — they bring in live musicians to help bring a demo to life.
Most of the people that hire composers to produce music are incredibly influenced by the quality of the recording. They need it to sound finished and professional, which is very important. “It could be Beethoven[‘s Symphony] 9 but if it doesn’t sound good, because the EQ is wrong, the sounds are off, and it’s not mixed well, those people that hire you won’t be able to tell that it’s good music”, Pete elaborates. The ability to create a recording that sounds real, balanced, and professional plays a huge role in a composer’s life.
7. You don’t have to have a Bachelor’s degree
While you don’t have to have a Bachelor’s degree to become a successful composer, getting a degree is a focused way to get where you want to be more quickly. “Frankly, the great thing about the USC Thornton School of Music isn’t even so much about what you learn — and it does have fantastic programs for a variety of musical endeavours — it is about the people you meet, both in music, and in visual mediums”, Pete conveys, mentioning his Alma Mater. “You want to be meeting all filmmakers all the time, and you want to meet people your own age that … [will] then go out in the world and bring you along to work with them. Find people that eventually would hire you and you would collaborate with them and develop a relationship early on that pays off down the road. This is a unique feature of USC that makes it stand out for aspiring film/TV/video game composers.”
Receiving another call at the end of our discussion, Pete reminds me to stay prolific. Compose something everyday and don’t let perfection get in the way of it! This is the one thing that is essential at this time.