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The Business of Making Film Music

How can you make a living out of your creativity? Run it like a business and don’t be sloppy, says Marshall Smith, co-owner, composer and producer at The Sound Room.

In this article, we learn how musicians can make money from their music for screen productions and interactive content.

The film and advertising industry is uniquely positioned to be voluminous consumers of every strain of music; no genre too weird, no musical style unbefitting the right story.

Respected Kiwi producer and composer, Marshall Smith, who co-owns The Sound Room with Tom Fox, teaches us his canny knack for adapting, surviving and keeping profitable in an age where people are increasingly turning to stock music libraries.

Musical ability is a gift some are born with – or not. Although it’s still a joy playing and composing music as a hobby, many are determined to make a career of it. Besides, who wouldn’t want to ‘do what you love and the money will follow’, as Marsha Sinetar promises in her book of the same title.

However, for all but a few who find (or make) their own good fortune, most artists face a real challenge staying afloat financially.

With Marshall Smith’s guidance, let’s discover more about this important avenue of revenue for musicians. 16 Steps for music producers to make money in the film and gaming industry:

1. Produce commercial quality music. 

You already need to be producing high quality music. You need great songs, great sound and something a bit different too. Apple’s Logic Pro is a great music creating package for beginners and pros alike and it’s very affordable compared with Pro Tools.

2. Contact Music Publishers. 

They are like book publishers but instead they publish songs. They are most people’s main route into film and advertising placements. They will licence your songs. There are publishers all over the world including New Zealand, Australia and the UK. The Sound Room has publishing deals all around the world with a whole heap of small and large, independent publishers. They have about 2500 tracks between them both from jingles to opuses, full orchestral to rock. Check out music publishers in New Zealand.

3. Contact Music Supervisors. 

Their raison d’etre is to work for film productions and find music to place in their film. A director might say, “I need to find an angelic sounding voice with acoustic guitar.” It could be that specific. So the music supervisor will research, check their books and collections of music. Check out these New Zealand options Mana Music, Aeroplane and The Platform.

4. Contact Advertising Agencies. 

They’ll have a TV producer attached to the commercial who is looking for a particular kind of song – or they’ll want a specific sound like an indie-pop sound or maybe an up and coming artist so they’ll search through their networks and contact record labels.

5. Pay for Subscription Services. 

Marshall says that every day he’s getting requests from the services he’s joined, where people put out a call for a song. One recent example read: “we need dark apocalyptic songs for a Belgium action adventure, $2000”. Submit songs and if you’re very lucky and it’s the perfect song then you’ll be placed. Try these: Tracks and Fields, Music Gateway and Film Music.

6. Submit tracks to online music libraries. 

Sure, they may be killing the industry but only because the quality is often excellent. So why not join them? It is worth noting that, for films and TV shows, producers want a non-exclusive license to use your track. The Sound Room has their own online library called with about 1200 tracks, non-exclusively available for anything.

They represent some local artists for genres that they don’t do themselves. e.g. new artist Caitlin Blake from Hamilton with her “amazing ambient-style music that we couldn’t do”. Their database has a split of tracks that are 50% vocal, 50% instrumental. Most music libraries offer breakdown versions – the track without drums or lead guitar or vocals which gives the editor many options. When submitting your tracks, have ready a range of different versions so they appeal to every need.

7. Build relationships with filmmakers. 

Despite the rise in popularity of stock music libraries, 80-90% of The Sound Room’s work is still commissioned; meaning they create music that matches the picture and follows the action. The great news for composers is that it’s often very hard for film directors to find an existing track and fit it perfectly into a scene. It’s often easier and cheaper just to commission something.

8. Join the Screen Composers Guild. 

Marshall and Bobby Kennedy from Op Shop came up with the idea to start the Screen Composers Guild in New Zealand with help from APRA, Park Road Post and a few others sponsors. They’ve built it up to 60 paid members who all benefit from the workshops and Q+A sessions throughout the year in Auckland and Wellington. Visit the Screen Composers Guild.

9. Follow up your International Connections. 

Due to declining funding for documentaries The Sound Room turned its attention to commercials. Smith and Fox do some in New Zealand but mostly for Asian markets: China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. How, you might ask, did they break into these markets? They looked through their previous jobs for an Asian connection and followed through. Thailand liked them so they recommended them to Vietnam and it has snowballed from there. Also, Marshall puts in the frequent flyer miles. He flies up there once or twice per year for conferences, networking and meeting people face to face.

10. Keep your integrity. 

Be straightforward, communicate well, finish projects when you say you will. Marshall laments those in the industry who don’t deliver what they say they will, are difficult to deal with and don’t respond to emails. He calls it sloppy. The key to making a living from music is being business-like and that means being organised.

11. Change with the market. 

The Sound Room has survived by constantly thinking outside the box and changing its business model. Even though the annual income is healthy, they don’t forgot their mortality. They face up to the reality that there are many people competing for a part of the ‘music composing pie’ so constantly ask the questions “what are we going to do now?” and “who would want music?” Their willingness to reinvent themselves each year keeps them relevant.

12. Seek out computer game publishers and be known to educational providers. 

The Sound Room regularly composes music for Japanese computer games, ebooks, interactive games – including a big Games for the Blind series for AUT. There’s also composition work for art galleries, museums and even Les Mills. Check out a list of New Zealand game developer studios.

13. Market and promote yourself. 

Every single day, you have to think “how can I move the business forward?” That means making a new connection, cold calling, sending out a showreel, going to met someone, going to gigs, seminars and workshops.

14. Share ideas and collaborate with other composers. 

Some people are very anti-sharing anything. They keep themselves in their own bubble. They’re the people who are struggling. Marshall’s attitude is that the more you collaborate, the more you share, the more it helps the business.

15. Be canny with your own survival. 

With the ever-looming threat of the starving artist who lives on the streets, Marshall worked in a myriad of jobs before starting The Sound Room. From working in design, marketing, the record industry in the UK and even presenting Lotto on TV – all served his goal of making money so he could just do music.

16. Team up. 

Marshall composes and does all the business, marketing and promotion. Tom Fox, his business partner, also composes and does most of the mixing and the real detail work. They’ve been partners for 13 years, bouncing ideas off each other. They keep a good vibe by not being critical of each other but still give honest feedback. However according to Marshall, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs” before you find the right partner to work with. Try working with people, collaborate, share and see how it goes. It’s so useful having the sounding board of a partnership – otherwise it’s just you alone in a sound proof room.

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