It was Thursday afternoon. I was not as far along on my To Compose list as I had hoped to be and a composer event was staring me down on my calendar. It started at 6.30 p.m. I was going as the guest of fantastic composer (and my co-VP at the AWFC) Sharon Farber. BUT I hadn’t heard from her. So maybe she wasn’t going and I could just stay home and keep writing. Potentially I was off the hook. I texted her. She thanked me for reminding her and made it clear: we were both going. OK! I had made a commitment that I did not want to back out on (more about that another time) so I finished off the cue and headed out.
I cannot tell you how grateful I am that I went with Sharon to the event. This particular one was the Music Peer Group get together for the TV Academy. I spent time with so many dear composer friends, some I do not see often enough, and I made many more new friends. It was a wonderful and diverse bunch of people, and it filled me with optimism about the future of our industry. In short, it was a excellent, well-organized and well-attended event.
This experience made me think more about the importance of being an active part of the community. Let’s break this down a bit more because there is a lot more to this than simply saying: go to events, be part of your community.
I used to say to my composer friends: don’t go to composer events, go to the events of other parts of the industry. Panels about filmmaking, script readings, film screenings, indie game dev drinks, etc. The reason being that while it is more challenging to go to these events rather than to just hang out with fellow composers, it is important to develop relationships in all aspects of the industry where you work. Learning more about the other departments in film, for instance, and developing genuine relationships in those arenas can be beneficial on many levels, including the networking one. People want to hire who they know, or who their friends and colleagues know, so you are responsible for doing the work and showing up so you can be one of those people. So many of the gigs that come my way are the result of referrals from people I’ve worked with before. But often my first gig with that person came from either being friends with them first, or being friends with one of their filmmaking friends. Those friendships often started from some sort of networking event. It is so important to be part of your wider creative community.
You can take it a step further and not just be an attendee but be an organizer. When I first moved to LA I started a meetup for all people who work in media. This was my way to find new people in the industry and expand my network. The meetup is still happening, but the leadership has been passed onto other members of the community. When I was in Seattle I was on the board for Women In Film for a period of time and co-produced their monthly meetings with my dear friend & producer I have collaborated with many times, Jenn George.
Being a part of the wider industry community is clearly beneficial. However, I have also learned over the years to not dismiss the importance of spending time with fellow composers (or for you that may be fellow writers, actors, directors or DPs). There is so much to be gained from being plugged in to the community of your chosen creative focus.
The Benefits of Your Community
First of all it is fascinating to hear people’s encounters of how they entered this business. The incredible variety of stories is in and of itself encouraging. Then there’s the stories of how people are handling the gigs they are on right now. The challenges they are facing, the tools they go to to get them through. Having support from your peers, and finding mentors, can be encouraging and at times an absolutely necessary lifeline to get you through a difficult patch. But in order for your peers to be there for you in the tough times, they need to know who you are!
Spending time in your community can also provide opportunities for you to work with your peers or mentors. We have talked about this before: opportunities to write or arrange or become part of a team more often than not happen organically through relationships. You are not going to have access to those opportunities if you have not put the time in to create those genuine relationships.
Another benefit of being a part of your community is Education. There is a constant and steep learning curve if you are in any aspect of the arts. The technology is always on the move and it is important to keep informed. You can do this by yourself, in isolation, of course: yay internet. But I think a richer education happens when you leave the comfort of your composer cave and go to a panel about something outside your current creative process. Being open to broadening your horizon is a very good thing, especially when the education requires a little bit of vulnerability from you.
Be Part of the Solution
There are a lot of things that could be improved in our industry – this applies to any branch of the arts or business. In the composing world there are the issues of diversity and inclusivity which are being addressed by organizations like The Alliance for Women Film Composers and the Composer Diversity Collective. There are then other challenges our industry is faced with from the audience: how the wider community values the product we create or how changes in technology and law (with streaming for instance) are effecting how we are paid for the product we create. Organizations like the Society for Composers and Lyricists along with our PROs – ASCAP, BMI and SESAC – are taking the lead in helping composers’ voices be heard in government and lobbying for our rights as music creators. When you plug into these groups you can educate yourself about progress in these areas and be part of the solution in making our industry better for Everyone.
What Can You Do?
To be a successful member of your community I think it is important to not show up with the mindset of “what can this community do for me” but rather “what can I offer to my community?” Don’t go in as a taker, come as a giver. Be present, volunteer, participate, give of yourself. I don’t think I have to say anything more than that. However, definitely balance this with asking for help when you need it. If you don’t ask, you will not get. But keep an eye on your own behavior. If you are constantly asking, and never giving, something needs to change.
I keep mentioning “genuine relationships” and “vulnerability” because what I am talking about being is really being present. Not just showing up and going home, but pushing yourself to meet new people, engage on a real level (even if it is just with one person per event) and build real relationships. It is hard to do that. I feel like it gets harder with age. But like so many hard things, it’s also really good for you.
The Challenges of Your Community
It is not always easy hanging out with other people in your field, especially when they are experiencing the success you want to experience yourself. It can be particularly challenging if you maybe started at the same time, graduated the same year, or if you have been doing this longer but they had their break a lot earlier in their career life. I used to really struggle with this when I was a gigging musician. It took a lot of the joy out of it for me and to make matters worse I felt bad about it. I felt jealous and then guilty of my jealousy.
Here’s the solution for that: …………………………………just kidding! I wish I knew!! Being faced by the perceived success of others and accepting it without feeling jealousy, guilt or frustration will be an ongoing challenge for all creatives in every field. But the way I personally navigate this is I keep reminding myself of two things:
1. I do not know the challenges and frustrations which come along with, or happen in spite of, their success. If history is any indicator, they have their own significant burdens to carry (the details of which is none of my business). I only know part of their story.
2. All I can do is simply make sure I am doing everything I can to make the best choices as I travel on my own path. I need to make the most of the opportunities which are coming my way. That is all I have control over.
Comparing yourself with others is a waste of time because you do not have all the information! And you can’t get it!! You are comparing yourself with a version of that person that you have pieced together based on the information you have heard. It is incredibly inaccurate. Certainly, take positive intel from the info you glean and learn from it. Anything you can add to your current journey that will benefit you and push you forward in a positive direction is great! But you are not them. You are you. Your journey in your own. My composer friend Nikhil Koparkar said something to me that resonated so strongly: be like a mountain climber and just keep looking up. I love that analogy.
If this is a struggle you have then I hope you will push through. I would hate for you to isolate yourself from your community because of jealousy. Find a way to deal with the reality of others’ success.
All the People
Another challenge is the reality of community events: they are usually full of people. Many people. Not everyone is equipped with the ability to comfortably work a room. Even for those of us that do have this ability, often it is exhausting and we just don’t have the energy. But another way you can be an active member of your community is by reaching out and meeting up with people one-on-one. Make sure your approach to the meeting in the way we discussed above: how can I help you? How can I support you? Not: what can you give to me? Also, I encourage you to continue to working on improving your working-the-room skills. They will always come in handy!
These days we often create alone. Thanks to technology we can get through whole project without interacting with another composer or musician. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But music making can be more enjoyable and fulfilling when you’re not alone. At the very least, having someone to talk with about the project, or bounce ideas around can be so enriching and a relief in times of intense work periods. Or if there is not time during the project, having people to meet with at the end can be wonderful so you can decompress and process what you just went through.
Why Do We Do This?
We came to the world of music making because we loved something about it. What was it for you? For me it was being part of something bigger than myself and working with others to create something new. Now what we love is our job. We do it on demand, for money (hopefully) and on a timeline. It is too easy once we reach this stage to fall out of touch with the initial reason we wanted to do this work. Our community can help us reconnect to this and stay in a healthy mental, spiritual and emotional place.
Kubilay Ulner, composer and director of the Music Composition for the Screen MFA program at Columbia College Chicago, posted an article about sleep yesterday. He talked about his dedication to getting 6-7 hours a day. This lead to a whole bunch of comments from different composers weighing in on their approach to sleep along with approaches to caffeine, sugar and alcohol. I thought it was a brilliant thread because it was a way for the composer community to share healthy lifestyle choices within the craziness of the gig and expel some of the “sleep when you’re dead” mentalities that seem to be prevalent (but are incredibly unhealthy, not to mention unsustainable).
We need to balance being an active part of our community with locking ourselves down in the studio and doing the work. Both are important. Both enrich our creative and personal lives. Sometimes I need a whole week (or more) where I am just focused on the work I need to get through. There are other weeks where my calendar is covered in different community events. There will always be an ebb and flow depending on our crazy freelance schedules. But try and find a way, overall, to find time for both.
Being a creative for a living is hard. Doing it alone is harder. Connecting with your community is also challenging; it takes effort to develop genuine relationships but it is both helpful for your career growth, and for your mental and emotional well being. Find a way to be an active participant in your community that works for you. Give of yourself, build friendships and watch it enrich your existence.