Read as Paul Nolan talks about his career as a Music Composer. Find him at www.paulnolansound.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
Many things! I’m involved in music in many forms, from composing music and creating
soundtracks for films, trailers and TV, producing and engineering for other artists, to
teaching and training people in the ways of music production, audio engineering and music
How would you describe what you do?
Multifaceted. In the modern era, audio professionals of all types have to wear different
hats. It’s not like it was 15 or so years ago, when you could go into music as only an
engineer, or only a composer. Now you have to be able to do everything, and understand
every part of the process, as there is relatively little job security, as budgets in both music
and film have dropped significantly. The industry has to do more with less, therefore the
more flexible you can be, the better your chances of success. That means taking the path
less well traveled, and being prepared to do something unrelated to what you want to do,
to get there in the end.
What does your work entail?
As a composer, I’m there to facilitate someone else’s creative vision for their project. This
means I’m there to listen, to observe the film, game, advert, tv show, film trailer or piece of
media, and get the concept of both that and also what the producer or director ultimately
wants the music to do. I’m also there to give ideas and feedback, and to allow clients to
look at things from a different point of view. However, the function, style and direction of
the music is their decision in the end. It’s important not to take things personally.
This process can take a number of forms. I may have to pitch my work to production
companies for a specific project, or sketch some basic ideas that allow clients to
understand where I’m coming from. This is the competitive element as you’ll be vying for
the project along with other composers.
The film trailer world is especially strange as you’ll write a piece of music to a brief, for a
trailer that hasn’t been made yet, with only a few other music tracks and some keywords
provided for any form of reference. It’s a big challenge, with tight deadlines, but it’s one I
I will also be approached to provide music for projects based on what I have done in
the past. This happens based on the strength of your ‘showreel’ or portfolio of previous
projects. I have turned down projects in the past as the music they need isn’t really what I
write, or are not high enough quality wise to positively contribute to my showreel. It’s very
difficult, but you have to learn to say ‘no’, and stay focused on the type of projects you
ultimately want to work on.
What’s a typical work week like?
Really varied. One day a week is devoted to just administration, keeping on top of emails,
updating my website (www.paulnolansound.com) with my latest news, projects etc, filing,
paying bills, all the boring but necessary stuff!
I spend a couple of days a week teaching, as it’s something I’m really passionate about,
and it also provides some security whilst you’re in between projects. In the last year I’ve
taught Film Composition at degree level, and it’s incredibly rewarding, helping passionate
people get better. Teaching is also very useful as it keeps your skills sharp and on top
of the latest techniques and developments with music production, software etc, which is
vital with so much high quality music being composed and created by genuinely talented
composers these days.
Outside of this, I’ll be creating in the studio, pitching for new projects and working on
current ones. Some will be to a brief, and others will be created with a view to having them
placed on tv, adverts etc., but were not created with a specific purpose in mind.
I will also do some studio sessions where I’ll engineer for other producers and artists, to
help them get the sound they are after, and push their projects forward.
How did you get started?
I had already went to university and got a degree in an unrelated field (a BSc Hons in
Organisation & Management from Edge Hill University), but had already been involved in
the electronic music industry as a DJ. I already knew that I wanted to make a living from
being creative with music, and after a few years of experience in the industry, where I
owned an independent dance music retailer, and had worked as a tour and event manager
for Cream internationally, that I wasn’t fulfilled, and wanted to create music, rather than
have a tenuous association via either selling it or running events where it was played.
This led me back to education, and I undertook an Audio Engineering Diploma from SAE
at their Liverpool campus. I did this part time whilst working a day job in an office, which
gave me enough money to pursue knowledge and pay the course fee. This led to me
being retained as a lecturer after graduation, which moved me further into making a living
from music full time.
However, it was my time at an Apple Store, working as a Specialist that helped me get my
break into film music and composition. As those stores are an important meeting point for
creative people, I met and helped many film makers, some of whom needed music for their
films. It is an easy place to get to know people, and from that I acquired my first projects for
Ultimately it’s about being in a position to meet people who you can help and developing
What do you like about what you do?
The fact I’m absolutely head over heels in love with music, and that I’m also an
unapologetic film obsessive means really this was the only career for me in the long
term. I love how a film can be enhanced by music, how it can bring all the pieces of the
story together, and inform the audience of the emotional and dramatic realities that are
happening without the moving image obviously pointing towards them.
I’m a firm believer that the soundtrack is at least equally important as the moving image,
possibly even more so. Providing that soundtrack is my passion, and seeing my work
enhance a piece is the greatest feeling one could wish for.
What do you dislike?
There is a lot of pressure especially when deadlines are tight. This can lead to long
hours, the death of any form of social life, and you can kiss goodbye to any form of
suntan as you’ll be trading it in for a room with no windows and nothing but a computer
for company! The solitude can also be very difficult when you’re writing on your own a lot,
so it’s important to take regular breaks, get out and see the world and not cut yourself off
completely. However it is very difficult when extreme demands are placed upon you. It’s
definitely those who cope with this side of the career the best and deliver no matter what,
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
Various ways. You can be commissioned to create music for a film based on a film’s
budget, or in some cases you sign a deferred payment deal, where when the film begins
making money, normally after it is sold and distributed, that’s when you start getting paid.
It’s very difficult at the beginning, as there are a lot of passionate filmmakers out there with
zero cash, so it’s important that you don’t just quit your job and become a film composer,
you’ll be soon back looking for a day job!
You have to be prepared to work for nothing initially, just to get your name out there and
get your music on film. If you pick the right films, they will be shown at festivals, where
you’ll eventually get noticed by other filmmakers and then you can start to work your way
up the scale. One way of making money is by pitching for adverts, tv show placements etc.
If picked, the rewards can be significant, but it’s extremely competitive and not something
that should be relied on to pay the bills.
How much money do Music Composers make?
This figure varies wildly, from zero (see above) to, in the case of the likes of Hans Zimmer
and the big name Hollywood composers, millions of pounds. At my stage of my career, for
a full score for a small budget feature film I’ll earn anything from a few hundred pounds to
a few thousand, depending on budget.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
As I said above, not very much. It may well take a few years to make some money until
you build yourself a reputation for quality and delivery on time and in line with the client’s
brief. It will then build slowly, but you do have to be prepared to do a few years for free to
gain experience and credits.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
In the past, you needed only to understand music theory, as it relates to composition
and orchestration, the ability to format music so a whole orchestra could play your music.
Now, it’s so much more wide ranging. You have to be a composer, orchestrator, project
manager, music producer, audio engineer and sound design expert all at the same time.
The range of skills and knowledge required has never been wider. You can approach this
in one of two ways these days, either learn about the technical side, and move into the
industry as an assistant or engineer for an established composer, learning as you go. Or
you can learn the theory and practice of music composition, and learn about the technical
side afterwards. Ultimately there’s no ‘right’ path, only the path that feels best for you.
What is most challenging about what you do?
The deadlines! And also explaining why certain requests and desires a client might have
are not possible, as either musically it will not work, or they simply do not have the budget.
Also, explaining musical reality to someone who is non musical, but has the final say,
can be extremely difficult! However, it all comes down to relationships, so the better your
relationship is with your client the easier it is. It comes down to clarity and honesty.
What is most rewarding?
Seeing your music with the final film, seeing it perform it’s function, and extracting an
emotional response from the audience. When I have gone to premieres or screenings of
films I’ve scored, I don’t normally watch the film, I watch the audience. It’s their reaction
that gives me the most reward, as ultimately that’s what I’m aiming for, the appropriate
response at the appropriate time of the film, in line with the director’s vision.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Just try it. It’s difficult, fraught with pressure, but there is really is nothing like it when
you get it right. It becomes addictive, a compulsion, something you have to do. It’s
also something you can never stop getting better at, and if successful you can have an
extremely long career at it. John Williams has turned 80 in the last few months, and is still
writing, creating iconic scores for modern movies! My belief is that if you find your passion
in life you’ll want to do it until the day you die. Retirement would never be an option. It
never will be for me, as I’d rather die than not create music!
How much time off do you get/take?
Not as much as I’d like! With the industry and market being so multifaceted, it can be
difficult to juggle between many different and divergent projects, so time off is critical.
Normally however, it dies off in the middle of summer and right at the end of the year, so those are
perfect times to take some time for yourself and recharge your batteries.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
That its easy! That you’ll get rich quick! That it’s all about you!
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I’ve started to make inroads in the LA film and trailer music market, having pitched for
Hollywood film trailers over the last year, and long term my goal is to move out to LA and
to work on feature films in Hollywood.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
I’m currently preparing to score the independent feature film ‘Haters’ later in the year, and
I’ve also opened up my own training academy in Ibiza Spain, with music industry legends
Michael Hoenig (who has worked with iconic composers such as Phillip Glass) and Andy
Taylor, formerly of Duran Duran. It’s called Sonic Vista Academy, and we will be devoting
a large chunk of our educational programmes to film music composition and career
development! It can be found at www.sonicvistaacademy.com.