What do you want to become?
Production Music Writer
Alternate Career Titles:
TV Music Writer, Commercial Music Writer, Film Music Composer, Music Producer, Jingle Writer
Career Overview: Writes music that is usually licensed or sold to a Production Music Library. This music is then placed into TV shows, commercials, and films. The music composer generally splits their earnings with the Production Music Library that owns the rights to the music.
Average Annual Earnings: $24,000
General Earnings Range: $6,000 to $240,000
Become a Production Music Writer
A Production Music Writer is usually someone with a nice home studio (or professional studio) that composes music to be sold or licensed to what is known as a Production Music Library. The Production Music Library may, depending on its size, have relationships with broadcast networks and advertising agencies. Those broadcast networks will use music from the library to score their TV shows. Advertising agencies also work with music libraries to secure music they can use for their TV and radio ad campaigns. As such, these libraries need lots of fresh music, often in just about every genre and style imaginable.
The duty of the Production Music Writer is to write lots of great music which can get placed into TV shows, commercials, advertisements, films, special productions, websites, sales videos and more through the music library. In short, when someone needs quality music to place in their production, they often rely on production music to get it done. Think of production music like you would “stock art.” It’s the same thing in essence, but often lots of royalties can be earned.
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If you’re successful writing and selling your production music, you may want to migrate into writing directly for TV shows and film. Production music is written for general use. It’s not written for a specific production. As such, it can be used over and over again for various purposes. When writing for a specific production, like a TV show theme song, for example, you’d be taking into account the exact use and writing just for it. So, the next step up the ladder would be writing music for a specific use and being commissioned to do so in the capacity of a Composer.
Education & Training
While there is no formal training required, you will NEED to be able to write, record, and MIX music very well. The music you write and record will need to be broadcast quality. This means it cannot sound at all like a demo recording. For most people, writing their music is the easy part. Recording and mixing are the hardest. As the Production Music Library will be licensing your music from you, they will only take music they can in turn license to a third party. If the quality of your music is not up-to-speed, they will not buy or license it from you.
You may wish to consider attending a music production school to get your recording and mixing skills where they need to be. Again, the vast majority of people cannot get the sound quality of their recordings at good enough level to sell to a production music library on their own. Is your music sounding 80% (or better) as good as your favorite records? If not, you have some work to do.
Excellent songwriting is important. You’ll need to understand how to craft the kinds of songs that are needed for production music.
Some tips for writing production music are as follows:
- Songs should not be too long or receptive. In general, think 3:30 or less.
- Songs, in general, should not end in a different key than they began.
- Your songs should gradually build such that the Music Editor has options when placing your music. No need to repeat the same exact sections over and over. Let each section build with new instrumentation. That or strip elements back to create alternate moods of the same song.
- Your songs should end with a single, resolving chord that sums up the essence of the entire piece. This chord should end quickly and not be a long fade. Think of a TV commercial. They almost always end quickly and with a single chord. Your song may be used in the same fashion, so provide a quick, resolved ending.
- Don’t fade your sounds out in the end. No long fades.
Experience & Skills
There is no prior experience needed for a career in production music. You just need to know how to write, record, and mix quite well.
You’re VERY likely to be at home writing music a lot. You may or may not work with others depending on your writing style and the limitations of your studio. For example, most home studios are not equipped to properly record live drums. In this case, many writers use sampled drums.
This is not a career for the ego. Your music will likely NEVER be credited to you. If you see credits on a TV show in which your music was used, you will see the name of the production music library, not your name. You have to be alright with this. Being a production music writer is a very behind-the-scenes kind of gig. You will not become a household name in this business. After all, who can name the person who wrote the background music to the scenes in Whale Wars when the boats are jamming through the water? I don’t know either.
For the average person, plan on being at home a lot, in your studio, writing music by yourself. You’ll be able to write when you want to. For the most part, you should be able to also write what you want to. That is, stylistically, most libraries prefer you do what you do well. No need in trying to write music you’re not good at when there are other people who enjoy and are good at writing this type of music.
Plan on making what is known to some as “mailbox money.” That is, earning quarterly royalties via BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC. This should allow you to wake up when you want to AND to wear pajamas all day if you wish.
You’ll need to send your VERY BEST 3 songs to some production music libraries. I personally got into the business on accident. I decided I would send CDs (back in 2006) to every Music Supervisor I could find. I accidentally sent my music to a library called Extreme Music. They loved my stuff and gave me a deal, buying almost all the music I had at once. How did I get in touch with Extreme Music you ask? Good question.
You’ll need to get a copy of the Film & Television guide. This is the exact list that I bought that got me started in the business. It has been updated many times since then, of course. It lists over 160 Production Music Libraries with their direct contact info. This is info that is almost never posted on their websites (as they do not want to be inundated with submissions). You might be saying “they just want me to buy that guide.” We do want you to buy it, but only because it’s what you need to get going. As someone in the business for many years now, I can say it’s a must have. It’s the easiest way to reach the libraries and send them your music. Simple as that.
Again, send your best 3 songs and no more. If they don’t like 3 songs, they won’t like 10 either and they will not listen to them anyway. If you are on Spotify and you hear an artist you don’t like, do you listen to 9 more songs to be sure? Nope.
Be sure your songs meet the criteria listed in the Education and Training section of this article. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
In my experience, a single song can earn $11,000 during its life, which may be around a decade. With a music library, your songs go into a collection of material in a similar genre. That collection is available for years and years. So, your music can be licensed for many years. Also, your music can be played time and time again on TV. If so, you’ll be earning what are known as royalties. Royalties are monies generated when your music airs in public, such as on TV. With each airing, you may earn some revenue. This, of course, depends on the deal you struck with your library. We suggest you seek out an entertainment attorney to help with your contract when you first sign with a production music library.
In general, the music library will pay you a portion of what is known as a “sync fee.” This is a fee an agency will pay the library so they may use your music. Some libraries will pay you 50% of this fee.
The other place you’ll earn, and in general earn more, is when your music airs on TV. You’ll need to be a member of a Performing Rights Organizations (PRO). If you’re not a member of a PRO yet, it’s highly suggested you choose one. The big players are BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC.
PROs are the ones who track when your music aired publicly and pay you accordingly. Generally speaking, if your music airs on TV today, you won’t see any money from it for around 9 months! So, getting into this business can take some financial patience.
In my particular case, I made around $200,000 from 18 songs in the span of 7 years. For those math geeks, that’s 84 months at around $2,300 a month. This is, of course, my own personal experience. Others may have a totally different experience. (More on the author at the end of this article.)
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
Check out the Production Music Association. Be sure you’re a member of either BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC. Also, it’s a GREAT idea to look at production music library websites such as Extreme Music, APM, Killer Tracks, Megatrax and more.
There are some steps you can take RIGHT NOW to get moving in the direction of becoming a Production Music Writer.
- First, head over to Extreme Music and do a search for the style and genre of music you write.
- Take a listen there to music similar to your own.
- Listen carefully. How do your songs compare? Are your mixes sonically as good? Can your music compete? If not, what would you need to do better?
- Listen to the arrangements of the songs. How are they structured? Is it the normal verse, pre-chorus, chorus kind of thing, or is something else happening?
- Listen to the endings of the songs. How do they end? Are they faded? Do they have a short, resolved ending? What are you noticing?
- Get your best 3 songs ready. Be sure they are structured well, like other production music you just heard, and that the mixes are rock solid.
- Get your copy of the Film & Television guide. You’ll need it to get the contact info of music libraries to send your music to.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
Go review the Getting Started section of this article. Also, to believe it’s possible to do this. SO MANY musicians talk themselves out of taking the kinds of actions that produce meaningful financial results.
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
They submit music that is not ready. They did not take the time to study the music that the libraries already have in their libraries. They just send their music in. Don’t do that. Get the songs structured correctly. Get the song endings right. Be SURE the mix quality is very, very good. You never get a second chance at a first impression. Start with your best foot forward.
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“How long does it take to get paid?” Nobody ever asks that, and it can be a shocker. If you signed a deal with a major library, it could be around 18 months before the flow of any meaningful money starts coming in. This is due to the time it takes to get your music mastered and into the library’s flow of releases. Then, the music has to make it into that market and be used. Once it’s used, it might not air on TV for another few weeks or more. Then, when it finally airs, you can expect your PRO to pay you on that airing around 9 months later, or more. If you music airs in another country, it can take even longer to get paid on it.
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“Is this music vocal, or instrumental?” In short, it’s both. Libraries need both music with vocals and strictly instrumental music. It seems the vast majority is instrumental, but more and more artists are seeing the earning potential in production music. The old model of being a Rock Star and making a fortune is becoming harder and harder.
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Modeling. I find people who do what I want to do. I then learn how they did it and model my methods after theirs. It’s way better than learning the hard way. They already made the mistakes. Learn from them and move forward quickly.
Extra Credit: The Beatles or Rolling Stones?
The Beatles. I’m not even really sure what that other thing is. 😉
Richard P. Hughes graduated from the Dick Grove School of Music in 1990. His music has been featured on countless TV and cable shows and is part of the Extreme Music library. You can hear his music by heading to Extreme Music and doing a search for his musician name Pryde. He’s currently focused on his latest artistic endeavor, conceptual fashion photography.