Can you tell me about how you first got into film composing?
I’ve always been into music and I want to say it was well at this point, probably 10,15 years ago. A friend of mine was working on a project for B.E.T. and just asked for some background music and it worked out. Before that. I did a little bit of sync placements on TV shows, like ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians‘, but I never really knew much about it until I started studying composing last year.
I was also composing music for museum exhibits. I sort of fell into that just working for National Geographic and then that led to creating music for the Smithsonian. That was actually a pretty good deal until the pandemic and museums shut down.
I’ve also been playing piano and keyboard in church for almost 30 years. So just bringing all those musical influences into the composing space, studying orchestration and investing in a lot of string and orchestral libraries is where I’m at now when it comes to music composition.
Who are your musical influences?
I don’t know if you wanna call them the “Mount Rushmore”, but as far as film composers, Hans Zimmer and John Williams. I also like newer age composers like Clint Mansell. There’s just a lot. Because I am black, I like some of the black composers like Terence Blanchard and Kris Bowers. I listen to a lot of their soundtracks and follow their music to get inspired.
I’m also composing trailer music now, so there’s a lot of trailer music composers out there. On the music production side, because I’m in Virginia I follow Timbaland, Pharrell, The Neptunes, Missy Elliot, and Teddy Riley. My dad is Jamaican, so Jamaica dancehall and reggae seeps into the music as well.
You mentioned composing music for museums and trailers. How did you get into composing for so many styles?
I enter a lot of music composing contests – anything from sampling a 1980s record, to composing music for this picture or remixing a song. So leading up to the pandemic,
I started focusing on those different aspects because at the time I really didn’t know what my thing was. To an extent, I still don’t know because I feel like I can do them all pretty well. I also started studying trailer music and I just watched a lot of trailers, listened to a lot of trailer albums and then put out my own trailer music album around and got feedback.
I put music out just to get feedback from composers, trailer music companies and music libraries. I felt like I was getting to the place I needed to get, so I started aligning with trailer music companies to pitch to trailers. A lot of it is just putting stuff out there on social media, distributing music to Apple Music and all the other big streaming players.
I figure if I have a thousand things out there, one of them is gonna take off and hopefully not all a thousand, cuz I can’t do all a thousand at once, but you never know.
Do you have a common process for composing music across these different types of media outlets?
First I sit down, open the computer and open up Logic. I’m a template guy. I have a template for beat making. I have a template for trailer music. I have a template for composing. I did an independent film and when I talked to the film director, he just told me what he wanted – so I created a template just for that film.
If I’m working on a project, I’ll create a template for it. Otherwise, I have pre-made templates for composing, sync, beat-making. I have a template for making pop music. Sometimes I just open it up with nothing loaded and just start from scratch and see what happens. I tend not to edit while making music, which is a gift and a curse.
“Keep putting yourself out there.”
– Marcus Manderson | Film & Media Composer
In your opinion, why is it hard to find paying gigs frequently?
I think that there’s a lot of opportunity out there, but I think the big thing is just putting music out there. if you can’t physically go to places, the next best thing is social media marketing. For example, I see what shows up on my social media timeline and then reach out. Or I might read an article to find companies or artists and reach out to them by saying, “Hey, are you looking for producers or composers?” It might be doing IMDB research. So it could be a combination of all those things to get the ball rolling.
Now at this point, instead of me searching for work, the work is coming my way. I’m starting to see it actually shift in that direction slowly where companies reach out to me and say, “Hey, this is a project that we think would be a good fit for you.”
Why do you think negotiating your price for composing music is so difficult?
I think because of the perceived low value of music. People can access music on YouTube or SoundCloud so they are like, “Why do I need to pay for this?” I see all sorts of horror stories for music creators who focus on the music but struggle to make a living.
The people that I’m trying to reach out to are at a different level because they understand the value of music for their projects. Or if they’re an artist, we might work out a deal where a lower budget indie film will give me a film production credit as a way to offset the low composing budget. I think there are alternative ways to think about compensation.
How do you evaluate what’s right for you as far as compensation goes?
It depends on a lot of things – the project itself, the people working on it and the deadline before I even get to the price. If it’s a million dollar project, I might think about it a little bit longer.
I read a comment on Facebook where someone said there are three reasons why people work on a project. It’s because you want to work on the project, you want to work with the people, or you need the money. If it’s only one or two of the three, then you might wanna reconsider. If you can have a project that aligns with all three of those, then you’re good to go.
What do you ultimately hope to achieve as a working composer?
I do work a 9-5 corporate job, but the ultimate goal is to be able to work from home and make music full time. I always say I’d rather work twelve hours making music than eight hours in a corporate job, because that’s where the passion is.
So that’s the ultimate goal – to be able to take care of family through music by composing music for trailers, working with artists or combination of all the above.
Full Audio Transcript
Can you tell me about how you first got into composing?
Yeah I’ve always been into music and I want to say it was well at this point, probably 10,15 years ago. A friend of mine was working on a project, I think it was for B.E.T. and just asked for some background music. And I did it, it worked out before that. I did a little bit of sync placements on TV shows, like Keeping Up With The Kardashians and shows like that, but I never really knew much about it.
Until I started studying it last year. And then also over the years starting about 10 years ago, I was also doing music for museum exhibits. I sort of fell into that just through national geographic and then that led to doing some things for a Smithsonian. That was actually a pretty good deal until the pandemic and museums shut down.
But yeah, there was a good run of doing music. And then behind the scenes playing as a piano player and keyboardist in church also before the pandemic, for almost 30 years. So just bringing all that into all those musical influences into the composing space and started studying orchestration and investing and getting a lot of string and orchestral libraries starting from the ground level of finding free libraries and then really cheap ones and then building up to a higher end and then everything in between.
Who are your musical influences? Do you have any sort of favorite composers, musicians, or even just favorite film scores that you kind of reference as being influential in your career?
Yeah, the obvious, like, I dunno if you wanna call them Mount Rushmore, but as far as composers, Hans Zimmer and John Williams, then like, I would say newer age, like Clint Manzel. There’s just a lot. And then just because I am black, I like some of the black composers like Terence Blanchard and Kris Bowers. I listen to a lot of soundtracks, and I follow their music. I get inspired by them. I’m also doing trailer music now.
So there’s a lot of trailer music composers. I follow a lot of them and am part of a lot of groups online and then on the production side, because I’m in Virginia, Timbaland, Pharrell, The Neptunes, Missy Elliot, and Teddy Riley the producer. So it’s like all these musical influences. And then also my dad is Jamaican, so it’s like Jamaica, dancehall and reggae too. So all that sort of seeps into the music.
So you mentioned music for museums, music for trailer music. It seems like you’ve got your fingers in a lot of different areas. How did you get into each of those styles? Was it just opportunities that came your way or did you seek them out?
Composing for museums to trailer music, and I enter a lot of contests. So in 2020, I entered two music contests. And it could be anything from sampling this old, like 1980s record and making music out of it. It could be anything from here’s a picture, compose music for this picture, or here’s a video make music for this video.
It could be, remix this song and we have these vocal files and make your own music around it. So leading up to the pandemic, I wasn’t really focused on creating music because I played in church and that took up a lot of time learning songs by like other artists to learn with the choir and then perform.
You know, the band on Sundays and things at church. So a lot of time was taken up with that when the pandemic hit and they went virtual and sort of got rid of the musicians. I started focusing on those different aspects because at the time I really didn’t know what my thing was. And to an extent, I still don’t know because I feel like I can do them all pretty good. So I just started last year. I got into the sync heavily and then towards the end of last year, I started studying trailer music and I just watched a lot of trailers, listened to a lot of trailer albums and then put out my own trailer music album around Thanksgiving and got feedback.
So I put it out just to get feedback from composers, from trailer music, libraries, and things like that. Say, Hey, you know, you’re almost there or whatever, like do this, do this, put out another trailer, music album around Christmas, got some more feedback. And then felt like I was getting to the place I needed to get and then started aligning with trailer music companies to now like pitching to trailers. So a lot of it is just putting stuff out there on social media, putting stuff out on distributing music to Apple Music, you know, all the big players then posting about it. Like, Hey, I got this album. I have concept albums for artists. So it’s so many things because I don’t know what’s gonna be the thing that makes it through.
So I figure if I have a thousand things out there, one of them is gonna take off and hopefully not all a thousand, cuz I can’t do all a thousand at once, but you never know. So really now, right now, just in the content creation space and that has afforded some great opportunities that I look forward to hopefully taking advantage of.
What are some of your career goals as a musician or as a composer? Like what do you ultimately hope to achieve as a working composer?
So I do work a full time, 9-5 corporate job, but the ultimate goal is to be able to work from home to be able to make music full time from home. Like if my wife says, Hey, let’s go to, you know, wherever for a week. I can still take my laptop, maybe a small keyboard or whatever, and still be able to make music out there and not really have to focus on a 9-5 job. I always say I’d rather work 12 hours making music than eight hours in a corporate job, because that’s where the passion is.
So that’s the ultimate goal. Be able to take care of family through music, whether that’s through like the trailers sync working with artists or combination of all the above.
Is there anything that you’ve done or maybe, you know, top 1, 2, 3 things that you’ve created that you’re most proud of as a composer?
There are things that I have, I don’t know if I’m most proud of any of them, but there are things that have created opportunities and connections such as a couple years ago, such as I started doing piano remixes of songs.
So I would like pop songs or top 40 songs on the radio. And I would take the instruments off, keep the vocals, and then just do a piano, like a cover remix with the original vocals and that allowed some connections with some great artists and producers.
And then during the concept albums for artists, which is basically like usually five to seven tracks for an artist that I wanna work with and I just put it out, you know, on social media and share it with the world. And then I send it to the artists and their team. That’s allowed some connections to some great artists, usually traveling this year has been really big on networking and going out there.
But of course, getting face to face with people and making those connections is needed and, and it’s missed in a lot of ways because of the pandemic. So I think people are ready to get back out there at some point. But it was great to at least be out there then, and meeting these companies, seeing these people and playing on instruments and things.
So with finding artists on Instagram, If an artist says something like ask me anything, or even like yesterday I found a new artist, liked the music they had and just sent them a DM. How can I send you beats? And then they sent the email and I sent them to music.
So really it’s just, you know, sometimes it’s just that simple. You see an artist, maybe not Beyonce, but the next Beyonce, you say, Hey, I like your music to listen to your stuff. Or even if you don’t listen to their stuff, just like, Hey, I saw this post. I really enjoyed it. Where can I send you beats in that case? It was a big artist over in Europe that the song isn’t out yet. It’s a great musical relationship. For that artist in particular, she’s probably written to 10 of them.
So building a catalog there and then whenever her team or whatever is ready to put it out, hopefully that gets put out. But it’s all just from, you know, going on Instagram and, and saying, Hey, how can I send you beats? Where can I send you music? Are you looking for producers? Things like that.
Do you have a general sort of way you go about creating the music composing for say an artist or trailer music or museum music? Is there any sort of common, like process that you follow across, all those different sorts of media outlets?
Well, first I sit down and open the computer, open up Logic. I’m a template guy. I know some people are, you know, opposed to templates, but I’m always changing them like literally almost every day. But I have a template for beat making. I have a template for trailer music. I have a template for composing.
I did an independent film earlier and I landed that from another project that I put out online on Valentine’s day. And when I talked to the film director, producer, he just told me what he wanted. And I created a template just for that film of like, he just really wanted to focus on the dramatic side of things, more like piano strings style.
So I just created a template for that project. So usually if I’m working on a project, I’ll create a template for it. Otherwise, I have pre-made templates for those things, composing, sync, beat-making. I have a template for making pop music and then sometimes I just open it up, nothing loaded and just start from scratch and see what happens.
Is there something that stands out to you as being unique to yourself and your music and the way that you compose music for all the different media outlets that we talked about?
I think coming from more of a church background playing every Sunday with some of the best musicians. I’ve heard live and some of the best singers come from the church side of things. And that was over 25 years of like almost every Sunday, doing that and just absorbing those sounds.
And there would be musicians who would show me something every week and they’d be like, check out or buy this music and listen to it. So there would be things that I would learn. That sort of creeps into the other stuff, like the pop and the composing. And then, like I said, all the other musical influences, the reggae dance hall, Jamaica stuff, the, the pop influences the being in DC, you know, the whole just Virginia producer being inspired by that whole sound.
I try to incorporate that into my music and that comes through, but just having that background of all those different musical influences sort of makes me unique. And, and then some people tell me that I create fast. I don’t know if that’s a good thing and can be bad, but I tend to create quickly when possible.
I tend not to edit while making music. While composing at NAMM, I went to the Spitfire audio booth. In about 10 minutes, I created a 30 second piece. I posted it on Instagram and shared it like this, for our audio team. And they were like, you’re fast. But yeah, it’s a gift and a curse.
What upcoming projects are you working on now that you’re excited about that you’d like to share?
Finished a lot of projects. I tried to finish a lot before NAMM, one being the independent film that’s been placed in a couple of film festivals.
They’re doing the film festival sort of circuit, there are trailers. I did one, I was up till about three or four this morning working on a trailer. So I have a couple more trailer requests in my inbox and am going to travel again next month. Just for networking and vacation out west again.
So looking forward to that, no set sort of projects. I might have just landed a good deal to produce a great artist from networking, from another connection that I had. So hopefully that’ll be something and that I can work on over the next few months. But just really trying to work on a lot of music, putting it out there and hopefully something will come back and then sync pitching to a lot of sync stuff, music for television movies, video games, things like that.
Keep putting yourself out there, whatever it is, do the work. And then. Put it out there because we do the work and no one sees it. It doesn’t mean anything, but if you gotta do the work and then put it out there, and for me, the work is already making music for an artist or already making music for a project.
Even if it doesn’t land on that project, there may be a similar project that works. There may be a sequel, prequel, you never know, or there may be someone who was inspired by that project to make a similar project. And the music you already created can work on that. So there’s no one way to sort break through, get opportunities. It’s just putting your stuff out there and then letting people know what you do, cuz if they don’t know what you do, then they can’t work with you to get you to do that. So put yourself out there and see what happens.
Why do you think it’s so hard to find paying gigs frequently? From your own opinion, like why do you think it’s hard?
I think that there’s a lot of opportunity out there just finding how to get to those opportunities. And then if someone works on a film, you know, this month, that might be the only thing they do for the next two years.
So you gotta find like 10 of those to get like a year’s worth of work together, unless you’re already up there with some of them, like some of the composers I mentioned earlier. So a lot of it is finding those opportunities that are not necessarily paying financially, but that could be finding a new filmmaker, who’s working on a film and, maybe you do a good deal with them.
And then a couple years later, they’re working on another film and the next thing you know, they’re doing video games or Disney or Hulu or whatever type of film. So just finding those creative people there, there are great outlets for it. And then also in the sync space, which I would say there is less friction there than finding those opportunities to land musicals and like those TV shows and movies.
I think the big thing is just putting stuff out there. if you can’t physically go to places the next best thing is social media and, and unfortunately not everyone is comfortable with sharing to that level social media. So if you can’t personally do that, then maybe work with someone who can be your social media marketer or someone that can, you know, you can give them the, the range to your account or whatever, and, and they can do that right now. That’s the best way, just because of the pandemic. So there are some great opportunities to go places in person, but there’s also, you know, like a barrier there because there’s, you gotta get a flight, a hotel, you gotta pay for food for a week or weekend or whatever, or you gotta, if you’re not flying, you gotta drive somewhere or somehow get to the place.
So even a lot of those conferences, even now, have a virtual component where you watch and stream some of the presentations. It is different, but still it’s accessible. So there are those options, but yeah, the biggest is really just putting yourself out there and you know, hoping for the best.
Like I might say, let me see what shows up on my social media timeline and then reach out. Or I might read an article and, and find some companies or artists and reach out to them and say, Hey, are you looking for producers or composers? For any projects it might be some IMDB research. So it could be a combination of things to sort of get the ball rolling.
And then at some point, cause I’m starting to see a little bit now where instead of me going out, searching for work, the work is sort of coming my way. So it’s like, Hey, you know, we need music for these trailers. If you wanna work on something, Hey, you know, we’re working with this artist. They want some tracks.
So I’m starting to see it actually shift in that direction slowly. And those are other companies that like to reach out to you and say, Hey, this is a project that we think would be a good fit for you.
I’m just curious, like what other companies or people you’re working with for that particular instance?
I can’t name ’em all, but there’s a trailer music company that I connected with earlier this year and they send out trailer opportunities. There’s one called hard drive HRDRV, which has, it’s basically like a subscription record label where you pay a monthly subscription and you have access to like 3000 members, artists, singers, songwriters, producers, video, filmmakers, graphic designers. And then they also have a side of their company. That’s called catalog club where you can land placements on TV shows, video games, movies, things like that. So working with companies like that at focus on the sync side of things, and then reaching out to artists directly on social media or if I wanna work with an artist, let’s say, I wanna work with Drake. I created an album for Drake and I put it out there, which is what I did. And I have about seven of those for different artists that I wanna work with. And my producer name is Da Fingaz. So I put out this series called Da Fingaz Beats for Drake. And I have to figure beats for usher to Da Fingaz Beats for like Rick Ross, since I have about seven or eight. And I might sit down one week and say, okay, I wanna make music for this artist because I’ve always wanted to work with them or they’re big right now. Or I think I can do something with my sound and their voice.
And then I just make the project for them. And most of the time, of course, they’re not gonna hear it, but it could be this person. There’s another artist out there who’s inspired by Drake and they think they’re the next Drake. So it’s like, okay, well, if you’re the next Drake, I have all these ideas for Drake, but since you’re the next Drake, here you go.
So yeah, really, it’s just putting out for me much of the last two years specifically has been putting out content and now it’s really working that content to showcase to people what I do and and putting them in places where people can access them and be like, okay, you have this range of music creation that you can do or things like that.
Why do you think that price negotiation for music that you’re composing for a project is so difficult?
I think because of the perceived value of some people, you know, they can access, literally for free, like on YouTube or SoundCloud and things. So some people are like, why do I need to pay for this?
So it’s getting harder for me, and I see all sorts of horror stories for music creators to focus on the music when they’re like, okay, how am I gonna make a living off of this? And of course there are people that are doing it once they get to that level. And it’s almost like knowing all the horror stories, cause there’s way more horror stories and there are success stories, so why even bother going into that lane?
So I think there’s just people that think the value of the music is low, but the people that I’m trying to reach out to and connect with are more at a different level where they understand the value of music for their projects, or if they’re an artist, you know, they might work out a deal where it’s like, a lower budget indie film will give me a film production credit. So that’s my first credit as a film producer, as a way to sort of offset the low composing budget. Which is great, cause it’s like my first credit on IMDB for film production. So I can now say I’m a film producer.
So I think there’s other ways to think about compensation. So if, even if it’s not money, if it’s like, Hey, if you’re a filmmaker, I’ll work on this project if you help me edit three or four reels of my music. It’s almost like the barter system, or if you’re a graphic designer, I’ll work on your project.
If you design some graphics for my next album or my next project or whatever.
With these projects, it seems like the budget kind of just varies widely, right? So do you like kind of have a balance between sort of doing things that are not free, but you get a credit, like you were saying versus like something that’s maybe like, you know, a high paying like project, like, it seems like you kind of toggle between a lot of different opportunities. How do you evaluate what’s right for you as far as compensation goes?
A lot of it is well it depends on a lot of things. Like the project itself, the people working on it, the deadline, and before I even get to the prices, do I really wanna work on it? There are some things I take into consideration. Like if it’s a million dollar project, which obviously I haven’t landed yet, you know, I might think about it a little bit longer, but I saw a comment on Facebook where someone said there are three reasons that people work on a project and it’s because you want to work on the project or you want to work with the people or you need the money. And if you can have a project that aligns with all three of those, then it’s a definite go for it. If it’s like two to three or one of the three you might wanna consider, but if it hits all three of those, then, then you’re good to go.
So that’s a good way to sort of gauge. You know what you like, and don’t like, if you don’t know, it’s like, Hey, if things come your way, just say yes, for a couple months, six months, some people say yes for a whole year to everything, just to see what happens. It’s definitely a lot of work. A lot of, for me, just a lot of sleepless nights until I can get to that point where I can do that full time and end up getting sleep.