What advice do you have for composers who think they have what it takes to make it in the commercial marketplace? Steven Clark

What advice do you have for composers who think they have what it takes to make it in the commercial marketplace? Steven Clark

Steven Clark

My experience in the business world—both for commercial composition and just about everything else—is that clients want to hear in a demo or see in a resume exactly what they’re looking for. Most hiring managers don’t seem to have the imagination to extrapolate from what a person has done in the past and realize that she’s capable of doing something different in the future—based on her general experience, knowledge, and skill. Either that or the clients just get so many applicants that there’s no need to do that—they just keep sifting through the submissions until they find exactly the type of thing they’re looking for.

With music this generally applies to musical style. I might have examples of electronica, house, hip-hop, and trance on my demo CD—but if the client is looking for drum and bass, they’re not going to feel comfortable hiring me until I’ve demonstrated that I can really do drum and bass. This usually translates into doing a rough draft of the job for free…you might think of it as a custom demo. If the job is big enough it can be worth the investment—even if say only one out of every four or five you do pays off.

This means that one should also develop the ability to create music really fast. Being able to knock off a rough demo in any style requested in a half-day means you won’t waste too much time making demos for gigs that never come through.

Knowing audio technology is, of course, also a must. Knowing how to write a Palestrina motet or knowing the range of the basset horn won’t help much in the commercial world. Knowing how to synchronize audio to video, how to optimize a midi file to be played on a mobile phone, and how to transfer files over an FTP server will. These are things that are best learned by doing them—by doing jobs for little to no money to gain experience, networking with other people that are interested in that sort of thing, and so on.

I’d say my academic training was to some extent indirectly helpful in my commercial career. Counterpoint (ok—this sort of contradicts what I said earlier about Palestrina) taught me how to compose away from a piano, find solutions to tricky compositional problems, etc. Orchestration helped me write for any kind of ensemble and in various classical styles—which is particularly helpful in film scoring. The experience of going through grad school in general helped me learn how to manage my own time, research, figure stuff out on my own.

Being able to analyze a piece by Henze or to compose a freely atonal suite for Pierrot ensemble probably hasn’t had much effect either way. The only hindrance going to grad school may have had on my commercial career is that the seven years spent in graduate school might otherwise have been spent developing said career. But that wasn’t my goal from the outset, and I’d probably go the same way if I had it to do over again.


Steven Clark composes and produces pop music; music and sound effects for film, theater, video games, websites; and develops media and applications for the mobile phone industry. His concert music has been performed throughout the U. S. and Europe by chamber ensembles and orchestras including the Arditti Quartet, the Berkeley Symphony, and Earplay.

Dr. Clark studied music composition at the University of Southern California and at U. C. Berkeley, and electronic and computer music at Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technology and Ircam in Paris. He has taught music composition, theory, and technology at U. C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, Expression Center for New Media, and the U. C. Santa Cruz Extension.

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