Online Rock: Empowering Musicians  
OnlineRock Instructional Column  

How To Sustain A Career In Music

By Bruce Shutan
© 2000 Bruce Shutan. All rights reserved

What’s a rising star to do if he rejects the life of a 9-to-5er but can’t quite get his rock band out of the garage and into the limelight? Easy: fall back on another musical discipline or at least juggle the two. And absolutely, under no circumstances, ever lose sight of staying gainfully employed in the music business.

Just ask Joel Langley, who manages to score TV, film and multimedia projects by day and crank up the volume in the clubs by night. His story serves an inspiration to anyone whose musical talent and ambition transcends dreams of rock stardom.

This metro Washington, D.C.-based musician runs his own label (Green Goose Records), publishing company (Green Goose Music, BMI) and Web site  in addition to fronting a band called The Huge, which has recorded three full-length CDs of original music since forming in 1993.

"The ultimate weapon," he says, "is to be educated about your market and knowing the kind of work that’s out there – whether it’s commercial composing, producing up-and-coming bands, lending your services as a studio technician, or setting up a mini-tour for your own band."

As they say in real estate, it’s all about location. "St. Louis isn’t the best place to be scoring music," Langley observes. "You really have to go to where there’s a commercial market like New York, L.A., Chicago or Washington, D.C., which allows for necessary face-to-face contact with producers." If live performance is your preference, he points to thriving local music scenes in Nashville and Austin, Texas.

His best advice to those who are feeling discouraged about earning a living in music is to "make rejection your fuel. If you let it get you down, then you’re not going to last in this business. For every success you have there will be 10 rejections, and for every time the phone rings there will be times it doesn’t ring."

Of course, not everyone is able to parlay their passion for music into dollars and cents, but it sure pays to diversify. Langley has somewhat of an advantage, having grown up equally comfortable singing along to Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell, playing guitar, or writing lyrics to fit a John Williams film score. He also has dabbled in every style of music: from classical and country to rap, rock and punk.

In 1989, he produced his first album (four more would follow). While earning his master’s degree in film and video at The American University, he honed his composing chops by scoring films for classmates and his own projects. "One of the elements I loved most was putting music to film, which involves writing and visual symmetry," he says. "It merged all my passions, with music serving as the common denominator."

In recent years, he has scored a number of short films – one of which, "Camouflage," was showcased at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. Langley also has composed broadcast and home video pieces for The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and Animal Planet, as well as national radio/television ad campaigns for Chiat/Day, Inc. and several episodes of "America’s Most Wanted."

From a creative standpoint, multiple musical involvement not only battles boredom it also infuses the writing process with freshness and vision. After finishing a time-consuming and challenging project as a commercial composer, Langley enjoys the catharsis of writing a simple pop song in the solitude of his room (Brian Wilson style) and appreciates the synergy connecting both processes.

"I’m usually writing pop songs for myself, which is a pretty typical arrangement for songwriters," he notes, explaining the difference between his two crafts. "It’s more of a creative outlet for myself. You can do so much within the set structure of a pop song. The verse-chorus familiarity is what keeps people listening to the radio, but there are no boundaries in pop song writing. It’s probably one of the most universally accepted forms of artistic expression out there. There’s not a country in the world where people who hear a song won’t get up and dance to it."

When scoring commercial work, just the opposite is true. "A producer has something very specific in mind," he notes, "but you can’t take it personally if he hates your first draft. It’s just a reference point, and you have to be professional about the feedback and accept the challenge of being creative from someone else’s perspective."

One way to avoid shrinking at the first mention of criticism is to "discuss every possible detail to arm yourself with as clear of a picture of what the producer wants, so that you don’t miss the mark," he advises. "If your ego gets in the way, then you shouldn’t be in this business. It’s all about shaping ideas, which may mean turning down the distortion or changing the drumbeat."

Having started out scoring TV segments with just a Kurzweil K2000 keyboard in his equipment arsenal, Langley now uses two Rolland samplers and a guitar synthesizer. He also runs digital performer sequencing software on a Mac G4 and mixes through a 24-channel Mackie board. "With all the technology out there you can make your keyboard sound like anything," he enthuses.

As with nearly every industry, Langley believes the Internet will revolutionize composing. "There will be a lot more audio and music demand as technology converges," he predicts. "All the interactivity of the Internet will open up a lot of revenue streams for composers. It’s a vertical market that runs very deep."

One recent project involved a three-note audio identity he created for his brother’s medical Web site to go along with the company’s name and visual design. Other areas that will be ripe for composers include educational CD-ROMs and DVDs, according to Langley.

If his band never amounts to anything other than a regional act, he needn’t worry about keeping music in his life thanks to a successful composing career. "At the end of the day it’s still about music and whether the music conveys emotion," he says. The only time he ever has to don a suit and tie is to music award ceremonies – never a stuffy office.

About the Author: Bruce Shutan, an L.A.-based freelance writer, has been playing the drums since 1970. He has performed and recorded in numerous bands and occasionally pounds his cast-aluminum, Egyptian dumbek along Santa Monica’s chic Third Street Promenad.

AboutOnlineRock RecordsPress RoomContactAdvertisePrivacyShop