It was never supposed to be easy, to create the circumstances in life where your music could be heard, celebrated, and mythicized by millions of movie-goers around the globe. The film industry has been a beautiful and chaotic blessing for all of us, that we honestly can’t think what life and our aspirations would be like without it. Yet for a small number of incredibly talented individuals in the business, what a journey has it been. But as they say, you create your own luck, it is not thrown on your lap or calls you at night. By pure wit, determination, and their unconditional love of music, these film composers made it to the top by being prepared for those unexpected opportunities when they were just starting out.
Since the early 2000s (perhaps even earlier), the sheer volume of young aspiring composers entering the industry has drastically increased to the point where, in many cases, the supply has simply exceeded the demand, making it a bit more difficult to find your footing in the business. But just like these composers, their path was neither straight or methodically proven; rather a series of interweaving actions and reactions which gradually propelled them to successful careers, Academy Awards, and all of the joys and stresses of getting to write music every day. They stuck with music, in all its forms and disciplines, and were able to sustain the cost of living by finding work in various areas.
So I thought it might be both interesting and therapeutic (just in case you’re having an early career crisis) to revisit some of the iconic names behind our favorite soundtracks, and briefly explore some of the circumstances they found themselves in before getting their big break.
Also just for fun, I’ve included an alternate career path for each composer, in case in some other life they were completely terrible at music and needed to pay the bills through other means.
Let’s begin with the first 5 composers on our list!
Contrary to popular belief, John Williams did not enter this world scoring the magnificent scene of his own birth, and he too had to slowly make his name around the various Hollywood music departments in the 50s & 60s. After graduating from Juilliard and working as a jazz pianist on the side, “Johnny” paid the bills by working as an orchestrator and studio pianist for other notable film composers of the time, such as Bernard Hermann and Alfred Newman (Thomas Newman’s father). In several interviews which you can find on YouTube, Williams mentions how he slowly moved up through the ranks; first as a versatile studio pianist in both classical and jazz repertoire, then assisting composers by occasionally orchestrating one or two scenes, which eventually led him to taking on more responsibilities orchestrating entire films and writing additional music, up until getting his first opportunity to compose original music for the 1958 film Daddy-O.
Alternate Career Path:
CIA Double Agent
Will literally charm you to death, and will make the crime scene subtle, yet memorable.
There’s no denying that Hans Zimmer is perhaps the most influential film composer of our generation, spawning that trademark hybrid electro-orchestral sound behind so many action, sci-fi, and dramatic films of the past 25 years. He is also responsible for giving so many other notable film composers their big break through his Remote Control studio. Zimmer was always a techy, and was able to experiment with synthesizers with bands such as Krakatoa, The Buggles, and Krisma, all part of the “new wave” movement of the 70s. After getting more steady work as a jingle writer and television show co-composer for Going for Gold (in which he credits the gig for paying his rent for a long time), it was his job on producing/programming The Last Emperor