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7 Business Secrets From 'The Infiltrator' Music Composer Chris Hajian
Film composer Chris Hajian has made a living creating dozens of soundtracks for film, documentary and television for 25 years — an industry always beset with brutal competition, which has in recent years been many-times compounded by pressures faced by all media: copyright law that is stacked against artists, and digital technology that renders paying for music all but obsolete. Nielsen reports that on-demand streaming jumped 93 percent in 2015, when Roseanne Cash told PBS she was paid $104 for 600,000 downloads from sites like Pandora and Spotify.
These trends make it harder than ever for even the most qualified composers to find success in a music career, says Hajian. "Once Napster made streaming music free, it changed the perception of what music is worth for both the public, as well as entertainment executives," says Hajian, whose most recent project is the soundtrack for The Infiltrator, the $47.5 million 1980s drug crime drama starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, Benjamin Bratt, and John Leguizamo, and directed by Brad Furman. The Infiltrator hits theaters July 13.
Here Hajian shares his advice for thriving in what he calls "the brutal film industry" — advice relevant to any entrepreneur.
1. Sell by showing. Producers typically argue for a low music budget. "It can be an overwhelming battle to show film executives the value of music," says Hajian, 51. To create a score that truly connects with an audience requires not only a skilled composer, but investments like live musicians and quality editors, instead of synthesizers and pre-recorded samples.
To negotiate a higher budget, Hajian pays studio musicians to pre-record score samples, which he then presents against cheaper, electronically created versions. "That way the producers can hear for themselves the difference, and how dramatic it is," Hajian says. "Once they hear that, it's a done deal."
2. Illustrate with the client's ideal. At the onset of a budget negotiation, Hajian asks producers to name film scores they connect to personally. Hajian responds by pointing out the live performances that make those scores so special — a guitar solo, or live orchestra. "It's like walking into a car dealership prepared to buy the cheapest version of the make, but then being invited to sit in the one with the extra features and best sound system," he says. "You always want to buy the more expensive one once you've experienced it."
3. Spend what it takes to be proud of your work. When hired for a film, the composer receives the budget in a lump sum, and then pays musicians, assistants and other sub-contractors out of that fee. What is left over is his take. "The better I want the score to sound, the less I make," Hajian says. Of course, it is tempting to cut corners to increase his take — and many composers do, he says. "At the end of the day my job is to craft music that helps the director tell the story," he says. "I always make sure I am proud of any work I put my name on. That is how I build my business."
4. Don't be a martyr. If a producer is not willing to invest in what Hajian believes is a fair budget for a score, he'll pass. "Then it just isn't the job for me," he says. "I'm not in the business of competing with amateurs." Hajian still does face hard choices as to whether to invest in his product, ("Otherwise it would be charity work," he says) "But I have never regretted spending $1,000 to make a score better."
5. It really is about the relationships — and for the long-term. All of the work Hajian has gotten over the years has come through relationships he's nurtured, often for decades. He met The Infiltrator's Furman nearly 20 years ago when the director was a recent film school grad, and Hajian scored his shorts for free. "I loved his work, and my instinct told me he was going to be a success." The Infiltrator is the first film where Hajian made any significant money, yet he committed to the relationship, which has become a personal friendship — which is key to the creative partnership. "As a composer you become very vulnerable, putting your heart into the music," Hajian says. "You really have to trust the director will be open and respectful, so you feel safe to do your best work."
6. Every job is valuable (and never, ever bash a project to the public). In addition to award-winning independent films and documentaries, Hajian's credits include Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2, a few Hallmark TV movies, and Jingle All the Way 2 (starring Larry the Cable Guy). "Often the media asks about these comedies, prodding me to say I was broke and needed the money," Hajian says. "But that isn't the story. The directors were people who I am very loyal to, and who are loyal to me. A filmmaker's career is long, and so is a composer's, and it has taken me years to hone my craft. I have learned something from every project I've worked on."
7. Give back. Hajian teachers at New York University, and volunteers as steering committee chair and mentoring program instructor for the Society of Composers and Lyricists, his industry's trade organization. He also unofficially mentors other young composers. "There are a lot of very talented composers who aren't working, and a lot of mediocre composers who work all the time," Hajian says. "I am very territorial about my industry, and I want the best people to get the jobs." He sees a void of business strategy in music higher education, which he aims to fill by teaching his students and mentees about networking, marketing, and communicating with directors and producers. "This business is harder than ever, and when I meet a really talented composer, I want to give them every chance to succeed," he says.
Emma Johnson is creator of WealthySingleMommy.com, and author of The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin, October, 2017).